We evangelicals have pragmatism encoded in our DNA. To “do what works” is so instinctual it sometimes feels as though we’ve come up with a sixth sola—solus whateverworkus. We think this way because it’s part and parcel to the Western American psyche and because, well, “doing whatever works” works. The proof is in the pudding. The statistics don’t lie.
Pragmatism is not inherently evil. In fact, pragmatism is a sub-set of something very good and very biblical—wisdom. If God is truly sovereign, then we can, to some degree, rely on the try-and-succeed pattern to teach us things about how to operate in the world that He has designed and continues to preserve and govern. But the try-and-succeed pattern can only get us so far because the system is tainted. The factory is full of rust, warped parts, and broken gears, so though stuff might come off the assembly line, we can’t fully trust the fact that because it “produces” it’s right and good. Worship needs other informants besides wisdom.
Ecclesiology Informs Doxology
For worship, one of those informants is a full-orbed understanding of what the Bible says the Church is. In other words, ecclesiology informs doxology.
Michael Horton fleshes this out in one very tangible way:
Whenever we gather for public worship, it is because we have been summoned. That is what “church” means: ekklesia, “called out.” It is not a voluntary society of those whose chief concern is to share, to build community, to enjoy fellowship, to have moral instruction for their children, and so forth. Rather, it is a society of those who have been chosen, redeemed, called, justified, and are being sanctified until one day they will finally be glorified in heaven. We gather each Lord’s Day not merely out of habit, social custom, or felt needs but because God has chosen this weekly festival as a foretaste of the everlasting Sabbath day that will be enjoyed fully at the marriage supper of the Lamb.*
Allowing ecclesiology to inform doxology really does cut through a lot of “fat” of what worship is all about at its core. When we gather on the Lord’s Day, we don’t gather to share; we don’t gather to build community and fellowship; we don’t gather to “become a better me” or improve ourselves; we don’t even gather to gain Bible knowledge or sharpen our theological swords. We gather to hear and respond to afresh God’s gospel call on sinners’ lives each and every week. We gather to renew God’s covenant with us. We gather to have our stiff necks massaged by grace and our hard hearts softened by mercy. The Good News always gathers a crowd, and that crowd is nothing other than the local church.
This is not to say that all the other aforementioned things aren’t important by-products of the gospel call in worship. In fact, they are, and when they’re absent we pastors have some questions to ask ourselves about the health and content of our worship services. But the problem is that we can all too easily push for worship to be about these things (this is the slippery slope that an over-emphasis on pragmatism often puts us on), such that we begin measuring our effectiveness based on these things rather than our faithfulness to rehearse, enact, proclaim, and embody the gospel call of the Triune God.
How Now Shall We Worship?
This immediately sheds light on both the form and content of the worship service. For the content, we can now ask questions like:
- What in our worship indicates God’s glorious summons of the world to worship?
- Are our songs and prayers “vertical” enough to paint the picture of a God-calls-we-respond paradigm, or do we too quickly jump to either how we’re experiencing God in the moment or what we are or will do for God in the present or the future (what many have called “triumphalism”)?
- Are our songs and prayers saturated enough with the explicit good news of Christ’s finished work for us in His life and death, or are we more nebulous about sin and salvation?
For the form, we can additionally ask:
- Does our worship move like a dialogue (God speaks, we respond, God speaks, we respond, etc.)?
- Is our worship service shaped like the Gospel (moving from the Father’s glory and call, to our inability, to Christ’s work of salvation, to the Spirit’s application of Christ and empowering for ministry and mission), or are we simply beholden to a worship flow that “works” (a block of songs, the offering, the sermon, and a closing song) because it inspires people and doesn’t take too much of their time?
- Does the form of our worship service seek to entertain / keep attention, or does it seek to take people on a journey through a story?
Worship Works Best When the Gospel Works Best
These questions are diagnostic, but hopefully they probe deeply enough to expose the need for ecclesiology to inform doxology over and above our penchant toward slouching to the least common denominator of “whatever works.” The truth is, though, that when the Gospel is sung, prayed, enacted, rehearsed, heard, tasted, and seen, it works. The good news of Jesus Christ, being God’s only recipe for human flourishing, catalyzes growth, health, and life in people. We need no other argument, no other plea. This is as pragmatic as it gets because it addresses both felt and (more importantly) actual needs of human beings. So, if we’re really interested in providing “what works best,” we need look no further. We don’t need a sixth sola, because solus whateverworkus merely reiterates the others. Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, is really all we need. The gospel works best.