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Cultivating Reverence in Worship

“Worship the Lord with reverence, and rejoice with trembling.” (Psalm 2:11)

“…the only true and salutary joy is that which arises from resting in the fear and reverence of God.” — John Calvin, commenting on Psalm 2

A War Against Reverence

Last week, I took my kids to a church where they often kneel to show respect for God’s presence. Apart from my prompting, my daughter knelt with me and folded her hands in prayer. It was a sincere and instinctive gesture. “Jesus said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children (Matthew 11:25).’” It was a precious moment experienced at the end of a newsweek that seemed bereft of candid reverence.

Irreverence is en vogue. It spits at us from the mouths of talking heads, Facebook trolls, and late-night television hosts. It reaffirms a perspective that only answers to itself and encourages others to stay away. Irreverence has no time for mysteries. It is easily controlled and manipulated to serve our own ends and confirms prejudices against God and others. Our very way of life is, more often than not, built on disrespect for tradition and indulgence.

Daily forces conspire to bend us in this direction. As helpful as they can be, even social media and new technologies can “disembody” us in a way that makes it harder to cultivate reverence. Many of us spend more time interacting with others through technological buffers than we do face to face. I am one of these people. Total disengagement is not an option, but thoughtful interaction is necessary. In our culture, it’s easy to be formed with a prejudice against reverence and a respect for human limits. As worship leaders, we have the opportunity to offer the next generation habits and rituals that reinforce reverence for God and His creation.  

Made for Reverence

Scripture is full of admonitions about the pursuit of reverence. As God’s children, we are invited to hear Jesus’ tender request to “Let the little children come to me...(Matthew 19:4),” as well as to experience the terror and awe that confronted Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:6).

John Calvin described reverence as the place where joy and fear are held together. Not the fear of trembling and despair, but the kind that cultivates awe and respect when contemplating God’s holiness, nearness, grace and power. This kind of reverence does not invite worshipers into what C.S Lewis has called “an obligation to feel,” but into a space where personal feelings serve only as a background to the drama of God’s being. “Be still and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10).”

This is the kind of fear that Scripture calls the beginning of wisdom. We were built for reverence because we were built to glorify God. We develop a capacity for deep joy in the same measure that we learn to revere God, ”Humble yourself before the Lord, and He will lift you up (James 4:10).”

The best of our Reformed heritage teaches us that this posture is a necessary component of faithful Christian worship. Our commitment to the whole witness of Scripture ties us to reverence and joy. Both work together in a life of discipleship and shape our work and worship. As the old saying goes, “God is God and we are not.” This is something learned through worship in our minds, hearts, souls, and bodies. The fruit of this knowledge is love and gratitude toward God and our neighbors. Irreverence takes these things for granted, but embodied reverence for the Creator teaches reverence for the creation, both human life and the material wonders of His hands.

Rediscovering Reverence

Reverence is a way of life that takes practice. We are called to remind our congregations of this truth, not only with words, but in the ways that we model this in worship and Christ-like relationships (Philippians 2). Considering others better than ourselves starts by considering that God is greater than ourselves. Every inch belongs to Christ, and every inch depends on His sustaining hand (Colossians 1:15-23). In practice, it is easy to downplay this mystery in the ways we gather for worship. Humility is taught as much through our liturgical actions as through our words, eloquent sermons and long prayers. Reverence is counter cultural because it does not have to be predicated on words or emotional pitches.  

The decline of reverence in our broader culture has left many thirsting for something outside of themselves. We confess that those who long for transcendent beauty will find it in the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In our generation, Alvin Plantinga has reminded us that the inherent need we feel to revere God is “properly basic” because it was put there by Him. There is no greater apologetic than goodness, beauty, and truth. Their connection to reverence is unmistakable to those who are searching. The question is, are we offering these seekers the space and rituals to reinforce what we confess? It is part of our job as pastors and worship leaders to make sure that we are shaping a church culture that embodies reverence in our worship.

Practicing Reverence: Building a Reverent Worship Culture

How do we embed habits of reverence in our corporate worship?
Here are a few ideas for your consideration.

