Good worship?

April 20th, 2022

"Good service, Pastor.”


Countless pastors receive such a comment each week after worship, and accept it as a compliment, a word of gratitude, or perhaps just an awkward greeting. But what does it mean to have a “good service”?

Across the landscape of Protestant congregations in the United States, six major patterns influence the content and practice of worship. These patterns arose to meet different concerns. They point to different goals, and they have acquired distinctive styles or character. A Revival aims at the gut to provoke religious conversion. A Sunday School aims at the mind to educate for Christian character. An Aesthetic service tries to elevate the cultural and spiritual refinement of worshipers, while a Pentecostal service seeks a euphoric, decidedly unrefined encounter with the Holy Spirit. Prayer Meetings strive for interpersonal intimacy, while Catholic Liturgical worship joins with the universal song of the saints and angels throughout the cosmos.

Consequently, to understand what qualifies as a “good service,” we would need to ask, “Good to what end?”

We typically don’t ask such questions or worry about the goal or character of worship when it seems to be going well and when our members say “Good service, Pastor.” We only begin to worry when worship seems to fail for some reason. But few members of our congregations understand how worship actually works, just as I don’t really understand the intricacies of how the engine in my car works! I only become interested in the engine when something goes wrong—and even then I rely on a mechanic to diagnose the problem and fix it. In much the same way, when worship fails to engage a congregation, its members will necessarily rely on pastors and worship leaders to diagnose and repair what has gone wrong. I hope that the method for analyzing worship I have developed will assist you in both diagnosis and repair.

And yet there is more to “good worship” than having a well-oiled machine. To be sure, anything done well will be more compelling than anything done poorly. But that maxim does not consider whether the “thing” being done is worth doing in the first place. Even a theologically deficient order of worship might be compelling if it is done well, while a theologically rich service can fail to be compelling if it is led poorly.

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The method I have developed in my book The Purpose, Pattern, and Character of Worship does not provide a theological assessment of the six models. I have made some theological observations all along, but mostly I have stayed at the level of description. I have tried to show the implicit, and often unconscious, default modes of thinking that shape the content and practice of worship. By doing so, I hope I have brought them to awareness so that you can evaluate these default modes of thinking—to become aware of the rules of the games you and I are playing (to use a sports metaphor). 

But even though I have tried to give more or less equal attention to the six patterns, it would be wrong to assume that they are equivalent as overarching models for public worship of God on the Lord’s Day. Nowhere am I suggesting that congregations simply choose a model and try to do it well. A well-led Revival should evangelize, a Sunday School worship should educate, Aesthetic Worship should inspire with the riches of Christian art, Pentecostal Worship should open us to the power of the Spirit, and Prayer Meetings should enable us to share the blessing and burdens of fellow believers. Healthy congregations need all of the above: evangelism, education, art, spiritual power, and intimate fellowship. 

The Word and Table model is different from the other five because it does not approach worship as an instrument to achieve its goal. Instead, Word and Table is essentially participation in the worship of saints and angels across time and space. Rather than make worship happen, in the service of Word and Table we join in what already is taking place. Or, as Robert Webber puts it, “We enter into the heavens around the throne of God to join the communion of saints in that place of eternal worship.”[1] 

As participation with the saints in glory, Word and Table also has the capacity to avoid the weaknesses of the other patterns: the individualism of the Revival, the consumer mentality of the Seeker Service, the unwieldy didacticism of the Sunday School assembly, the wordiness of Creative Worship, the class bias of Aesthetic Worship, and the nostalgia of Traditional Worship. Word and Table shares with Pentecostal Worship a desire to worship in obedience to the Spirit, but it is able to avoid the chaotic excesses that can happen when Pentecostal Worship breaks free from the traditions of the historic stream of the church universal.

That said, the worship of the church this side of glory will always fall short of the perfection to which we aspire. Still, we strive to be obedient to the awe-inspiring and fearful task of serving God and the world as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. And so for the altar call: Friend, will you allow the light that breaks through the cracks of our imperfect worship to shine forth to all the world?


This article is excerpted from The Purpose, Pattern, and Character of Worship by L. Edward Phillips (Abingdon Press, 2020).


[1] Planning Blended Worship: The Creative Mixture of Old and New (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), 21.

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