We’ve all been there. It’s Sunday morning, and as we proceed through the worship service, there might be a typo on the projected lyrics on the wall. Perhaps there’s a botched transition between songs, or, heaven forbid, there are moments of “awkward” silence as we transition from one worship element to the next! A mentor once offered me some sage advice early in my worship leading career. He said, “God’s not nervous in the service, Brian. It’s us. We are the problem.” The context of our conversation was the common fear that we might offend the Holy Spirit or turn people off to the Gospel if we didn’t get everything just right in the execution of the worship service.
As I ponder the current state of worship, I have seen two extremes propagating in Christian corporate experience. These extremes are not bound to a denomination or congregation. In fact, I’ve seen both extremes in the same congregation, from one Sunday to the next!
First, I have been in many churches in the last few years where the production value was so slick, so programmed down to the very second, that I wondered to myself to what end are we doing this? Who are we trying to impress? Please note that I believe in excellence, planning, and removing opportunities for distraction, but I also have learned that ONE SECOND in the life-transforming presence of God is more effective than 60 minutes of highly-shined, technically-flawless production. If we are afraid that nonbelievers in our midst are going to walk out on us because the “show” wasn’t perfect, then perhaps we’ve missed the point.
On the other end of the spectrum, I have also worshiped in churches, often Spirit-filled or charismatic congregations, where a lack of preparation was masked by a spiritual veneer of utter dependence on the Holy Spirit to bless our failure to seek Him during the week’s preparation. It was as if the worship leader and worship team just assumed that they would pick up their instruments and microphones and that instant Pentecost would break out!
Of course, these are extreme examples. Experience dictates that we will experience varying levels of commitment to performance and/or spontaneity.
In the end, though, what does God require from a Biblical standpoint? I believe that Jesus distills worship down to its essentials in John 4:23-24 when conversing with the Samaritan woman:
“[T]rue worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
This is a very familiar passage, but I’d like to emphasize three points:
First, God is looking for worshipers. It doesn’t say that He’s looking for worship styles. The Samaritan woman tried to steer the conversation toward the equivalence of a “contemporary vs. traditional” worship style argument, mostly because Jesus had lain bare the secrets of her heart. Jesus sidesteps this empty religious argument by simply saying that the Father is just seeking worshipers- not worship styles.
Second, God desires to be worshiped in spirit. Yep, those spontaneous Charismatics have a piece of it right. Worship is to be energized and vibrant, inspired and inhabited by the Spirit (Gr. pneúma) of God, emanating from the depths of our own pneúma. When the people of God gather to worship in spirit, powerful things happen: the name of Jesus is glorified, the Church finds grace when they celebrate together at the communion table, hearts are prepared to receive the Word, and interestingly, the hearts of sinners are melted in the presence of the Lord. These are all the work of the Holy Spirit through us!
Third, God desires to be worshiped in truth. The Greek word for truth here is alētheia, which the contemporary reader of that time would understand to be “synonymous for ‘reality’ as the opposite of illusion.” There is no varnish, no slick veneer in true worship. It is authentic and sincere. True worship has no fantasy regarding imitation of the world’s standards of production and excellence. Let’s be honest- we may strive for excellence, but most local churches do not have the resources to compete with the production value that the world offers. By keeping things authentic, worshiping in alētheia keeps our hearts humble and in a position to receive from God.
The answer then, is that as worship leaders, instrumentalists and vocalists, pastors, and tech ministry members, recognize that it is incumbent upon us to prepare for the worship service. I believe that in each worship service, God has purposes that He wants to accomplish. There are broken hearts that He wants to comfort. There are sinners who need to be convicted. There are strongholds that need to be broken. There are believers longing to express gratitude to their God. There are hungry souls who need to be fed the Word. But most of all, He seeks worship in spirit AND truth.
My first pastor in the ministry, Ben Brumback, impressed upon me the importance of preparation time during the week. He would say, “if you don’t bother to listen to God during your planning time, He’s probably not going to speak to you if you come to the pulpit unprepared!” This saying always keeps me grounded in Spirit-led preparation. I ask the Lord to direct me during seasons of preparation, but equally, I am open to changes as the Spirit leads during the service.
Over the years, there were many times when I would spontaneously feel led to throw in an unplanned song, share a scripture, or utter a prayer that was not on the rundown sheet. I knew that the tech staff and musicians might feel a bit awkward for a moment, but those spontaneous moments where the Spirit of God takes us off the printed page are the sweetest, because I know in those moments that lives are about to be impacted by the grace of God! In those “awkward” moments, I am reminded that God’s not nervous in the service, because He has PURPOSE in the service! If my obedience to His leading results in one life being changed, then His purpose is being established in our midst, and our worship has been in spirit AND truth.