the shape of leadership

Telling the Whole Story in Worship

Sharing — and living — the truth as we gather

Vinnie Zarletti on October 8, 2018

Everyone loves a good story. Every great book, movie and song has one at its core, and even the simplest story can be gripping if told the right way. Our lives revolve around stories. In fact, our lives are part of a grand story … but I’ll come back to that.

For now, I want you to think about your own life’s story, the story of you. Have you ever heard someone else try to tell it? Have you listened as others overlooked the details of your story or misrepresented your intentions? It can be flattering when someone wants to share your story. But if they mess it up too badly, you’d probably rather them not share it at all.

Telling His Story

“Worship tells God’s story.” Robert Webber wrote that in his book Ancient-Future Worship, but he didn’t stop there. Webber dedicated the entire first chapter of that book to explaining how “worship does God’s story.”

What Webber was getting at is that when we worship the Lord, He invites us to enter into the very story we are telling. We don’t just talk about baptism; we participate in baptism. We don’t just talk about Communion; we eat the bread and drink from the cup. We don’t just read about David’s songs of praise; we lift our own voices and join with the whole body of Christ as we magnify and exalt the King of kings and the Lord of lords. When we worship, we tell and do the story of God.

My question for us is this: Are we telling the whole story?

We sing songs of praise, but do we sing songs of lament (Psalms 12, 44, 74, and 80)? We sing and preach about God’s promises and faithfulness, but do we sing and preach about the promised trials and challenges of serving Christ (2 Corinthians 12:10; James 1:2)? We acknowledge a personal desire to know the Lord, but do we celebrate our belonging to a community that includes all believers around the world (1 Corinthians 12; Hebrews 12:1; Revelation 7:9)? And are we not only reading Scripture in our services, but also praying and singing it (Acts 4:25-26; Ephesians 5:19)?

The Stories We Sing

Consider this famous quote, often attributed to Plato: “Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.” Making the connection between this idea and Christian worship, theologian R.W. Dale said, “Let me write the hymns and music of the church, and I care very little who writes its theology.”

The humbling reality of Christian worship is that we have the opportunity to become participants in the very story we are telling.

In other words, it matters what we sing. The lyrics of our worship songs teach us and inform our understanding of doctrine and theology. When people reflect back on the Sunday service, there is a good chance they will remember the songs more vividly than the message. After all, what is more likely to get stuck in your head: the second point of a sermon or the second song from the worship set?

With these considerations in mind, we should also ask ourselves how much effort we’re putting into selecting the songs we are singing each week in corporate worship.

I once sat in a staff meeting where the senior pastor and the worship leader had a heated conversation about the fast-approaching Sunday morning worship service. The senior pastor wanted the worship leader to add an unexpected song to the set list on about five days’ notice. The worship leader was trying to explain that the music was selected weeks in advance and that his team had already prepared for the upcoming service.

Frustrated at the inflexibility, the senior pastor said, “You have the easiest job in this church! Each week, I have to come up with something new and fresh for our people, and all you do is sing a bunch of other people’s songs.”

I hope this frustrated pastor’s words are not indicative of the way we think of music in our churches today. I hope we are prayerfully considering the songs we sing, searching for strong lyrical content and congregational accessibility. I hope we are singing songs that remember God’s faithfulness in the past, acknowledge His nearness in the present, and anticipate His hope for the future. And I pray our songs are declaring the truth of God’s story in a way that inspires sincerity from each participant.

Telling the Truth

In John 4:23, Jesus says “true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth.” For all the emphasis we place on personal sincerity in worship, we must remember that it is possible to be sincerely wrong. Even more important than how much we mean it when we worship is that we are worshipping in truth.

The songs we sing, the prayers we pray, the sermons we preach, and the stories we share must tell the whole truth. There is no room for any exceptions. When we tell and sing the truth, our sincerity matters. But if we don’t tell the whole story, our best attempts at authenticity will always fall short.

The humbling reality of Christian worship is that we have the opportunity to become participants in the very story we are telling. The sad reality of Christian worship is that we have often misused that opportunity by drawing attention to ourselves instead of God. We can do better.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, we have access to the Son’s eternal communion with the Father. We have the holy and inspired written Word of God and the holy and resurrected incarnate Word of God. We have all we need to tell God’s story faithfully, in a way that will make Him glad we did.


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