SEVEN PRINCIPLES OF INSPIRING WORSHIP

 
by Rev. Dr. Jack L. Daniel
 
Many years ago, as a seminary student, I purchased a single page from a first edition (1611) King James Bible. I framed this large, pulpit-size Bible page, and it later hung in my office at the first church I pastored. Years later, when I retired from that ministry, I had the page conserved and reframed and donated it to the church I had pastored for 35 years. Can you believe it was only then that I actually read the page! It was Chapter 43 of Ezekiel, “The Glory of the Lord Returns to the Temple”—the account of Ezekiel’s vision of the Holy Spirit returning to Israel after the 70-year exile in Babylon. Just as Ezekiel had seen the Spirit depart the Temple (Ezekiel 10), thus removing God’s blessing from Israel and their protection from Babylon, he now saw the Spirit return as a visible manifestation of God’s presence and approval. How appropriate for what had happened in my church over the 35 years. When I arrived at age 30, the church has been in steep decline, with talk of closing for good. The people were tired and discouraged; a biblical message had not been consistently heard from the pulpit since the 19th century. Slowly, as the Gospel was preached and lived out, spiritual life came back. There was a growing sense of the presence and blessing of God upon us as we sought to obey Him. It was not an easy or smooth journey, but it became increasingly evident, especially in worship, that the Holy Spirit was among us. The Apostle Paul dares to say that when Christian worship is done God’s way, even the stranger will say, “God is really among you” (I Cor.14:25).
 
In this article, I suggest seven principles that I believe help foster truly inspired worship.
 
1. Invite and Expect the Holy Spirit to Be Present.

The most essential principle of inspiring worship is the presence and work of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, prayerfully invite and expect the Holy Spirit to be present. Worship is by nature God-focused, not people-focused. It is our response to what God has done. To worship God means to give Him the ultimate worth that He alone is due. All Christian worship, whether in song, prayer, Communion, offerings, or preaching, is the believers’ response to everything God has done in our lives and in history.

The challenge is to keep worship centered on God and not on ourselves. We naturally bring our feelings, needs, wants, preferences, and traditions into our worship experience. However, the goal of worship is not to make us happy but to glorify God. As theologian Richard John Neuhaus said, “The celebration that we call worship has less to do with the satisfaction of the pursuit of happiness than with the abandonment of the pursuit of happiness.” True worship may make us sad and remorseful for our sins, or it may make us joyful for our blessings, but that is the result, not the goal, of worship.

When we plan worship, do we actually expect that God will be present? Is our objective to fashion a worship experience that will so turn our gaze to the Lord that people will say, “God is really among you”? What sets Christian worship apart from every other human experience is the life-giving presence of God. Everything else is subordinate to that. The ancient Jews fully expected to meet God in the Temple. The early Christians fully expected to encounter the risen Lord Jesus as they worshipped and broke bread, just as the travelers on the road to Emmaus did. Jesus assures us that He is present as we gather in His name, even in the smallest numbers. Sadly, as pastors and worship planners, often our hope for worship is merely that the sermon and music go well, and the congregation goes home happy. I want to challenge all of us to set our sights much higher and expect that God will indeed grace our worship with His holy presence. We don’t have to beg Him to show up, for Jesus has assured us that the Father is already actively seeking those who will worship Him in spirit and truth (John 4:23). And when God shows up at worship, He steals the show.
 
2. Support Your Worship Service with Prayer.
 
Of all the activities of the church, the one that needs prayer the most is public worship. I believe a great spiritual conflict is raging in the heavenly realms as God’s people gather for worship. The battle is being waged in the hearts and minds of the congregation as they are led to repentance, praise, conversion, or healing. I know from long personal experience that every preacher faces spiritual warfare in his own soul as he prepares to preach God’s word. Planning and leading worship are tasks that cannot be done by us; they can only be done through us, by the Spirit. Therefore, it is imperative that we undergird the effort with prayer. Gather a handful of faithful, prayerful people who will commit to pray each week for the worship service. Ideally, such a team could gather on site before the service begins. Encourage them and celebrate their behind-the-scenes ministry. Share with them specific requests, and report back to them the answers to their prayers. There will be a noticeable difference in the vitality of the service.
 
3. Strive for Unity Among Your Worship Team.
 
Jesus’ last earthly prayer for his church was that they would live in true unity as their most powerful witness to Him (John 17). Nothing quenches the Holy Spirit’s presence in worship faster than strife among the worship team. Unfortunately, conflict and competition on worship teams are all too common. When there is discord among those leading worship, the negativity is palpable, and inspired worship is impossible. Jesus warns us in the Sermon on the Mount that if we are out of sorts with a fellow believer, our worship is impossible until we have restored that relationship (Matthew 5:23-24). Paul urges the Ephesians to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). I believe that unity starts at the top, especially the pastor and worship leaders. Strive for trust, mutual respect, and a mindfulness about what you say and how you say it. Pastors must take the lead in building unity, so spend time with your worship team, not only planning and praying, but having fun.  Learn how much time and effort your worship director spends choosing songs, conducting rehearsals, coaching vocalists and instrumentalists, and caring for the artistic temperament of his or her team. Then add to that the time spent in setup, take down, and storage of all the equipment. Worship leaders often express feeling misunderstood and unappreciated. A wise pastor will treasure his worship leader and team and work to build true community with them. When there is a caring Christian community at the worship leadership level—when there is unity and harmony on the worship team—it spreads through the congregation and pleases the Holy Spirit.
 
