There are at least four core values that are absolute and never to be compromised in regard to worship.
1. God is to be the central focus of our worship.
We cannot say that a worship service was “good” simply because the music sounded nice, the preacher was interesting, and the offering was large. The driving thrust of worship must be vertical rather than horizontal. Corporate worship must be unrelenting in pointing people’s minds and affections to God. Perhaps it sounds as if this is stating the obvious, but self is very subtle in its idolatry; and before long, even the best of intentions leads men to bow at the altar of musical taste and personal preference. As long as our focus is on form and style and people, it will not be on God.
2. Christ is to be exalted in our worship.
Without Christ we have no right to enter God’s presence and commune with Him. The very basis of corporate worship, the reason it can exist is because of the atoning work of our Great High Priest. Jesus Christ is that which distinguishes our worship from the daily prayers of a Muslim or the meditations of a Buddhist. That which makes worship Christian is Christ. Any attempt to downplay the role of Christ in our worship will lead to the demise of biblical worship. Therefore, the Gospel should take a prominent place of honor in all of our worship gatherings. Any notion that the cross is untasteful or naïve should be dismissed. Christ must never be obscured.
3. The Word of God is to be the standard for worship.
Second Timothy 3:17 teaches that Scripture is sufficient in all things. This is particularly true in regard to something as fundamental as worship. It means that any question we may have concerning corporate worship is answered in Scripture. Historically, this has been applied in two ways: the normative principle (anything that is not condemned in Scripture is appropriate in worship) and the regulative principle (only that which is specifically condoned in Scripture is appropriate in worship). This debate will continue, but we seek to apply the principle of Scripture’s sufficiency to worship in this way: The fundamental elements of worship must be strictly regulated by Scripture, and are to include prayer, preaching, Scripture reading, praise, collection, and the sacraments of baptism and communion. On the other hand, the circumstances in which these elements are carried out are subject to the normative principles found in Scripture. The circumstances include things like time/location of worship, musical style, use of instruments, use of choir, apparel to be worn, etc. Notice that neither the elements nor the circumstances are left to the whims of personal preference. Both are to be grounded (either regulatively or normatively) in the Word of God.
4. The Holy Spirit is to be welcomed in worship.
We can maintain all three of the core values listed above and still fall short of true, biblical worship if we neglect to recognize our utter dependence on the Holy Spirit to make our worship acceptable (John 4:23). It is only by the Holy Spirit within us that we are able to cry out, “Abba, Father” (Rom 8:15). Practically, this means that the attitude of our hearts, the thoughts of our minds and the state of our souls must in no way grieve or quench the Spirit of God. Sin must be acknowledged and repented of. Unity (not uniformity) must be pursued (Eph 4:3-6).
A word about style
In light of the “worship wars” of recent years, it is perhaps important for us to say a word about style. By style, we are referring to the external forms employed in worship. This includes music, among other things such as drama and visual media. Style falls under the category of circumstances in worship and should be determined by the normative principle. This, however, does not mean that anything goes. The tentacles of postmodernism have infiltrated the church’s view of art and aesthetics to the point that our style is largely determined, not by Scripture’s norms, but by pragmatism and subjectivism. Similarly to Luther’s contention in his day in regard to Scripture, we believe that music and worship forms ought to be in the vernacular for the sake of clarity and relevance. However, just as language can cross the line from common to vulgar, so music can become vulgar. It, then, no longer clarifies the Gospel but obscures it. If a people’s musical tastes are so vulgar that no vernacular music is appropriate for worship, their musical language must be developed and nurtured (A choir, for example, can be an effective tool for demonstrating to a musically illiterate culture what music can be.).
Words communicate thoughts that lead to emotions. Music communicates emotions that lead to thoughts. The emotional impact of a song is often stronger (or at least more immediate) than the intellectual impact of its lyrics; therefore, it is not enough to merely say that the lyrics must be biblical. The music itself must convey emotions that are consistent with the truth of the lyrics. Otherwise, music is not “telling the truth.” Sensual sounds coupled with lyrics about the holiness of God obscure the truth—they tell a lie. We recognize there is some level of subjectivity in measuring the emotional meaning of music, but we believe music’s meaning is a lot more universal than many of us are typically willing to acknowledge. Our style in worship should always tell the truth, and cultural trends do not always do that. For this reason, cultural appeal cannot be our standard of style. Certainly, we must take into consideration and carefully evaluate our culture’s stylistic preferences for the sake of clarifying the Gospel, but never for the sake of appealing to a sinful palette.