Where the world comes to study the Bible

6. The Spirit's Role in Corporate Worship

The Holy Spirit assumes a vital role in Christian worship as the sign of God’s work through Christ. The Spirit confirms God’s covenant relationship, a prerequisite for acceptable worship. His presence creates the worship sanctuary, forming the bounds of its community and unifying its members. By convicting of sin, he ensures the integrity of the covenant worshipers and with his gifts he strengthens them to serve one another. Emphasizing the experience of the worshiper as the evidence of the Spirit depreciates his more significant functions, often leading to misunderstanding, pragmatism, narcissism and an idolatry of self rather than the worship of God.


Listen to any circle of Christians talking about their church these days and one subject always comes up: worship.

That’s good! Worship is a central emphasis of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Adam and Eve were commissioned to “serve” in the Garden, God’s first sanctuary on the earth. The patriarchs marked their journeys by their devotion at God’s altar. For forty years Israel used the tabernacle as its compass when marching and as the center for its bivouac. Once Israel had a king, Solomon’s Temple became the perpetual reminder that God, not the king, had the preeminent place in the nation. Worship dominates the themes of joy and lament in Israel’s Psalter, the prophets’ indictments, the Old Testament summary to love God with our whole being (Luke 10:27), and the apostle Paul’s description of sanctification (Rom 12:1). History’s final response to Jesus (Phil 2:9-11), the visions of heaven’s activities (Rev 4:1–5:14), and history’s end (Rev 21:26) are filled with worship. It’s the motive behind the Father’s mission in the world (John 4:23). God created and redeemed us so that he might receive worship from his creation. Worship is the goal of God’s work.

If the worship of God has been a priority for God’s people, churches across America seem to have taken this emphasis seriously. Newspapers advertise “praise and worship” churches. Billboards invite passers-by to “dynamic,” “contemporary,” and “fresh” worship services, all of which are taken as evidence of “Spirit-filled” worship. Paul asserts that Christians “worship by the Spirit of God” (Phil 3:3) through whom our prayers ascend to the Father (Eph 2:18). It all sounds so biblical.

But what do we mean with these labels? Unfortunately, what they mean to the average Christian today is a style of worship, things like an “upbeat” tempo, extended periods of congregational singing, a service where we move from song to song with little or no break in the flow of the music, a strong rhythm (accentuated perhaps by clapping or physical movement in the congregation), more contemporary musical arrangements and accompaniment (keyboards, synthesizers, guitars, drums, etc.). To some it denotes a preference for one kind of music (short, memorable, simple words and tunes) over another (often classified as “stuffy old hymns” which use more traditional tunes or speak with more complex poetry filled with archaic language). Even those who object to defining the Holy Spirit’s role in worship this way may still assume that when the Holy Spirit presides over corporate worship the worshipers will have greater exuberance and emotion, spontaneous or unplanned acts will occur in the service, or the service itself will proceed without a preplanned order.

Great danger lurks here. Popular descriptions are theological sandbars. They can shift our focus from God’s inspired objective statements about his role in our worship to prejudices formed by the feelings aroused through a particular style of music or service. The Holy Spirit’s role in corporate worship becomes a function of our response rather than an objective theological reality. We miss the more basic and important roles that the Holy Spirit assumes whenever God’s people gather to worship. The Old Testament provides many examples of God’s condemnation and rejection of worship that forgot or ignored his expectations. Even if we offer worship with the sincerest of motives, we overlook what God says at our peril.

Today we speak of individual worship (such as practiced in personal devotions) and corporate worship (such as we experience in a church “worship service”). This distinction is relatively new among Christians. Biblically and historically, personal acts of worship were merely one end of the spectrum; corporate acts of worship at the other. So-called “personal” worship was but a stepping-stone to worship offered within the gathered community of God’s people. Personal worship was insufficient in itself to honor God as he desired. In the early centuries of the Church an overemphasis on personal (or “private”) worship was considered characteristic of the heresy of Gnosticism! But the importance and characteristics of corporate worship are no longer widely understood, assumed, or even taught today among American evangelical Christians. It’s time to recover the significance of corporate worship and a biblical understanding of the superintending ministries of the Holy Spirit within it.

Worship, the Covenant, and the Spirit

Any discussion of corporate worship must start with a prerequisite taught by both Old and New Testaments: God only accepts worship offered within a covenant framework. Any legitimate definition of worship that aspires to be biblical must first acknowledge that worship is defined as a celebration of one’s covenant relationship with the Holy Lord God. The term “covenant” simply describes an explicit relationship between two parties, in this case God and human beings. The relationship has clearly defined prerequisites and commitments. Sometimes both parties to the covenant must keep all the commitments for the covenant to remain in force (a “conditional” covenant) while at other times God promises to uphold the covenant with no mention being made of the other party’s responsibilities (an “unconditional” or unilateral covenant).

Regardless of the nature of the covenant, the biblical words translated “worship” assume this prerequisite. Unlike the ever-popular English etymology of worship from “worth-ship”—ascribing worth to another—the Bible’s own language presents a more complex picture which for convenience can be organized in three word-groups. The first word-group, the Hebrew hishtakhavah (hwjTvh) and the Greek proskuneo„ (proskunevw), stresses submission to another. Translated by the term “worship” in our English Bibles, they describe “bowing down” or falling prostrate before another who is worshiped. This represents an ancient way of showing one’s vulnerability and, therefore, submission to the one worshiped. Like other terms for obeisance, “worship” assumes that a relationship exists (or perhaps is sought) with a greater individual. Those who bow down, whether by choice (freely submitting) or by force (defeat by the other), indicate their acknowledged responsibility to live by the superior’s will. When I worship, I am consciously stating to God that he is in control of all things that relate to my life.