4. Ask the Holy Spirit to Send the Needed Gifts for Vital Worship.
 
The Apostle Paul tells us that when Jesus ascended to heaven, he sent the church the gifts necessary for vital ministry (Ephesians 4). Teaching about spiritual gifts is frequently reduced to what can become a narcissistic quest for self-discovery. However, spiritual gifts are for the edification of the whole body of believers. Spiritual gifts always point away from the individual to the Lord. Both the Old and New Testaments clearly teach that spiritual gifts are how God intends to build up His people. Finding and deploying men and women with worship gifts is critical for vital worship. Pray and take your time in choosing people to be part of a worship team. Look for character, humility, godliness, and giftedness. In small churches, it’s easy to fret over the lack of talented musicians, but don’t measure spiritual giftedness with worldly standards of excellence. Just as God can use our less than excellent sermons, He can use less than excellent musicians. I used to worship occasionally on Sunday evenings at a nearby small church. The pastor was a good Bible teacher, and the worship team consisted of a pianist and a trumpeter. Now, a trumpet is not a typical worship instrument (except in the Salvation Army), and this young man was not Wynton Marsalis, but he put his whole heart (and lips) into it and was clearly doing it for the Lord. The music was joyful, exciting, and truly inspired. God will use anyone according to his or her gifts. Look for the gifts and for individuals humble enough to be used by the Lord.
 
5. Give Opportunities for Congregational Participation.

The attractional church model of worship often encourages passive worshippers. The thinking is that seekers are not ready to worship actively, so let them observe it instead. The danger is worship as performance and the congregation as audience. The traditional church model is often no better: the pastor reads, prays, speaks, and the choir or worship team sings. There is little opportunity for the congregation to do anything but sit and listen. But passive worship is an oxymoron. Worship, by its very definition, is an active response. Fashion your service to include many opportunities for an active response. Here are some suggestions: 

  • Choose songs that are easy to sing, with a melody easy to follow, in a key that people can comfortably reach. And control the volume. If people cannot hear themselves sing, they stop singing.
  • Select the best songs, hymns that have endured the test of time (the vast majority have not). Find out what is trending among worship songs; chances are they are the best. With all of the music available and so limited a time to sing in worship, why not choose the best songs.
  • Invite the congregation to get up and move during the service, for example, by bringing their offerings forward or coming to the table to receive Communion. In this way, giving to the Lord and receiving the Lord’s Supper become active choices. You can, of course, make accommodations for any who are not able to or choose not to move. In fact, the distribution of Communion elements to people in the pews is a relatively recent tradition stemming from contagious disease epidemics in the 19th Prior to that, Communion was universally served from a common cup at the front.
  • Invite the congregation to recite creeds and/or read Scripture aloud in unison.
  • Train individual members, such as elders or deacons, to give the welcome, read Scripture, pray, make announcements, and lead other parts of the service, as appropriate to your tradition.
Keep in mind that worship is a verb; it is what God’s people actively do.
 
6. Be Culturally Congruent.
 
In other words, make every effort to shape worship that fits the tastes, customs, and sensibilities of the people you already have and the people you are trying to reach. It’s not enough that the service speaks to the insider; it must also speak to the outsider. Finding that balance is the most difficult aspect of worship renewal. Every church has a worship culture, those traditions, patterns, styles, and forms that the people are familiar and comfortable with. But if nothing in the service speaks to the wider community that surrounds the church, then the church is failing in Jesus’ Great Commission to make disciples of all people. The object and goal of our worship doesn’t change—it remains to glorify the Holy, Triune God—but the form of our worship does change with time and culture. A pastor must strive to prayerfully discern how to form a worship experience that will glorify God and speak to the hearts and minds of his community, both within and outside the church.
 
7. Emphasize the Lord’s Presence in Communion.

It is an unfortunate fact that in many evangelical churches, Communion is given short shrift. Some attractional churches eliminate it all together, presumably as irrelevant or off-putting for seekers. In far more churches, it’s observed infrequently or viewed as a ritual without any expectation of the Lord’s manifest presence. How did we get to the point where a practice offered to the church by the Lord Himself as His living, risen, real presence, has become almost an afterthought? Historians trace it in part to the Reformed tradition of monthly or even quarterly Communion. Also, the revival movement of the American frontier structured worship as mainly a conversion opportunity, further reducing the role of the Lord’s Supper. A “memorial” understanding of Communion based on Jesus’ words “Do this in remembrance” also has had its effect. The early church and Christians for the past 20 centuries have viewed the Eucharist both as a remembrance and as the place where Jesus’ presence is known in the breaking of the bread, as on the Emmaus Road. Follow your tradition, whether weekly or monthly, but consider celebrating Communion after the sermon (the position it has occupied historically) so that it is a true thankful response to all that God has done in Christ. When it is given a more prominent place in worship, it can be observed as a memorial reinforcing the historical Gospel message, but also wrapped in the expectation that, somehow, we can meet the Living Lord at the table.

As we do our utmost to glorify God, we can expect that He will honor His people with His living presence. Then seekers and believers alike will say, “God is really among you.”
 

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