  • Be punctual and prepared. Punctual church attendance seems like a rarity in the Northern California context in which I live. It’s not uncommon to see worshipers casually stroll into church 10-20 minutes late in flip flops, holding a cup of coffee. The widespread acceptance of this kind of behavior has unintended communal consequences. It disconnects our heads and hearts from outward habits and actions. It advances an approach to worship that J.K Smith has called “brains on a stick.” I have had many conversations with worshipers who believe that the most important way they can participate in the service is to listen to the sermon. For these folks, the quality of one’s participation is reduced to how one interacts intellectually and emotionally with the sermon.
  • Schedule prelude music that serves to calm minds and settle hearts. Worshipers need time and an opportunity to prepare themselves to participate in worship. In addition, start preludes early enough that arriving worshipers have time to settle in and orient themselves.
  • Start your service on time and participate with the rest of the congregation. I have known many worship leaders that pop up to the mic when it is time to sing, then sneak out to the snack table or lobby to wait until it is time to “perform” again. This kind of practice is a destructive form of professionalism in ministry. It’s disrespectful to God and the rest of the worshiping community. Reformed worship leaders should model presence, attentiveness, and reverence during worship. Starting on time communicates that this is God’s time and is not subject to our whims. Being on time shows respect for the person with whom we are meeting. In this case, God.
  • Set a tone of reverence. Intentionally select gathering music that orients worshipers toward God’s holiness. Start with hymns and songs that are majestic and transcendent in word and form, particularly those that give a “God’s Eye” overview of redemptive history. Some examples might include Holy, Holy, Holy or O God Beyond All Praising. Stay away from gathering songs that are too “casual” or come from a perspective where humans address God first. This practice is both historic and Reformed.
  • Provide consistent and intentional times of silence and confession. “Be still and know...,” is the practice of hushing our own inclination to speak first. We need space for reverence, something the world rarely offers.
  • Dress up for church. Dressing up, in the midst of a culture that dresses down, communicates the nature of our vocation as worshipers. It can be a physical sign of reverence that affirms that our bodies are good and that we wish to conform our lives to God and His community. The way we dress speaks volumes about who we are and what our job is. I wonder if the pendulum of casualness has currently swung to the other extreme? My family and I used to live in a low income neighborhood of Oakland, CA. I was always impressed to see the poorest folks in our neighborhood “dressed to the nines” for church on Sunday. In some degree, the way in which they dressed on Sunday communicated how they felt approaching Christ and the church.
  • Sing a few songs every week that slow your congregation down. The Western music tradition has enshrined the concept of “tension and release” in much of the contemporary music that we sing. Include songs without stark tension and release that emphasize repetition, musical space, and simplicity. This might include the use of Taizé refrains, cantored Psalms with refrain, or simple contemporary choruses like Sandra McCracken’s “Trinity Song.”
  • Pause before prayer. Train your worship team and pastor to take 5-15 seconds of silence before they address God in prayer before the congregation. This provides worshipers with time to re-orient their minds and hearts and it slowly trains your congregation to become comfortable with silence.
  • Introduce physical acts of reverence. Kneel for confession during Lent. Stand when Scripture is read. Encourage worshipers to open or hold hands when reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Invite worshipers to raise their hands when your pastor speaks the Sursum corda (Lift up your hearts…) or Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy…).
  • Reclaim your sanctuary as a sacred space. Many contemporary churches (out of necessity) have turned their sanctuaries into multi-purpose rooms. This can unintentionally collapse a sense of sacred space and prayer. Is there a place that members of your congregation can go during the week for quiet and prayer? Maybe our culture is just as hungry for this kind of sacred space as for informal “front porch” space that encourages human relationships and cultural flourishing. In this sense, the reclaiming of our sanctuaries may be one of the more fruitful evangelistic actions your congregation could undertake.
  • Provide time for prayer and singing during communion. Does your time at the Lord’s Table feel rushed or “tacked on” to the end of your service? Reformed Christians have always believed that Christ feeds us explicitly through the bread and wine. Are you communicating this truth through reverent practices?
  • Consider your church architecture. How is it forming your congregation? Consider ways to create worship spaces that encourage healthy reverence. Space and aesthetics matter.
  • Think about liturgical transitions. How “chatty” or informal are transitions between acts of worship? How does this shape the way your congregation understands their role as worshipers in the context of the whole service? Liturgical transitions implicitly work for, or against, the narrative unity of your service. Overly informal banter from the front of the sanctuary can unnecessarily distract. There’s plenty of time to showcase your wit and humor after the service.