Discerning The Difference Between Containers and Content

oxo-pop-containersA few months ago I had the privilege of speaking to a few classes at Southern Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. During a Q&A, someone asked me what things we can do to keep our meetings from becoming dull, rote, and routine.

Although there are probably a number of ways to answer that question, what came to my mind was the difference between containers and content in our meetings. “Container” describes what’s going on during a particular portion of the meeting. In a more formal church the containers might be listed out in a bulletin and include things like Call to Worship, Prayer of Confession, Assurance of Pardon, Worship in Song, Pastoral Prayer, Giving of Tithes and Offerings, Lord’s Prayer, Sermon, the Lord’s Supper, and Benediction. In a less formal church containers still exist, but are generally assumed. They could include the “worship time,” “ministry time,” announcements, sermon, testimony time, special song, prayer for the sick, welcoming of guests, communion, and the closing song.

In either case, we can get caught up in focusing on the “containers.” How they fit together, how much time each one requires, whether or not we’re approaching them with creativity, and other administrative and aesthetic questions. We think the meeting has gone well when we fit all the “containers” in to the allotted box of time, or when things flow smoothly. “Worship didn’t take too long.” “Smooth transition from announcements to the special song.” If we’re really on top of things, we assign a theme to the containers so that they all relate to the same topic or have a similar focus.

The problem with this thinking, as helpful as it may be in some ways, is that we can neglect what actually fills those containers. In other words, the content. No liturgy in itself – traditional, contemporary, emerging, orthodox, or otherwise – has the power to change a person’s life. Yes, God instructs us to do everything “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40), and liturgies and forms make a difference, but our greatest concern should be using every opportunity in our meetings to magnify the greatness of God in Jesus Christ in people’s minds and hearts. To rehearse, celebrate, and be changed by the gospel. (For an in depth treatment of this topic, check out Bryan Chappell’s Christ-Centered Worship.)

When we focus on content more than containers, no part of the meeting has to be “routine.” Each container becomes an opportunity to experience the glory of Christ in a unique way. Here’s what I mean.

The “call to worship” becomes more than a perfunctory few words to start the meeting. It’s a personal invitation from God himself to encounter his presence in the midst of his people, to dwell on his greatness and goodness, and to remind ourselves that we have been called out of darkness to proclaim his excellencies.

“Worship in song” becomes more than a set list, a pre-sermon filler, or a time to try out a new song or arrangement. It’s an opportunity to revel in the glorious gospel, to display the unity Jesus has made possible through his substitutionary death, to watch the Holy Spirit stir up deeper affections for God’s worth and works, and to teach and admonish one another.

“Tithes and Offerings” becomes more than an awkward moment where we make sure the church has enough money to make it through the week. It’s a time to remember that God always does more than we could ask or think (Eph. 3:20), that our giving is always a response to his overwhelming generosity toward us, and that we have experienced the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who though he was rich, yet for our sake became poor, so that we by his poverty might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9).

The “sermon” becomes more than a pastor proving his relevance or persuading people they should come back next week. It’s a transcendent, sacred moment when God addresses his people through God’s eternal and unchanging Word, when hearts are opened before the living God, Holy Spirit surgery is done, and life-changing gospel hope is imparted. It’s also a time to educate people on how to read, study, interpret, and apply Scripture.

The Lord’s Supper becomes more than an interruption to the meeting or a dutiful, uninformed response to Jesus’ command. It’s seeing the gospel in visible form, experiencing real spiritual union with Christ and each other, and declaring to ourselves and each other that the Lord really is coming again.

Prayer provides more than an opportunity for the tech crew and musicians to move things around and get in place. It’s conversing with our heavenly Father, expressing our desperate need, expecting him to do abundantly more than we could ask or think (Eph. 3:20), asking him to conform our hearts and wills to his own, and teaching the church how to pray.

Even the announcements are an opportunity to demonstrate how the gospel motivates us to do what we do, provide testimonies of how individuals are joyfully laying down their lives, make known what God’s grace is accomplishing, and highlight ways people can live out their faith before a watching world.

