Worship at South Woods Baptist Church
An Interview with Phil Newton and Jim Carnes
1. How do you view the corporate worship service?
Phil: God created us to worship. Until a person engages in worship then he has not comprehended his reason for existence. Corporate worship prepares us for the extended corporate worship in heaven. I’m currently preaching through Revelation where I see the theme of worship return over and over. It’s always corporate worship in view rather than private or even family worship. When fellow believers gather with the same heart and purpose to glory in the Lord through passionate worship, more than anything else in this life, it gives us a foretaste of heaven.
2. What are the key elements of corporate worship?
Phil: Worship is acceptable only if it takes place “in spirit and in truth.” Therefore, the involvement of mind, heart, and emotions in communion with God’s Spirit through the revelation of Holy Scripture is necessary for any periods of worship. So we think of prayer, thanksgiving, praise, confession, reading of Scripture, exposition of Scripture, attentive listening to God’s Word, singing of “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” the Lord’s Supper, confession of faith, the declaration of the gospel, giving, and silent meditation as elements of worship. Aspects of these elements posture the mind and heart in humility to think upon the Lord rightly, and offer to Him the glory due to His name.
3.What has to happen for the church to truly worship?
Phil: Believers must agree together upon the truth of Holy Scripture, and have a mind inclined to obey the revelation of God. The affections must be set upon the Lord. A disjointed, fractious congregation can go through motions of worship without worshiping. Both those leading and the congregation must recognize something of the seriousness of approaching a holy God with all of the weakness, sinfulness, and failures of our collective lives. We are broken and weak people daring to come before an altogether holy God through the merits of His Son and our Redeemer. Humility marks worship.
Those involved in worship leadership help to mark the tenor of the congregation toward participation in worship. Do the worship leaders actually worship or do they perform? Do they lead in worship or seek to manipulate the congregation into expressing certain outwardly acceptable forms? Worshipers lay aside the things that distract their senses from tasting and seeing that the Lord is good. Joyful worship flows out of recognizing the largeness of God’s grace toward us. This cannot be manufactured by following a neat script. It really demands congregational participation, recognizing that the whole church offers something to the corporate worship.
4.The two of you have served together for 12 years. What kind of dynamic has that provided as you lead your congregation in worship?
Phil: Sometimes I think that Jim knows what I’m thinking as well as myself! He and I have had so many discussions on spiritual and theological issues, often involving interpretive discussion on specific biblical texts, that we both really have a sense of where the other is heading when leading in worship through music or preaching. We regularly team-teach so we both profit from one another’s study. We don’t consider our leadership on Sundays as a weekly performance. Rather, we sense our accountability to God for leading His people in worship. While Jim plans the Scripture readings and music for our services, it is rare that I make a change in what he has planned, simply because he has a keen sense of where I’m heading with a particular text for preaching. I provide him with a text and title, and then he supplies the rest. Occasionally, he will ask me about where I might be heading with a sermon just to clarify a hymn or reading. He studies the text, and meditates on it so that he has a good idea of the richness of hymnody that goes along with the theme of my sermon text as well as related biblical texts for corporate worship. I think that the congregation benefits from the longevity of the two of us working together for so many years. There’s no sense of competition with each other. We love and appreciate the gifts that God has entrusted to each, and value the partnership in ministry with our church.
5.How does a church staff get started in preparing for worship?
Phil: First, planning ahead is important. I did not recognize this for many years. Thus too many of the services that I led appeared thrown together in a disjointed fashion. Second, the pastor’s preaching sets the stage for the worship service. It is important that the various elements of worship relate to a common theme so that the congregation focuses more clearly on the Lord. This requires that the pastor plan ahead in his preaching. I recommend that he plan at least three months in advance so that those involved in other aspects of leading in worship will have ample time to secure appropriate music (or even write music). Third, in our case, Jim lays out the worship service, sends me a copy, and I check it to make sure that I think all fits well. This allows time for adjustments before the service. Finally, after having the order of worship printed in the Sunday bulletin, I try to go over everything to make sure that all is in order and that we’ve not left something dangling. Jim and I often double-check with each other in this regard.
