by Kelly Carpenter
Spring has finally sprung in our corner of the country. My wife and I took an early evening bike ride through our neighborhood. The trees have started to leaf and plenty of blossoms abound. As I was coasting down a gentle slope, I let the sweet wind overtake my senses. I delighted in this moment-this little gift from the Lord, and I thanked him for it.
The Lord has given us so much. The big things, such as His great plan through the sweep of history, the gift of His Son, our adoption as sons and daughters in His family, the incredible riches of our glorious inheritance. The little things, such as the blossom-scented breeze, a timely letter of encouragement from a friend. And the things in-between, such as our families, relationships, jobs, and all the ways we have been provided for.
When we gather together in worship, it seems to me that there is so much that we have to be thankful for--that we can praise God for. Yet, I am grieved at how disconnected some people are from this truth by the looks on their faces on Sunday morning, emotionally detached from everything. Occasionally, I am tempted to stop everything and yell, "Don't you people get it?". This would not be a very encouraging thing to do, so I do what I can through modeling worship, singing and speaking prayers, and exhorting them to draw these "bulletin readers" in.
There is another group of experienced worshippers that I think of as the "professionals". Experienced worshippers have this tendency to rate the worship experience. "Wow that was really hot. God showed up BIGTIME!!" or "Ooo.. that was really pathetic". What is our criteria when we measure worship? Is it how much God "showed up"? Is it the percentage of people still on their feet at the end of the worship set-with their hands raised? Is it how well the band played and the singers sang? Was it the level of "anointing" the worship leader displayed while navigating through the set? Is it how big the smile is on the pastor's face? Is it how many "Wow, worship was awesome!" comments the worship leader receives?
All of this leads me to the question: What do we expect in worship?
How would you answer this question? There are variety of answers. I have been in the Vineyard now for over 15 years. Typical answers I hear from those in the Vineyard tradition is that we expect to experience the "manifest" presence of God in our worship and that we come to connect with Him. Many times we do experience His love, His touch, His healing, and so on. Sometimes we don't.
I think it is a good thing to expect a visitation from the Lord in our worship times. But is that the reason why we worship?
Let me turn the previous question around. What does God expect in worship?
I really appreciate the story behind Matt Redman's song "The Heart of Worship". The nutshell of the story is that their church, Soul Survivor (in Watford, England), was going through a dry period, and it dawned on them that they had become "connoisseurs of worship, not participants of worship", almost as if worship itself had become the object of worship, instead of God being the object of worship. They repented in a drastic way and Matt wrote "I'm coming back to the heart of worship, and it's all about You, it's all about You, Jesus".
I believe that sometimes we have been guilty of making the experience of worship the object of our worship as opposed to making God the object of our worship. I think that us "experienced" worshippers can be in as much danger of "not getting it" as the bulletin readers.
So, what is worship? What does God expect from worship? And, what should we expect in worship?
One answer is from the church tradition that states: The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. This is a simple yet powerful way of stating what our whole purpose of existence is. There have been entire books written about this, and scriptures abound in supporting this whole concept. Simply put, I believe that we were created to worship God. The two most prevalent Greek words for "worship" in the New Testament are latreuo which means to "render honor" or to "pay homage", and proskuneo which means "to kiss the hand" or "to bow down". Notice that these are verbs, we are the initiator, and they are about giving, not receiving. I appreciate how John MacArthur, in his book "The Ultimate Priority", puts it: "When we talk about worship, we are talking about something we give to God. Modern Christianity seems committed instead to the idea that God should be giving to us. God does give to us abundantly, but we need to understand the balance of that truth-we are to render honor and adoration to God. That consuming, selfless desire to give to God is the essence and the heart of worship."
