Worship at Riverbend Community Church
Although the purpose of this article is practical by design, it is driven by a strong theological foundation. Riverbend Community Church is a theologically driven church. By God’s grace, we desire that our theology impacts everything we do, including the planning and preparation for corporate worship. It is important that you have at least a summary understanding of the theological foundation of Riverbend before understanding why we do what we do.
We are a reformed Southern Baptist church that unashamedly embraces the five points of Calvinism. Our Senior Pastor, Dr. Roy Hargrave, is passionate about proclaiming the whole council of God. We desire that our members have a solid foundation for what they believe and why they believe it. We have our own “Affirmation of Faith” that closely parallels the 1689 London Confession and we are vigilant in practicing church discipline and seeking to make the glory of God the ultimate end of all that we do. We diligently strive in our motives and methods to be biblical in our proclamation and practice.
Riverbend Community Church (formerly First Baptist Church) recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. Our congregation has embraced reformed theology since Dr. Hargrave’s arrival in 1989. Riverbend presently has approximately 1250 members and averages almost 1200 in attendance on Sunday mornings. We have two morning worship services at 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. and three Bible Fellowship Group (Sunday School) meeting times: 8 a.m., 9:30 a.m., and 11 a.m. We also have a Sunday evening worship service at 6 p.m. that averages 550 in attendance. Riverbend relocated from its downtown campus eight years ago to its current 112-acre campus. We are presently in the process of building a new 2000 seat worship center in Phase II of our overall physical plant development.
The foundation of theological truth and doctrinal purity drives the manner in which we approach corporate worship. The preaching of the Word of God is the centerpiece of our worship service, which is reflected in the priority it receives, including the amount of time committed to preaching. By necessity, our Sunday worship services must be limited to one hour and twenty-five minutes. Usually, 50 55 minutes are committed to biblical proclamation. In planning and implementing a worship service, we try to maintain a God-ward focus throughout, while deemphasizing logistics, announcements, and anything that draws attention away from God’s Word and corporate worship.
Before addressing specifics, I must stipulate that our particular methods of preparation, though they may possess certain unique features, are always driven by prayer and a strong desire to align them with biblical principles. We are certainly not suggesting that every detail of our planning is the way things should be done in any other church. As a matter of fact, we have often adopted variations to our own planning approach from a methodological standpoint while maintaining foundational verities based on God’s Holy Word.
We set aside one hour each week for the purpose of worship planning. There are nine staff members who attend this meeting: Senior Pastor, Executive Pastor, Administrative Pastor, Pastor of Music & Worship, Congregational Worship Leader, Praise Band Musical Director, Technical Director, Staff Arranger and Audio Engineer. We begin our time together in prayer and we are careful in constantly reminding one another of God’s intentionality in the biblical goals and motives of His church in worship. We seek to examine ourselves and hold one another accountable to individual faithfulness in private worship, family worship, biblical studies and personal prayer. We also warn one another of the deceitfulness of sin as well as its devastating consequences. We are convinced that those who have heard, understood and loved the biblical truth of God’s sovereignty in all things should be the most passionate and sincere worshipers. Theology that is merely academic in nature will be void of passionate and vibrant expressions of corporate worship. In other words, the embrace of theological truth works its way out through practical expressions which are enthusiastic yet contemplative in the context of corporate worship.
The Pastor of Music & Worship drives the planning meeting, but the primary direction comes from the Senior Pastor. We plan all Sunday worship services six weeks in advance. This advance time is necessary due to the fact that we often need extra time to write vocal and instrumental charts, rework arrangements and orchestrations while allowing adequate preparation time for our musicians.
Our services are not usually strictly thematic in nature. Every song does not necessarily directly relate to the text being preached in that particular service but there are a few exceptions. We are also careful to include at least one or two hymns in every worship set. We utilize the choir every Sunday morning and we usually involve our orchestra every other week. We also implement the use of a soloist or an ensemble in every worship service. One of the challenges in using choirs, ensembles and soloists is guarding against a “performance mentality.” When using any God-given gift, we must constantly evaluate our motives to be certain it is truly done to the glory of God. The most difficult part of using solos and ensembles is finding music that is theologically sound. I’ve found that much of the new music of the Christian world is unacceptable due to unbiblical lyrics or inappropriate music. This is one of the primary reasons we encourage theological song writing among our young people. We believe every Christian generation should express itself through writing strong biblical praise and worship to God. Our plans are to publish our reformed contemporary music in the near future.
The next thing we do is evaluate the previous Sunday’s services. If there is something we can do better, we want to do it. If we didn’t utilize our time well, we want to correct it. If there was a song that wasn’t singable to the congregation we want to rectify that matter for future planning. There are several things that can cause a song not to function properly in a worship setting. First, it may not engage the congregation in an enthusiastic, heart-felt expression of praise to God. Although this is a subjective measure, it is obvious when a song simply doesn’t fit the proper exaltation of the great God we worship or the exultation of humble yet joyful worshipers before the Sacred Head. Here is a partial list of some of the more objective common musical causes of a song that does not function in a worshipful context:
• Musical range too high or low
• Unfamiliar to the congregation
• Accompaniment that doesn’t encourage participation
• Melody difficult to sing
• Poor set-up and/or transition
• Poor marriage of text and music
There are times when a song can be rescued through the use of musical or lyrical rearrangement, but usually we simply delete the song from our current repertoire list.
