There are more commands in the Bible to praise God than there are to observe many of the doctrines that Christians dispute among themselves. Praise can take on many forms: shouts, singing, clapping, playing musical instruments and even dancing.
It is clear that God did not want His praise to become old and boring; He wanted it to stay new and exciting. Five times we are commanded to "sing a new song" to God (Psalm 33:3; 96:1; 98:1; 149:1; Isaiah 42:10). People can become much more excited about newly-written music than songs that are hundreds of years old. The age-old idea that religion should be a solemn, emotionless experience is simply not in Scripture. The Bible speaks of loud sounds and shouts of joy:
"Sing to Him a new song; Play skillfully with a shout of joy " (Psalm 3:3).
"Oh, clap your hands, all you peoples! Shout to God with the voice of triumph!" (Psalm 47:1).
"I will greatly praise the Lord with my mouth; Yes, I will praise Him among the multitude " (Psalm 109:30).
"I will also clothe her priests with salvation, And her saints shall shout aloud for joy" (Psalm 132:16).
The Apostles continued to participate in temple services, even after the Resurrection (Acts 3:1). When the praise of some of Jesus' followers disturbed the Pharisees, look at our Savior's answer:
"Then, as He was now drawing near the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works they had seen, saying: 'Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!' And some of the Pharisees called to Him from the crowd, "Teacher, rebuke Your disciples." But He answered and said to them, 'I tell you that if these should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out.' " (Luke 19:37 - 40, NKJV).
"But when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that He did, and the children crying out in the temple and saying, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" they were indignant and said to Him, "Do You hear what these are saying?" And Jesus said to them, "Yes. Have you never read, 'Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants You have perfected praise'?" " (Matthew 21:15 - 16, NKJV).
Notice in the above verse that young people were involved in praise - it is not something just for the older, mature, "converted". Young people like new energetic music - and so does God! Praise does not have to be written by someone who believes every doctrine that you do. God accepted praise from a Samaritan even though he said those people "worship what they do not know" (John 4:22):
"And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks. And he was a Samaritan. " (Luke 17:15 - 16)
Obviously, a service must utilize the kind of music and praise that those who attend are capable of producing. You must start with what is available.
Many congregations prefer to use overhead projectors or computer projection to provide song words to their congregation. Others prefer hymnals - or may have to use them until they are able to obtain the projection equipment. Even with projection equipment, a certain number of copies of hymnals are usually needed for choirs and/or musicians.
New congregations have an important decision: what source(s) will be used for congregational music?
If most of the people forming a new congregation are from a previous group, the simplest thing is to keep using the same music. However, it can be quite a problem. When an independent group splits from a major denomination, how are they really independent and separate if they go on to use the old group's hymnal? Furthermore, the old denomination may refuse to sell hymnals to independent groups. In other cases, the brethren forming a new congregation have no common musical background.
Musicians and leaders of the congregation will simply have to make a decision to procure the most appropriate music available to begin praising God at the new services. Hymnals and overhead transparencies of all kinds can be obtained at a discount from Christian Book Distributors. Hymnals with modern praise and worship music can also be ordered from Maranatha Music and other Christian music distributors.
Some new congregations simply make their own hymnal or music collection for projection. This may be done to include songs that fit their theology or even to save money. Unfortunately, most modern Christian music has copyright issues attached - its publishers have an elaborate means for collecting fees for making copies, whether printed or projected. Nevertheless, many of the "old standard" hymns of the 1800's have expired copyrights, so they may be freely copied. Some modern composers do place their songs clearly in the public domain, so they may be freely shared and copied. A few entire hymnals permit copying. Also, some hymnals, such as Maranatha's 4th edition (green), provide a modest extra cost option granting the right to make as many copies of words as necessary for one congregation.
Possible Musical Configurations
What kinds of musical configurations are possible? It is important to understand that it is possible to praise God whether your congregation has a lot of musical talent or a little. Thanks to inexpensive electronics, a number of affordable options are available. This author believes that live music is preferable to recorded since it is produced by men and women with the Holy Spirit in them and can capture and express the inspiration of what God is doing at the moment. Recorded music can be inspiring, but it will always be predictably the same, every time. The Bible commands us to continually praise God, not to offer Him re-runs of old praises.