I think that when a person first discovers worship, we understand that it is a response to God for what He has done for us and what He is doing in us-we have gratitude in our hearts. We come to bless and honor Him. God meets us and blesses us with His wonderful presence. But what I have observed is that after a while we get hooked on the experience of God's presence in worship. Now I believe that the presence of God is a wonderful thing, but I don't believe that that should be our only motivation for worshipping Him. Our motivation should be to give to the Lord, not receive. We come to bless Him, praise Him, minister to Him, touch His heart, and lift up His name. When we do that we honor and reverence God; the latreuo and proskuneo of worship.
A helpful analogy is the sport of running. Running is something I have done off and on over the years to help lose some weight and get my cardiovascular system in shape. Many people get into running to achieve these benefits. However, after running a certain distance, the body releases endorphins into the bloodstream and once it hits the brain, we experience what is called a "runner's high". It's that feeling for an hour or so after exercising that "life is wonderful". There are some people who run solely out of the motivation to get the "runner's high", and this is usually involves running longer than is necessary to simply achieve cardiovascular fitness. What once started out as a desire to get fit has become a quest to get high.
What once started out as a response to God's goodness by desiring to bless and thank Him has become a quest to get high on His presence. Now, again, I think it is wonderful to "bliss out" in the presence of the Lord. But, what happens when He doesn't manifest His presence in this way? What is our reaction when God apparently doesn't "show up"?
I believe that worship is not about God's presence as much as it is about our presence. A good worship service has less to do with whether or not God showed up as much as whether or not we showed up. We are the giver in this transaction. God is the audience. The reality is that God is always with us. His presence is not the issue. Are we always present with Him?
It's up to us whether or not we will delight in the Lord. It's our choice. When we choose to delight in Him, bless Him, touch His Heart, and so on, then true worship happens.
Because worship is a choice we make or not make, the issue of sincerity comes up. What if we don't feel like worshipping God? I am not proposing that we force ourselves to sing certain songs, adopt certain physical expressions, and in general "fake it". But if we don't feel like we can worship God, then we need to take inventory of what is going on in our heart and make the right choice about how to approach Him in honesty from whatever place our heart is in. I love Craig Musseau's song "I Pour Out My Heart" where he writes "I pour out my heart for I know that You hear every cry--You are listening, no matter what state my heart is in…"
Since worship is about what we give rather than what we get, and since it appears that some people, including ourselves at times, just don't get the picture, how do we get to the place where we are making the appropriate choice to delight in, bless, and exalt the Lord? I have three suggestions:
First, we need to recognize that worship is a lifestyle and not an event. An event mindset is one where we come to church and we expect God to show up for us and give us whatever we feel we need to make it through another week or to the next meeting. I know people who are "conference junkies" who go from conference to conference to get their next renewal fix. On the contrary, the Lord calls us to a daily lifestyle of devotion. He calls us to walk with Him. He calls us to "offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God-this is [our] spiritual act of worship." (Rom 12:1) We make the choice to be continually present with Him. If we make worship our lifestyle, then we come to our meetings prepared to give instead of expecting to receive. Worship becomes about our giving to God, not about His giving to us.
Secondly, we need to look at ourselves honestly and determine whether we are in this thing called the "Christian Life" for ourselves or for God. Sure, we signed up for God's Kingdom when we came to know Him. But do we really live for His glory, or do we exploit the inherent benefits of the Christian life to better our own condition? If we look at ourselves honestly, I believe that the only proper response is to develop a lifestyle of daily repentance. That's why Jesus commanded us to "take up [our] cross, daily". We need to realize that self-enthronement is a beast that needs to be taken to the cross daily. And then we need to remember that we are sinners saved by grace.
Thirdly, once we realize we are sinners saved by grace, we are then reminded of how much God loves us, and what He has done to prove it, His only Son sacrificed for us. This produces in us an "attitude of gratitude". We can't stray far from the Cross before we start to become like spoiled and petulant children. We stay close to the Cross and we can't help but be filled with gratitude. When I am ever aware of how much I have to be thankful for-the big things, the little things, and those in-between-I can't help but come to the Lord with a desire to thank Him, bless Him, touch His Heart, and praise Him.
Let's all stay close to the Cross and pass the message along.