Worship From the Heart to the Heavens
Worship from the Heart to the Heavens” has been a frequent and fertile theme over the many years that I have planned and led worship services with a focus on congregational song, both in North America and beyond. This theme is a testimony that we’re never alone when we worship God. We always worship in community as part of the body of Christ, not only when we are in a congregation with others, but also by ourselves, in our “closets.” That is a comforting truth!
This service plan is intended as a template to explore five ways in which we are united with Christ, with each other, and with the world God loves. Each section includes Scripture and song suggestions with teaching notes and ideas to help both Scripture and song come to life. Since every congregation is different, several options are included. As you consider these expanding facets of worship, think about how your congregation might want to plan:
- One complete service, choosing ten songs, two from each section below, or
- Two services, one during Lent and another between Easter and Ascension, possibly repeating the sections with different songs; or dividing into six sections, three the first time, and three the second time, dividing the third section into “All Times” and “All Places.”
- You may well come up with more ideas for both Scripture and song, as well as additional brief teaching notes like those included here.
Whichever way fits your context best, I hope your congregation will enter into the joy of celebrating in Scripture and song how much God loves us and the church and the world. Enjoy the time of preparation as well, by creatively engaging the entire congregation, young and old, so that both Scripture and song support each other. Enjoy exploring together this big-picture framework of worshiping our God from the heart to the heavens.
Note that most often you will find the scripture text or song listed first followed by a suggested spoken introduction. We, however, did not provide you words for announcing the scripture reading or song itself. You will need to improvise that text, speaking only as much as is necessary for those gathered to follow. Finally, the e-version of this article, available to subscribers, has links to where most songs can be found online.
Introduction to the Service (by the worship leader)
Today we remember that we are never alone when we worship God. Worship begins at home, in each person’s heart, where God desires to meet each one of us. We are also called to worship in communion, first of all in local communities of faith. But there is more, much more. Whenever we worship, by ourselves or in community, we join a great company of believers of all times and places. Even more, we join our voices with all of creation, praising God with the sun and moon, shining stars, animals and plants—everything God made! And whenever we worship God, we join the heavenly hosts that even now are praising God. So in this service we remember with joy that worship begins at home, moves into community, and joins the church of all times and places on earth below and in heaven above.
Worship from the Heart
Worship begins at home, by ourselves or in families. When parents teach their children about worship, they model for them what it means to sing with hearts that are in tune with God. There is a famous passage in the Old Testament that is known as the Shema Yisrael (or Sh’ma Yisrael, which means “Hear, Israel,” the first two words of that passage). Jesus also recited it when an expert in the Law asked him, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment?” (Mark 12:28-34). Jesus knew that even the children knew this passage by heart. Observant Jews still recite this passage every day. So Jesus answered this expert in the law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.” The expert agreed that this was the most important commandment.
Hear now the Word of the Lord from Deuteronomy 6.
Consider having a parent and child read this together. Better yet, they could memorize the passage together and then “recite,” or “proclaim” it— the child on vv. 4-5, the parent on vv. 6-9, and both parent and child repeating vv. 4-5 together at the end.
Alternate Scripture Readings
- Psalm 51:10: “Create in me a pure heart. . . .”
- Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16: “Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord. . . .”
- 2 Corinthians 3:3: “You are a letter of Christ . . . written on . . . tablets of human hearts.”
Let’s sing of God’s desire that we worship from our hearts. In the next two songs we pray for God to tune us, like a violin or a piano, because sometimes we get out of tune. When our hearts are in tune with the heart of God, we can play beautiful melodies with our lives.
We will begin with singing
“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” GtG 475, LUYH 521, PH 356, PsH 486, TH 457, WR 68.
Note the second line: “Tune my heart to sing thy praise” and the last line: “Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above,” which pairs well with the next song in the same key.
We’ll follow this song immediately with
Alternate song suggestions
“Lord, I Want to Be a Christian in My Heart” GtG 729, PsH 264, TH 530, WR 457
This spiritual is particularly poignant considering its origins among American slaves. It has also been translated into Chinese. Many older Chinese Christians who suffered during the Cultural Revolution sing this from memory. [African Americans often sang this song in harmony while the Chinese sang in unison. Whichever way you sing it, sing with minimal and humble accompaniment.]
“Create in Me a Clean Heart” (from Ps. 51:10-12) GtG 423, PFAS 332, SWM 153, SNC 49, WR 378
This Scripture chorus is a prayer directly from Psalm 51, one of the most loved psalms of confession that David prayed when repenting of his sin against Uriah and with Bathsheba.
