Enter His Courts with Praise: a New Style of Worship is Sweeping the Church.

A new style of worship has been spreading throughout North America and other parts of the world in the last several decades. While this worship approach is described by a variety of names, the one that seems to be gaining most acceptance is "Praise and Worship" (P&W). I want to explain what this style of worship is and how it may affect traditional worship in the future.

Where Did It Originate?

I cannot pretend to have specific insight into the details of the rise of P&W. Nevertheless, by looking at the broad landscape, we can pick out some trends that came together to create this contemporary form of worship.

These trends include the perception some people have that traditional worship forms are dead. Along with that conviction goes a concern for an immediacy of the Spirit, a desire for intimacy, and a persuasion that music and informality connect with people of a post-Christian culture.

One of the earliest expressions of these trends was the rise of testimonial music through the leadership of Bill Gaither in the early sixties. Songs such as "He Touched Me," "There's Something About That Name," "Let's Just Praise the Lord," and "Because He Lives" touched many lives and opened people up to a new genre of music. At first these were performance songs, but soon they became congregational: people sang along or at least joined in on the refrain. A second expression of these trends came in the late sixties on the West coast (and all over the world) in the form of a new expression of the Spirit known as the Jesus Movement. A major emphasis of this movement was the singing of praise choruses, some of which were written and sung right on the spot. Tommy Coombs, president of Maranatha! Music and a contemporary songwriter in this genre of music was converted in the early days of the Jesus Movement. He tells of his search for God in the sixties, of wandering here and there with his guitar, singing secular songs and taking dope. All the while, he was looking for God.

One day someone invited him to attend a service at Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California. According to Tommy, when he walked into that service and heard the music of the Jesus People, he said immediately, "Here is where God dwells—here I will find God." Soon Tommy Coombs became a writer of P&W music, a leader in a form of music worship that brought Tommy and thousands of others who were wandering in the desert of meaninglessness and drugs into a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Since those early days in the late sixties and early seventies, this form of music and the style of worship it has engendered have developed into a new worldwide approach to worship. According to Chuck Fromm, Chief Executive Officer of Maranatha! Music, "It became legal to sing in worship what was not published in a hymnbook."

Characteristics of P&W

While the P&W tradition may be complicated in terms of its historical origin and spread in North America and beyond, the movement itself is not difficult to describe.

First, P&W is a post-Enlightenment expression of worship. Since the eighteenth century, Western thought has been influenced by the Enlightenment's rationalistic and scientific explanations of our existence. Worship influenced by the Enlightenment is essentially cerebral, appealing to the mind and to the intellectual side of our beings. It is "left-brained." In contrast, P&W touches the affective side of the person. It is "right-brained," reaching into the feelings and emotions of the human personality. However, it is not correct to dismiss it as merely emotional worship or as worship lacking in content or biblical precedent.

Indeed, a second characteristic of P&W is that it seeks to recapture the lost element of praise found in both Old and New Testament worship. It stands in the tradition of the Talmud, saying "Man should always utter praises, and then pray." Praise God first and foremost, then move on to the other elements of worship, say the leaders of P&W.

Distinguishing Praise from Worship

A major feature of the P&W movement is its tendency to distinguish praise from worship. Judson Cornwall, a P&W leader and author of more than a half-dozen books, addresses the distinction between praise and worship in his book Let Us Worship (South Plainfield, N.J. Bridge Publishing Company, 1983).

Cornwall argues that the Scriptures present praise as something different than worship, and he cites Psalm 95 as a good example of this distinction. In the opening verses, the psalmist invites praise: "O come, let us sing unto the Lord: let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation. Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms" (vv. 1-2). Only then, after praise has been offered, does the psalmist invite worship: "O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our Maker" (v. 6). So Cornwall concludes that "the order is praise first, worship second" (p. 143).

"Praise," Cornwall writes, "prepares us for worship"; it is a "prelude to worship." Praise is not an attempt to get something from God; it is a ministry that we offer to God. We offer praise for what God has done— for God's mighty deeds in history and continued providential presence in our lives.

