Childlike Worship

A few weeks ago I was leading worship at my church’s 11:00am service when I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. It was my almost-three-year-old daughter, Megan, dancing to the music, with her arms in the air, her eyes closed, and a huge smile on her face. I don’t get choked up that often during worship, but this did it to me. It was a beautifully sweet thing to see.

She’s still too young to have gotten all self-conscious. Yet. Some day she will, sadly, and won’t feel comfortable doing this. One of my prayers for her is that she grows up to be a worshipper, and I hope she’ll still dance, but at some point she’ll get self-conscious and will learn how to dial back her expression of praise. What a shame.

And she’s also still too young to get judging glances from the congregation. Since she’s still a little girl people think it’s cute and smile at her. If she was a teenager, or a grown woman dancing in the aisles with her hands in the air, she’d get dirty looks. Even I would be tempted to talk to the ushers about how we might “handle” her. And again, what a shame.

It’s no wonder Jesus was drawn to little children. And it’s no wonder he wants us to be like them. They’re not all self-conscious and self-righteous. They’re uninhibited. They get it. They haven’t “learned” how to dial their worship back yet. Children run to Jesus. The mature, grown-up disciples are the ones who do the hindering. Go figure.

Lord, give me a soft heart towards you. Help me not be so self-conscious. Make me more like Megan, with my eyes closed, hands raised, and a smile on my face. Help me unlearn how to dial it back. Help me to worship you and you alone. May my worship be more and more childlike the older I get.

Oh, and please don’t let Megan (and Emma) ever grow up. Thanks.

Expecting to See What You Don’t Model

A common frustration expressed by worship leaders is something along the lines of “they (the congregation) just aren’t that that into it”. It’s frustrating for the people who think through, pray through, and prepare for leading those services. We look out at the congregation and see a majority of people looking sleepy, peppered with those few dear souls who are always “into it” no matter what song we sing.

Why is this? I am increasingly convinced that the main reason our congregations appear to be disinterested and don’t participate in corporate worship with the level of enthusiasm that God desires and deserves is because the people who are up front don’t model it. This isn’t the only reason, of course. But I think it’s the main reason.

It’s a very rare thing for a congregation to go beyond what they see up front. I wrote about this phenomenon a year and a half ago and I said that “what they see is what you get”. In other words, what the congregation sees modeled up front is what will be replicated. Disinterested musicians/pastors results in a disinterested congregation. And vice versa. If the congregation sees people up front who are engaged, expressive and enthusiastic, it will spread.

People need to feel safe, or else they pull back and hold back. People need to feel blessed, or else they remain reserved so that they don’t rock the boat. People need to see it modeled, or else they don’t know what they’re missing. Sunday after Sunday the congregation comes and looks straight ahead. And most of the time they see musicians, pastors, ushers, sound engineers, acolytes, and worship leaders who “just aren’t that into it” either.

Before you look out at your congregation and get frustrated, look in the mirror. Look at your worship team. If you all are not modeling it, you have no reason to expect to see it in the congregation. The ball is in your court.

Let’s get real practical. We’ll start from the bottom up:

  • Is everyone singing? If not, whoever isn’t singing is sending a message that singing is optional. That dude in the eighth row who just doesn’t want to sing now has his excuse: the bass player isn’t either.
  • Is your singing heartfelt? It’s one thing to sing. It’s another thing for our singing to flow from our hearts. We should be affected by what we’re singing about if what we’re singing about has affected us. If the fact that God has reconciled sinners like me to himself through Jesus Christ doesn’t affect me, then I shouldn’t get too excited when I sing. But if that truth has affected me, it should show in my singing. Half-hearted singing is a waste of time, and if you and your team model this kind of singing, you can probably expect it to be the norm in your services.
  • What message is your body sending? There are so many encouragements and commands in Scripture for us to express our worship of God with our bodies that this should be a settled matter (see the end of this post). But it isn’t and probably never will be and that’s a tremendous shame. In the context of a relationship, physical expression is not only normal, but it’s healthy. When physical expression is absent, something is lacking. Still a sad number of Christians can’t bring themselves to express their love for God with their bodies. Those of us who are up front have a responsibility to model what this looks like. If we don’t model this, we can’t expect to see it.

So to the commonly frustrated worship leaders out there (myself included) who look out on a congregation that needs to grow in worship, I would say that we need to get our own house in order first. If and when our up-front example to the congregation changes, we’ll begin to notice a difference around the room.

(For your own reference, here are some helpful scripture references dealing with different physical expressions of worship.)

  • Clapping: Psalm 47:1, Psalm 98:9, Isaiah 55:12
  • Lifting hands: Nehemiah 8:6, Psalm 28:2, Psalm 63:4, Psalm 134:2, Psalm 141:2, Lamentations 3:41, 1 Timothy 2:8
  • Dancing: 2 Samuel 6:14, Psalm 30:11, Psalm 149:3, Psalm 150:4, Ecclesiastes 3:4
  • Kneeling/bowing: Genesis 24:26, 48, 52, Nehemiah 8:6, 2 Chronicles 20:18, Psalm 5:7, Psalm 22:27, Psalm 66:4, Psalm 72:11, Psalm 95:6, Matthew 2:11, Revelation 5:8
  • Lying prostrate: 1 Kings 18:39
  • Shouting: Joshua 6:20, 2 Samuel 6:15, Ezra 3:11, Psalm 20:5, Psalm 27:6, Psalm 33:1, Psalm 33:3, Psalm 42:4, Psalm 47:1, Psalm 66:1, Psalm 71:23, Psalm 81:1, Psalm 126:2, Psalm 126:5, Psalm 132:9, Isaiah 12:6, Matthew 21:9
  • Smiling: Psalm 34:5
  • Jumping: Acts 3:8

The Difference a Few Words Can Make

What’s the difference between saying “let’s clap our hands” and “let’s celebrate God’s greatness by clapping our hands together”?