We thoroughly examine a song before adding it to our congregational song list. We always begin with the lyrics. A song that has doctrinal error (these abound today) or a song that simply doesn’t pass the gravity of the subject test is not allowed on the list. In other words the song must be acquainted with the majesty of the greatness of the God it is suppose to exalt or it is deleted. I must add, however, that a song does not have to be so deep that it has to be studied to be understood. I use the Psalms (intended to be sung) as validation for this. Here is an example of a song we commonly use in corporate worship:
“Holy Is the Lord”
by Chris Tomlin
There are several things I like about this song. It gives a great sense of congregation (common theme in the Psalms). It doesn’t try to fit every major doctrine into one song. It expresses just a few of the attributes of God, with the major one being His holiness. In addition, it sings well. The text fits the music, naturally allowing the congregation to participate without great effort. This song is deep in that it speaks of the greatness and holiness of God, but it is also simple enough for a child to understand. Riverbend is a church that loves to sing the majestic songs which express theological depth while engaging the mind of the worshiper.
We are always looking for new songs to add to our congregational repertoire. We try to guard against this list getting too long by keeping it to about 100 songs and hymns that our congregation knows very well and can sing with great confidence. This means, in theory, that when we add a new song or hymn, we may relegate another one to the backburner temporarily.
We spend a lot of time working out transitions between elements in the service, including musical transitions. We try to build a flow into the service so it doesn’t feel jerky by stopping and starting a lot. We give great care and attention to these logistics so the worshiper does not have to think of these things. We do not strictly script these transitions to allow for some spontaneity.
All of our planning is done on Tuesday each week. There is much time spent individually and in coordination with one another following the Tuesday planning meeting in preparation for Wednesday night, our time of group preparation, anticipation and rehearsal. This is when the singers, instrumentalists and support people are brought into the plan.
Wednesday night rehearsals are tightly scheduled, due to the fact that they involve numerous musicians and vocalists. We desire that every element has been rehearsed and prepared to the degree that it is the best the particular group is capable of achieving musically. We place an emphasis on excellence and musicianship. We’ve been asked many times if we prefer a soloist who is a great singer or one that is obviously godly in his/her Christian walk. We always answer that question with a question: “Do I have to choose one or the other?” We want both! In fact, we require both. There are many godly people who are not equipped for specific tasks in the music ministry and there are also accomplished vocalists that may not be qualified spiritually for a solo ministry. A soloist should draw attention to Christ—not himself or herself.
Riverbend is unique in that it utilizes a praise band with guitars, drums, electronic keyboards and other modern instruments. Although we are not style-driven, we utilize contemporary musical expressions. There is not space or desire to address the “worship wars” issue in this article, but the fact is, that Riverbend may use musical styles in public worship that are not usually associated with many reformed churches of our day.
We readily recognize some of the dangers and abuses related to the modern worship movement and take heed to these dangers. Among these dangers are man-centered lyrics, experiential focus, a lack of theologically God-centered lyrics, and secular neutrality. While we are mindful of these dangers, we believe a contemporary idiom can be valid and become a natural expression for believers of our generation. Every song was “contemporary” in its day.
The Riverbend Praise Band begins rehearsal at 7:30 p.m. The band consists of: lead piano/keyboard, aux keys, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, bass guitar, percussion, and drums. Orchestral players have sectionals beginning at 7:30 p.m. (brass, woodwind, strings) Celebration Singers (110-voice adult choir) also begins rehearsal at 7:30 p.m. Then at 8 p.m., we all gather on stage to run through Sunday’s choir anthem with audio and lighting. At 8:15 p.m., the choir returns to the choir room and rehearses until 9 p.m. We sing mostly from memory.
At 8:15 p.m., the band and orchestra rehearse the worship songs for the following Sunday. At 9 o’clock, the praise team vocalists join the band on stage to rehearse the worship sets for the following Sunday. We dismiss the singers at 10 p.m. and then rehearse solos and/or ensembles with the band and tech. Every one is finished by 10:30 p.m.
Obviously, there is a lot of musical rehearsing that takes place on Wednesday nights. However, that is probably not the most important thing that takes place. We purposely spend time in the Word and prayer. There is always teaching related to the lyrics we will be singing on Sunday. There should be a great anticipation for Sunday, as well as great spiritual preparation. This is constantly a major theme on Wednesday nights.
There are many potential distractions to corporate worship: crying babies, temperature that is too hot or too cold, misspelled words on the screen, dead microphone batteries, loud music, bad timing on lyric projection……and the list goes on and on. If there is an offence, we want it to be the gospel and not our lack of prayer and proper preparation. We diligently seek to eliminate all distractions if possible. For instance, we provide excellent child-care and teaching opportunities for children as well as encourage parents to use our nursery or to listen with the babies in a better place where sound is provided.
We purposely include the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as important components of corporate worship. At Riverbend Community Church, we partake of the Lord’s Supper once per month on a Sunday night. If anyone needs to be brought before the church to be disciplined, it is done on an evening when we partake of the Lord’s Supper. Although our members should understand the symbolic nature of the ordinances, we always take time to explain them biblically for the sake of guests in attendance, as well as continually teaching their significance to our Riverbend members. We want to avoid any confusion related to misunderstandings and false teachings such as “transubstantiation” and “baptismal regeneration.”
We always include the public reading of Scripture and prayer in every service. We do not extend a public altar call for various reasons, but we do provide pastors at each exit to answer any questions about the preached Word or offer encouragement to those seeking the Lord in salvation. We include the giving of tithes and offerings as part of the corporate service, believing it to be an act of worship.
This is a brief overview of the philosophy and implementation of the planning and preparation of corporate worship. Although there are many ways to approach the planning of corporate worship, one thing is certain: God is worthy of worship! Although we should worship God daily as individuals (this is vital), there is something significant that happens when the church comes together to worship our magnificent God as a congregation.
“Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due His name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Psalm 29:1–2 ESV).