Worship—Maintaining Unity and Experiencing God’s Presence
Given the struggle in many churches to engage their members in a positive worship experience, are pastors and worship leaders betraying themselves by their own misunderstanding of what true worship is? Important considerations must be given to the central principles of worship if we are to connect the people of God with the presence of God.
Tom McDonald, director of the national Music Department, discussed the topic of worship in the church in a candid conversation with three key leaders.
Geron Davis, a well-known songwriter, is a regular guest on the Gaither Homecoming concert videos. He was also the 2000 Dove Award Winner for Choral Project of the Year. Two of Davis’ most notable songs are “On Holy Ground,” and “In the Presence of Jehovah.” Geron lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
Sally Morgenthaler is an author, speaker, and worship consultant. She is the author of Worship Evangelism: Inviting Unbelievers Into the Presence of God (Zondervan). She has taught at several universities and seminaries and has been a featured speaker at numerous worship conferences across the U.S. Her Web site, www.sacramentis.com, is devoted to reimagining worship for a new world. She lives in Centennial, Colorado.
George Wood is the general secretary for the General Council of the Assemblies of God, former assistant district superintendent of the Southern California District of the Assemblies of God, and former pastor of Newport-Mesa Christian Center (Assemblies of God), Costa Mesa, California.
Define worship. What role does church music have in worship?
Wood: In the Old and New Testaments, the most fundamental thing that defines worship is service to the Lord. Perhaps the best definition of worship was given by Jesus. In Matthew 22:37, Jesus said we are to love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. Worship is a way of expressing what Jesus asked of us though our lives, words, and conduct. Church music is designed to help us express that love. We don’t tend to think of worship as involving strength, but I have been in congregations where the singing has been weak, and they wished for greater strength in what was being done.
Morgenthaler: I agree. Through worship we express our love relationship with God. That also involves what Jesus talked about with the Samaritan woman. That love expression must involve our spirits, and it must be genuine and authentic. It also involves the truth of whom we are worshiping. God is naturally a part of that love relationship. We see this principle in marital relationships and relationships with our children. We love people best when we know them best.
Here is another aspect of worship. King David played for Saul and helped soothe his spirit. Music helps us open our hearts to God more quickly and more completely and helps us reflect on what God has done. Worship is not just to get us emotional for emotion’s sake but to open us to truth.
Davis: Concerning Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well, He said the Father is seeking true worshipers. God is a spirit and those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth. This lady of the night was asking theological questions of the Word incarnate. But He set the tone for worship.
We cannot make worship all theology, and we cannot make it all emotion. Worship must be both. While worship in spirit involves the emotional side, worship in truth involves the intellectual side. I have been to some churches that were Spirit-oriented but as shallow as a wading pool. I have been to others that could quote every Scripture in the Bible but it was like being at a funeral. Jesus is saying there has to be balance.
Worship is not something we do on Wednesday or Sunday; it’s 24/7. Worship is not a style; it is a lifestyle. And worship music is a by-product of a worship lifestyle.
What are the most important outcomes of the worship experience in church?
Morgenthaler: In Isaiah 6, Isaiah saw God for who God is and he saw himself for who he was. We sometimes compare ourselves to each other, but scripturally, we are to see ourselves against the backdrop of who God is. This is what I call realignment. This realignment happened when Isaiah felt the full weight of God’s presence. Isaiah’s response is important. It was not, “How wonderful!” but rather, “Woe is me. I’m a man of unclean lips.” That’s the realignment that needs to happen if we are going to be brought back to what we are created to do—give all the glory to God. We need to continually be brought back to this because our natural direction is self-glory.
We need other avenues of worship expression that are not so exploxive, not so ridden with generational division.
Wood: Sally nailed it on the head in terms of the Isaiah 6 example. I would add a third component. After Isaiah had a vision of God and a vision of himself, God gave him a responsibility to others. And for Isaiah, that was a difficult task. Think about going to people who would not hear and who would not see. One of the outcomes of worship should be strengthening us for our ministry in the world.
In a biblical model of worship, we worship to see who God is. And it helps us see who we really are. But worship edifies and empowers us to go about the service that the Lord has called us to in this world.
A satirical book was written when I was a young minister on how to become a bishop without being religious. The author wrote about climbing the ecclesiastical ladder. He had a chapter on how to pick the right wife and how to drive the right car at the right stage of ministry. His thesis on his chapter on worship was that people have not really come to church to worship God, although they say they do. They have come to subconsciously worship themselves. For example, if you look at the songs they sing, they are less inclined to sing meaningful songs that emphasizethee and thou than songs that emphasize I, me, and my.
It is easy, especially within the charismatic-Pentecostal wing of the church, to slip into a worship that reaches for a subjective nirvana—if I can just feel this particular tone. Those kinds of mental moods or emotional states are heavily warped in the subjectivity of touchy, feely kinds of things. They don’t focus on the character of God and the many aspects of doctrine relating to God that music can convey. Worship should not slip into the totally subjective side. It has an objective side where it is being given to God, and it’s not just benefiting me personally.
Davis: Worship also helps us see ourselves for who we are not. We have a tendency to make worship about us. The less we enter into God’s presence, the bigger we become in our own eyes. It is only in His presence that we are made aware of how great He is and how unworthy we are.
The American church has misconstrued the worship event. When we gather corporately, that is not necessarily the worship event, but a preparation for worship. Worship is not just what we do when we are together with other believers, but it is what we do back in the world when we worship Him through our lifestyles.
It is mandatory for us as worshipers that our spiritual batteries be recharged when we get together. But many Christians live from Sunday to Sunday, only tolerating the people in the world. They lose sight of what the Sunday experience is all about—to prepare them to go into the world on Monday. The worship event takes us into God’s presence and charges our batteries, but mostly it helps us become light in the darkness.
