We attended a church last winter which we had never attended before. I did not know much about the church, but I had heard that they had good singing and I had also heard that some of their teaching was not Biblical. Knowing that, I attended and although I admit that the singing was good, I was unable to worship because I was always on my guard looking for areas in which they were not faithful to Scripture. Truth is important in worship and where truth is compromised, worship is difficult.
Whenever we visited my mother in Scottsdale, we attended her church, which at the time was a Presbyterian church. Although the style of worship was very different from what I was used to, being a more liturgical service, we had a good time of worship. We enjoyed the choir and the pastor always had a good message.
Probably one of the most inspiring worship services I have had was a time when Carla and I led a group of campers on a canoe camp in Northern Manitoba. We led two camps and in the second week camp, most of the campers were people who had been on staff for most of the summer. In the evening, we gathered around the campfire and really enjoyed the singing and sharing. It was a great time of worship, in a natural setting and we had a wonderful time of giving glory to God.
What is the best worship service you have ever attended. How has it impacted you?
We are talking about being a healthy church. As you see on the overhead, we are now looking at the fifth quality characteristic of a healthy church. We have already talked about holistic small groups, empowering leadership, need oriented evangelism and passionate spirituality. Today, we come to inspiring worship services. What do we mean by inspiring worship services and how can we experience them?
God calls us to worship. In Exodus 20, the first few of the ten commandments command people to worship God and Him alone. He is the only one worthy of our worship. Repeatedly in the Psalms, we are commanded to worship God. Psalm 29:2, “Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness.” Psalm 95:6 “Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker…”
Worship is important because when we worship, we recognize the one who is our creator. Psalm 100:1-3 says, "... Worship the LORD with gladness…It is he who made us, and we are his ...." Worship is also important because when we worship, we recognize and rejoice in the fact that we have a relationship with Him. Psalm 95:6,7 says, "Come, let us bow down in worship…for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care...."
We have a lot of reasons to declare the worth of our God. But what exactly is worship? One of the mistakes we often make is that we assume that music is worship. Sometimes in the bulletin it says that we will have a time of worship and what we mean is that we will sing. Sometimes we start a meeting with a time of worship, and what we do during that time is sing. Singing is one expression of worship, but it is not all of what worship is. Worship is declaring God's worth. It is recognizing who God is and praising Him for it. When we focus on understanding who God is and what He has done and express our praise to Him because of these things, that is worship.
There are several words for worship in the Greek New Testament which help us understand what worship is. One word means to bend the knee. Worship is bowing in humility and adoration before the one who is Lord of all. It is recognizing God’s greatness.
Another word for worship in the New Testament is a word that is sometimes translated worship and sometimes service. In Romans 12:1, offering our bodies to God is declared as an act of spiritual worship or service. It is the same thing. This verse and the use of this word reminds us that whatever we do for God is an act of worship.
What this teaches us is that worship is much more than what we do on Sunday morning. When in prayer we look to God for help - that is worship. When we offer to help someone because of our love for Christ - that is worship. When we choose to live our lives in holiness - that is worship. When we gather in church and pray and sing and hear God’s word, that is worship. It is important for us to recognize that worship is much more broadly defined than just the worship service.
Having recognized that truth, however, this morning, we want to talk about worship services. Being a healthy church involves worship services that are inspiring.
But what are inspiring worship services?
Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt and after three months, they came to Mt. Sinai. It was time for God to introduce himself to them and to establish them as His people. God told Moses to invite the people to the foot of the mountain and he would personally and audibly speak to them. In Exodus 19:16-19, we have a record of this meeting between God and His people. We read, “On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled.” Then in chapter 20, God spoke to the people and gave them the ten commandments. Can you imagine what it must have been like? That must have been quite a worship service! What made it so exciting and powerful? What made the people tremble? God was present with them and they sensed His presence.
A while later, the children of Israel constructed the tent of meeting which would be their worship center in their travels through the wilderness. They donated towards the work and they built a beautiful tent according to the pattern which God had given them. When all the parts were built, they set up the tent and when it was all set up, we read in Exodus 40:34, 35, “Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.” Once again, we read about a powerful experience for the people of Israel. Can you imagine seeing the presence of God visibly over the tent in a cloud during the day and with a pillar of fire at night? What made it such a powerful experience? God was present.
