What is the best worship experience a church can provide for its people?
With so many options in music, songs, instruments, and video production, it’s impossible to please everyone with the perfect worship experience. Some like loud, others like soft. Contemporary. Traditional. Hymnbooks. Video projection. Everyone has their own playlist and most of us don’t deal well with change. Churches want to attract new visitors and the younger generation, yet feel compelled to provide a meatier worship experience for the more mature believer. Worship is supposed to come from the heart, and it’s supposed to be about worshipping God and not satisfying my own preferences, but we need to get people in the door so shouldn’t we cater to their preferences?
What’s a church to do?
I’ve been mulling over these questions a lot. I’ve been a part of several lively discussions where the layers of issues become as cacophonic as a symphony orchestra tuning up for a big performance. How loud? What kind of music? For whom?
As I tried to untangle the worship web, I asked myself: what have been my most memorable worship experiences? My answers surprised me and gave me peace and perspective about the way our local church’s attempts to create the worship experience.
A friend and I went to visit this dear sweet saint of God in a hospice unit. Fearing her hours on this earth were numbered, we read the Bible to her and asked her if we could sing her favorite hymn together. She began to sing, There’s Just Something About That Name. She didn’t just sing. She added inflection, vibrato, and emphasis on specific notes. She wrapped each word with layers of love and passion. Gifted with a normally penetrating voice, I scaled back so Anne’s beautiful tones would rise above mine.
Earlier, Anne had said with confidence that she knew Jesus was there. I asked if she could see Him. “No,” she said. “But I know He’s here.” After she sang, I knew he was there too.
This little girl came from one of the most broken, dysfunctional families I have ever met. She was intellectually challenged and neglect hung from her body as obvious as her dirty, shabby clothing. Yet she and her brother were at church every time the doors were open. Sadly, the reason was, Mom kicked them out of the house each day at first light and they had nowhere to go.
Not one for sitting still, Angie amazed me when she made it through half a worship service by my side one Sunday. During the prayer time, as we sang, “Father I Adore You,” she perked up. In a horribly off-key voice, two beats behind everyone else, she sang every single word.
A praise team would never choose Angie to lead worship but that morning, she led my heart closer to the heart of my Father. He accepted her worship as much if not more than He accepted the worship behind my trained perfectly pitched soprano voice. In fact, as a lump of emotion gripped my vocal chords, it wasn’t so perfectly pitched anymore. Angie was singing praises to God in the only way she knew how. To Father God, her tones were beautiful because she gave what she had.
At first, I didn’t feel safe in George’s presence. He looked like a wild mountain man. Also intellectually challenged, George lived in an upstairs apartment on the rough side of Cincinnati’s downtown. Dressed in the same dirty gray t-shirt and ragged jeans every Sunday, George took the bus to church and begged rides back to downtown after dark.
At the time, our church drew in a lot of Bible college students, so the music was par excellence. Only the best could play the instruments or sing solos. Yet, once in a while, they let George play the organ. George so wanted to do something that he did the only thing he could – play Amazing Grace with one finger. Like Angie, he had so little to give in his worship, but he gave what he had.
God doesn’t care what language we use, how well we sing, what nation we call our home, or how well we dress. He accepts praise from every tongue as long as our hearts direct it to Him.
How should this affect our worship plans?
The singing portion of the worship service, I think, should allow for three elements.
- The message is clear. When the instruments are louder than the voices, or the music is so loud that individuals cannot hear what is being sung, the message is no longer clear.
- Each participant has the chance to give of their best. God delights to use the weak of this world to proclaim His glory and accomplish His purposes. Sadly, God’s glory becomes camouflaged in the best of musicians. It’s there, it can be there, but the music technique and polish has the potential to mar the message. That’s why we must not pass over the average musician in favor of the virtuoso. A humble attitude toward God and a child-like love for the Savior will shout God’s glory and He will think it’s beautiful.
- Worship flows from a heart sold out to God. Worship leaders need to follow the example of Annie, Angie, George and those 17 language groups and allow participants to share their love for God and joy in believing with abandon. They need to put more emphasis and time into developing the heart of worship than they spend in practicing musical technique and creating amazing video slides. Believe me, it shows. If, as a worship leader or praise team member, you’ve prepared your heart to worship God and you’ve spent your week seeking God, your love, joy, and trust in God will flow into your music.
Anne, Angie and George taught me this: attitude and willingness is more important to God than talent or perfection. Giving Him the best of what each of us have matters more to Him than giving Him only the best musicians among us. We are directing praise to God – that, as Michael W. Smith expressed in music, is the heart of worship.
After all, it really is all about Jesus.
What’s your best worship experience? Tell us about it in the comments below.