While we praise God for what he has done, we worship God for who he is. The one extols the acts of God, the other the person and character of God.Cornwall makes this distinction between praise and worship clear: "Praise," he writes, "begins by applauding God's power, but it often brings us close enough to God that worship can respond to God's presence. While the energy of praise is toward what God does, the energy of worship is toward who God is. The first is concerned with God's performance, while the second is occupied with God's personage. The thrust of worship, therefore, is higher than the thrust of praise" (p. 146).

The Temple Sequence

The order of the service, the movement from praise to worship, is patterned after the Old Testament tabernacle and temple movement from the outer court to the inner court and then into the Holy of Holies. All of these steps are accomplished through song. The song leader (or the worship leader, as she or he is more often called) plays a significant role in moving the congregation through the various steps that lead to worship.

He or she begins with choruses of personal experience or testimony, such as "This is the Day" or "We Bring Sacrifices of Praise into the House of the Lord." These songs center on praise, are all upbeat in tempo, and relate to the personal experience of the believer. They are songs that often mention "I," "me," or "we." In the Tabernacle typology, during this first step the people are still outside the fence that surrounds the Tabernacle. They cannot worship until they come through the gates into the Tabernacle court.

So that's what takes place in the second step: the mood and the content of the music shift to express the action of entering the gates and coming into the courts. Here the song leader leads people in songs that express the transition from praise to worship. These are songs of thanksgiving, such as the Scripture song from Psalm 100: "I will enter his gates with thanksgiving in my heart/I will enter his courts with praise" or "Come let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our God, our Maker."

This second step is explained by Cornwall: "It is a matter of bringing them from a consciousness of what has been done in them and for them (testimony) to who did it in and for them (thanksgiving). The procession through the Eastern gate into the outer court should be a joyful march, for thanks should never be expressed mournfully or negatively. While the people are singing choruses of thanksgiving, they will be thinking both of themselves and of their God, but by putting the emphasis upon the giving of thanks, the majority of the thought patterns should be on their God. Singing at this level will often be a beginning level of praise, but it will not produce worship, for the singers are not yet close enough to God's presence to express a worship response" (p. 156).

The third step, into the Holy of Holies, brings the believer away from herself into a full conscious worship of God alone. No longer is the worshiper thinking about what God has done, but rather of who God is in person and character. A quiet devotion hovers over the congregation as they sing songs such as "Father, I Adore You," "I Love You, Lord" and "You Are Worthy." In these moments of worship "the emotional clapping will likely be replaced with devotional responses of upturned faces, raised hands, tears, and even a subtle change in the timbre of the voices." For when there is an "awareness that we have come into the presence of God, we step out of lightness with sobriety" (p. 157).

John Chisum, Vice President of worship resources at Starsong Communications in Nashville, describes the third phase of the sequence as an experience of "the manifest presence of God." He says this experience does not differ greatly from the liturgical experience of the presence of Christ at the Lord's table. "In this atmosphere," he claims, "the charisma, or gifts of God are released." And "just as many throughout the history of the church have experienced physical and spiritual healing while partaking of the body and blood in the elements of the table of Christ, so many today are tasting of special manifestations of the Holy Spirit in worship renewal as He inhabits, i.e. settles down, makes His home and abides, in the praises of His people."


While the tabernacle/temple order of worship is quite prominent in Praise and Worship churches, it is not the only order or sequence of song. For example, I recently visited the Vineyard Church in Anaheim, California, a church that fits into the broader category of the P&W tradition of worship. Here I experienced a slightly different variation of the progression that brings a worshiper into God's presence.

Vineyard Church worship begins with an invitation phase, which is like a call to worship. Songs of invitation such as "I Just Came to Praise the Lord" may be sung with clapping, swinging the body, and looking at other worshipers—smiling and acknowledging their presence.

In the next movement, the engagement phase, the people are brought closer to God, and their songs are addressed to God, not to one another. A good example may be "Humble Yourself in the Sight of the Lord."