6.You both strongly insist that the regular exposition of God’s Word is an essential aspect of worship. What do you do personally in this area to facilitate worship, and how have you trained your church to consider preaching as worship?
Phil: Often in Baptist circles, we speak of the worship service as the time that we sing together and offer a couple of prayers. The time of preaching is separate. We worship and we preach; and the two never meet! But that is a false dichotomy. Preaching is central to worship in that when the Scripture is expounded, the doctrines that enable us to think rightly on the Lord are exposed clearly to our minds. We’re able to concentrate more clearly on some aspect of God’s character or work. Just as when we sing, we rehearse vocally the same doctrines that we hear during the exposition of God’s Word, so that our minds are lifted beyond the rat-race to think clearly and affectionately on the Lord. That gives way to expressions of praise and prayers of confession or dependence or trust.
Because our worship services are planned according to the theme of the exposition, then for the half-hour leading to the exposition, the reading of Scripture, singing of hymns, and praying focuses on the same theme as the exposition. By this time, hearts are often full and ready to burst in praise! I know that this is the case with me personally. I desire, and pray to worship as I preach. If I’m worshiping as I preach, then my congregation more likely joins me. If I’m merely giving a good lecture, that doesn’t have the same impact as when passionately expounding the revelation of God. We try to reinforce with our congregation that the worship continues during the sermon. Jim and I both work at transitioning from one element of worship to another without it being disjointed. We want the theme of worship to pervade everything in the service.
7.How do you select the musical contributions to worship?
Jim: My approach is thematic. I read the text and try to consider its theological implications; then I access my memory of hymns and try to recall those that relate to the theological themes. I always attempt to relate the texts of the hymns and the text of Scripture; differing musical genres can affect the mood of the service, but I try not to be overly influenced by them.
8.Various musical genres dominate church worship services among evangelicals. How have you approached this with your own congregation?
Jim: Our church is fairly conservative when it comes to musical styles; although we do employ a blended worship style. We have mixed in some contemporary music with the traditional hymns, but not many, yet. Since I am editing a new hymnal I have incorporated more of the old, unfamiliar hymns than the new, unfamiliar choruses. I am working with some of our congregation to learn some newer hymns along with some different instrumentation but it has been slow progress, mostly on my part. As to a particular musical genre we lean more to classically oriented music. I have told the story many times about visiting a church in Texas (25 years ago, or more) where the soloist whistled a country western tune for the special music. No offense, but I am not ready to go there yet!
9.You include responsive readings each week. What part does the public reading of Scripture have in your times of worship?
Jim: The public reading of Scripture plays an enormously important part in the order of worship. I believe that true worship is a response to the revelation of God through His written Word; and I believe that true worship at South Woods will happen when the congregation responds by the help of the Holy Spirit to God’s revealed Word; so I try to incorporate as much Scripture as time allows. Since I take a thematic approach all of the texts relate to the sermon in one way or another.
10. How far in advance do you plan your worship services?
Jim: As far in advance as my pastor supplies me with his schedule for preaching. Phil has been very gracious in giving me texts and titles for anywhere from two to six months, sometimes longer. That helps in an enormous way. We have a small, but very capable adult choir but I still need several weeks, if not a month of choir practices to feel proficient with particular anthems; so long range planning is a necessity. I have learned to be very flexible over the years because there are always unplanned exigencies that can throw off the schedule.
11. Who is involved in your worship planning and preparation?
Phil and Jim: Primarily the two of us. Periodically, the Elders are questioned about future topics or books of the Bible and they offer suggestions for future studies. They, also, discuss the times and contents of worship, offering their thoughts and/or concerns. Recently we had a discussion about changing the opening part of the order of service to include a more focused time of adoration of our Lord, and/or, a time of more serious attention to confession of sin. It was an encouraging dialogue that led to a change in the way we have been doing things. Obviously, all vocalists and instrumentalists need to be included in any preparation time, and they are. Even though all involved know about the planned Call to Worship and any special music or anthem, I still email the orders of service at the beginning of the week to see if any changes need to be made. Planning and preparation along with flexibility are essential.