True worship is much more than
singing songs we like to sing
Have you ever wondered how Paul and Silas could sing praises in a Philippian gaol after being stripped, flogged and clamped in the stocks? Or how Jesus could sing a hymn on the eve of his arrest, knowing everything that was about to happen to him? Or how Paul could describe worship with the spine-tingling phrase ‘living sacrifice’?
It was because their worship was not based on what they liked. It was based on who they loved.
There is an explosion of worship in the church today. The buzz word is ‘contemporary’ and the aim is to ‘enter into God’s presence’ and enjoy a sense of closeness with him. The music, the setting, the lyrics must all help create a fulfilling worship ‘experience’.
But I am absolutely convinced that it’s not the worship that God wants us to enjoy. It’s him.
Christians have often felt that worship has to suit their tastes. Many times churches have been built based on people’s preferences in worship style. We want to choose how we will worship.
We’ve made worship self-centred instead of God-centred. We lobby for what we want: ‘I don’t like the songs’, ‘I don’t like the volume’. It’s as if we’re worshipping worship instead of worshipping God.
Imagine conducting your relationship with your spouse on the basis of only relating to them in certain circumstances. In marriage you can’t love demanding an answer; you have to love selflessly. You don’t say, ‘As long as I get everything I want out of this relationship I’ll commit myself.’ But that’s the attitude we often have to worship. We say: ‘You musicians, singers and pastors do your tricks, then we’ll be happy.’
Worship is not a musical experience. Musicians, singers and worship leaders can no more create a worship experience than an evangelist can create a salvation experience. Both worship and salvation are decisions – decisions that only individuals can make.
When we allow someone else to take responsibility for our decisions we place human interests in front of God’s. If my worship depends on others creating an atmosphere, I am allowing them to make my decision to worship for me.
Worship is not a result of how good the music is or whether my favourite songs are sung. It is not a consequence of whether I stand or sit, lift my hands or kneel. My worship must be an expression of my relationship with God – in song, in shouts and whispers, sitting, walking, or driving the car. Worship is my response to God.
If worship is a decision, then the greatest worship happens when someone who doesn’t like a church’s music or liturgical style prays, ‘Not my will but yours be done, God – I’ll worship you in spite of it.’
Your gifts aren’t the issue
There’s another way in which we worship worship instead of worshipping God. Let me come at it by a round-about route.
Consider two ways of understanding why the church exists. The first is that it exists to equip the saints for the work of ministry. So part of our teaching and worship must be aimed at equipping the saints.
But there is a danger in this first perspective. It could lead us to think that people are in a church so that the church can release their individual gifts and ministries. This is back-to-front. People are actually in a church with their gifts to release the ministry of the church.
It’s far more important to know where you are called than what you are called to do.
Let me give a practical example. My hands write songs by accident; they just happen to be attached to the rest of my body and I’m a songwriter. In the same way, I’m a songwriter at Hills Christian Life Centre more because I’m ‘attached’ to a worshipping, song-writing church than because Hills Christian Life Centre has a songwriter who writes songs. The call is on the church, and my talent as a songwriter helps the church fulfil its call.
This is a the second way to understand the church’s existence: It exists to fulfil God’s call on its life. To live out God’s vision. And the people in a church don’t so much need to own that vision as to be owned by it. Once that happens, the various facets of its life are given shape according to what God has called the church to be and do.
This has a profound effect on worship. It takes the focus away from what we want and replaces it with what is needed to fulfil the vision. It really doesn’t matter whether we like the worship style or not; it’s whether the style is consistent with the call and vision. Unless we think this way, we’re in danger of creating our own entertainment – and hence of worshipping worship again.
Worship and the will of God
In other words, for our worship to be a response to God, an expression of our love and devotion, it must be a reflection of his will in and through our lives. For me to express my love for my wife Janine, I must do more than say ‘I love you”. I must mow the lawn, pick up my socks, wash the car, share her dreams and visions and goals – I must be a partner to her, working to be a team that expresses mutual love to each other selflessly.
In this I discover that the best intimacy is the intimacy that forces you to get up in the morning after making love with your wife the night before and go and mow the lawns, fix the kitchen door, paint the shed – to do those things that are produced out of love.
It’s the same in our relationship with God. I can’t sing, ‘I love you, Lord’, ‘I’ll worship you’, ‘Be exalted’ without being a partner in his will and vision.