A second larger word-group presents worship as service or obedience to another. It often has with priestly overtones: àbad (dbu), latreuo„ (latreuvw), and leitourgeo„ (leitourgevw) from which we get our English term liturgy. In each case the worshiper performs what God asks of him or her. Worship as service grows directly from worship as submission. If I submit to another’s rule, then I am responsible to fulfill the wishes of the one I worship. Here we begin to see the unity between worship as “lifestyle” and worship as “praise” for both are ways in which I am doing what God asks of me. Paul calls our daily “living sacrifice” a latreia (latreiva) or service to God (Rom 12:1). Similarly the more general term, godliness or eusebeia (eujsevbeia), derived from the more specific worship term, sebomai (sevbomai), stresses how one honors the deity in all things. Therefore, how I fulfill God’s desires for my life in every aspect, fulfill my responsibilities as outlined in the covenant he has made with me, and remain in a right relationship with him is “worship.” All of life reflects my worship of God. Hence, these two biblical word-groups for worship assume and stress a covenant relationship with God, both in submission (obeisance to God’s will) and in service (obedience to God’s commands).

The third word-group is often overlooked in worship studies: “remember.” The Old Testament Hebrew word zakar (rkz) focused on God’s promises for his people in their worship—the inauguration, obligations, continuing benefits, and future consummation of the covenant. Every festival, sacrifice, and memorial designed to promote the worship of God was instituted as a “memorial.” “To remember” invoked the existence of a binding covenant, calling all to recognize and fulfill their responsibilities, joining with all who ever participated in the same covenant as a single community under God’s rule. Passover was Israel’s quintessential act of “remembering” (cf. Exod 12:14; 13:3, 9). It repeatedly affirmed God’s unique act of covenant whereby he created Israel as a distinct people for himself (cf., e.g., Lev 11:45; 26:45; 2 Sam 7:23; Hos 11:1; cf. Matt 2:15). Jesus used the corresponding Greek term, mimne„skomai (mimnhv/skomai) to describe the role of the cup within the Lord’s Supper as the inauguration of the [new] covenant (Matt 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25). Consequently gathering around the bread and cup quickly became a defining purpose for Christians gathered to worship (Acts 2:42; 20:7; 1 Cor 11:17–34).

Why the Spirit in this discussion of covenant? Since Jesus Christ’s ascension the Holy Spirit defines the scope of the covenant inaugurated by Christ and our participation in that covenant. He is the promissory note of God’s covenant with humanity in this age (John 16:7–14; Eph 1:13–14). He takes up his residence in the believer at the moment of conversion (1 Cor 12:13). His indwelling presence, therefore, defines who is a member of Christ’s Church, God’s covenant community. He marks those individuals in the covenant through faith in Jesus Christ. The indwelling Holy Spirit is its sign and its seal. Corporate worship can only be offered to God by those who have an explicit relationship with God, evidenced by the Spirit’s presence.

Beyond mere word-groups, God’s stated priorities for and judgments of the Old Testament worshiper stress the relational basis of worship. God expected conformity to his covenant and only accepted worship from those who understood and wholeheartedly obeyed the requirements of the covenant he had made with them. God decreed that Israel gather to worship him “in the place that he would choose” and by the means he had dictated as part of the covenant (cf. Deut 12:5, 11, 14, 18, 26; 14:23, 24; 15:20; 16:2, 6, 7, 11, 15, 16; 17:8, 10; 18:6; 26:2; 31:11). No other site or means was acceptable to him, only that demanded by his covenant with his people. Further, the worshipers were living as God asked. They were fulfilling their role in the covenant or, as we say, they had a right standing within the covenant relationship. Their lives were marked by integrity within the covenant.

In such a relationship each party was well known to the other. Therefore, God rejected worship offered with a false view of God. Although their makers presented them as Israel’s God, God rejected the golden calf of Aaron (Exod 32:1–10) and those of Jeroboam (1 Kgs 12:25–33; 13:1–3). He characterized such worship as that given to “demons” (Deut 32:15–18; Ps 78:54–64; Jer 23:13–15; Ezek 8:1–15). God did not give a worshiper “the benefit of the doubt” due to ignorance or graciously “change the address” of the offering, even if it only represented a less than proper understanding of who he is. Further, God rejected all corporate worship offered contrary to his demand including, for example, defective sacrificial animals (Mal 1:6–14) or blood offerings involving human beings (Ezek 8:16–18). He demanded that whatever was offered be exactly and only what he required. He rejected all worship offered without regard for personal sin. A violation of the covenant showed the absence of wholehearted submission and, therefore, disqualified any statement of “submission.” Worship without concern for God’s revealed pattern or offered without regard for personal integrity (holiness) and humility demonstrated a worshiper’s failure to take seriously the person of God and the stipulations of a right relationship with him. Therefore, God coveted obedience above all (1 Sam 15:22–23; Pss 40:4–8; 51:16–17) and rejected the worship of the rebellious (Jer 23:10–12; Mic 6:6–8; Mal 2:13–17), worship offered with a wrong motive (such as Cain’s self-centeredness shown by his reaction to God’s acceptance of Abel (Gen 4:3–7), Saul’s disobedient sacrifice to feed his own self-importance (1 Sam 15:3, 9, 12–15), or Israel’s use of sacrifice as a divine bribe to preserve their self-indulgence (Isa 1:1–31). The Old Testament prophets proclaimed God’s rejection of worship offered on “autopilot,” dependent on the execution of the form alone for its spiritual value without any thought to one’s integrity in the covenant requirements (Joel 6:20; 7:16–28; 14:14; Amos 4:4–5; 5:21–27). God expected his worshipers to be consumed by an attitude of integrity and the act of obedience.