Whenever we do something repeatedly, week after week, we have two tendencies. One is to revert to a formalism that requires no faith or Spirit-given power. It’s easier. It’s more efficient. And it’s deadening.

The other tendency is to become more creative with the containers at the expense of what’s being said. That too is deadening. Focusing on content over containers doesn’t negate creativity. It just gives it the right focus, direction, and purpose.

As we think about, plan for, and lead our meetings, let’s never lose sight of the fact that gathering as the church is one of the most significant events on earth. More dramatic than any movie, more exciting than any sporting event, and more life-changing than any political rally. We are the people of God, met together in his presence, joining with innumerable saints and angels in heaven, proclaiming the greatness of the Lamb who was slain, edifying each other through the use of spiritual gifts, and being transformed into his image as we feed on his Word and behold his glory (1 Pet. 2:9-10; Mt. 18:20; Heb. 12:22-24; Rev. 5:9-10; 1 Cor. 12:4-7; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Cor. 3:18).

How can that ever be dull or routine?


15 Responses to Discerning The Difference Between Containers and Content

  1. Catherine Singleton July 26, 2010 at 12:31 PM #

    Thank you for your insight.

  2. Kathryn July 26, 2010 at 1:43 PM #

    Thanks for the reminders. I am guilty of “how long did that take” & prayer is for musicians to get ready for the next set.
    We serve an awesome God, and corporate worship should reflect His glory & power, not ours.

  3. Triple Heart Ministries July 27, 2010 at 2:08 AM #

    In absolute agreement with you. We have a small ministry just starting with a passion for healing. We love to start our times together with extravagant worship. We believe that worship is key to entering the throne room of God. We are not trained worship leaders or even particularly skilful, but we love our God and we love to worship Him.

  4. Simon Margolis July 27, 2010 at 9:53 AM #

    Bob, your response strikes me ultimately as a call to greater devotion and awareness…

    Is it?

    • Bob Kauflin July 27, 2010 at 10:37 AM #

      Simon, yes, i’m encouraging greater devotion, greater awareness, and especially greater faith that God is at work when we gather in the name of Jesus.

  5. Matthew July 27, 2010 at 6:01 PM #

    Characteristically insightful and helpful. I’m often thankful for your ministry.
    On the subject of prayer, you hit on one of my big soapboxes. Who introduced the idea that prayer is the time to reset the stage or move people around so that there’s no “dead time”?

  6. Jim Pemberton July 28, 2010 at 12:59 PM #

    Great observation. I love the example photo of the food in containers. It makes me think of a complete meal. The food isn’t always meant to be taken separately. I mean, I wouldn’t mix dessert with the main course, but dishes are often mixtures of stuff that comes out of different containers. It doesn’t aid in palatability or digestion to give someone some water, then dry noodles after they have already drank it followed by raw meat and finally some tomato sauce. But it rather makes sense to cook the meat and tomatoes together, present the noodles, cook them in the water and pour the meat sauce over the top.

    Programmatic overcompartmentalization can be detrimental to the nourishment of the Body of Christ.

    To speculate on the analogy of a meal to our corporate worship:

    The unity of truth is a grain staple that provides a base for all things. Prayer is like water in which things are dissolved and combined. There are various kinds of teaching and training that are like heat that cooks, spoons that mix, blades that process, or the eggs and oil that tie together and recombine elements. Music is like the spices that give flavor to the meal. The gospel is the meat. Admonition is the vegetables. Fellowship is the sugars the Body needs to build with. Sacraments/ordinances are the drink. The scriptures are the cookbook. I’m sure there are things I’m missing. But while some of these things must necessarily remain separate, all work together to provide a complete, edible, and well-balanced meal fit for nourishing and building the Body of Christ.

    (Then we must go out through the week to work and exercise in various ministry and fulfilling the GC so it goes toward building muscle rather than fat.)

  7. Simon Margolis July 28, 2010 at 2:41 PM #

    Jim, I am not sure if we should work the analogy too far… I am afraid that given the proposed arrangement some may unwittingly interpret all containers as being of equal ‘weight’.

    Bob, I appreciate you tackling an important subject anyway.


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