A worship team with a choir and musical instruments is the best. Large scale musical productions are staged to honor all manner of individuals and groups in this world; we should give our best to honor God. Make the most of whatever talent you have - do not try to imitate some other group. Accept imperfect musicians as long as the overall effect is enjoyable for most people - musicians get better by doing it.
Lacking a choir or band, a piano accompanist is probably the most flexible. Finding a piano is not the problem it once was. Electronic pianos that sound and feel much like the real thing are in music stores for well less than $1000. This author has used electronic keyboards from discount stores costing in the $100 to $300 range and all attending have had a meaningful praise experience. The smaller keyboards may need an external amplifier - a portable home stereo can work. If your congregation does not have a piano player, most praise and worship music can be played by someone with a guitar, accordion or auto-harp.
Lacking live musicians, many hymnals have matching CDs and tapes - featuring either piano, small group or full orchestra accompaniment. Tapes specifically designed for accompaniment do not have the main melody voices recorded, which is good. The most important part, the singing words of praise, must be supplied by the congregation. There are some massive DVD-based systems for church accompaniment that have 5000+ songs, options for projection of words, transposition into any key and a host of other features for about $1000. Christian stores and music stores usually sell them.
If accompaniment CDs and tapes are not obtained, the congregation singing along with any hymn or praise and worship tape will work.
Putting all technology aside, a strong singer who will stay on key and in rhythm can lead inspiring music. This method has a many-thousand-year track record of success.
Any group can READ Bible Psalms or other words of praise in unison. Responsive readings hold attention and can be inspiring: a leader reads a line or two, followed by a response from the rest of the congregation. Sometimes the response may be an echo of what the leader said, sometimes it may be the same thing every time (Psalm 136 is an example). You can use existing Bible passages or write your own "responsive readings".
Encourage everyone to get involved in music and praise. Those who can play instruments should be encouraged to do so. Since no instruments are specifically condemned in the Bible, we conclude that we may use any of them. If someone sings or plays an instrument poorly, do not shut them out, but every few months or so encourage them to do something that they have learned well (do not let services become a burden to others by often forcing them to listen to poor music).
Those properly gifted should perform "special music" on a regular basis - bringing in new songs to inspire and possibly sing as a group in the future. Those participating in special music should always be thought of as worship leaders or helpers, not as performers. With some special music, it may be appropriate to invite the whole congregation to sing along; other songs' erratic rhythms or melody simply do not work well for congregational singing. Some singers who are accompanied by a piano or other instrument will need a sound system to be adequately heard.
Anyone can buy or borrow pre-recorded music, listen to it, and bring the best to services to play as "special music" - expanding the horizons of the group. Part of the listening job is to listen for words that have an acceptable message. Accept a wide variety of styles. While some styles (e.g. "punk" and "heavy metal") may be too devoted to destruction and negativism to be useful in a service, most popular music styles can be used for positive, uplifting praise. Parents' and children's musical tastes can often be united around an energetic praise song with a good message.
Hand-clapping, foot stomping and rhythm instruments are great ways to involve almost everyone (even 2-year olds). It is biblical, relaxing and fun (Psalm 47:1; 98:8; Isaiah 55:12).
Use wisdom in trying not to offend others with music that they are not used to. (Some people might have been offended by the previous paragraphs.) Music should be a force for unity, not for division. If you have visitors that like only older hymns, that is not the day to bring out your most energetic praise music. Furthermore, Paul clearly instructs that services should be conducted "decently and in order" (1Corinthians 14:40). People should never be wild and "out of control" no matter how excited they are to praise God. Also, no one should be forced or talked into participating in music that they do not feel comfortable with. Praise should come from the heart. Praise is not to earn salvation, to gain favor with others, to attract more members or to "do something different". It is to give our Creator the praise that He asks for and deserves, and to teach His Truth to people in ways that will stay with them for a long time.