“Give Me a Clean Heart” LUYH 621, PFAS 326, SNC 64
Psalm 51:10 is the prayer for purity of heart that begins this black gospel song. [Consider having someone comfortable in the black gospel style lead this song from the piano, perhaps with one voice on the first refrain and on the stanzas, and all on the refrains after st. 1.]
Worship in the Congregation
We worship God first in our hearts, but not alone. God’s desire is that we belong not only to Christ, but to each other, the body of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 12, the apostle Paul moves beyond heart language: the worshiping community includes the other parts of the body too. God meets each of us in the midst of our relationships in a local fellowship of believers, with many different gifts and many different parts. We are members together of one body.
Hear the Word of the Lord from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in chapter 12, just before that famous section on love in chapter 13.
1 Corinthians 12:12-18
Consider preparing and rehearsing a group reading of this passage, with a diversity of people involved, young and old, male and female. Or one reader, perhaps standing at the baptismal font, could be surrounded by a group that points to different parts of their bodies, with gestures, including shaking heads. If this proves particularly effective, consider videotaping the reading and posting it on YouTube or sending it to RW.
- Ephesians 5:21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
- Colossians 3:12-17: “As members of one body. . . . Teach and admonish each other with all wisdom as you sing. . . . ”
Let’s sing a couple of songs that celebrate our unity in Christ. As God welcomes us into the family of God, so we are called to welcome each other, the stranger, everyone.
“All Are Welcome” GtG 301, LUYH 269
The language of hospitality declares, “All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.”
If this song is new for your congregation, have one person or a group sing the first one or two stanzas, with everyone on the refrains, and then all join on stanzas 3-5. Or consider alternating higher and lower voices on the stanzas, with everyone singing together on stanza 5.
“Blest Be the Tie That Binds” GtG 306, LUYH 257, PsH 315, TH 359, WR 393
An 18th century English pastor wrote this moving hymn about the love shared in the congregation he was called to serve. Note how this text moves from “our hearts” in the first stanza, through the congregation, the church of all ages, and into eternity. Worship extends from the heart to the heavens even in this one song!
“God, You Call Us to This Place” LUYH 351, SNC 14
This song provides a beautiful picture of what Christians do when they gather for worship, where God’s “hospitality makes of us one family, makes our rich diversity richer still in unity” (st. 1). And notice in stanza 3 how four words summarize our worship services so well: We are “called, forgiven, loved, and freed, for the world we intercede.”
“We Are One in the Spirit” GtG 300, LUYH 256
The song note under this song in the Presbyterian hymnal Glory to God includes this story: “A parish priest on the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s was very involved in the local Civil Rights movement and needed something for his youth choir to sing at ecumenical, interracial events. Finding nothing, he wrote this song in a single day.”
Worshiping with Christians of All Times and Places
We all live in one time, but we stand on the shoulders of many who have gone before us. And we all live in one place at a time, but we have neighbors over the whole world. We heard that the greatest commandment is to “love God with all our heart,” but then Jesus added, “The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”
The body of Christ is much greater than the local congregation; every time we gather to worship together, we are united with those who have gone before us, back to the beginning of time! And we worship with our brothers and sisters across the entire world.
Think of worship as a cross-shaped activity, with a vertical line connecting us to all who have gone before us, and a horizontal line, arms open wide, connecting us with all our brothers and sisters spread over the whole world! The Bible is the great story of all our brothers and sisters of the faith, and we are also part of that great story.
Hebrews 11:4-29 and Psalm 90:1-5
Here are two passages of Scripture that tell us something about our older brothers and sisters in the faith. First, hear the word of the Lord from this summary of Hebrews 11:
This summary could be read by one, or by a succession of people each coming onto the platform to “read” (preferably from memory) their line, and leaving to make room for the next person, all to symbolize the movement of time.
By faith, Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s.
By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; he had pleased God.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place he was to receive as an inheritance, as did Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the promise.
By faith Moses considered abuse suffered for the Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt; by faith he kept the Passover.
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry ground.
And speaking of Moses, did you know he wrote one of the psalms? Psalm 90 is probably the oldest song we know! At the beginning of Psalm 90 in many Bibles, there is a note that reads: “A prayer of Moses, the man of God.” Whenever we sing this song “from ages past,” we think of our own past, but Moses thought of his own past too!
