OBSTACLES TO HOLY WORSHIP:

How Some Churches Make It Hard for People to Worship
 
Rev. Dr. Jack L Daniel

One summer Sunday morning many years ago, I had the Sunday off from preaching at my church and decided to visit a colleague’s church nearby. I recall that I was feeling very empty spiritually and was hungry for an encounter with the Lord. The service started well with some uplifting music, prayer, and Scripture. Then, it ground to a halt. First, my friend made some announcements about upcoming events and then invited members of this small congregation to share any other news of interest. One dear woman stood and spoke for at least 5 minutes about the church’s food pantry, going into excruciating detail. My spirit groaned within me, and from my vantage point at the back of the sanctuary, I sensed that the rest of the congregation was rapidly tuning out. For me, it felt like an “Ichabod moment” when the Holy Spirit departed from the Temple. It felt as though the sacred worship of God had been hijacked and something trivial put in its place. Unfortunately, the best efforts of my pastor friend were not able to redeem the rest of the service for me. I was frustrated and disappointed, but it was a moment of enlightenment for me because I realized our worship service was much like this one. I resolved that I would act to remove any obstacles (like long announcements) that made it harder for my people to seek and find the Lord in holy worship. That began a long process of working with my leaders to shape our worship services so that people might truly encounter God.

Interestingly, only once in the gospels does Jesus become violently angry: when religious leaders put obstacles in the way of those seeking the Lord. In his anger, Jesus made a whip and drove money changers out of the Temple area. The traditional interpretation is that Jesus was incensed because of the commercial activities of exchanging money and selling animals for sacrifice. That is indeed a good understanding, but it isn’t the whole story. New Testament scholar William Lane, in his expansive commentary on the Gospel of Mark, points out that these merchants had set up shop in the outer Temple Court known as the “Court of the Gentiles.” This space, by divine law, was specifically allotted to non-Jews so they, too, might seek the nearer presence of God. In this incident, Jesus quotes the Old Testament prophet Isaiah 56:7 as justification for his action: “Is it not written: ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of robbers’ (Mark 11:17). Dr. Lane writes, “While the designation of the temple as a house of prayer is ancient (I Kings 8:28-30), the clause “for all the nations” is found only in Isaiah 56:7 and in Mark’s summary of Jesus’ teaching.”(The Gospel According to Mark, p. 406). Lane further observes, “This notice indicates that Jesus expelled the merchants from the Court of the Gentiles in order to safeguard rights and privileges sanctioned by God. The use of the forecourt as an open market effectually prevented the one area of the Temple which was available to the Gentiles from being a place of prayer.”

The one time in the gospels when Jesus reacted in forceful anger was when the religious leaders were making it harder for people, especially “outsiders,” to worship.

In my work with Overseed, I visit many churches each year, and it is clear to me that many of them inadvertently place obstacles in the way of worshippers. For the first-century Gentile God-fearers seeking to get close to the presence of God in the Temple, it was a matter of limited space. That is typically not the problem today; the declining attendance of many of the churches I visit means there is plenty of room in the pews.

Instead, the problem today is that many pastors and church leaders simply do not have a true understanding of Christian worship and the role that pastors and worship leaders are to play in it. It was nineteenth-century Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who proposed that worship is a divine drama acted out each Sunday in the church. Every drama has three main components—the performers or actors, the prompters, and the audience. The problem, said Kierkegaard, is that we have gotten the roles mixed up. Too often in today’s church, the liturgical leaders (the pastor, music leaders, and Scripture readers) see themselves as the actors and the congregation as the audience, with the Holy Spirit as the prompter. The pastor and musicians pray fervently that the Holy Spirit will prompt them to remember their lines and anoint their performance so that members of the congregation are moved in some way. Kierkegaard saw this as elitist, as the liturgical leaders are modeling the belief that they are best equipped to be the performers, and so it is best if the congregation just watches as onlookers.

Kierkegaard was correct in seeing worship as a great drama, and that true worship can happen when we have the roles right—that is, when the pastor and worship leaders are actually the prompters, the congregation is the actors, and God is the audience. The role of leaders on Sunday morning is to assist the congregation to ascribe honor and glory to our Holy God. Therefore, the biggest obstacle for pastors and leaders to remove is themselves from the role of actor. Then they can embrace the role of prompter, helping the congregation give themselves to the Lord with wholehearted devotion and live out their lives daily for the pleasure of God, who is watching.

Here are my observations of how preachers and worship leaders can remove common obstacles that prevent people from doing that. They are based on my 35 years of pastoral ministry and now 10 years of sitting in the pew as one of the billions of small “actors” each Sunday longing to please the Audience, who is also the great Writer of this drama, and to know Him better.

Removing Obstacles as a Preacher

Your sermon is the linchpin of your worship service. Your parishioners and visitors to your church will put up with other minor obstacles if your preaching inspires, motivates, teaches, explains, and proclaims truth faithfully and well. I don’t want to be too hard on preachers because preaching is the most difficult part of pastoral ministry. It never gets easy, no matter how many years we have been at it, but we can and should get better with time. Here are some suggestions to consider so that YOU are not the obstacle to worship.
 