Bible Reading and Discussion
Scripture reading was a part of Synagogue worship when Jesus attended (Luke 4:16 - 17; Acts 15:21) and it still is today. Synagogues have a system in place whereby the entire first five books, plus parts of other books are read every year. On any given week, the same scriptures will be read everywhere throughout the world. However, if you use this system, you will never cover large parts of the Old Testament or any of the New Testament. Some people augment this system with other readings, but most Christian congregations simply set up another system of Bible reading that makes sense for them.
It is the belief of this writer that there are not any apostles (which means "one sent") of Christ alive at this time. That being the case, it is much more important that we read the words of Christ and the Apostles in our services.
Scripture reading can be the main part of a new service if there are few people with the gift of teaching. People who are used to "being preached to in church" may find some difficulty in going to church without a sermon, but this usually wears off after a few weeks.
If the topic is published beforehand, brethren can read the scriptures ahead of time and will usually be ready with questions and comments. Some groups have people stand to read, others remain seated. Some use a microphone, some do not. Some have only adults read, others see it as an important activity for children to participate in. Most importantly, the scriptures need to be read so that they can be heard. Some allow questions and comments after a few verses, others wait until an entire chapter or section is complete.
No matter what format is used, the congregation will learn truth - because they are reading God's words. Certainly, there will be some incorrect comments made, but this is a chance for the experienced person to gently correct errors, and a chance for everyone to exercise discernment.
There is no need to have everyone read from the same translation. It is an advantage for people to silently read along from different translations. That way, it is easy to notice and discuss places where translations are significantly different.
Teaching and Encouragement
Most people are used to extensive, one-way teaching in services - usually called a sermon. If groups do not have someone to give a sermon, they may play an audio or video taped-sermon. A large number of ministries produce tapes for this very purpose. However, taped sermons or completely planned presentations do not allow for the questions and answers so frequently found in the Bible. A speaker can sound like he knows so much and cause many new believers to trust in his words - until someone asks good biblical questions about his teaching - questions that he may not be able to answer. Christ and the Apostles were able to answer the hardest of questions that were asked of them. That is the sign of a good teacher.
Obviously, there are few teachers who are as gifted as Christ and the Apostles. However, it is better to have a teacher who is truthful and willing to admit what he does not know, than it is to have a teacher who is powerful, eloquent or charismatic.
The goal of teaching is to ask God to use people to teach what He wants taught at each service. Even poorer live speakers are often better than tapes. People clearly pay more attention to live presentations. Also, there is no possibility of asking the speaker questions when a tape is played.
If your congregation progresses to the point where you are teaching many new people, experienced teachers who can expound a topic at length are sometimes needed. One way for brethren to learn to deliver quality live messages is to give "book reports" or "article reports" on truthful, inspiring literature. This approach maximizes speaking opportunity and reduces the amount of research work (only one source is used). Another approach is for teachers to take lessons from their own experience and explain them in the light of Scripture.
Services should be edifying and encouraging to all. They are probably not the best place for detailed discussions of complex or controversial doctrines (such as the exact nature of Jesus Christ before His human birth, the Hebrew calendar, speaking in tongues, etc.). Such teachings are important, however, and can be held after services or as a separate Bible study.
Exhortation (encouragement) is different than teaching - a person who exhorts says little that his listeners do not already know, but encourages and motivates them to do a better job of what they already know they should do. ("Preaching" often encompasses both "teaching" and "exhortation".) Some people clearly have the gift for exhortation, and some do not. A person who encourages others must be able to do so in love - without making himself appear better than others.
There is no reason why a speaker has to be introduced as either a "teacher" or an "exhorter". They can simply give their message. However, they should know what they are hoping God to accomplish through them. Someone who does have the gift of encouraging and motivating others should be very careful not to introduce new teachings while he is doing it. (Aaron and his golden calf comes to mind - he was a powerful leader, but he led Israel into sin.) Exhortation should be to solid, well-understood Bible principles.