After many years, they settled in the land. The tent was no longer functional and David wanted to build a temple for the Lord in Jerusalem. He was not permitted to do so, but his son Solomon, the next king, did do so. In I Kings 8, we read about a service of dedication for the temple in Jerusalem. It was a great celebration which involved many people coming from a great distance. They offered many sacrifices and we read in I Kings 8:10, 11 “When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the LORD. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled his temple.” Once again the worship of God was a powerful experience because God was there.
After Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared to his disciples over a period of 40 days and then ascended into heaven. Ten days later, as the disciples were together in the temple in Jerusalem to celebrate the Old Testament feast of Pentecost, a powerful experience changed the world forever as the Spirit of God came upon the disciples. It was a remarkable day on which many people were saved and people recognized the power and presence of the Lord. Once again, a powerful worship experience took place because people experienced and recognized the presence of God.
What is inspiring worship? Inspiring worship, according to the examples we have just looked at is worship in which God’s presence is evident.
Inspiring worship is not necessarily worship that follows a particular style of music or has a particularly good message or is seeker friendly or has a dramatic presentation. Inspiring worship is worship in which the presence of God is evident to those who participate.
We have read of times when God’s people experienced the presence of God in a powerful way. These must have been wonderful experiences which made a tremendous impact on the people. Is inspiring worship still possible today? If we define inspiring worship as worship in which God’s presence is evident, then there is no reason why inspiring worship should not happen regularly. The promise of God in Matthew 18:20 is that “…where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” As we come together to worship in the name of Jesus as we do each week, inspiring worship is something that can happen any time we gather together as God’s people because God is present here.
And yet it does not always happen. The truth of the matter is that God is here! An inspiring worship service is one in which we recognize that. Why do we not always recognize the presence of God? What barriers prevent us? What can we do to help us recognize that God is here?
Inspiring worship will happen as those who plan the worship service have a plan. Some may object to this concept of planning worship by suggesting that we need to be open to the Spirit of God. It is true that when there is too much focus on planning, a dead formalism can set in. On the other hand, when there is no planning, it communicates a sloppiness about our approach to God. It is true that we need to be open to anything God’s Spirit desires to do among us, it is also true that there is still a place for planning. I Corinthians 14: 33, 40 commends orderly worship and that involves planning. I believe that God’s Spirit can work in us just as much as we plan as in the actual service. So good planning, with a willingness to be in tune with the Spirit is a good way to open the way for inspiring worship.
We have already said that God promises that where two or three are gathered in His name, He is there. Yet we do not always experience that. The goal of worship planning is to remove barriers which prevent us from recognizing the presence of God and helping people recognize the presence of God. We could spend a whole course on this theme, but I would like to mention just a few things that have helped me recognize God’s presence.
One of the first weeks we were here, one of the pianists played a song for the offertory that was well prepared, meaningful and well done. We applauded when she was done and I watched her response to the applause. She raised her hands to God, directing the thanks to Him. At that moment, I was moved to recognize the presence of God. Inspiring worship will happen when we keep the focus on God. When we use the service as a forum for our agenda, for making announcements that should be made during the announcements or for drawing attention to ourselves; we draw the focus away from God. As we plan for and lead in worship, let us keep the focus on God.
I have been in worship services in which it was obvious that the song leader had chosen a few songs quickly before the service. I have also been in worship services in which it was obvious that there was thought given to the content of the words and the flow of the songs. The difference is obvious. Inspiring worship will happen when we prayerfully give thought to the flow of the service. As worship leaders, we have talked about a general flow for the whole service. “In worship we are coming into the presence of God as God’s people to hear the word of God and go out to be the people of God.” Each part of the service corresponds to a different part of this sentence and each part is worship.
We all have our favorite songs. I love singing “Wonderful Grace of Jesus.” The music is great, its got a great bass line and the words are such an encouragement. The song, “Take Thou My Hand O Father” is one which I love to sing in German because it has very meaningful words and it reminds me of times when I grew up when I met God in worship. A few years ago, at camp, I heard the song “Shout to the Lord” for the first time. It was a new song, but as I learned the tune and as I listened to the words, for the longest time, I could hardly sing it as I got all choked up. I saw God’s sovereign power and majesty described and it moved me. Inspiring worship will happen as we are willing to sing both the old songs and to learn the new songs. The Bible tells us we need to sing new songs. Psalm 98:1 says, “Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvellous things...” The reason for new songs is that new songs express the new understanding of what God is doing among his people. Each generation needs to express its love for the Lord in its own way. As they sing their new songs and teach us those new songs, it is a growing praise of God’s continual renewal of his people.