Time keeps moving, and “a thousand ages” in God’s sight are “like an evening gone.” Like many other psalms, Psalm 90 was translated from Hebrew to Greek to Latin to English, and missionaries took the English text to many other countries and translated it into many other languages. When we sing this song, we are singing with Moses. This song is one of the best loved and known songs in the entire world. Let’s join our voices with all who have ever sung this prayer—God hears us all.
“O God, Our Help in Ages Past” (Ps. 90:1-5) GtG 688, LUYH 405, PFAS 554, PH 210, PsH 170, TH 30, WR 84
Do consider singing all the stanzas, choosing perhaps a choral setting, with a variety of instruments. Or divide the stanzas, for example: all on stanza 1 and 6, and alternating higher and lower voices on stanzas 2-5. If that practice is new for your congregation, suggest that when not singing they meditate on that part of the prayer, so that the entire song becomes our communal prayer sung together with all those who have ever sung this psalm.
“Salaam/Peace” LUYH 298
By way of contrast to the previous hymn of praise that goes all the way back in time to Moses, fast-forward thousands of years and let us pray for peace in intercession for and with our brothers and sisters in Christ who live now where Moses lived so long ago.
The Middle East has a rich and troubled history, but in the midst of it arose a strong heritage of singing. This song comes from the hymnal of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Egypt, a land where Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus for refuge, and a land where today our brothers and sisters are weary of conflict and persecution. Let us join our voices with theirs in this prayer for peace. “Salaam” is the Arabic word for “peace.”
Consider opening the song with a violin or oboe on the introduction, and also supporting the melody on some of the stanzas.
“This Holy Covenant Was Made” LUYH 847, SNC 173
This text sweeps through all of history, starting with the covenant God honored in delivering us from slavery in Egypt through the covenant renewed in Christ, remembered every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper to the holy covenant God seals in our hearts through the work of the Holy Spirit.
“Somos uno en Cristo / We Are One in Christ Jesus” GtG 322, LUYH 255, SWM 235, SNC 179
Many English-speaking missionaries traveled the world, translating English worship songs into other languages. Today, people speaking many different languages are on the move, with immigrants and refugees settling in our communities, bringing new songs in new languages to our doorstep. In this song we have the opportunity to join voices with our Spanish-speaking brothers and sisters in a Scripture chorus based directly on Ephesians 4, where the apostle Paul encourages us to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
Before singing, consider having two native speakers read Ephesians 4:3-6, one in English, one in Spanish. Then sing together, first in Spanish by a soloist or group that has prepared it; then in English, and a third time perhaps in both languages simultaneously—in a kind of Pentecost celebration of praising God in different languages.
Worshiping with All of Creation
To sum up so far, we worship God with our hearts in our inmost being, but we also worship God in community, not only in our local congregations but all the way back to the beginning of time and throughout the world that God has made and loves.
In this section we praise God for the creation; in fact, we praise God with creation! Psalm 19 begins, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Did you ever consider how everything God made joins the great song of praise to our Creator? Listen to the delightful invitation in Psalm 148; in this psalm we invite everything under the sun to join us in singing songs of praise and thanksgiving to God.
This psalm begs to be dramatized, so that children of all ages can visualize and delight in hearing the big scope of God’s great big cosmos. The reading needs to include generous gestures and eye movements, rehearsed and possibly even memorized.
“Praise the Lord, Sing Hallelujah” LUYH 6, PFAS 976, PsH 188
Let’s now sing a setting of Psalm 148, inviting everyone and everything to praise our Creator, who gave us such a beautiful amazing world to live in.
“Touch the Earth Lightly” GtG 713, LUYH 18, WR 38
Most traditional hymns about creation praise God for the beauty of creation, like “Beautiful Savior, King of Creation,” which includes the lines, “Fair are the meadows, fair are the woodlands . . . fair is the sunshine, fair is the moonlight, bright the sparkling stars on high.” But we know that in many places, people cannot even see the stars due to light pollution, and the sunshine is dimmed by choking smog; even God’s gift of water is too often not safe to drink. That is surely not God’s desire for creation. Too often God’s world has been abused. Paul writes in Romans 8, “The whole creation has been groaning.” Today, some hymn writers are taking up the challenge to address our calling as stewards of the earth, to “touch the earth lightly.”
In keeping with this text, keep the music reflective and light as well. Since this will be new to most, perhaps a soloist could sing stanzas 1-3, with all joining on stanza 4.