The song leader then moves the people into the adoration phase. In this phase of worship the broad range of pitch and melody that characterized the previous phases is exchanged for the smaller range of music and the more subdued tone of songs such as "Jesus, Jesus, There's Something About that Name" or "Father, I Adore You."

Next the congregation is led into the intimacy phase, which is the quietest and most personal phase of worship. Songs such as "O Lord, You're Beautiful" and "Great Are You, Lord" are personal statements of an intimate relationship directed from the believer to the Lord. As these songs are sung, people become highly intense and lose themselves in the ecstasy of the moment. During this phase of the worship service that I attended at the Vineyard Church, people stood with heads and hands turned upward and eyes closed as they sang these songs of what John Wimber calls "love-making to God." Some people, especially in the front rows, were kneeling or even prostrate on the floor during this "quiet time."

The final phase of the Vineyard worship progression is a closeout song, a song that helps the people move out of the experience of being transfixed on God to prepare for the next phase of the service, the time of teaching.

Praise, Worship, Teaching, Prayer, Ministry

It is common in the P&W tradition of worship to distinguish between the various acts of a typical service. The most significant distinction is that of praise from worship, as described above. Other acts in the service include the time for teaching, the time for intercessory prayer, and the time for ministry.

Because most P&W churches are informal, the various acts of the service are done in an informal way. For example, while teaching is fairly straightforward, it may end with a time of brief feedback or discussion (depending on the size of the congregation).

Intercessory prayer may also be informal. The idea of the traditional pastoral prayer may be replaced by a prayer circle. I took part in such a circle when I visited the Church on the Way in Van Nuys, California, where Jack Hayford is the pastor. There were more than three thousand people in the congregation (one of four services). When the time for prayer came, Pastor Hayford asked all the people to form into "prayer circles." I turned around to find myself in a circle of four people.

As we clasped hands, one of the four said "Are there any prayer requests?" The young woman to my right immediately said, "Please pray for me; my husband left me this week." We all laid hands on her and prayed for her in her time of distress. I wondered how many other people were experiencing a community of immediate support as we did in those few minutes of prayer. My guess is that many did.

After prayer, many churches may enter a time of ministry. I once attended a charismatic Lutheran church that sent people into various rooms where people gifted with ministry for particular needs were laying hands on each other and praying for the hurt and broken lives that came for a touch from the Master's hand. I thought what was being experienced there was very meaningful, ministering in a powerful way to the people of God.

The Presence of Praise and Worship in Traditional Congregations

Broadly speaking, traditional churches have responded to the spread of P&W in three ways:

First are those churches that have not responded at all—perhaps because they are not consciously aware of the P&W tradition. These congregations may have heard one or two P&W-style songs and be vaguely aware of the existence of such a style of worship in nontraditional churches, but for the most part they are impervious to P&W.

Second are those congregations who are more aware of the P&W tradition but are indifferent to it or who actively dismiss it, arguing that it is "too superficial" or "too charismatic."

The third set of traditional churches are not only aware of P&W and its relevancy to a post-Enlightenment culture but also seek to integrate this new approach to worship into the local church.

I have experienced the third attitude in both liturgical churches (including Episcopalian, Lutheran, Roman Catholic) and traditional, non-liturgical churches (most mainline Protestant denominations, including Presbyterian and Reformed bodies).

Traditional worship is characterized by four movements: Entrance, Word, Table, and Dismissal. Traditional congregations who adopt all or part of the P&W tradition integrate it into this four-fold movement in a variety of ways.

I think, for example, of an experience I had at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in Nashville. There, the traditional prelude was replaced by Gathering Songs (songs of praise), supported by a full band of drums, guitars, and a synthesizer. As people entered to take their seats and assemble for worship, they sang high praise choruses such as "We Bring the Sacrifice of Praise." After a traditional prelude/processional, call to worship, invocation, and confession of sin, the congregation sang more praise music, especially music that reflected the thanksgiving of entering into the inner court. Later, during communion, the congregation sang choruses as people were receiving the laying on of hands and anointing for healing. The congregation sang songs that expressed an intimate relationship with God, songs such as "Father, I Adore You," "I Love You, Lord," and "I Lift My Voice to Worship You." People were kneeling, some with hands raised, all with a sense of what John Chism calls "The Manifest Presence of God."

