What is the most important part of a worship service?
The above question is something I often like to ask when teaching a class or leading a workshop on worship design. It is an interesting question to ask because of the way worship traditions and practices shape certain values about worship and develop a particular worship piety, for good or bad. Similarly, the values and piety each person has regarding worship will form the way he/she approaches and plans worship. Answering a simple question such as “What is the most important part of a worship service?” is one way to begin unveiling those underlying attitudes and values. Typically, I can place responses into one of the following five categories*:
1) The Rationalist Response
One common response to my question is that the sermon is the most important part of worship. I consider this to be a “rationalist” response because of the value placed on the cognitive aspects of worship – what is known, taught, and learned through worship. The answer of the sermon as the most important part of worship makes sense for a number of reasons: the sermon is an important time of proclamation of the Word of God; the sermon tends to receive the most time in a service of worship; the sermon tends to take the most time for preparation; the sermon is educational and formational; the sermon can be challenging and convicting. Worship planning through a rationalist approach tends to base everything in worship on the sermon, holding the sermon forth as the main reason for worship.
2) The Affective Response
Another response I often receive is what I categorize as the affective response. Affective responders tend to place high value on emotional connection with God in worship, positing that the most important part of worship is the place where God (usually centered in the person of Jesus) meets the congregation in a felt and experienced way. For some affective responders, music is considered the most important part of worship, and an all-musical (or at least extended musical) service of worship is not unheard of and often desired. For others, the altar call is the most important part of worship because it is the moment of conviction and personal decision. Though not exclusive to this group, affective responders will often use the term “worship” interchangeably with music and/or believe that Jesus/the Holy Spirit/God is truly moving in worship when there is a significant response at the altar.
3) The Sacramental Response
The sacramental response considers the Eucharist (or communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Table) to be the most important part of worship. Value is placed on regular (usually weekly) sacramental practice in worship. Sacramental responders view all other acts of worship with less significance than the moment in worship when the congregation communes at the Table in the presence of Jesus.
4) The Hybrid Response
The most common response I receive to my question is what I consider the hybrid response. Hybrid responders seek to establish a balance between two of the previous categories. The underlying value of the hybrid response is striking a balance between objective and subjective aspects worship, i.e. intellect and emotion, rational and sensory, etc. For instance, a hybrid responder might deem both sermon and music as important, especially as one engages the worshiper in a manner the other doesn’t. This idea is summed up in the statement, “the sermon is for the head and music is for the heart.” Another hybrid view is the idea that both the sermon and the Table or sermon and altar call are of equal importance in worship and should not be separated from one another. It is common in this perspective to see the sermon as a time of proclamation and the Eucharist/altar call as a time of response. Regardless of what two elements are being held together in the hybrid view, the goal is to not overemphasize one particular aspect of worship to the detriment of another.
5) The Subjective Response
The subjective response is the most noncommittal to any singular part of worship as being most important. Subjective responders value individuality and personal connection with God in worship. They base their stance on the opinion that everyone experiences God differently, thus what is most important for each person will be different based on his/her own likes/dislikes, personality, etc. In other words, for subjective responders, the most important part of worship is dependent upon each individual and can not be universally qualified.
Of course, when posing a question like, “What is the most important part of a worship service?” to a class or workshop, it is inevitable that one of the attendees will return the question to me, seeking which category I place myself in. It is at this point that I make my confession – the question is a bad one.
In full disclosure, I do not believe any one aspect of worship is more important than another. This is not to say that I take a subjective or hybrid approach, both of these are still deficient in my opinion. All of the responses listed above establish a hierarchy in worship, a danger that must be guarded against. To create a hierarchy of the elements of worship is to segment worship and consider only parts of the service as the “true” time of worship. When one part of worship is held up as most important, the overarching narrative of worship is easily lost as the significance of other aspects of worship diminish. Furthermore, as one element of worship takes prominence, the purpose of worship can get lost as the quality of that particular act becomes the primary evaluative tool. Instead, it must be understood that from beginning to end each word and act of worship is significant to the whole because each has a significant role in leading the worshiper through the Christ-event.
Contrary to a hierarchical approach to worship, I propose the need for a “symphonic view” of worship. A symphonic view of worship considers a service of worship like a symphony. In a symphony each movement and individual part is crucial to the whole. No one note or instrument is more or less important. The composer, the conductor, and the instrumentalists treat each note, rest, dynamic, clef, and symbol of the symphony with careful attention and intention. A symphonic view offers a good corrective to the tendency to compartmentalize and reduce worship to only a few particular practices. It looks at each part of worship in light of the whole while acknowledging how the Christ-event is elaborated in worship by the parts. Each part of worship is intrinsically connected to all others, guiding the church through the Christ-event. The sermon, music, altar call, and/or Eucharist do not sit at an upper echelon of worship but rather are dynamic moments in worship, part of a greater whole.
* Admittedly, the categories I have listed above are based on anecdotal evidence and personal categorizations rather than any in-depth research, and therefore many other responses could be included and and other areas of worship evaluated if a broader study was conducted. Likewise, more could be said to further classify each category. That being said, I believe the five categories I list do encompass the majority of the responses that would be received when asking the question, “What is the most important part of a worship service?” as well as capture the main aspects of worship piety within the church today.