Worship has been described as the highest calling and privilege in the Christian’s life. When we come together it is an opportunity to celebrate all that God is and all He has done for us. It’s an opportunity to deepen our relationship with Him and one another, to experience His love afresh, and to be changed by the power of His Spirit.
Now put like that, you would imagine I would be straining at the leash to get to church every Sunday morning! But I have to confess that the reality is often very different. I may have succeeded in getting myself to church on time (I’m ashamed to say I sometimes even fail on that score!), but my mind can be distracted by other concerns, and my expectations of meeting with God can be, frankly, low. Even when I’m standing at the front leading, I can be more preoccupied with making sure we play the songs well and that the people enjoy the songs, than that I lead them into a meaningful encounter with Christ.
So whether we are standing at the front or in the congregation, how can we ‘raise our sights’? Here are three guiding principles that have helped me down the years: revelation, response and encounter.
Worship begins with God. That may seem an obvious statement, but it’s something we can miss. We live in an alarmingly self-oriented society, where the bottom line to every choice we make, from relationships to religion, seems to be: “…but does it make me happy?”
If we’re not careful we can bring this attitude into church, and even into our worship. We can come looking for the experience, for the ‘warm feelings’, or looking for God to lift the weight of our burdens and make us feel better. And, of course, none of these things are wrong in themselves. But when they take centre-stage in our thinking, we put ourselves in the place that God should be. Worship needs to be focused on what God requires, not on our own needs or desires.
So what does this mean in practice? Well, the best way to stay God-focused is to sing songs, read Scriptures and pray prayers about Him! I believe that, although we have many new songs that effectively describe our feelings as we worship and respond to God, we need more songs that are about HIM. If you lead worship, look for songs that declare the truth about God, about His character, His actions, and what He has done for us.
But it’s not enough that we just say and sing things that are true. We need to have an expectation that God will REVEAL the truth of these things by His Spirit. When I lead a song, I’m praying that the truth of the words will grip people’s hearts and minds in a fresh way, dispelling the lies that can so subtly invade our thinking and undermine our faith: lies like, ‘God can’t love me’, ‘I’m too sinful to be accepted by Him’ and ‘my situation is too difficult for Him to help me’. Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free”. As we put truth into people’s minds and mouths through songs, prayers and scriptures, pray that the truth of how God sees us liberates us from the lies of how we see ourselves.
So truth is important in our church worship. But it isn’t enough to fill our minds with good things. It’s possible to have all the biblical knowledge in the world, but still have a hard heart towards God. We are called not only to declare truth, but to respond in wholehearted worship.
When Jesus says in John 4 that God’s worshippers must worship in spirit and truth, the word He uses for ‘truth’ is interesting. Although it does refer to correctness and accuracy, it also means “truthfulness” or “honesty”. In other words, what goes on outwardly during worship needs to be reflected in what is going on inwardly – and vice versa. Just going through the physical motions of worship, such as singing, clapping and dancing (Isaiah 29:13, quoted in Mt 15:8) is not enough if our hearts are not engaged with God . But at the same time, if our hearts are filled with joy and adoration, part of our worship involves using our bodies to express it. What is in the heart must be expressed in the outward actions. So how can we cultivate more expression in our congregation?
Well, the best way is by example. There’s something about seeing someone expressing their worship that inspires other people. Similarly, when we look bored or detached (even if we’re not) we can inhibit others. And that’s true whether we are standing at the front or in the congregation
So we begin with God, not ourselves. And we respond in an honest, expressive way to God and His goodness. And then, perhaps the most amazing thing we find when we worship is that God is active! As we give ourselves to Him, He has His own plans and purposes that He wants to fulfil among us; he wants to speak to us, to change us, to have fellowship with us. And this is why I strongly believe in the prophetic in the context of corporate worship: whether it’s a shared ‘picture’, a spontaneous prayer, a full-blown “thus saith the Lord” prophecy, or even starting a song that wasn’t ‘on the list’.
I don’t have space here to explore how the prophetic should be weighed or filtered, and I’m not saying that a ‘pre-prepared’ contribution can’t be powerfully prophetic. But I do think that an encounter with God is a dynamic, two-way thing, and we should have an expectation that God will lead us in our worship, sometimes in a direction we didn’t expect or plan for. And as that happens, we need to cultivate hearts that are ready to change, ready to be moulded and shaped by the loving hands of God as we offer ourselves wholeheartedly in worship.