Worship with the Senses

Praise the LORD! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens! Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness! … Let everything that has breath praise the LORD! Praise the LORD!”

- Psalm 150

Today, we conclude our brief study on the principles for worship that we can discern from the Scriptures. We have already discussed the role of liturgy and beauty in worship, and today we need to consider how a liturgy should include elements that reflect the beauty of God as well as His other attributes. Various elements of a church’s liturgy convey truths about the Lord through our senses.

Music remains one of the most powerful forms of communication available to humanity, and it has always been an important part of Christian worship. Whether the music has consisted of a cappella chants, organ-accompanied hymns, or orchestral performance of choir anthems, the church has embraced music as a key feature of Christian worship.

Of course, the primary sense with which music is enjoyed is the aural sense. Music penetrates our hearts and minds via the ear, and it can convey profound truths about the character of God. It can also fail to convey such truths or even present the idea, with ever so much subtlety, that the praise of our Lord is a silly matter or not substantially different from how we might praise another human being whom we love. The tunes we sing in our churches can be a great help to the preaching of God’s Word, setting the stage for us to hear about the Lord and His redemption, or they can be a hindrance. This may be even more true of the words of our hymns and songs. Our theology cannot be separated from our worship, and much bad doctrine has influenced the people of God simply because somebody set it to music. Consequently, we must take great care in the selection of music for worship. The Lord commands us to praise Him with instruments and song (Ps. 150), but let us sing only those songs that are appropriate for worship.

Under the old covenant, our Lord also commanded practices that would appeal to the olfactory sense. Fragrant incense was to be burned on the altar of incense in the tabernacle and temple (Ex. 30:1–10). Today, the burning of incense continues in Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and even many Protestant churches, but the practice is rare among the Reformed. We lack the space to consider the propriety of burning incense in new covenant worship, but it is undoubtedly true that the smells of our church buildings will cause people to associate certain ideas with them. Church leaders should be aware of this reality so that they understand what their sanctuaries are communicating to their members.

Coram Deo

Human beings process information through the five senses, so all five senses are engaged in all that we do, including worship. Though different traditions may take different views as to how the liturgy should appeal to the five senses, all of us must keep in mind that the sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and feel of our worship services do send a message to worshipers. Let us endeavor to make sure that it is always a biblical one.

Passages for Further Study

Psalm 33:1–3
Colossians 3:16

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