Traditional, nonliturgical churches also integrate P&W music into their services. I have worshiped in mainline churches in which the entire prelude and processional follow a pattern of choruses and hymns that express the journey from the outer court into the inner court. For example, David Stout, Pastor of the Lakeview Community Church (RCA) in Rochester, New York, sent me a bulletin showing how he integrates praise music into the opening of worship. While he follows a fairly typical Reformed approach to God, he opens the order to allow praise songs.

The worship of the newer, creative, contemporary churches such as Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago, now the second largest church in the USA and the church that is setting a pattern for many independent congregations, also uses praise music. In a recent visit to the midweek Believers Worship at this church, I experienced an effective use of these choruses. After a five-minute period of silence, in which each of us meditated on a psalm intended to help us come into contact with the dislocations in our lives, we sang choruses such as "He is Able." The songs we sang assured us that whatever problem we faced, God was able, in the midst of that problem, to be our God. Through these choruses—which praised God as the God of all of life— the congregation was relocated in God.

After worship, the worship leader shared some responses he had received from the congregation. One man told him, "I needed that—my wife left me this week"; another said "That really spoke to me—I just learned my business is going bankrupt." There's apparently a message in these choruses which, if properly used, brings healing and relocation in the lives of people. These praise songs connect with where people are in a chaotic world.

Assessing P&W

P&W is concerned with the heart. In a recent conversation, Chuck Fromm of Maranatha! Music related the rise of P&W to a saying of St. Francis: "St. Francis told us that a laborer works with his hands, a craftsman with head and hands, and an artist with head, hands, and heart," said Fromm. "The praise and worship tradition has brought the heart back into worship because of the work of the artists."

Certainly the heart has been and continues to be engaged in many liturgical and traditional nonliturgical services of worship. Nevertheless I agree with Chuck Fromm. Because worship has been intellectualized and geared primarily toward the mind, it has become dull and lifeless in many churches. While many people like it this way and even derive meaning from what others consider dead and dull, our young people are fleeing to a worship that touches the heart and engages the senses.

P&W recognizes that the media is the message. For some the pipe organ and classical music represent the message of a God who is transcendent and mysterious. But for others, the guitar, the synthesizer, and the drums, the media of their own culture, represent a God who is immanent, a God who wants intimate fellowship with the church. For them this style of music and worship brings immediacy, relevancy, and an engaging participation.

So which style should dominate? Each congregation will have to decide what to do about P&W. Some will ignore it. Others will resist it. And others will incorporate it into traditional worship. What I see in the future is a convergence of worship traditions, a convergence of the liturgical, traditional nonliturgical, and the Praise and Worship tradition. It does not seem to me to be an either/or, but a both/and.

What a convergence service will look like is dependent on the way the traditions are brought together. When good preaching and good music and the festivity of the Lord's Supper are all brought together, our congregations may discover a richness and fullness to worship that one tradition without the benefit of the others does not seem able to achieve.

The future of worship lies, then, not in the repudiation of this or that tradition, but in a mining from all the traditions—a convergence of worship traditions that recognizes the gifts of God given to the people of God who worship in ways different than our own.

Robert Webber (rwebber@northern.seminary.edu) was the Myers Professor of Ministry at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, and president of the Institute for Worship Studies, a distance education school in Jacksonville, Florida. He is author of many books, including the Ancient-Future series (Baker), Younger Evangelicals (Baker), and editor of the eight-volume Complete Library of Christian Worship. These resources and a monthly "Ancient-Future Talk" newsletter are available at www.ancientfutureworship.com. Dr. Webber passed away in April 2007. 


Reformed Worship 20 © June 1991, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.