...You're Halfway Home: Response from a neighboring pastor

Dear Edi,

What all human beings long for is the manifest presence of God in worship. Psalm 139 teaches us that God is present everywhere, but we can also experience an intensification of that presence among us in worship. Real worship happens when God's people are sensitive to this intensified presence and enter into it with abandon and reverence—a most holy and glorious combination.

You describe such real worship in your letter when you passionately portray your congregation's hunger:

There is a hunger for honest worship. Not safe, comfortable worship, but honest worship. Worship that causes us to raise our hands in praise or to kneel in awe, without apologies to our neighbors. Worship that allows the sweetness and gentleness of God to move among us and bind us together, despite our differences. Worship that brings healing, that challenges and changes us.

If this is your longing, I want to encourage you: you are halfway home. Since God himself is seeking those who will worship him in Spirit and truth, our thirsting will soon be slaked by the finest of wine (Isa. 55:1-2).

Such soul-filling encounters with our Divine Lover, as he makes his dwelling in the praises of his people (Ps. 22:3) and manifests himself in splendid holiness, are both costly and focused.

Real worship costs us preparation— the personal preparation of one's heart and soul and mind (Matt. 22:37). Too often, it seems to me, our public worship does not radiate the manifest presence of God because we do not seek God's presence in private.

One of our musicians, Bob Hartig, has been practicing this costly discipline of shutting the closet door and seeking the Father's heart in private worship. He speaks of its rewards:

What we do in private will leak out in public. When we practice scriptural praise in private, it will translate into a liberty of expression in wholehearted praise and adoration offesus in the assembly of the saints. If we commit ourselves to unearthing the hidden Measures of the Word of God through prayer and meditation, that Word we have hidden within ourselves will activate at the touch of the Holy Spirit. It will become a flow of life to others, and a source of strength, encouragement, and vision in the church. Each of us ought to be coming to public worship with a spirit that has prepared itself to give out of the abundance and overflow from within, rather than consistently arriving at meetings with a "feed me, minister to me, encourage me, help me" attitude.

We also need a commitment to corporate preparation. I know a pastor who invites his elders to meet with him in the sanctuary each Saturday night for prayer. They pray over each pew and under each entryway, calling on the Spirit of worship to fall upon each person as he or she enters and interceding for every person who is part of the leadership team for the next day. I would also encourage a "no-pray no-play" rule for all musicians and worship leaders. We must take seriously our need to humble ourselves before our Lord and ask his blessing to fall upon our worship services.

Such preparation, both corporate and individual, honors God and brings a sense of humility and dependence upon the entire leadership team. Every seminarian is told that good sermons, ones that really feed the people of God, require at least twelve hours of focused preparation. Since we are learning that what happens in the service before the sermon must no longer be relegated to "the preliminaries," should not the same level of focus be applied to the preparation of the other movements of worship?

Real worship will also cost us our pride. The predominant word for worship in the Old Testament is shachach, which means "to prostrate oneself," and the dominant word in the New Testament is proskuneo, which means "to bend down to kiss." Both expressions highlight an attitude of extreme humility and absolute submission before the Lord.

Pride so often expresses itself in personal preference and in refusing transparency. Pastors, elders, and worship team members are called upon to lead irt this area by modeling an abandon in worship and a transparency in confession that can be caught by the rest of the congregation.

This kind of real worship will always be costly. The recovery of radical, powerful worship and praise in the body of Christ will always be fiercely contested. The challenge is for the church's leadership to plot a course of deliberate, scriptural education relating to the principles and practice of real worship and to engage in plans to lead the church with a zeal tempered by love.

Such leadership is likewise always costly. Cheap, people-pleasing worship leadership, which takes the path of least resistance, results in shallow, bland, and consumer-oriented fare. That kind of worship, which is a stench in God's nostrils, leaves worshipers full but malnourished.

King David himself refused to offer cheap worship to God. In 2 Samuel 24 we read of David purchasing a threshing floor to build an altar to God. The owner of the threshing floor offers to give it to the king. But King David responds, "No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing" (2 Sam. 24:24). In the New Testament, Paul urges us, in view of God's great mercies, to "offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God, which is our reasonable worship."

