A Thirst for Expressive Worship: Restoring Balance to Our Worship.

"As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God."
—Psalm 42:1

"I long to worship with freedom, singing songs of joy, clapping my hands in exuberance and worshiping together as we get lost in the presence of God."
—New Member of Madison Square

"It was so great to worship with you last Sunday night. The songs were great, and the band helped me to worship God. I appreciate the way you recognize people's emotions and include an appeal to emotions."
—Visitor to Madison Square

"I really enjoyed worship today. It was so beautiful. The time that we spent singing in the Spirit was so cleansing for me. I believe we worshiped God well today."
—Madison Square Elder

Any sensitive observer of the church's worship will have noticed that during the past decade or two our worship patterns and customs have been changing. On the one hand we see a kind of return to what we might call the liturgical traditions (such as observances of the church year, use of banners and liturgical colors, etc.); on the other, a new openness to the more free-flowing and emotion-releasing "charismatic" style.

Though I am copastor of a church that has been drinking from both these streams, my comments on these pages flow mainly from the second of the two. The charismatic renewal movement has helped our congregation express—both verbally and physically—a deep and intense emotion in our worship. As you probably sensed from the four opening statements, that is something our people long for and need.

As a pastor, I am called to interpret both the Scriptures and the life of the people I lead. I will attempt to interpret these four statements and give you a peek into the heart and mind of one who is called to lead a multiracial, multicultural, prismatic, charismatic, Christian, and Reformed people in worship of God.

"As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God."
—Psalm 42:1

We long to worship with intensity and abandon because we are created to worship God. The first and greatest commandment is not to serve others but to minister to God. This priority activity in our lives is to be done with a full surrender: with our whole heart and mind and strength.

In this image of the panting deer, the psalmist expresses the God-created thirst and hunger we have for the only One who satisfies. We have been looking for love in all the wrong places. Our heart's deepest longing is to be in God's presence and to open a dialogue with our Lord and Maker.

This truth is expressed confession-ally in the famous opening of the Westminster Confession: as image-bearers of God, our ultimate goal is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God alone. As Isaiah says, "Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare" (Isa. 55:2).

The kind of desire and longing expressed in these passages is similar to the passion that young lovers communicate. God, as our divine lover, desires our company. We, his bride, need time without limit (a hallmark of worship services of the "charismatic" bent) to enjoy God's presence. The worship time before the sermon, then, is not relegated to insignificant "preliminaries" but becomes a precious and holy time to enter into the bridegroom's chambers. The Lord's Supper becomes a time to linger over dinner with our beloved.

"I long to worship with freedom, singing songs of joy, clapping my hands in exuberance and worshiping together as we get lost in the presence of God."
—New Member of Madison Square

Recently I attended a worship service that was so silent it seemed oppressive to me. I noticed very little movement among the people; they sat stone-still while one man did all the talking. Then there were several minutes of silence so complete that I could hear my breathing. Control and quiet seemed to be the guiding values of that worship service.

I know that a full and intimate silence can center our diffused lives and contribute to a more disciplined listening to God's voice. In fact, many so-called "charismatic" worship services could benefit greatly from including more times of quiet and reverent listening. We are noisy people, easily distracted.

But there is also a quietness which is simply oppressive. The Madison Square member who made the statement about clapping hands and singing with joy came to us from an oppressively silent congregation. She felt that her church had suppressed her human need to worship freely—to express praise with childlike exuberance. She also spoke of a desire "to get lost in the presence of God"—to lose her self-consciousness in God-consciousness.

At Madison Square, we sometimes sing a call to worship that goes like this: "We have come into this place and gathered in his name to worship him…" In the second verse we urge each other to "… forget about ourselves and concentrate on him and worship him." True worship focuses not on self but on God, not on singing to our neighbor but on praising God. When that self-forgetfulness and holy remembering come together, we are in ecstasy (Greek: ekstasis, "to stand outside oneself"). This is entering the holy of holies, a re-creating experience. This is knowing God's love and grace. This is enjoying God in a holy, corporate, covenant, family embrace.

