What is a Christian Worship Service Supposed to Look Like?

With an estimated 2 billion people across the globe claiming to be Christian, the way Christians worship every week is a big deal, says one Seattle pastor.

So when churches bring in drums and guitars to accompany singing, when Christians read lyrics off of giant screens, or when they lift their hands and shout praises, they won't go without scrutiny.

The basic question many continue to debate today is: "What is a Christian service supposed to look like?" posed Mark Driscoll, founder and pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, during a sermon on Sunday.

As author Gary Douglas Wright writes in Worship Awakening, worship is a fuzzy topic.

"It's fuzzy in the sense that there are so many views and philosophies about what worship is," Wright said in the recently published book.

According to Driscoll, who's opening a sixth church campus in downtown Seattle this month, the elements of worship that are described in the Bible include: the preaching of God's word, communion, prayer, public readings of Scripture, praising, and giving financially.

But "the Bible doesn't tell us exactly how to do church," the 37-year-old pastor said. "It tells us what to do, what not to do principally."

Thus, it leads to questions such as what time services should be held, how long sermons should be, what kind of instrumentation is allowed, or if the pastor has to wear a robe.

"What are all the rules?" he posed.

Driscoll was responding to the most popular question over 300,000 people voted for him to preach on in the "Religion Saves and Nine Other Misconceptions" series – which kicked off the first Sunday of this year. The No. 1 question: "Do you believe that the Scripture not only regulates our theology but also our methodology? In other words, do you believe in the regulative principle? If so, to what degree? If not, why not?"

The regulative principle says corporate church worship must include all elements which Scripture commands and whatever is not specifically set out by God in Scripture should not be included in the worship service.

Praising the principle to some extent, Driscoll said such churches that follow this seek to define worship by God and His word, try to honor the Bible and plow a nice ditch between the world and the church.

Listing the weaknesses of the regulative principle, the Mars Hill pastor said it separates "gathered" worship – corporate worship at church – and "scattered" worship – worship outside of church through lifestyle.

"What I don't understand is why we would treat one hour a week by a certain set of rules and the other 167 hours a week by a different set of rules," he told Mars Hill attendants, who are mainly twenty-somethings and include many unchurched persons.

The regulative principle is also not sufficient in that it doesn't answer all the questions Christians typically have about what's allowed in worship service. And it becomes legalistically applied, he added.

What does deal with the questions is the normative principle. While this principle also states that church worship services must include all elements which Scripture commands, it allows other elements as long as they are not prohibited by Scripture.

Calling this the "green light principle," Driscoll said, "We are to do everything the Bible says and we're free to do whatever else the leaders, according to their biblical conscience, feel is right providing it's not in violation of Scriptures."

In other words, you can go until you see a red light.

Those who follow the normative principle see the Bible as principles and sees flexibility for methods, Driscoll explained. That means, worshippers can pick and choose what instruments and songs they want to sing.

"The Bible tends to be filled with principles, not methods, because it has to speak to people across thousands of years, all kinds of languages and cultures," he noted.

The green light principle allows for cultural contextualization – not changing doctrine but adapting a culture's style, Driscoll said.

But some churches might go further to allow "too much" in worship such as elements from other religions. Some may also elevate unbiblical elements to the degree where it pushes out biblical elements. And some may also try to cater too much to the attendants, performing to entertain them rather than seeking to glorify God.

Where does Mars Hill stand?

"In theory, we hold the normative green light position. But in practice, I don't think there's anything we're doing that a red light regulativist wouldn't agree to," Driscoll said.

Mars Hill holds communion every week, sermons are typically about one hour, they pray, repent and give tithes and offerings.

Although Mars Hill holds the normative position, it doesn't use all the freedom the principle may allow for.

Exhorting attendants to do the same in their own lives, Driscoll said, "God gives you great freedom and you need not exercise it all."

The Mars Hill pastor clearly defined his position on worship:

All of Christian life is ceaseless worship of God, the Father, through the mediatorship of God, the Son, by the indwelling power of God, the Spirit, doing what God commands in Scripture, not doing what God forbids in Scripture, in culturally contextualized ways for the furtherance of the Gospel, when both gathered for adoration and scattered for action in joyous response to God's glorious grace."