May 16, 2018

Experiencing God Through Worship

Undoubtedly the most profound miracle and mystery about worship is that when Christians gather to worship our Lord, God shows up! He is present within the praises, prayers, and reflections of his people. Paul provides my favorite description of this presence: “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” (Colossians 3: 16).

We who lead, plan and/or preach are (pick your favorite noun) shepherds or stewards or midwives of this presence. What an indescribable privilege!

But the privilege comes with a deep challenge: there is no formula by which God “magically” appears in worship. Even so, I think I dare to say there are a few characteristics of worship which invite his presence more fully. Let me risk a few descriptions.

Capacity for experiencing God is enhanced when:

Excellence is Held Lightly

Worship involves many skills, each of which is practised on a continuum ranging from “poor” to “excellent.” God deserves our best, and the “best excellence” is almost invisible, it does not draw attention to itself, it’s “just there.” Excellence that draws attention to itself gets in God’s way.

Our Leaders are Pilgrim-Companions

As we gather together in God’s presence, his power is made perfect in our weakness. We don’t pretend, we don’t grovel, we are simply hungry children at rest before the Father’s throne. As our leaders embody this “pilgrim-companion” posture, our collective transparency and vulnerability prepares us to meet the God of grace and truth. Our awakened longings are readied to receive his gifts.

Words Become Windows, Not Walls

Words are precious gifts wired deep within the fabric of our humanness to connect us to each other and our Lord. Words can be used to reveal and to conceal; they can serve as windows to God’s heart or walls which hide him. Those who speak publicly in worship learn to use words so that we can see through them to the meeting between God’s heart and our hearts.

Gracious Hospitality Reigns

Worship brings the most illogical combinations of people together. Everything we do in worship declares, “You belong here! We are delighted that you are part of this worshiping community.” Worship leaders have a finely-tuned sensor which alerts them to words and phrases which shut people out, phrases like, “All of us know Psalm 23…” or “You’ve experienced the delights of a Lake Michigan beach…” or “When your family sits down for dinner tomorrow…” Instead, our worship language has room for everyone to find a home.

Worship Is Emotionally Rich But Not Emotionally Manipulative

We all bring a tangled web of emotions into worship, and worship is strong enough to honor them, to hold them, to receive them into the powerful hands of Jesus. As leaders, we are facilitators of that receiving, not engineers. I have been a church musician for 50 years, and I am continually amazed at the ways a single hymn can serve as a “container” for my joy, my discouragement, my apathy, and my anger all at the same time!

The Community Is Prepared to Enter into God’s Presence

We who lead worship are “micro-coaches,” that is, we use short phrases (verbal and musical) to coach the community toward readiness to meet with God. When the Scripture is introduced with, “Listen to this reading from the book that we love,” something in the hearer’s heart melts and is more open to meeting God through the reading. When the musical lead-in to a song embodies a warm, meditative spirit, the hearts which lift their voices are softened to approach God’s throne.

We Give Thanks for “Providential Serendipity”

At least once a month I hear comments like, “That’s the third time I’ve encountered that passage this month. I wonder what God’s trying to tell me,” or “We sang that hymn at Robert’s funeral and it still strengthens my heart every time,” or “It seemed like the entire worship service was designed specifically for me.” Such comments are beautiful reminders that inviting God’s presence is out of our hands: the Lord is doing his lifelong Psalm 139 walks with every one who gathers, and he will work through our bumbling attempts at faithfulness as only he can.

What a miracle. What a mystery. What a privilege. What a gift.