1. Don’t be boring. Jesus was never boring. The gospel is not boring. As twentieth-century novelist Dorothy Sayers declared, the gospel “is the greatest drama to ever stagger the imagination of man.” If your sermons are boring your people, don’t blame God. The master scriptwriter has given us the greatest storylines the world has ever known. If you want to find out if you are boring, ask your wife; she is your most honest and valuable critic. Also, ask a few of your people to evaluate your sermons, including their interest level. Do this for a few months, and heed their counsel.
 
2. Help your people follow your message. If the congregation doesn’t know what you are saying, are they worshipping? A good test for a pastor is to be able to sum up his message in one sentence and to keep that sentence in mind as he delivers the sermon. This is the Big Idea model of preaching. Tell your congregation what the big idea is, print it in the bulletin, and state it in the sermon title. Give your people a road map of where the sermon is going. Do this by printing the outline or stating it at the outset. In other words, tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them; and then tell them what you’ve told them. This will help them not only understand but also remember.
 
3. Apply your sermon. In my opinion, application is the hardest part of the message to create, and sadly, it’s the easiest part to omit or ignore. As a result, pastors often fail to apply their sermons. Good application is the result of a dialog that you have entered into with your people. You are the only one speaking, but the sermon is not a monolog. You are engaging in your mind with your people in a two-way conversation. As you shepherd your flock, listen to them, get to know them, learn their concerns, hopes, dreams, fears, and struggles, and apply the Word of God to these matters. Otherwise, they may rightfully respond to your sermon with, So what?
 
4. Watch the clock. For better or worse, television has shortened our attention span, and it is a rare preacher who can hold his congregation’s attention (let alone that of a visitor) for more than 30 minutes. I’m not one of them, and probably you aren’t either. When you are finished, wrap the message up, “land the plane,” don’t keep circling the runway. Many a great sermon “crashed and burned” because the preacher did not know when to stop. Assume you will stay at a church for many years, so you don’t have to express every idea this Sunday.

Someone has said preaching is like writing a new song each week and singing it unfinished. I have never written a song, but I have preached many an unfinished sermon. We never have enough time to be fully prepared. This is even more true for part-time and bi-vocational pastors. Martin Luther, acknowledging the challenge of finding enough time each week to prepare a sermon, advised us to pray: “He who has prayed well has studied well.”

Removing Obstacles as a Worship Leader

Going back to its roots in the Temple and synagogues, congregational singing is at the heart of Christian worship. Therefore, the main task of the worship leader is to assist the congregation to sing. If people aren’t singing, then are they worshipping? If they are not able to sing the songs you choose, I think it’s fair to say you are preventing or impeding their worship. Here are some ideas for helping, not hindering, worship.
 
1. Choose songs that are easily sung by anyone, not just skilled singers. Some popular Christian songs are better suited for performance, not congregational singing. Leave those to the radio and the concert stage. A generation ago, “praise music” was often chided for being too “7/11”; that is, seven words sung eleven times. The pendulum seems to have swung in a different direction, from too simple and repetitive to tunes and lyrics that are inaccessible to the average or inexperienced worshipper. Think “singability” when picking music for Sunday morning.
 
2. Select the best songs. Not all songs are created equal, so choose the best from every genre and era. There are so many great songs and hymns to choose from; there is no reason not to select the best.
 
3. Introduce new songs at a pace the church can absorb and become comfortable with. While we are exhorted in Scripture to “sing a new song,” nowhere does it say “every week.”
 
4. Less is often more, both with the length of sermons and the number of songs in a music set.
 
5. Don’t get in the habit of commenting on the songs. Songs speak for themselves. Trust the Holy Spirit to use them to speak to His people; you don’t need to. Obviously, you may briefly and occasionally introduce a song, but lengthy remarks can be manipulative because each person has his or her own response to each song.
 
6. Vary the songs you choose. Don’t select songs with all the same tempo, key, or theme.
 
7. Choose songs that focus more on God than on us. Too many songs today speak primarily of our emotions, brokenness, weakness, and deliverance from sin. Not every song has to be about freedom from chains. Worship music, at its best, reflects the wide range of the Lord’s glory: His power, creation, love, provision, Incarnation, cross, resurrection, ascension, supremacy, His Church, and His return in glory. Further, music is a tool by which we worshippers can affirm those truths.
 
8. Be culturally appropriate in the music you introduce on Sunday mornings. Music that does not suit the culture of the church will become an obstacle to worship and may potentially divide it. The Apostle Paul addresses this issue of appropriate worship in I Corinthians 14:23-25. There the issue was tongues speaking in the absence of an interpreter causing confusion. Inappropriate music might be all contemporary songs in a church that has previously sung only hymns, or vice versa.
 
9. Control the volume of the music. The reason is simple: when people can’t hear themselves sing, they stop singing. If they stop singing, they stop worshipping. For this reason, put well-trained team members at the soundboard, people with technical know-how AND sensitivity. They need to be able to judge and adjust the volume, so the congregation keeps singing. They can also ensure that the lead vocalist is loud enough and clear enough to help people unfamiliar with a song to follow the melody.

What a generous honor Jesus has conferred on us who preach and lead worship. He has trusted us to skillfully lead His flock in their praise and adoration of their Lord. May we always show the way and never stand in the way.