Things don’t change in the New Testament. Jesus criticized his contemporaries for their failure to fulfill God’s requirements before worshiping (e.g., Matt 5:21–24; 6:1–24). To the Samaritan woman he defined New Testament worship as offered “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). “In truth” describes the objective prerequisite of conformity to the revelation of God for humanity in worship (his holiness as the one true God and how he has revealed that he is to be worshiped). “In spirit” denotes the subjective prerequisite: the integrity and sincerity required of every worshiper. (John may intend a double entendre here. Jesus’ use of “spirit” may include the work of the Holy Spirit, but the grammar of the passage and the explicit definition where the term is used elsewhere in John’s Gospel leads most interpreters to construe the expression as a reference to the Holy Spirit in a secondary sense for the term here.) The author of Hebrews emphasized the same (Heb 10:5–7). Consequently both Old and New Testaments agree that God only accepts worship offered by a humble, committed servant under his covenant, a covenant that is qualified by the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives and in our worship.

Unfortunately many modern Christians have lost sight of this. While it’s true that “Everyone can know God” (that is, the knowledge of God is accessible to anyone who genuinely seeks him), people conclude that “Anyone can worship God” (that is, God accepts worship offered by any person regardless of their spiritual status). This logic is flawed. It ignores the covenant prerequisite of worship. It also ignores the nature of relationship. Consider an analogy from modern media. You’ve watched a television program, have an emotional connection with the show, and think you know the actors. You may even believe you have a relationship with one of them (as some overzealous fans actually do). But try to get personally involved with them and you’ll be very disappointed. First, they don’t know you or have any reason to want to engage with you. There has been no basis for friendship. Second, they don’t want you to relate to them as the characters they portray because it’s not who they really are. They don’t want friendship based on your ignorance or misperception. So chances are they will not receive your overtures. Similarly God isn’t interested in the relationship assumed by corporate worship if it isn’t true to what he really is or isn’t made by someone with whom he has already established a covenant basis for the relationship. For the world today corporate worship that is acceptable to God demands the presence of the Spirit of God as the evidence of a relationship with God.

Worship, Community, and the Spirit

We’ve established the prerequisite of covenant to corporate worship. In the New Testament the presence of the Holy Spirit seals the covenant with the worshipers. The Holy Spirit’s second function in worship is his creation of the worshiping community. Biblical covenants always involve a group. God redeems individuals, but his redemptive goal is the creation of a people, a community.

In the Old Testament God acted as he had promised, redeemed his people, and then brought them together into a community of persons in the covenant (Ps 106:4; Isa 11:12). For an Israelite to be judged by God took the form of isolation from the community. Individuals were sent out to be alone. People groups were dispersed. Those judged were now unable to gather for the worship God had stipulated. This explains in part the agonies of the Old Testament psalmist suffering in his solitude and isolation and provides the theological matrix behind “excommunication” as isolation from the church community, an extreme discipline in the New Testament.

By contrast every Israelite re-experienced community through the annual memorial “remembrances” of their covenant. “Remembrance” in the Old Testament spoke of the unity of all Israel in covenant. These remembrances proclaimed the unity of those under the covenant. This transcended the limitations of time and space. The covenant participants were re-united by each memorial celebration of the covenant. The Old Testament experience of unity was designed around geography. The covenant participants came together for these festivals, enjoying social proximity (as in themes of the ascent Psalms, particularly 122 and 133, sung at such festivals). In time Jerusalem became the single acceptable “high place” where the nation reemphasized its spiritual center. Even today these festival celebrations emphasize the unity of the Jewish community despite its worldwide dispersion.

For Christians this experience of community becomes reality through the Holy Spirit indwelling each covenant member. He unites believers into a single people, the community of Christ. At one level the Spirit connects the members of a local congregation together into a functioning whole. At a higher level he connects all believers, both as individuals and local communities to all others everywhere. He erases the separation of space and geography between each congregation. At the highest level the same Spirit bonds those who have been divided from the earthly community by death with their brothers and sisters yet living on the earth. He brings the Church scattered throughout time and space into an organic whole. His presence in our worship affirms that we are not alone. We become joined with a people that spans the globe and transcends time. In an age when God’s covenant with humanity extends beyond the Old Testament ethnic and geographic boundaries of Israel, only the Holy Spirit makes “corporate” worship possible. Therefore, for those living in the light of the New Covenant, corporate worship that is acceptable to God assumes a covenant community that has been created and qualified by the Holy Spirit.

Worship, the Sanctuary, and the Spirit

The concept of community underlies a third aspect of the Spirit’s role in corporate worship. In the Old Testament the Spirit’s presence defined the “sanctuary” where God chose to set his throne. This location on the earth denoted the center of his community and his rule. During Israel’s time this term applied to both the Tabernacle (e.g., Exod 25:8) and the Temple (e.g., 1 Chr 22:19). They served as God’s “royal palace,” the Holy Place as his “throne room,” and the Ark of Covenant as his “throne.” The overwhelming presence of the Spirit upon these structures at their completion affirmed their role (Exod 40:34–38; 2 Chr 5:13–14). (This foreshadows the New Testament’s treatment of Old Testament priestly figures of Jesus Christ. When God’s sanctuary is identified, its priest becomes paradigmatic for Christ. The first Adam “serves” the garden sanctuary as priest of the creation. Melchizedek is designated priest of Jerusalem, the city built on the sanctuary mount to which God directed Abraham and which was later designated as God’s Zion sanctuary. The Aaronic priesthood, the most explicit symbol, serves the Tabernacle and Temple sanctuaries.)

Since the Holy Spirit indwells individual human beings today, Paul applies the concept of “temple” to individuals (2 Cor 6:14–18) and to the Christian community as a whole (1 Cor 3:16–17). Whenever believers gather in community, they form the earthly sanctuary in which God’s rule is manifested and God’s sacrifices are offered. The Spirit’s presence in believers defines the boundaries of the true sanctuary by defining the worshiping community.

