Rivers of Living Water: Wisdom for Worship Leaders

Have you ever noticed how often Jesus’ teachings startled people? So many of his remarks seem, at first, to come out of the blue. For example, once he stood up in the temple on a high feast day and shouted, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink!” (John 7:37, NIV)

For centuries that remark has been used as a standard invitation to respond in faith to the good news of Jesus Christ. But for the crowd gathered in Jerusalem, Jesus’ words were startling. Why? Because it’s always startling to hear the truth from God’s point of view. His ways truly are higher than our ways. That very invitation had been offered before during the ministry of Isaiah—in that case, by God himself. Once again this upstart prophet out of Galilee baits the Pharisees with his claim to divinity. But before they even have time to absorb this claim, Jesus makes an even more outrageous one. “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38, NRSV). The significance of that imagery runs deep. Its ramifications burst forth in numerous directions, and even give us a key insight into the nature of true worship—one that substantially affects the task of ministry leaders once we think it through.

Worship Life as Waterways

Picture the worship life of the church as a system of waterways. It begins with individual wellsprings bubbling up here and there. From these come small creeks and rivulets, which, in turn, gather into streams and rivers. Eventually these streams and rivers find their way into the ocean.

True worship, of course, has its beginnings in the heart—the inner being. God seeks those who worship him in spirit and in truth. This venue of worship is necessarily individual and private. It is the wellspring of all true worship, for love comes from the work of God in individual hearts. For many people, worship ends where it begins, in the ever-important but ever-incomplete venue of personal and private worship. If our worship really does end there, we are but puddles in God’s plan for watering the earth with grace and worship. The water flows in but never flows out.

It’s easy to forget the difference between personal appreciation and praise. Appreciation needs only one or two persons. You can appreciate something within yourself and never tell anyone about it. You can appreciate something a friend has done and only tell her. Praise, on the other hand, requires a third party. I cannot praise you for something you’ve done without telling a third person. That’s one reason God so often commands us to praise him—it keeps us from reducing our worship to mere puddledom.

Our Lord has said that rivers of living water are to flow from our bellies—our inner being. Our praise must be shared. When this occurs, living waters gather and flow together in venues that are private and yet also corporate. It happens when God’s people share praise with other persons in the intimacy of a private setting. Many churches have caught on to this feature of God’s plan and have built significant organizations around small group worship. And the traditional ideal of family worship functions in much the same way.

Just as creeks and streams flow into rivers, worship that is private and corporate must collect into rivers of worship that are public and corporate. (Some streams flow into lakes with no outlets, even as there are gatherings of worshipers who assume all true worship ends with their little gathering. In reality, they’ve only extended puddledom into a corporate setting. As in nature, such puddle-lakes are seldom known for pure and clean water.)

God intends that our worship of his majesty should flow beyond mere public and corporate worship to worship that is universal. Whether it be the Old Testament’s frequent reminders that even the Gentiles would worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or the New Testament’s reminders that the good news would be preached to all people groups, the biblical writers show a continual awareness of that final goal in which every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

This vast ocean of worship is the grand culmination of all that God has been doing in the past, is doing now, and ever will do in the future. We cannot be close to the heart of God without gaining some sense of this grand and larger reality.

Connecting the Streams

So what does all this imagery mean to worship leaders? Churches that are serious about worship must fashion their work with a true understanding of the nature of their task. Too many seem focused upon getting leaders who can conjure up good feelings or heart-stirring events more or less on the spot. Such an approach casts the worship leader as a sort of conjurer, like Moses calling water from the rock. Instead, God intends that public and corporate worship be the gathering place for worship that is already flowing together from other venues. In other words, when we get it right, the worship leader simply aids in bringing together what is already flowing in the daily lives of the congregation. (Remember that the conjurer approach misplaces the focal point of worship from God to the leader. And that it was forgetting who was the true focal point in bringing water from the rock that kept Moses from entering the Promised Land.)

Worship leaders who only concern themselves with liturgy or public performances and who are without a passionate interest in the devotional and small group interactions of the congregation, can never rise above mere religious showmanship. Someday we will answer for our work. We will give an account to a heavenly Father whose sternness is aroused when his children’s worship is misled or misplaced.

The stakes are high and pose eternal consequence. As worship leaders we must connect the venues of worship for our congregation. We must clear the channels for worship to flow freely and naturally throughout the whole waterway. We must do what we can to assure that our fountainheads are pure and abundant. We must connect the worship of individuals together in meaningful small groups. We must connect what is done in the corporate setting with what is occurring in those small groups. And we must never lose sight of that final destination of those rivers of living water flowing from our inner being—the universal acknowledgment of the ultimate reality that Jesus really is Lord!


From the Heart to the Heavens

This CD is a hymn festival recorded live January 30-31, 2004, at the Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts, with John Schwandt, organist and pianist; Pearl Shangkuan, conference choir director; and Emily Brink, commentary. Produced by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in cooperation with the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians. The hymn festival features many traditional hymns as well as several from Sing! A New Creation. (Order #450008; 2.95US/ $17.50CDN,.

BC Cumings (bccumings@juno.com) was a Baptist minister for more than twenty years; he is currently preparing to be a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church and is serving at Galletin Gateway Community Christian Reformed Church, near Bozeman, Montana.


Reformed Worship 75 © March 2005, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.