What is God’s vision, his expectations? Is it that we hold nice, comfortable worship services with three praise songs, two worship songs, one prophecy, one offering, one message, two altar calls and a closing hymn? Is his expectation our comfort, our enjoyment, our tradition?
No. God’s vision is that the world will know his Son. The Lord’s expectation of us is crystal clear in Matthew 28:19-20: ‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’
God has called us into his contemporary world to make disciples. Our worship central in our decision to meet this commission.
Of course we must sing and dance and praise the Lord. But if while we sing and dance and praise we either ignore God’s commission or create a culture that alienates those whom God has called us to reach, are we really worshipping God at all? Or are we, yet again, worshiping the worship instead of him?
Communication is more than words
The church I’m part of is a middle-income, yuppie, contemporary church of baby boomers and their children. That’s who we are, and that’s whom God has called us to reach. So that’s what we look and sound like. Other churches have different calls – perhaps to the elderly. In that case people will have to get used to singing hymns.
If every church became ‘modern contemporary’ in music and we all played Crowded House and Dire Straits, what would happen to churches in Vaucluse in Sydney or St Kilda in Melbourne, which need a totally different touch?
To put it in marketing terms, once we understand our mission (to make disciples), we need to find our market place (the people that God want us to reach). That will then give us our methodology.
We have to find and use the language of our market place. At Youth Alive rallies, for example, where 10-12,000 people cram into the Sydney Entertainment Centre, we know that ‘Amazing Grace’ or ‘Shine Jesus Shine’ aren’t going to work with some 15-year-old home boy with his cap on backwards who’s into the basketball culture. So we sing songs like ‘Jump into the Jam with the Great I Am’ – songs that reflect our passion for Jesus and our love and vitality for life in their language. In this way we reclaim their music to glorify God and open a window to Christian experience in language they can understand.
When I say ‘language’ I don’t just mean terminology, words. People can go to a Madonna concert in Japan and not understand a word she says but still feel part of what she’s doing because they understand the whole language – the visual communication, the sound, the music.
We need to speak people’s language – not just in our music but in our newsletters and graphics and decor and preaching and dress.
When the church forgets this and loses sight of its mission and market place, it locks itself into its own culture. Anyone who comes in from outside has to undergo a cultural revolution, before they can get to our answer. In the end the only people we reach are ourselves. That’s scandalous. We’re called to be light in darkness, not light in light.
I’m not saying that all worship must be directed toward attracting non-believers – far from it. Worship is an individual’s adoration of God. Our worship attention must be on intimacy with God led by the Spirit. So we must not make it so relevant that we lose the intimacy.
You won’t reach your marketplace until you equip the saints, and you won’t equip the saints by just speaking the language of the marketplace. You have to teach them to speak the language of the marketplace. There’s a transition. So there must be a balance between equipping the saints and reaching the marketplace.
Sometimes, however, the saints bet lost in enjoying the ‘showers of blessings’ that come through their relationship with God. When we go to church to stand under the shower of blessings, our worship involves that experience.
But life is more than standing under the shower. Life is also getting dressed and going to work. Our worship should translate into the outcome of our lives.
For the believer, an effect of worship is like a remedial massage at half-time to get us back on the field. It’s healing for injuries so we can keep playing. It’s the coach at half-time saying toa tired team, ‘You can win’ – and sending them out to turn the game around.
Worship, then, is refocussing. It’s re-equipping. It’s realigning yourself with the passion of God and realising that you have to say, ‘Not my will but yours be done’.
Worship doesn’t end with ‘I exalt you’. It goes on to say, ‘I must go out and take the experience to others.’ I believe that God is changing the face of Christian worship today because he is trying to align us again with him and his vision.
We can’t worship God truly and remain unchanged. When we worship, we push into God’s heart. Older married couples can sometimes sit in a room together for an hour and a half and not speak to each other and yet communicate, because they’ve grown together and they understand each other’s heart. It’s like that with God. As we worship him we come to understand his heart, and we start to share his passion. Then his vision comes our vision.
Reprinted with permission from the February 1995 issue of On Being magazine, 2 Denham Street, Hawthorn, Victoria, 3122.
© Renewal Journal 6: Worship, 1995, 2nd edition 2011
Reproduction is allowed with the copyright included.
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