Very early on, Christians recognized this unique work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ command to “remember” was instrumental in forming this theology. Used at the Last Supper, he invoked the Old Testament understanding of a covenant, its exclusive demands, and the fidelity of both parties. The celebration of this meal became central to Christian worship. Described as the “breaking of bread” in Acts (2:42; 20:7), the Eucharist became a focal point for corporate worship and soon functioned as the central act of Christian assembly. (Note the purpose statements in Acts 20:7 and 1 Cor 11:17–20, 33.) Christian and non-Christian sources from the first three centuries record Christians’ weekly gatherings around two acts: the reading of the scriptures and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Participation separated those in the church from those outside the holy community, a “eucharistic” community whose corporate identity was defined by the Lord’s Supper. From earliest records through the Reformation we know of no Sunday—over 1500 years!—in which the Lord’s Supper was not celebrated. Attendance in its weekly observance was obligatory even in times of extreme persecution. Like the synagogue, Christian communities took great care to identify those who were members of the covenant community through faith in Christ from those who only “observed” (whether unbelievers or not yet baptized). Before the observance of this rite the church publicly dismissed the unbaptized. They had not yet expressed unqualified faith in Christ in order to receive the promised Holy Spirit and were not considered members of the covenant. They were not allowed to participate in the community rite. Similarly, baptized believers under church discipline or involved in a time of penance were excluded. From the beginning, Christians took seriously the Holy Spirit’s role as the definer of the sanctuary (the true worshiping community) and the validator of its offering.

Worship, Unity, and the Spirit

A fourth major consideration of the Holy Spirit’s work in corporate worship extends from the preceding concepts of covenant, community, and sanctuary: he alone, the unique, active agent, fosters functional unity among the worshiping community. “Unity” refers to believers’ common twofold allegiance: the Lordship of Christ over the community and relational harmony within the community. This commitment to unity is both a cognitive-volitional function that values being a harmonious whole and a practical expression of unity that wholeheartedly supports each despite our differences. It does not demand conformity or uniformity in thought or practice (as helpful as these might seem). The Old Testament prophets defined “righteousness” in relational terms. The Proverbs described “wisdom” within community functions. The New Testament presents “unity” as the complex of right relationships in the community. The significance of God’s community transcends legitimate differences between individuals and even cultures. Consider spiritual gifts in the New Testament. Besides the biblical diversity of the gifts themselves, their expressions can be nuanced by cultural frameworks (i.e., ways in which one teaches another) and personality (i.e., extroverted or reflective styles). Yet all promote growth toward the corporate unity (Eph 4:11–16).

The Holy Spirit establishes the Church’s unity ontologically because of his indwelling, defining the members of Christ’s community. The expression of his ministry becomes the functional unity experienced between believers (1 Cor 12:4, 13; Eph 2:22; 4:3, 13; Phil 1:27) to complete the witness of Christ in the world (John 17:21–23).

Why unity? The first statements of unity among humanity represent a rebellion against God’s order and rule. So God destroyed all life with a cataclysmic flood (Gen 6–9). Later at Babel God foresaw that the impulses and achievements of a sinful, unified humanity would only produce a similar rebellion against God’s rule (Gen 8:21) requiring the same judgment. God thwarted humanity’s unlimited capacity for rebellion by inaugurating linguistic divisions (Gen 11:1–9). These subgroups scattered over the earth as God had planned. Over time these geographical, racial, and cultural distinctions prevented humanity from achieving such unity again.

The Bible’s vision, however, includes humanity’s reunification once the problem of sin is eliminated. Through Christ believers have received the Spirit who provides the means to control the inborn selfishness and self-confidence (“flesh”) that makes one vulnerable to rebellion against God (sin). God’s people demonstrate the anticipated unity of God’s people in the age to come. Corporate worship represents a radical, future-oriented (“eschatological”) act. The unity of the worshiping church becomes a foretaste of the coming age when Jesus Christ rules over all and Christian unity brought through the Spirit becomes the primary evidence of Jesus Christ’s deity and the credibility of God’s promises through him (John 17:21–23).

This witness directly impacts corporate worship. Covenant fellowship in both Old and New Testaments finds its expression in eating together. Here the Lord’s Supper presents a beautiful picture of setting aside our differences in obedience to God’s rule. Consequently relational sins in the community invalidate the worship offered by the group (as Paul notes in 1 Cor 11:20). Acts of disunity contradict the testimony presented by eating together. It disregards God’s mandate for the Church. It denies his eschatological goal. The hypocrisy of eating when we are divided by conflict brings the Spirit’s judgment—sickness and death—upon the community, since all the members participate in the meal (1 Cor 11:30). Breaching the unity of the community through divisive talk or actions “grieves” the Spirit (Eph 5:29–32). The unity of believers under the rule and direction of the Holy Spirit functions as a prerequisite for the corporate worship that God accepts. It shows our submission to the Holy Spirit’s work and our integrity under the new covenant. Without functional unity nurtured by the Holy Spirit there can be no acceptable corporate worship. Putting it another way, “Worship that does not contribute to unity is not the worship embraced by Christianity.”1

This pattern explains Jesus’ injunctions concerning relational issues when making one’s offering to God in worship (Matt 5:21–24; 18:15–20), the severe warnings against causing another member of the community to stumble, and the priority of unconditional, unlimited forgiveness (Matt 6:12–15; 18:21–25; Luke 17:1–3; Eph 4:32; Col 3:13). Worship and fellowship are inseparable. Authentic fellowship shapes obedient worship. To separate them represents a lethal assault on the nature of the Church. To build a church around any other focus or task (such as evangelism or education) may construct a respected institution but not the New Testament church as a worshiping community.

Worship, Integrity, and the Spirit

This introduces a fifth aspect of the Spirit’s role in corporate worship: he preserves our integrity as community members in worship. He provokes and judges those things which violate the demands of the covenant, pollute the holiness of the sanctuary, disturb its communal identity, mar its functional unity, or disqualify its witness and offerings. His presence examines, reveals, and convicts us of our personal transgressions of God’s standards. He prompts us to maintain our covenantal integrity before God, for without this our worship offering is disqualified. The Spirit preserves our identity as the pure, unified people whose worship will be accepted by God.

The Holy Spirit “empowers” our worship by these means. Under the covenant inaugurated with us by the ascended Lord Jesus Christ, worship without the Holy Spirit is not possible. His presence defines the members of the community. He forms the community itself as a sanctuary for the worship of the living God. He empowers each individual to contribute to the unity that alone testifies to the deity of the Savior. He provokes the purity of the community (both as a people and as a sanctuary). By these ministries he gives integrity to the worship offered by the corporate gathering of God’s people and, therefore, its acceptability to God. Without these essential works of the Spirit of God, worship offered by people on earth in this age is not accepted by God.

Worship, Ministry, and the Spirit

Once we understand these foundational issues, we can focus on the spheres in which the Holy Spirit functions in corporate worship: the word, the sacraments (or ordinances), and the gifts. Many discussions begin here to find more tangible evidence of his presence, searching pragmatically for measurable results, and personal gratification they bring. But without exploring the prerequisite roles of the Spirit in corporate worship, all discussion of practical aspects is worthless.

Christians agree: The Spirit instructs us through the reading and exposition of the scriptures. The same Spirit who created the holy scriptures as he inspired its writers (2 Pet 1:20–21) illuminates its meaning and significance through its exposition (Rom 7:7; 1 Cor 2:4). Obviously this includes the meaning of a biblical text in its original context. Limiting his role to textual interpretation ignores two issues. First, any honest student of the scriptures quickly sees that those without the Spirit may reconstruct the literal-grammatical-historical meaning of the text just as well as those with the Spirit can. Secondly, New Testament references to “meat” and “milk” (1 Cor 3:1–23; Heb 5:11–6:12; 1 Pet 2:1–3) have less to do with the meaning of the scriptures than with their application. These suggest that illumination has more do with application than exegetical understanding. The Spirit directs our acts toward his goals of holiness and unity in community. He convicts us where we fail to live up to what we already possess. He enriches our worship according to his larger design for God’s sanctuary on the earth.

The sacraments (or “ordinances” as some prefer to call them) constitute another visible presence of the Spirit in corporate worship. He informs the significance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as corporate acts of fellowship and worship. Both express spiritual integrity in community (corporate unity and purity). Baptism forms the act of entrance into the community. Participation in the Eucharist demonstrates fellowship within the community. The Holy Spirit enhances the participant’s preparation. Each sincere worshiper opens himself to the Spirit, seeking his help to reveal personal or relational sin that have transgressed the covenant and thereby disqualified the offering. The Spirit provokes confession and repentance, maintaining the integrity of the rite for each individual and the community that celebrates it. We cannot participate legitimately in either rite without a conscious self-evaluation under the Spirit’s direction.

The Spirit also functions within each celebration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. He activates the symbols’ reality and significance to us. In baptism we experience our bond to Christ—his death to sin and resurrection to new life—through the Spirit. Our decision for baptism in water before the watching community leads us into the experience of the otherwise intangible realities of our cleansing and salvation. He invites us into the community of faith and presents the demand for a serious commitment to its ministry. Baptism gives the Holy Spirit a tangible means to impress upon us the reality of the exchange that occurred within us and the obligations it incurs upon us. In the Lord’s Supper the Spirit gives us a witness of the unity and community of God’s covenant people in the living Christ. Each decision to eat reinforces our identification with Christ in his works on our behalf. It challenges our cooperation with his work among us. As we partake of “the body and blood of Christ” the Spirit calls us to be one with our Savior, to sacrifice our interests for his as he did for the Father’s. The Spirit’s ministry makes sincere participation in either of these ordinances powerful acts of spiritual renewal. Our response to his work gives these ordinances their sacramental value, the tangible means to value and appropriate the significance of God’s grace given to us by faith.

In addition to the word and the sacraments, the Spirit also provides enablement to individuals. In the New Testament the “gifts of the [Holy] Spirit” describe ministry-capacities dispensed by the ascended Christ to his Church for the growth of his community in unity and maturity, and made effective in the individual by the presence of the Spirit (Rom 12:6; 1 Cor 12:1–11; Eph 4:7–15; 1 Pet 4:10–11). Several of these enablements are exercised during corporate worship. We may debate the nature and identity of these gifts. Some argue that they represent capabilities apart from natural skill; others present them as the enhancement of latent, natural abilities. But the New Testament’s primary thrust for their use emphasizes the humble submission of all of one’s personal capabilities to God as sovereign bestowments for which each will answer to God: “For who concedes you any superiority? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as though you did not?”(1 Cor 4:7). The Spirit superintends the distribution of these gifts to enhance the unity and growth of each community and the worldwide body of believers under the Headship of Jesus Christ. No exercise of a capacity, skill, or enablement should isolate one member from another or destroy the unity of his people. Community fractures contradict his divine function and oppose the purpose for which God gave these gifts. Division as a result of ministry reveals either the prostitution of a gift to self-centered ambition or the absence of the Spirit’s enablement for the ministry. Paul labeled such self-serving ambition as “the flesh” (cf. Gal 3:19–21). Rather, every capacity possessed by every believer should be exercised “all for one and one for all!”

The Holy Spirit engages all members of the unified worshiping community in all the acts of corporate worship. He enables the general participation of the community as an expression of submission to the sovereignty of God (Eph 5:18–20; Heb 13:15; 1 Pet 2:5), particularly their prayers and hymns to God (Col 2:16; Eph 5:18–19; 6:18). He convicts the community as to their standing before God (1 Cor 14:25). The Spirit also works through the offerings to stimulate an attitude of joy and gratitude, but also the experience of conviction as he identifies the discrepancy between our behavior and God’s truth as revealed in the reading and preaching of his word.

Once the worship has been offered by the community, the Spirit’s presence empowers the legitimacy of these expressions made to the Father. This distinguishes true Christian worship as “trinitarian.” A biblical approach to the Godhead assumes and presents the unique role of each member of the Trinity (Eph 5:20; 1 Thess 5:18; Rom 8:26; cf. Eph 2:18). Our worship expressions are directed to the Father, expressing appreciation for his works of creation and redemption. The worship is offered in the person of the Son, “in Jesus’ name,” an expression that speaks to the virtue of his ascended person and the authority he has conferred on those who are his. Our worship is legitimized by the Spirit’s presence. He has bonded us to our Savior and guaranteed our salvation. It’s not wrong to offer worship to Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit, but the predominant theological pattern of New Testament worship teaches a functional trinitarian approach. This honors each member of the Godhead for a unique, individual role in the work of creation and redemption.

On this celestial level the Holy Spirit unifies and orchestrates the Church’s offerings in many languages and forms into a coherent symphony. The Spirit who draws the line to define the worshiping community and connects all its members together into a single entity, draws all on earth into the cosmic chorus. He joins the redeemed of all ages, then adds them to the celestial voices of the angels who proclaim the glory of God. This image of praise as a coherent whole has prompted two different responses, both seeking universal conformity. Some standardize a form to enact the grand image of the Church corporate—always at worship in a common language. Standardized services throughout the Church fill each 24 hour-day with worship as the earth rotates through its many regions. Others like the Eastern Church’s “Divine Liturgy” seek to imitate the images and commands of scripture concerning the worship of God so that their offering may be seamlessly integrated into the eternal chorus. But the New Testament offers no explicit liturgical order for the community and few explicit directions to exercise the priestly role in corporate gathering. We are commanded to read the scripture publicly (the words of scripture with a brief explanation as necessary), to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, to offer prayers, to sing for mutual encouragement and admonition, and to make collections for the community’s needs. Beyond this the New Testament gives considerable freedom to devise both an order of service and ways to express our praise under the direction of the Holy Spirit.

Finally, the Holy Spirit creates the bridge between worship and ethics. He strengthens believers to fulfill their covenantal obligations as affirmed in their worship. This connection appears in Isa 6, a passage that deals more with the consequences of the divine encounter than a liturgical pattern. Isaiah’s vision of God and of the celestial worship that surrounded him (Isa 6:1–4) produced in the prophet a deep sense of inadequacy and sin (Isa 6:5) that was remedied supernaturally (Isa 6:6–7), followed by a commission to divine service (Isa 6:8–13).

Similarly Paul teaches that the Holy Spirit is the indispensable element required for personal sanctification. The Spirit strengthens believers to resist the flesh and live out God’s standards in an evil world—standards that are most clearly displayed to believers in the context of expressing them back to God through acts of worship, our “spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). Our obedience appears most eloquently and forcefully in corporate worship. An unbeliever who observes the community at worship should see the Spirit’s expressions, convicting evidence of God’s presence (1 Cor 14:24-25). Paul admonishes us to sing (in his day merely stylized speech or chant) for mutual encouragement and admonition (Eph 5:18-20). This expresses our behaviors (Eph 3–6) under the direction of the Holy Spirit’s control over our lives (Eph 5:17). Worship and ethics are neither competitors nor isolated components of the Christian life. As authentic spirituality constantly drives us toward greater maturity, authentic worship drives us to a greater desire for our incarnation of his holiness.

Worship, Liberty, and the Spirit

This brings us to the last broad ministry of the Holy Spirit in corporate worship. Just as the Holy Spirit defines the community, unifies its members, equips its leadership, and empowers our participation to edify the community, the Spirit acts to ensure liberty within the community.

God’s work displays both freedom and form. From Genesis to Revelation he demands order of his creation as an expression of his nature and character. Disorder, anarchy, and chaos offend his character and invoke his judgment, as illustrated by the chaos of languages at Babel (Gen 11:9). We, however, are seldom creatures of balance. We can so emphasize order and decorum that our activity degenerates into a formalism and rigidity that excludes God. Both freedom and form are necessary. Form assumes and fosters liberty and creativity of expression. Conversely freedom can beget new forms that speak in fresh ways.

God acts through human planning and ingenuity as well as apart from them. Therefore, both careful planning and spontaneity are appropriate. After planning we must always be open to the inbreaking of God’s Spirit in our worship. In such ways the Holy Spirit can inform and direct the community—not as a “maverick” or an iconoclast, but as the source of order and liberty. The careful planning of corporate worship must always be open to the inbreaking liberty of the Spirit.

This inbreaking occurs at the level of service-leadership. Paul’s teaching on spiritual gifts, their exercise in corporate worship, and the observation that “each one has a song, has a lesson, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation”(1 Cor 14:26), may mean that the Holy Spirit empowers individuals to offer acts of worship not anticipated by the planners of the gathering. But such unplanned participation must conform to Paul’s subsequent instruction concerning order (1 Cor 14:27–40). Each contribution must reflect the individual’s giftedness (Rom 12:6-8; 1 Pet 4:10–11; 1 Cor 14:23–27). Participation must be under the individual’s control so that it can be suppressed or channeled to a moment where its contribution is more appropriate (1 Cor 14:27, 30–33). The contribution made by the gift itself must be scrutinized by others for its significance to the community which has gathered for worship (1 Cor 14:29). Finally, if the exercise of one’s gift does not contribute to the community’s spiritual development the gifted one should remain silent (1 Cor 14:28). This assumes the gifted person can evaluate their ministry’s impact on the community before exercising their gift and modify their ministry behaviors accordingly. This will avoid the potential for “chaos” and thereby reflect God’s character and priorities.

This inbreaking also appears at another level. Biblical descriptions speak of both “required” elements, the minimal expectations of the worshiper (seen as the basic sacrifices or the tithe), and “spontaneous” elements, additional gifts reflecting one’s desire to show a greater expression of the worshiper’s obeisance and thankfulness (often described as freewill offerings). These spontaneous offerings go beyond the mere requirements of the form into the generous freedom of divine worship, but without any suggestion of social chaos or disorder in the act.

Does Paul’s expression “sing with the spirit” (1 Cor 14:15) teach the Holy Spirit leads by spontaneous impulses? In the same verse he contrasts “my spirit” with “my mind,” drawing a parallel between the act of “singing” with mind and spirit and the act of “praying” with mind and spirit. Earlier (14:14), he says “spirit” and “mind” within the worshiper are edified by a spiritual gift and the emphatic use of “my” draws attention to the worshiper rather than to the Holy Spirit. Therefore, his use of “spirit” (14:15) defines full-hearted engagement in the worship. Consequently the New Testament offers no explicit teaching that spontaneity is always the evidence of the Spirit’s presence in corporate worship, only that the Spirit enables believers to contribute to worship leadership with divine enablements.

A focus on subjective engagement alone can also lead to flagrant abuse. We can ignore the Spirit’s objective role and emphasize our subjective response, transforming worship into the idolatry of self. We begin to emphasize stylistic preferences over communal priorities. In a narcissistic age this abuse is endemic to both worship leaders and congregational participants. Leaders face a more subtle danger. Leading through our Spirit-given enablements, we invoke the Spirit before the community and begin to assume that our ministry makes the worship effective for its participants. Our identity gradually takes precedence over the Spirit’s ministries. We prize the ability to help people “connect” with God in worship. God’s presence comes at our beck and call. Shamans of the holy, we join with Simon the Sorcerer who thought of the Spirit as merely another tool to fulfill his own ambitions for the performance of his magic (Acts 8:9–23). We are sales managers, feeding the bankrupt self-interest of our audience rather than the sovereign God whom we profess to serve.

Dealing with Popular Terminology

Sometimes we use biblical language to describe the Spirit’s roles during corporate worship. This inaccurate language may misrepresent his ministry, obscure a more accurate understanding, and even foster theological error.

Some use “the leading of the Spirit” to explain departures from the planned acts of worship. Biblically, “to be led by the Spirit” always describes the capacity to distinguish what is righteous, despite evil’s frequent religious camouflage (Rom 8:14; Gal 5:18), a moral act. It’s never used to denote a New Testament worship style known for the spontaneity of its execution.

Unfortunately we can impose severe constraints on worship behavior, demanding “decency and order” that often creates a severe predictability, boredom, or spiritual ignorance. The most immediate and pragmatic solution becomes the rejection of planning as unspiritual. But if God superintends all human agencies and if the Spirit indwells all believers, then carefully planned worship services are no less Spirit-directed than unplanned events. If we wish to use “led by the Spirit” to describe corporate worship, it should apply to the Spirit’s direction of all worship and not just a specific style of worship.

What about “quenching the Spirit”? It gets used pejoratively to describe ignoring an inner impulse toward spontaneity in worship. Biblically this expression (1 Thess 5:19) appears in the context of an admonition to behave in ways that promote unity and purity within the community (1 Thess 5:12–22). The “prophetic utterances” (1 Thess 5:20) appear within a corporate context, so the focus remains the reception of prophecy by the community rather than a personal failure to follow one’s impulses contrary or even without planning.

Finally, one often hears that “God dwells in the praises of his people.” The popular explanation takes several forms: (a) God draws near to us as we sing (as if he was not present previously); (b) we experience God’s presence as we sing (as if the subjective impression of God’s presence was the sine qua non of corporate worship); (c) God validates the quality of our worship by the appearance of the Spirit through charismatic gifts, just as God’s glory descended upon the Holy of Holies to validate Israel’s claim to fellowship with God. These notions bear no relationship to the psalmist’s meaning. The expression probably alludes to Ps 22:3. The psalmist cries out for deliverance. He speaks of how Israel’s praises rehearse God’s covenant faithfulness. This gives him confidence to trust God in his present circumstance. The misuse of this text misses the point of the psalm. More importantly, it risks making the omnipotent God subservient to our wishes and behaviors.

Perhaps the most popular expression is “the liberty of the Spirit” to describe a sense of freedom when one can act wholeheartedly or without constraint in the group. Here, too, its biblical meaning has been obscured. Paul uses it to define New Covenant life as opposed to Old Covenant life under the law of Moses (2 Cor 3:17; cf. 3:6). Our corporate worship occurs within the New Covenant; only in a covenant context does the term have significance. The Holy Spirit has the sovereign right to direct a worshiper to behave in ways that are “outside the box.” Using this expression to describe one’s emotional state during worship, or with the assumption that it describes a behavior that is normative for the Holy Spirit, risks associating the Spirit only with the unplanned or spontaneous, even the loss of the corporate order commanded by the Apostle Paul (1 Cor 14:40).

Anyone who has ever stood before a group to lead has had the experience that everything is going just right, that the audience is follows wholeheartedly. The leader is “in the groove,” experiencing “the liberty of the Spirit.” Think of it as an aesthetic experience.

Aesthetic experiences (whether aroused by music, words, acts, or a combination of these) often arouse powerful emotions. Feelings and emotions are part of God’s image. As a part of common grace they can nurture God's image as we respond to revelations of his character and priorities in art. They help us internalize and value what we experience, cope with our triumphs, repent of our shortcomings, even distinguish between what it true and what is false. They affirm our beliefs, encourage our perseverance, or convict us of our failure. When experienced in groups these feelings are even more powerful. Worship is art and we should expect it to arouse emotions. This “in the groove” feeling may be one sign of the Holy Spirit’s work. But if anyone, Christian or non-Christian, can have this feeling, we must never assume that it is primary evidence for the Spirit’s presence and work. This is nothing more than emotional narcissism. It ignores the biblical examples of agony and despair expressed by worshipers. True worship is both a personal and a corporate recommitment to God’s rule, the decision to remain faithful to the covenant despite one’s circumstances or feelings. The true joy of worship is to know that God is in control of our circumstances. We have no excuse for substituting emotional satisfaction for unreserved obedience.

Every audience provides feedback to its leader. People smile and nod when encouragement is given or beliefs are confirmed. Closed eyes and rapt faces reveal positive emotions. Conviction comes with discomfort or an averted gaze. Sometimes the feedback comes audibly. These encourage the leader to continue, to add, or to depart from his planned order. Leaders may use “leading,” “liberty,” and “quenching” as terms of convenience to describe their reaction to this experience.

Any misuse of biblical language should make us pause when we hear it. From the post-apostolic church through to present day, theologians have recognized, used, and taught the principle of lex orandi lex credendi.2 This pithy summary teaches that worship functions as the primary source for a congregation’s belief. Worship both states and teaches theology. Worship as theology is the primary means of spiritual formation for the believers who use its forms and language.

Even if these expressions can be used to describe an otherwise special moving of the Holy Spirit in corporate worship, they should not be considered normative to express the Spirit’s activity in our worship. Language of convenience for one generation usually becomes the theology for the next and conviction for those following. One can see the logic behind James’ admonition concerning the greater judgment for teachers!

Therefore, to guard the beliefs of those who follow us, it would be better if those who lead and teach corporate worship restricted this language to the biblical sense and be honest about the psychological dynamics of group leadership. If we are to have a coherent and biblically defensible theology of the Holy Spirit and corporate worship, we ought to be sure that our language will support it for those who will follow us.


For God’s people worship is the highest vocation. It’s the reason for our existence. We were created to honor God with our allegiance and obedience. Following the intrusion of sin we were redeemed and sanctified by God so that we might fulfill that calling. The Holy Spirit makes it possible for us to offer ourselves to God without reserve or condition. Under the new covenant the Spirit’s presence identifies those who have chosen God’s way through faith in Christ. He circumscribes this worshiping community, creating an earthly sanctuary of worship to the living God. He nurtures the unity that validates its divine Savior and its heavenly source by restraining our selfishness and endowing us with his strength. He inspired the word and illuminates it to guide our work. In the sacraments he assists us to express our identity and message. He breaks into our forms with liberty to refresh our message within the changing forms of history and culture.

With this in mind, it’s easy to see where modern worship often makes three mistakes. First, we can overlook the objective aspects of his ministry in a desperate desire for an experience, as if this alone will validate the offering. We do the Spirit a disservice through our ignorance. Our poor vocabulary to describe the Spirit’s ministries can confuse many. In time the theology of the Spirit will cease to reflect biblical priorities for his ministry. When we gather to enjoy musicians serenading us for our approval and refer to the passive, non-participative experience as a “worship concert,” a subtle shift has occurred in our understanding. Worship’s biblical community and its participative liturgy have been lost.

Secondly, growing emotional narcissism can breed means to ensure the desired response. The pragmatic evangelism born in the Second Great Awakening takes hold. Method dominates. We reduce the Spirit to the servant of our strategy, appearing according to our plan, validating our new theology of response. We become enamored by the effect of the art, the music, and enshrine them in carefully devised models.

Thirdly, seeking this desired end can lead the worshiper and the community to accept any means to the prize. Wanting the exciting, we emphasize the spectacular. Contrary to the Bible’s directives concerning the Spirit’s purpose and distribution of gifts, we individualize and democratize his enablements. The community of the gifts has been lost. The greater ministries of the Spirit have been ignored. True worship has been impoverished, bankrupted on the altar of biblical ignorance, social pragmatism, and human desire,

The ancient liturgies of Christendom always began by invoking the presence of God in the person of the Holy Spirit. Our forefathers understood this keystone truth: without the Holy Spirit neither God’s presence nor the validity of their offering could be presumed. Only the presence of the Holy Spirit enables a congregation to respond to God as he desires and in ways appropriate to his covenant.

Is the Holy Spirit crucial to our corporate worship? Absolutely! Without him we cannot live the holy life that identifies us, qualifies us, informs us, and supports our work. Does the Holy Spirit “lead” corporate worship? Yes, all forms of worship, whether planned or unplanned, formal or casual, traditional or free, through the gifts he has given to God’s people! Does the Holy Spirit have enough room to function as he may desire in our corporate worship? Probably not. But each week we have another opportunity to lower the barriers a little bit more.

Let our response be that of Richard Baxter, who, in The Reformation of the Liturgy (1661), encourages us to pray that the Holy Spirit would draw us to Christ, unite us in love, strengthen us in praise, confirm us in obedience, and seal us unto eternal life.3

1 . G. Welton Gaddy, The Gift of Worship (Nashville: Broadman, 1992) 220.

2 . This Latin phrase is the common shorthand for Prosper of Aquitaine’s statement (Indiculus), ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi, meaning that while worship practices are predicated on theology, they are even more important to express these beliefs themselves. See Kevin W. Irwin, Context And Text: Method In Liturgical Theology (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1994) 4-6.

3 . Richard Baxter, “The Savoy Liturgy,” in Liturgies of the Western Church, Bard Thompson, ed. (New York: William Collins Publishers, 1961) 402.

Related Topics: Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit)

Report Inappropriate Ad