The Elder, Worship and the Church Order

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Elsewhere on the Network, the question is raised about the elder’s role in the governance of worship (The Role of Elders in Worship).  I thought I would just make a few comments.  

The church order calls on elders to regulate worship services, including liturgy, songs, preaching, prayers, sacraments and offerings.  The central concern is that the honour of God is maintained, the integrity of the gospel is upheld, and the faith and life of those in attendance is encouraged.  These are important concerns for the health of the church community. 

1.       Governance

Central to the task of governance with respect to worship is establishing policies (expectations, boundaries) and providing a means for accountability.  This does not mean knowing everything that will be said or done prior to the worship service.  This does not mean control.   The elder does not need to see the lyrics of a song to ensure that they are faithful to the gospel.  The elders need to set the expectation that those planning the service will pay attention to this requirement.   Here are some criteria and policies:

  • That the words used in liturgies and songs are faithful to the Scriptures
  • That once a month we use Exodus 20 (the law) in our service of reconciliation
  • That once a month elders lead in congregational prayer
  • That communion is served once a month

It is important for council to set some framework and establish some guidance in the area of worship if they are delegating responsibly.  In my experience very little of this is written down in a policy manual.   The guidance happens through conversation and, at times, complaint.  Through these means we get a range of ‘policies’ that can be highly restrictive or very open.  Rather than having these random (usually problem centred conversations), it might be useful , once or twice a year, to have a conversation about worship in general with some leading questions. 

Having established policy, the elders also need to review worship on a regular basis to hold those planning and leading the services accountable: is the honour of God maintained?  Is the integrity of the gospel upheld? Is the service (including the preaching) encouraging the faith and life of the community?  Are our unique policies being followed? 

2.       Delegation

Delegation is an important part of the ministry of Elders. They neither need nor ought to do all things.  In our day and age much of worship planning has been delegated.  It was in the past too. In the past it was delegated to ministers and organists and synodical committees (who developed liturgies and hymnbooks). Today most of worship is the responsibility of committees, teams, volunteer or paid staff. They arrange the worship service.   

When Council delegates responsibility, it also grants authority to those who do the work. It is important to recognize that that work becomes difficult and unpleasant if we have all the responsibility but need to seek approval for everything we wish to do. If every time we write a litany, council needs to approve the litany, we will stop writing litanies. If every new song needs to be approved by council, we will stop bringing new songs forward. The task becomes onerous. Our competence and judgment is being questioned.  Delegation means giving responsibility and authority to a person or committee.  

Delegation also means holding people to account. Council needs to have practices of accountability. The question for council is how do we review the work being done in the life of the church in a way which guides, blesses and encourages the members who have given so much to the life of the community. 

3.       Competence

In order to govern well, we need the competence to do so. Some of this simply comes from the ordinary life in the church.  We know people and sense their needs and concerns.  But in other areas we need to develop our abilities. We desire that we are faithful to the gospel in our liturgies and our songs. But to judge this requires some theological competence.  How can we hold those to whom we give responsibility accountable if we lack the competence to judge?

I believe we need to think about this as well. There is a difference between saying that I liked a worship service and whether the words of the liturgy were theological correct. Elders are invited to make judgments not just about whether we liked the worship on a Sunday but also about the biblical and theological integrity of the worship service. This requires developing a Biblical and theological sensitivity.  It requires an understanding of what makes worship good. This should not just be delegated to the pastor. Elders need to develop this sensitivity as well. This competence makes the task of governance and accountability more meaningful in the life of the congregation.  

Elders have an important role in regulating worship. The way they provide guidance, delegate and hold people accountable will make the difference.   May God be glorified in our worship. 

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Thanks, Neil for this thoughtful post.  I hope Elders are encouraged to engage in the conversation about worship as they "regulate" it.  In the past, I've heard from some Elders who feel out of their element, especially when talented musicians or artists lead the services, so they don't enter into conversation that might help to shape the theology and hospitality of the worship.  Thanks also for directing us away from the "I like, I don't like" conversations.  A great resource for developing conversations about worship is the book Discerning the Spirits by Neal Plantinga and Sue Rozeboom.

Good thoughts. I would add one more question in the last paragraph under "Governance": Is everything in the worship service (from the prelude to the postlude; from the offering to the announcement about the upcoming potluck) done in the context of "here is how we honor God and his family" instead of as an interruption, bit of entertainment, or commercial break?

Good post, Neil.   I would add that the authority of the elders to be involved in worship ought to be recognized, encouraged, and increased.   If they regulate the worship, then it should also be possible for them to lead worship.   That means that elders should often be encouraged to at least do some of the simple symbolic things such as pronounce the blessing, lead in prayer, make the special announcements, lead the sacraments, perform the installations and ordinations.   And more elders should be encouraged to make and present their 'once-in-a-lifetime" sermon, the sermon that becomes their testimony as well as a direct encouragement to the church that they are leading. 

Their main function is not regulation, but leading, as well as ruling.  "Regulation" is merely one part of that leadership. 

Some of that leadership continues even when they are presently not "serving" elders.   Although they may not be attending council meetings when not on "active duty", they are still called to be spiritual leaders.