Real worship is costly. It will cost personal and corporate preparation, it will cost us our pride, and it will cost us our tendency toward a people-pleasing style of leadership.

Real worship requires purposeful leadership, leadership that brings a focus to our worship services. Focus will mean that we assign proper roles and that we have defined the purpose of each service.

Focus is especially necessary now because of the cultural chaos and resulting loss of identity we are experiencing in our churches. We are usually a combination of "silent," "boomer," and "buster" generations, each with peculiar tastes and frames of reference. Add to that the confusion in many churches over whether they are to be "traditional," "progressive," "praise and worship," or "seeker-sensitive," and you have a baffling array of variables to deal with. Your particular church also finds itself in the situation of being primarily a Euro-American worshiping community in a predominantly African-American neighborhood—all the more reason for a sharply defined focus.

Begin with a spiritual focus. The most helpful short-handed way of maintaining this focus is a constant reminder that God is the audience, the congregation of people are the performers, and the worship leaders and musicians are the prompters. The terms that we assign to roles reveal expectations. Wherever we hear the word "perform" attached to any act of worship, our antennae should be sensitized to pick up the dangerous connotations.

Second, the church leadership must establish a purpose focus. Willow Creek Community Church in the suburbs of Chicago has pioneered seeker-driven or seeker-sensitive worship services. They have taught us to be aware of the outsider. What we have not learned very well from them is that you cannot ride the fence on a very important issue: either you must present a worship service or an evangelistic service. Certainly our worship services can take account of and be sensitive to seekers, and our evangelistic outreaches can gently move people to begin to learn to give honor to God. But trying to do both at the same time does not work. Most churches do not have the depth of commitment or resources that it takes to pull off both an excellent worship service and an excellent evangelistic service every week.

I believe that your leadership team must ask critical questions of each worship service:

  • What is the purpose of this service?
  • Who are we aiming to reach?
  • How are the elements of the service tied together so that a spiritual, emotional, and theological "flow" is established?
  • How are our actions tied into the vision God is giving us about worship?

Turning toward this kind of costly commitment and focus in worship is a threat to the status quo. It is a threat to the pastor who no longer has a one-man show on Sunday mornings and must take into account the "flow of the Holy Spirit" in the life of the worship service, and must include the myriad gifts that the Lord is giving to the church. It is also a threat to the church musician who would rather perform a piece of music than minister to the Lord and to God's people. It is a threat to the church member who does not want his comfortable pew-sitting way disturbed. He fills a pew each Sunday, contributes to the offering plate each time it is passed by and does his "church work" every now and then. But he wants nothing to do with becoming a living sacrifice to God.

Let me summarize my response to your letter, Edi. I believe that the essence of strong, Spirit-directed leadership for the church today in the area of worship involves providing focus and direction to the people of God.

First, Let's focus on the heart of worship and call people to quit tinkering with technique. Let's focus on bringing our congregations to a new commitment to the center of worship: a broken heart before the Lord in absolute submission.

Second, let's call our leadership team to come together to chart a pathway through prayer toward a unified, biblical vision of worship. Short of a prayerful, purposeful direction, we will be blown about by every personal musical taste or self-defined worship style of the various groups in the church.

Finally I want to make a suggestion that I am hoping will catch on at my own church as well as at yours: a Saturday-night prayer ministry. The purpose of this ministry would be to hold up before the Lord the worship of the following day. Let me suggest the following format; a one-hour meeting consisting of:

—15 minutes of adoration in song and prayer
—15 minutes of intercession for the pastor and message
—15 minutes of intercession for the worship leaders and the congregation (maybe walking among the pews, praying silently for each member and gathering at each entryway to ask that the Spirit of worship will fall upon each person who enters the next day.)
—15 minutes of intercession for the rest of the day's activities (use the bulletin as a guide)

This prayer meeting will begin to prepare the congregation for that increase in costly commitment and bring about a sharper focus in the body of Christ as we worship our Lord.

Let us praise God's name together.

David Beelen

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