Just a few words.

And a big distinction.

In the first case, I’m asking people to respond to my desire for them to clap – by clapping.

In the second case, I’m asking people to respond to the greatness and glory of God by clapping.

Would most people notice the difference? Maybe not. Is it a huge difference? No. But do those few words make any difference? I would argue that they do.

The scary reality is that if a worship leader asks a congregation to do something, a good majority of people will do it. For example, if I got up on Sunday morning and said “let’s kneel as we sing this song”, then most people will kneel. Will they know why I’m asking them to kneel? No. They’re mainly kneeling because I asked them to.

Some worship leaders get used to this power, and get in the habit of giving short posture instructions every know and then. If you’re really brave you’ll say something like “let’s lift up a shout!” and maybe some brave people will.

We don’t often get the opportunity to give lengthy exhortations and/or teachings on the topic of physical expressiveness in worship. Sometimes (most of the time?) all we get is those five seconds in between a chorus and a verse. If we beef up those few-seconds-long exhortations with a bit more God-centered truth, the cumulative effect over a year could be substantial.

I encourage all of us to look for ways to add context to our brief exhortations, if and when they occur. Instead of “let’s lift our hands” try “let’s exalt our Savior with our bodies and lift our hands in praise”. Instead of “clap your hands everybody!” try “In Psalm 47 we’re encouraged to ‘clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!’ let’s respond to God’s glory by clapping our hands together.”

It might feel clunky and unnatural at first. You’ll definitely revert backwards once in a while. But stretch yourself and feed your congregation, a few words at a time.

Here’s an example of how I did this a few Sunday mornings ago at my church while leading Matt Redman’s “The Glory of Our King”.

Made to Make Much of Something Great

Last month, I was asked by two very different groups to teach on the topic of worship. The first was a women’s bible study (about 70 women) who were having a day-long retreat in Bethesda, Maryland. The second was my church’s newly re-launched men’s ministry, about 75 guys who get together once a month.

Both of these groups had their meetings on the same day. The women in the morning, and the men in the evening.

My goal was to intersperse teaching and singing over the course of an hour, helping to lay a biblical foundation for why we worship God, and how that looks. I leaned heavily (i.e. almost entirely) on the writings and teachings of John Piper and Bob Kauflin, since they have contributed immensely to my understanding and theology of worship. Bob’s seminar from the 2008 Sovereign Grace Worship Conference, “Praising God with the Psalmist” was a model of how I felt this should look.

My title was “Made to Make Much of Something Great”, and I talked about four ways we do that in corporate worship:

  • By desiring God.
  • By singing to God.
  • With our bodies.
  • With our minds.

You can listen to the teaching below. If you’re a reader/listener of John Piper and/or Bob Kauflin, you’ll probably recognize most of this stuff. This is how I tried to cram it all into about 45 minutes.

The Many Smiling Faces of Kathryn Scott

Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed.” (Psalm 34:5)

A few weeks ago I was watching a worship service online that had Kathryn Scott as the guest worship leader. I’ve always enjoyed her songs (she’s best known for her song “Hungry (Falling On My Knees)”) but had never seen her lead worship before.

I was struck by the joy, enthusiasm, and smiling that permeated her leadership. Here are a few snapshots:

I’ve been told that I oftentimes look really intense, sometimes a bit angry, when I lead worship. I could learn a lot from Kathryn’s genuinely joyful example. What a difference it makes and what a message it sends!

Don’t be fake when you’re up front – plastering on a smile or putting on an act. Worship God genuinely and whole-heartedly, and model to your congregation God-centered worship.

But remember that what we’re celebrating and proclaiming each week is that God has rescued sinners through Jesus Christ – this is the Gospel, this is “good news” – and it’s worth smiling about!

Say No To Just Standing There

At our Monday night meeting, I encouraged my church’s worship team to “say no” to three things: (1) sameness, (2) winging it, and (3) just standing there.

For fun, I made up little stickers and handed them out at the beginning of my talk. It made everyone laugh and (hopefully) helped them remember what I said once they got home.

Here’s what I shared about not “just standing there”.

Fresh, creative, excellent, and well-rehearsed music will never change anyone’s life. Jesus will.

Good mixes, proper speaker placement, in-ear monitors, and skillful lyrics/video operation will never bring anyone salvation. Jesus will.

Our areas of giftedness can so easily become idols: things we look to for comfort, deliverance, help, and companionship. We consider them worthy of substantial time and/or money, and pour our lives out for them. Eventually they leave us empty.

We must never worship at the altar of relevance, freshness, music, technology, arrangements, or creativity. We worship the “Lamb who was slain”, who is worthy “to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:11). “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen!” (Revelation 7:10b, 12).

Your job is not to just run sound. Your job is to lead people in exalting the greatness of God in Jesus Christ.

Your job is not to just play drums. Your job is to lead people in magnifying the one who is “great and greatly to be praised”. (Psalm 145:3)

Your job is not just to sing. Your job is to lead people in encountering the glory of God.

Do we make it clear on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings that our passion is for the glory of God, and that our lives have been changed by the gospel?

When people look at us (and they are looking at us), do they see people who are in their position first and foremost to make much of Jesus? Or do they see people who are in their role just because it kind of seems like that’s where they should be… and they could take it or leave it… and they’re not really into it… and they’ll just let the worship leader do his thing…?

Please, in whatever area you serve during a service, don’t just stand there. Sing along, model physical expressiveness, engage with God, pay close attention to the reading and preaching of God’s Word, and “ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name, bring an offering, and come into his courts!” (Psalm 96:8)