THE NEED FOR THEMATIC WORSHIP
When I was in seminary our preaching classes introduced us to the concept of building our ser-mon around what was termed the “big idea” of the text—i.e., the central teaching thrust of the particular portion of Scripture to be expounded. The primary reason for preaching the “big idea” of a text is of course to communicate the central truth which the biblical writer (through the Holy Spirit inspiring him) had in mind; it also stands to reason that, homiletically speaking, a preacher’s message is going to be more effective and memorable if a single main idea is developed, with all of the parts pointing to and developing that central theme.
Recently I read an article by an author in a liturgical church context, advocating monothematic preaching as opposed to the practice in some such churches of dealing with three different lectionary texts in the same sermon. His contention was that preaching would be more effective if it were “less like a shotgun blast, and more like a rifle shot.” And I thought, shouldn’t corporate worship and praise be more a rifle shot too? Too often in our song services we jump all over the theological map in our progression of songs (moving quickly from, for instance, the holiness of God to the blood of Christ to the Spirit’s leading to the beauty of the Lord to my love for Him—or some such rapid-fire “shotgun” approach); and, it should be added, this occurs commonly in churches of both the contemporary and the traditional variety. There is obviously nothing wrong with any of the above themes; but there is a legitimate question whether there is time for the worshiper to adequately grasp and focus on and respond to each new theme (as it passes quickly by) with any degree of depth.
We can recognize (as the above cited author did) that people would have a hard time focusing on, not to mention responding to, a sermon with too many disparate thrusts; why then should we in our worship skip hurriedly over the doctrinal landscape? It’s a little bit like dashing through an art museum and maintaining that we have seen all of the paintings! If fine paintings are not intended to be glanced at casually, but rather contemplated deliberately and meditatively, how much more so the character of God! This loftiest of all subjects must be relished in small morsels, not gulped down in big theological chunks. If indeed we come to worship with the intent of “savoring. . . the worth of God and the beauty of God and power of God and the wisdom of God” (John Piper), that savoring will take time and attention.
Thematic worship is one way to allow the worshiper the opportunity to savor the wonder of God “according to His excellent greatness,” one aspect at a time, in specific response to His manifold excellencies (cf. 1 Pet 2:9: we are to “proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light”). Thematic worship does this in a manner that allows for ample time for reflection on and response to a particular aspect of God’s Person or ways. We may define thematic worship thus:
is a service where a single aspect
of God’s nature or work
is focused on and celebrated,
with the various elements of the service
chosen to support and develop that theme.
It should be stressed that the principles shared be-low could apply equally well to services of all varieties (traditional, contemporary, and blended), and that all could benefit from the strength which thematic development can bring to a service. (And, I believe, all types of services can likewise suffer when the selection and arrangement of songs and other service materials is miscellaneous or random.)
THE ADVANTAGES OF THEMATIC WORSHIP
A Single-Minded Focus
As mentioned already, this approach allows the worshiper to focus on one particular aspect of God’s truth and gives time for believers to settle into and concentrate on the theme.
An Opportunity for Reflection
The thematic focus enables the worshiper to turn that truth over in one’s mind and heart, and to consider its implications to one’s own life.
An Opportunity for Response
The focused development of the theme over time also allows the believer’s heart to “catch up” with his mind, the emotions with the intellect, so that a truly biblical response “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24) may occur. That response may be not only corporate, but also include various individual responses too—adoration, conviction, tears of joy, repentance, thanksgiving, consecration, and even (as unbelievers who are present see believers’ heart-felt response to God [1 Cor 14:24-25]) conversion.
An Organizing Principle
The thematic approach also brings to bear on the service an organizing principle that is inherently more biblical and lofty than an approach whose unity is merely a stylistic one. The theme supplies the connective tissue that enables the worship planner to blend together music and other elements of widely varying styles and types, yet with a coherence of subject matter that supersedes and encompasses any individual style. (One popular hymnal has a “Key Index” in the back; it is hard to see why key would be a reason for selecting a particular song for use in worship!)
A Unifying Focus
The goal in worship is to center our thoughts on God and His truth, and to turn our hearts and voices heavenward in grateful response to the wonders of His being. With a biblical and God-focused overarching theme, one will often find that individual believers of different ages get caught up in that grand Godward focus and find themselves worshiping by means of musical or other material which they normally would not tolerate in isolation!
