By Mike Hess
Every Sunday afternoon I send a text to five pastor friends, asking, “How was church?” All kinds of ideas are floating around today about what makes a good church service. Unfortunately, most of them orbit around our personal preferences and expectations: “I didn’t care for the passage he preached from.” “Why are we still using hymnals?” “Why doesn’t the worship team ever smile?” “He shouldn’t be preaching from a controversial passage like that.” “The auditorium is too old.” “The people around me didn’t sing very well.” “No one came and introduced themselves to me!”
So often in church services we get bothered about things we should in maturity overlook, while becoming comfortable with things that should bother us: sermons with little to no Biblical content, songs that focus on emotion and experience rather than on God’s character and great Biblical truths, never being convicted about sin that should be confessed and repented of, no invitation to believe the gospel, no meditation on how gospel truths have changed us and continue to transform us.
The Only Definition of Good That Counts
As fallen creatures, we define good as if goodness was a moving target. After all, the goodness of some things does fluctuate or change, such as food that expires, possessions that fade and rust, abilities that an athlete or musician loses, or even intelligence that fades—all of these can be good for a while.
But the way we define good is oftentimes skewed by our personal presuppositions, emotions, and experiences. For example, I say that the Chicago Bears are good. But their performance on the football field in recent years indicates otherwise. As you can see from my skewed observation of what makes a good football team, sometimes our value judgments are subjective and inaccurate.
When it comes to evaluating the Biblically mandated gathering of the saints, we cannot afford to have human reasoning as our standard. Scripture is clear that God alone is good (Matt. 19:17). Since God is the very essence of all that is good and since everything that is good comes from Him, He alone has the authority to define what is good.
Therefore, defining a good church service must always start with what God defines as good and what pleases Him. Otherwise, we run the risk of making everything about us. Worship that’s all about our emotions and experiences misses the point of why Christians gather on Sundays. We gather because of the Lord, for the Lord, and to be changed into the image of our Lord.
A Good Worship Service
Using God Himself as the foundation for our definition of good, here are four descriptions of what a good worship service is.
It is saturated by the Word
John Stott wisely wrote years ago, “The worship of God is always a response to the Word of God. Scripture wonderfully directs and enriches our worship.” GARBC churches take the Word seriously. We embrace its truths and fully accept that when Scripture speaks, God speaks. The foundation of all we believe is found in the pages of Scripture.
It would only make sense then that our churches would be known for highly esteeming Scripture when we gather on Sundays. If the “word of Christ” is to dwell in us “richly” (Col. 3:16), then our services should be immersed in Biblical references and reading from beginning to end.
The sermon should not be the only time Scripture is read. While the sermon is the apex of the worship service, a good church service prepares hearts for the sermon by interlacing the Word throughout the service. In other words, in a good church service, the Word is the worship leader.
It has Word-centered music
Noted Christian songwriter, pastor, and theologian Bob Kauflin wrote, “The bottom line is this: Sing God’s Word. Lyrics matter more than music. Truth transcends tunes.”
Think of this: What if we made our concerns over music more about their fidelity to Scripture than about the style we’re comfortable with? Please don’t misunderstand me at this point. It’s not that we shouldn’t be concerned about style. It’s that we should be much more concerned about Scriptural substance.
Music is about discipleship. And if we’re discipling well with our music—meaning we’re pointing others to the greatness of God and the truths of the gospel and if we’re encouraging ourselves to Christlikeness—then we’re a part of a good worship service. Music that plays on emotions and focuses on sentimentality is a poor substitute for singing songs that clearly connect what we’re singing to Biblical truth.
It has Word-driven preaching
I can say with the upmost integrity that the GARBC annual conferences excellently model expository preaching that is driven by the writer’s intent in the Biblical text. No anecdote, constant joking, or incessant personal stories or references to self can produce the kind of heart change that Scripture promises.
I ask a careful question here to those entrusted with the proclamation of the Word: Are you okay with people being unimpressed with you but greatly impressed by the Word? A good church service is not characterized by a preacher who comes across as self-absorbed or is trying in any way to be the center of attention, a place where only God belongs.
Good preaching directs the hearts of the hearers to the Word and ultimately to the greatness of God, which inevitably leads to heart change. Just as the worship is driven by Scripture, so must the message proclaimed be driven by Scripture. A good worship service is characterized by good (i.e., “text-driven”) preaching.
It’s all about God and others
Consider for a moment how transformative every dynamic of church life would be if we applied in every situation what it means to have “the mind of Christ.” The following two verses would be great to read for your devotions on Sunday mornings, in deacons or leadership meetings, and even in members’/business meetings:
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3–4, ESV).
This would completely transform our attitude toward many of the things we get worked up about at church, such as not being greeted the way we should have been, not singing the songs we prefer, wishing the pastor would preach shorter sermons, being angry over a change in service schedules, getting worked up about paint or carpet colors, becoming angry about ministry funds being allocated to a ministry we’re not passionate about. The list could go on and on.
When every believer walks into church with no other agenda than to please God, serve others, and grow in Christlikeness, the church’s culture will change completely. A good church service is, therefore, one that isn’t about me at all, but about loving God supremely and loving others sacrificially.
Walking away from a good church service leaves an undeniable impression on our hearts—that God has been at the center, that we have been filled with the promises of the Word, that the gospel has been proclaimed. We leave having been comforted and convicted by the preaching of the Word and filled with hope that change is possible by the power of the Spirit and the grace of our wonderful Lord.
Mike Hess serves as national representative of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches.