In his book Christ Centered Worship, Bryan Chappel suggests eight components to a “gospel structure” for corporate worship, drawing from the narrative of Isaiah 6:
- Adoration (recognition of God’s greatness and grace)
- Confession (acknowledgement of our sin and need for grace)
- Assurance (affirmation of God’s provision of grace)
- Thanksgiving (expression of praise and thanks for God’s grace)
- Petition and Intercession (expression of dependence on God’s grace)
- Instruction (acquiring the knowledge to grow in grace)
- Communion/Fellowship (celebrating the grace of union with Christ and his people)
- Charge and Blessing (living for and in the light of God’s grace)
Worship leaders need to keep this structure in their minds when they’re planning services. To think through the placement of songs and different elements in such a way that coherently and cohesively tells the story of the gospel, it’s helpful to frame it against the narrative from Isaiah 6, like Bryan Chappel’s “eight components” so helpfully do.
Within this gospel structure there is a large amount of freedom. That’s the beauty of it. For worship leaders, it allows for all sorts of songs, kinds of songs, topics of songs, and “moods” of songs. It’s not so narrow that it’s limiting, and it’s not so broad that it’s maddening. Amazingly, yet not surprisingly, the gospel works.
And so it’s unfortunate when worship leaders, seeking to faithfully lead worship within this wonderful gospel structure, get stuck in an every-four-minutes spin-cycle, which re-sets with every song, and by the end of the progression of songs, hasn’t actually progressed anywhere at all.
If I had to summarize this spin-cycle, it would be:
1. Confession (I am a worm)
2. Assurance (God saved me through Christ)
3. Thanksgiving (I’m grateful!)
And then that song ends, and the next one begins, and we sing the same three points again. It’s like we’re afraid of betraying the core of the gospel if we dare to have a progression from point A to any point between B and Z, and take the risk of having our congregation articulate responses to the gospel, within an Isaiah 6 gospel structure, that might go beyond the bulletproof safety zone that requires fairly little ingenuity from week to week.
It seems like some worship leaders get the idea that every song needs to say the same thing, in the same way, using the same formula, following the same trajectory, and focusing on the same pillars of the gospel. The pillars are there for a reason: to provide a structure. So let the gospel structure free you and inform you, but not constrain you. Focusing on the same pillars in the same way from song to song is what I’m describing as the spin-cycle which can end up robbing our people of the opportunity to explore the unsearchable greatness of God.
If we sing the same three (or so) structural points, starting over with every song, we portray the gospel as myopic, the glories of God as describable, the implications of Christ’s finished work as easily summarizable, and our response as containable. Instead, we should feel free to use as wide a musical/lyrical/thematic vocabulary as possible, clearly within a gospel structure, but expansively and robustly broad, helping our people exalt a God whose glories couldn’t be fittingly exalted even if we had a thousand tongues.
It’s a huge and tragic problem when churches have no structure to their theology of worship, jump from theme to theme, follow no recognizable progression, and occasionally happen to land on the gospel when a song conveniently mentions it.
But it’s also a problem when churches/worship teams get stuck in a worship spin-cycle, failing to show any other angle of the indescribably beautiful gospel besides the one they’ve come to believe they grasp. Healthy gospel structures, like the one derived from the account in Isaiah 6, free us to exalt a God of grace, who redeemed us through his Son, and has sent his Spirit. Unhealthy gospel structures, and yes, I’m saying there can be such things, constrain us and limit us to see the bullet points instead of the masterpiece.
A tour guide at the Grand Canyon is always pointing to the Grand Canyon. And to help his group see more of the beauty of the Grand Canyon, he takes them on a journey from overlook to overlook. They don’t just stand in one place and look at it from the same angle. The scope of the Grand Canyon can’t be captured from one spot.
Similarly, a worship leader is always pointing to Jesus. And to help his congregation see more of the beauty of Jesus, he takes them on a journey from song to song. They don’t just stand in one place and sing from the same angle. The glory of God, revealed in the face of Jesus Christ, can’t be captured from one spot.
You can point to the same thing from different angles. That’s what a gospel structure ensures!
So let’s avoid the false security of the every-four-minute spin cycle, saying the same thing, and saying it in the same way. Turn the seat-belt sign off and move around the cabin!