A Teaching Aspect
Colossians 3:16 tells us that there should be a definite teaching aspect to our corporate worship, even if its primary focus is to offer to God sacrifices of praise (Heb. 13:15). A proper variety and balance of themes used over time can serve a tremendous catechetical function for the congregation. It has been demonstrated that truth that is personally proclaimed or sung is far better retained and sinks far more deeply into people’s hearts, than when it is only heard or read. Through a sustained focus of reflection and re-sponse in thematic worship, believers pour into the reservoir of their souls rich deposits of truths that have been savored and personalized and responded to with their whole being.
Through thematic worship believers can learn to practice a worship response to truth that is taught. In a Sunday School class, for instance, biblical truth is imparted, but rarely is there given in that context much opportunity to respond to that truth in worship. Yet, as J.I. Packer has put it, “The purpose of theology is doxology; we study in order to praise.” Knowledge about God must lead to an appropriate worship response to God based on that truth; and thematic worship en-courages (and tries to give time for) that kind of response.
A Preparation for Preaching
Thematic worship can lead believers through a rehearsal of and response to what are already (for most of them at least) familiar truths. This in turn can leave the heart open and sensitive to God and spiritually malleable, ready to be led by the preacher to see new vistas of truth and/or to climb to new heights of commitment to the Lord.
SELECTING A THEME
Follow the preacher
Ideally the theme will grow out of the central thrust (or at least some aspect) of the pastor’s message; this can bring tremendous unity and impact to the service as a whole. However, when the pastor’s preparation timetable does not allow sufficient lead time for the worship planner (as is often the case), the corporate praise portion of the service may develop its own independent theme. Often in such cases the Holy Spirit will cause that portion to tie into and prepare the congregation for the sermon in a remarkable way.
Reflect the church calendar
Even if your particular group does not adhere to a strict following to the liturgical year, it can be healthy to focus on certain key events during the year: Christmas and Easter, of course (virtually every church practices thematic worship on these occasions!), but also such events as the Ascension of Christ, Pentecost, Advent, and Reformation Sunday (on this latter celebration, see Worship Notes 2.10 [October 2007]).
Cover basic doctrines and attributes regularly
Certain great themes bear repeating over and over (at least twice a year), such as the holiness of
God, the love of God, etc. Communion Sundays are obvious times to focus on such themes as the Cross or the blood of Christ.
Build around an anthem or special number
It will often be advantageous to plan a service around the theme of an anthem, solo, or other special number being used that day—for the pragmatic reason that such an element will often have to be in preparation long before any other part of the service is thought about!) Of course, if this approach is used, then great care must be taken to balance over time the thematic content of these elements.
THE MATERIALS OF THEMATIC WORSHIP
One should search far and wide for materials to support and develop the theme; and regardless of the particular church’s worship style, that search should cross many boundaries: generational, denominational, cultural, national, epochal. Again, the unifying principle of the theme allows one to successfully incorporate and blend a rich variety of materials.
Primacy of the Word of God
Scripture demands a central role in worship, as Gods’ revelation to which our praises are a fitting response (see Worship Notes 1.5 [May 2006]). In thematic worship, we should allow the Bible to define, focus, develop and reinforce the theme.
Both hymns and choruses that deal with the theme can and should be used; with careful atten-tion given to meter, key, and tempo, these can be arranged and blended smoothly. It is advisable to not sing a chorus more than twice in a row, though it can be very effective to bring it back in a later time. Consider using only those verses in hymns which directly relate to the theme (for example, if the theme is heaven, note that the final verse of many gospel hymns deals with heaven); young people and others often grow to appreci-ate hymns more when they are caused to focus on the texts because they are taken out of their usual “all the verses, all the time” context.
Songs (be they hymns, choruses, or whatever) which deal with the theme but which are unfamil-iar to the congregation can be sung by the choir or praise team as part of a back-and-forth flowing interchange between congregation and worship leaders. Brief solos may also be interspersed in this way.
One rich source of musical material for a choir or worship team to use in thematic worship is that of relevant excerpts (often just a verse or refrain) of an anthem or special number already familiar to the choir or worship team (and perhaps to the congregation), woven into a flow of music in alternation with the congregation.
Spoken calls to worship or invocations may introduce the theme (though of course they may be sung as well).
Bible readings (unison or responsive) reinforce the theme through the power of corporate reading of the Word of God. Computer Bible concordances now make it quite easy to pull together and organize a number of Scripture passages related to the theme into such a reading. Choral readings may also be used on occasion.
While Scripture should of course be the primary source for readings used in worship, we should not neglect other powerful expressions of biblical truth. The creeds, the Te Deum, Pilgrim’s Progress, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, Valley of Vision (a wonderful collection of Puritan prayers) and many other sources may be drawn upon to help develop the theme. The Worship Sourcebook published by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship is a rich source of readings (many drawn directly from Scripture and others that are effective paraphrases of biblical truths) for use in corporate worship.
Invocations, prayers of confession, or other forms of prayerful response may be appropriately put at some point in the service. Writing out some of these in advance can allow for a more incisive tie to the thematic development of the service.
Too often we fill every moment of our services with sound, when a time of silence may be
what the people need in order to reflect and respond most intensely.
REINFORCING THE THEME
The development of the theme can hardly be overdone if it is to be apprehended and compre-hended by the entire congregation. There are vari-ous visual and other aids that may be used to help in driving home the thematic focus.
As people enter the sanctuary, a banner, artwork, or symbolic object (a shepherd’s crook, for instance) may suggest or even make explicit the theme. The bulletin cover or a projected slide may use a Scripture verse that engages people’s thoughts relative to the theme. Before the service actually starts, a pastor or elder may quiet the congregation and read a passage of Scripture that also relates to the theme; the reader may then en-courage the people to quietly prepare their hearts for worship by meditating on the theme-related passage.
A title that hints at or names the theme may be put as a heading in the bulletin as well. The worship leader may want to make some introductory remarks that explain the theme and guide the people into the service’s exploration of that theme.
A smooth, seamless flow to the service also contributes to the development of the theme and to the worship response of the congregation, be-cause it allows the people to focus on God and on the texts expressing praise to Him rather than be-ing distracted by a lot of instructions and logistical details.
As the theme is developed, it is often a good idea to arrange the materials to move in the direc-tion of application towards the end of the corporate worship time—incorporating song texts or a responsive reading of a more applicational nature, through silent or spoken prayers of response, etc. If there is a pastoral prayer, the pastor may use that as a means to both lead the congregation in response to the theme and to make a transition to the sermon.
The bulletin or another handout (or even the church website or a weekly email may contain a “Worship Focus,” which provides a quotation and several Scripture references related to the day’s theme for people to use in their private worship during the week (along with the song texts and readings contained in the bulletin, if one is used); the church website or a weekly email could be used for this purpose too. Another idea is to provide such a Worship Focus (in any of the ways mentioned above) related to the following Sun-day’s theme, to enable people to prepare their hearts and minds for that service by beginning the process of reflection and response on their own before coming together for corporate praise and response.
THE CHALLENGES OF THEMATIC WORSHIP
The first and most obvious challenge is of course that of finding sufficient and appropriate materials related to the particular theme. Many aids are available that can help: the Internet, com-puter Bible concordances; the Worship Source-book mentioned above; hymnal concordances (such as that found in the Worship Resource Edition of the Celebration Hymnal); the Hymn and Scripture Selection Guide published by Baker; and the thematic and Scripture indices found in many hymnals.
“The Rest of the Story”
One objection that has been raised about thematic worship is that sometimes the centrality of the gospel and of Christ is sometimes neglected because of a focus on other things. This concern should be taken seriously, and every effort made to ensure that services still retain a regular focus on the gospel and on the Person and work of Christ. Of course, God’s attributes and most biblical themes find their ultimate expression and fulfillment in the finished work of Christ.
Time and Planning
Admittedly, thematic worship takes a significant amount of time and planning. It takes effort to weave together various materials into a smoothly flowing service that develops the theme with appropriate pace and impact. But I believe that the potential for genuine worship to God’s glory and spiritual fruit in the lives of our people make it worth the effort.
CONCLUSION: THE POWER OF THEMATIC WORSHIP
Corporate worship is primarily for God; we come to offer Him a gift of praise in response to His gracious initiative in our lives. Thematic worship can help us as worshipers to respond more fully, more deeply, and more intensely to the glory of His Person and His works, to more fully engage our entire selves (intellect, emotion, and will) in a spirit-and-truth expression of adoration to Him. And the more genuine and heartfelt our response of worship is, certainly the more He de-lights in the sacrifices of praise His children offer to Him. To glorify Him to the best of our abilities is a goal worthy of our best efforts; and He has promised to indwell and to empower those responses!
The power of thematic worship is seen in its potential to nourish the soul and galvanize the worship of God’s people by giving attention to a single, God-centered focus and al-lowing time for reflection and response.
By Ron Man. from Church Musician Today, November 1998.
© 1998 The Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Listen to the audio of a workshop on this theme given by Ron Man at the Calvin Symposium of Worship, January 2008, by going HERE.
Read the April 2008 issue of Worship Notes, containing this article in addition to a listing of possible worship themes and corresponding service titles, by going HERE.