Ecstasy has its parallels in non-worship settings. Have you ever observed a crowd of basketball fans celebrating a game-ending slam dunk? That's ecstasy. Do you know the abandon and sweetness of the intimate act of marriage? That's ecstasy. Have you ever watched a three-year-old at play in a sandbox? That's ecstasy.

In fact, that last picture of ecstasy reminds us of Jesus' words to us: "… unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 18:3). During worship we must lose some of our self-consciousness, our adult habit of constantly watching ourselves. We must learn to worship playfully, losing ourselves in the presence of God… or we will miss the rich experience of God's presence. We have a human need and desire which is met by God's gift of ecstasy. Let us have ecstatic worship!

"It was so great to worship with you last Sunday night. The songs were great, and the band helped me to worship God. I appreciate the way you recognize people's emotions and include an appeal to emotions."
—Visitor to Madison Square

There is a new warmth of emotion, freedom, and expressiveness in much worship today which is too often challenged as "insincerely casual and superficial." We live in a society that has been characterized as "the information age," a culture of high-tech and low touch. However, the sophisticated technology and the application of the scientific method to solve our troubles and shape our worldview has produced a cold, barren, one-dimensional life. The human need to feel and express emotion, the deep human capacity to know and experience awe and mystery, has been given too little attention—even in the church. Worship services in the Protestant tradition, for example, have often been overly didactic and verbal, a mostly left-brained experience.

God's children are wonderfully complex creatures. We possess both bodies and souls, thoughts and emotions, left and right hemispheres in our brains. Our theology, in the Reformed tradition, is characteristically holistic; so ought our worship services to be expressive of all aspects of our redeemed humanness.

"I really enjoyed worship today. It was so beautiful. The time that we spent singing in the Spirit was so cleansing for me. I believe we worshiped God well today."
—Madison Square Elder

These words were spoken to me recently by a sixty-five-year-old leader in our congregation. He often comes forward after worship services to give elderly direction and commentary. On this particular morning, after a set of songs that had extolled the holiness and majesty of God, our band continued to sustain the final chord of our last song as I led the congregation in a time of free praise, exhorting all worshipers to sing the same note I was singing, then to branch out from that baseline chord. As our tongue-speak-ers began to sing in tongues, all others joined in English, using their own words to sing a simple song of love to God: "I love you, Lord… Glory to your name, Lord… I praise you, Jesus."

The song was highly improvised and included individual praise in a corporate expression. We discovered a new way to sing praise to our Lord ("Sing to the Lord a new song" Psalm 98:1), a new way to tell God of our adoration. The power of the Spirit washed over us that day as we became aware of the gentle presence of the third person of the Trinity.

I have noticed over the years that just as people have unique and characteristic personalities, so do congregations. And one way in which congregations differ is in the attention that each one tends to give to the persons of the Trinity.

Some churches seem to pay closest attention to God the Father; their worship often stresses God's power and greatness and our creatureliness.

Others major in God the Son, placing their emphasis on the issues of incarnation, our sin, and the grace of salvation. Worship in these churches is often more informal: Jesus is described as flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone—our Friend. As the incarnate Word is central, so the preaching of the Word is often central. The call to conversion and discipleship is usually the climax of the service and the goal of worship.

Then there are churches that focus mainly on God the Holy Spirit. Such congregations often emphasize the power to overcome in our new life and the ongoing battle between the forces of God and the forces of evil. Worship in these churches is often open to what we often call "extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit." Prophecies, tongues, and prayers for healing are common.

Of course, we should never serve just one person of the Trinity. One of the strengths of the Reformed tradition is its careful balance and recognition of God as One who comes to us in three Persons. Pastors and worship leaders who are theologically balanced and biblically sound will seek to give expression to the full range of the image of God found in us and direct worship to all three persons of the Trinity.

However, our churches don't always succeed in providing that balance. The elder quoted above had spent most of his early life in a church that majored in God the Father, minored in God the Son, and only gave lip service to the Spirit. He is now giving expression to his gratefulness for the opportunity to redress the imbalance.

He has recognized, as many of us do, that the Spirit of God is renewing us through new models and patterns of worship. A well-balanced and firmly rooted church has little to fear, much to learn, and much to give to the work of God in the charismatic renewal of worship.

David Beelen is a pastor at Madison Square Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.