“Let All Things Now Living” GtG 37, LUYH 5, PH 554, PsH 453, TH 125, WR 22
This treasured hymn invites “all things now living” to join in praise to our creator God. It is clear that Katherine Davis knew the Old Testament well because so many images from Exodus are included in the first stanza, like “a pillar of fire shining forth in the night,” reminding us of God’s leading the people of Israel by day and by night. The second stanza is closely related to Psalm 148, which speaks of stars and sun, hills and mountains, rivers and fountains. Take joy, like Psalm 148 does, that God not only made our beautiful creation, but also sustains it and us, “guiding us on to the end of our days.”
Several hymnals include a descant; here would be an opportunity to add sopranos and/or instruments to brighten and heighten our praise together.
“The Earth Belongs to God Alone” GtG 715
This next hymn was inspired by a study of the meaning of the Year of Jubilee, in which the people of Israel were to give the land a Sabbath rest every seven years. Then after forty-nine years, seven times seven, was to come the great Year of Jubilee, also not sowing or reaping, but eating what God provided directly from the fields. The people of Israel never trusted God enough to follow this command given in Leviticus 25. Many years later, the book of 2 Chronicles ends with the sad account of what finally happened: Jerusalem was destroyed, and the people of Israel were taken into exile. What wisdom do we need today from Scripture about our responsibility to care for creation, in this time of droughts and floods, earthquakes and hurricanes, with so many people suffering from hunger?
Since both text and tune are new, perhaps a soloist could sing stanzas 1-3, with all joining on stanza 4.
Worshiping with the Heavenly Hosts
Finally, we lift our eyes from this earth, even from all of creation. Every so often the Bible records stories and visions of life beyond this earth. The prophet Isaiah saw a vision of our great God who is being worshiped always, even now, by seraphs with six wings, always calling out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty” (Isa. 6:3). That’s the origin of the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy.
In Luke 2 many angels make an appearance—to Zechariah, to Mary, to Joseph, and to the shepherds abiding in the fields—all of those appearances are celebrated in many songs as well.
In the last book of the Bible, the old apostle John records the revelation he was given, which include not only seraphs and angels, but other living creations, and the Lamb of God, looking as if he had been slain, together with a great multitude, including our ancestors in the faith, all who have died in Christ.
Hear the Word of the Lord from that vision:
In the worship folder or on screen, include this text, and have everyone read together the words from vv. 6 and 7:
Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory!
In contrast to singing two songs in this section, considering singing only one here, followed by the closing prayer, and then a closing doxology. There are so many possibilities; here are some of my favorites, with no teaching notes. Now will be the time to raise voices in praise and adoration to our triune God. The following list is in alphabetical order:
- “By the Sea of Crystal” LUYH 489, PsH 620, TH 549
- “Holy God, We Praise Your Name” GtG 4, LUYH 540, PH 460, PsH 504, TH 103, WR 138
- “Holy, Holy, Holy” GtG 1, LUYH 538, PH 138, PsH 249, SWM 28, TH 100, WR 136
- “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending” GtG 348, LUYH 479, PH 6, TH 318
- “My Soul Cries Out with a Joyful Shout” (The Song of Mary) GtG 100, LUYH 69, PFAS 462
- “Sing Praise to the Lord, You People of Grace” (Psalm 150) LUYH 7, PFAS 994
- “Soon and Very Soon” GtG 384, LUYH 482, SWM 149, SNC 106, WR 523
- “When the King Shall Come Again” (Isaiah 35) LUYH 475, WR 534
And so we come to the end of our journey tonight. Let us pray.
Holy God, our Father, we bless and praise you
for your creation of each one gathered here tonight,
giving us hearts that find their rest in you.
We bless and praise you for sending your Son to bind us together
into a community of faith that extends through all time and space.
We thank you that we may, even tonight, join with all the heavenly hosts
who surround your throne, singing your praises and giving you the glory.
We pray that we may treasure the gifts you have given us—
the gifts of our lives, made new in Christ,
the gifts of our local communities of faith,
the treasures of those who have gone before us,
the treasures from every tribe and tongue and nation and people.
May we always remember that we never worship you alone,
but always in community,
as part of the large body of Christ and all of creation.
We know we will never worship you perfectly while we are here below.
So we trust that your Holy Spirit will help us in our weakness,
and intercede for us when we sing.
And we ask you, Lord Jesus Christ,
to perfect the praises we have offered tonight,
bringing them before the Father as a sweet sacrifice of praise. Amen.
“Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” GtG 606-609, LUYH 964, 965, PH 591, 592, PsH 638, TH 731, 732, WR 34, 44, 147
For a closing doxology, let us sing what you may have sung a thousand times before. But tonight, let us sing it humbly, prayerfully, yet with joy and full attention to this text that packs so much meaning into four short lines.