A few years ago, I attended a conference. A group from one church had prepared a Scripture reading. They had prepared it and practiced it and it really made me listen. It was not a time to allow my mind to drift off into other areas, it drew me in to listen to what God was saying. Inspiring worship will happen when we prepare well for it.
I say these things, in part, to encourage anyone involved in the service to keep these things in mind and plan to do your best to lead us into the presence of God. I also say these things so that those who participate in worship will have an idea of some of the thinking that goes into the services we plan. I know we could do much better and we ask that you pray for those leading worship.
But no matter how good a job worship planners do, inspiring worship will not happen if our hearts are not prepared to meet God. And so as we think about how inspiring worship happens in our church, we must talk about our own preparedness for worship.
1. What are we seeking?
The first question I would ask is, what are you seeking? The danger in worship is that instead of seeking to worship God and recognize His presence among us, we come seeking something else.
Calvin Miller, in A Taste of Joy, writes, “We go to church seeking feeling. Often we have had little or no spiritual discipline. Frustration and despair set in. We go to worship with our emotional antennae exposed to receive the excitement of the group. But such feelings are seldom fruitful or permanent.” When we seek feeling instead of God, we will miss out on the best of what God has for us.
Perhaps as you come to worship, you are seeking friendship. You will certainly meet friends in worship, but you can also go to the tea house or the arena or wherever, to meet friends. If we come only to meet friends, we will meet friends and that will be good, but will we meet the greatest Friend of all?
Perhaps as we come to worship, we are only going through the motions. Isaiah condemns the people of Israel when he says in Isaiah 29:13, “The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.
If we are going through the motions, coming to meet friends or seeking feeling, we may even be satisfied with these things, but we will miss meeting God. If we want inspiring worship, we need to come prepared to meet God.
How do we come prepared to meet God? It does not help if we stay up late on Saturday night going to a party or watching television. The change will be too abrupt and although God sometimes makes himself known when we have not prepared ourselves, we are much more likely to sense the presence of God, if we come prepared by going to bed early enough and having a time of devotion and prayer on Sunday morning before we come. Can I appeal for one thing? Can I ask that we stop to recognize where we are going and why before we come instead of just rushing to church in the rush of all the things we do all week?
We are often guilty of separating our lives into the sacred and the secular. If we compartmentalize our lives in this way, it becomes difficult to make the transition from week day things to the Sunday meeting. Some worship leaders invite us to forget about all that has happened in the week and just concentrate on Jesus now. Worship will be much more meaningful if we worship God by serving Him in all we do all week and then coming to worship on Sunday morning and present all that has happened to us throughout the week before Him. Inspiring worship is much more likely to happen if we prepare ourselves for it.
I have met people who have reacted so negatively to some part of the worship service because it did not meet their personal preferences that they would have walked out if they would have had the nerve. I know people who when someone gets behind the drums, their face turns to stone. How can you sense the presence of God if you are angry or upset because the worship service isn’t going your way? Worship services will always have some elements that lead us to recognize God and some that just don’t move us at all. We will prepare ourselves for worship if we choose to be tolerant of one another and act in Christian love by accepting parts of the service which don’t move us because we understand that they move someone else.
When all is said and done, it is not about what style of worship, or music, if we use liturgy or don’t, whether the message is first or at the end, whether scripture is included or not. Worship is about God and if we accept differences and concentrate on the One we have come to worship, we will experience inspiring worship.
The church is billed as the place of God's presence. If it acts like a place of people, then the reality of what it is will be undermined and people will quickly sense that it is not what it claims to be. Inspiring worship is important to be a healthy church because it indicates that this is indeed the place of God's presence. The church is not a club or another organization in the community. It is God's church! It is the gathering of the people whom God has redeemed and who know God and are intimately related to Him. If God is not acknowledged, worshipped and celebrated, people soon realize that there is no power, nothing beyond the ordinary human situation in this place. The power of God is present in the church, and in worship, we acknowledge His power and presence. The result is that “when worship is inspiring, it draws people to the services ‘all by itself.’”
As we think about being a healthy church, we want to try to develop worship that recognizes that God is here and that helps us focus our thoughts on Him. I would like to invite your response. Tell me or others involved in leading worship what helps you direct your thoughts to God? How can we who plan worship remove barriers and provide a structure which will help you sense God’s presence? Please share your stories of how you have met God in the service. We want to listen to you.
But I also want to challenge all of us to prepare ourselves to worship God. What kind of habits practiced weekly will help you experience inspiring worship?
May we draw near to the God who promises to be in our midst and so worship him appropriately and with joy.