How is the music component different from the preaching component in a worship service in its effect on a congregation?
Wood: Worship is the one act that the congregation as a whole participates in together. They listen to preaching, but congregational singing is the one point in the service where they are all participating. There is a collective sense of being in this together. When the congregation is singing at a level of excitement and earnestness, it brings a sense of God’s presence. That is unique. Worship brings a softening of the heart. But what is going to occur in the rest of the service? I shudder as a preacher when I step to the pulpit and it’s dead because leadership decided to make announcements, show a video, or do something that is unrelated to setting the tone for people’s hearts to be receptive to the Word.
Morgenthaler: I encourage pastors to work more closely with those who lead worship so there will be preparation for the Word. Pastors should not give the sense that the only important time in the service is the preaching. There is a huge disconnect in too many services between what happens in the musical portion and what happens from the pulpit. That tells me there’s not a whole lot going on during the week between the pastor and worship leader. Preaching is complemented by singing and other arts that point to the character and works of God.
According to a recent Barna survey, one out of three evangelicals who attend church on a regular basis has never sensed the presence of God in church? How can this be?
Davis: First, the sense of not experiencing God’s presence in our services can in part be attributed to pastors not understanding the importance of their role as the primary worship leader. They think, We have a worship leader who draws a great salary. That’s not my job. They don’t understand that worship starts at the top.
Second, it is leadership’s responsibility to educate people biblically in their roles as believers and worshipers. As children of God, they have access to the very presence of the King of kings and the Lord of lords. That makes what pastors and worship leaders do on Sunday incredibly important because this isn’t about us; it’s about the people that God has called us to lead.
Pastors need to know their congregations and make sure they are being ministered to and fed.
A third thing that can keep people from experiencing the presence of God in our services is excessive activity on the platform. We are called to bring the lost to Jesus and to encourage believers. If we have competing agendas, this can hinder the move of God’s Spirit.
Finally, for worship leaders the song selection is not nearly as important as the preparation of the people who will be singing and playing those songs. If they have spent time on their face in prayer seeking God’s presence in their lives, then they are ready and the people in the pew will be more likely to experience the presence of God. When I lead people in worship, I want to lead them to a place I have already been on my own during the past week. Then I can take them into His presence.
Morgenthaler: I speak to younger people who go to church, but many of them haven’t grown up in church. Their euphemism for God’s presence is that it is real. That’s their litmus test. That’s their barometer. When they leave, they ask themselves whether it was real or not. If Jesus isn’t being lived out among the people who are facilitating worship, people are going to be hindered from experiencing God’s presence.
I encourage pastors and those who facilitate worship to do more than just think about clearly communicating the text or having an appropriate song list. They need to plan community. That means the worship leader and the pastor get together on a weekly basis to pray, fellowship, and seek God in terms of how they want the service to go. If they do that, we will see different services and an attitude of worship will overflow on Sunday morning. The reverse is also true. Pastors and worship leaders need to decide they are going to have community and not just imitate it.
Wood: I agree. When I pastored, I saw my role as pastor as the primary worship leader of the church. That didn’t mean I led the song service, but it was my pastoral responsibility during the week to sit down with the people most directly involved in the service to plan the service. I wanted to know who would be singing, what they were going to sing, and the songs the congregation would be singing. I wanted to know how these things would blend into the message I was going to preach and how they would blend with the times of prayer.
It is critical that we get away from the sense that anything is preliminary. The whole worship service is integrated toward the common goal of glorifying Christ, strengthening believers, and reaching the unsaved.
Lyle Schaller says music has replaced doctrine as the most divisive issue in the church. Why is that?
Morgenthaler: This has happened because we are doctrinally illiterate. Martin Luther talked about worship being the school of the church. If it was true in his day, it is much more so now because we don’t have other places to learn theology. We are not getting it on Sunday mornings.
There has been a shift in the last 20 to 30 years to a more person-centered worship—worship organized around felt needs. I am not saying what we feel is not important, but there has been that shift. We are doctrinally challenged. Doctrine is not in the forefront. We don’t know how to tell whether a teaching is heretical or doctrinally sound. We revert to our personal experience because that is what has been promoted.
What has your experience of worship been like? Was it fun? Did it energize you? Did it sound good? Did it look good? This is a great deficit that we are not doctrinally astute and aware.
It is important for us to be aware of the musical languages people speak. Music is an aesthetic language. My concern is that not only are we concerned with musical style, but also we are narcissistic in our view of what worship is. We have divided things up, and worship has been equated with music. We have thrown out doctrine and are oriented to the music we like. Whatever style is or is not on the platform becomes the worship issue.
Nowhere do I see that music is worship. Music is a medium by which we respond to God and we hear from God. But music in and of itself is not worship.
Davis: In some ways music has always been surrounded by controversy. Some of our hymns are lyrics set to bar tunes. At the time, these were not accepted by some, but are now beloved hymns.
People have a tendency to be self-centered. I have heard people say that God’s favorite kind of music is southern gospel. They say it in a joking way, but we seem to believe that what we like is God’s favorite and probably will be the music we hear in heaven.
Worship music helps us glorify God and enter into His presence. But what worship music is to my kids and what worship music is to me and what worship music is to my parents are different. But we are all right.
God can work through multiple styles of music. The reason we are seeing musical styles becoming such a big issue now is people are more vocal than they were 20 or 30 years ago. Years ago a core group controlled the church, so people went to concerts to get their taste of music style. But now our churches are growing, and each group in the church has grown and wants input. Many churches have contemporary, blended, and traditional-type services. One church even has a southern gospel service. This is an attempt for people to be saturated with what they like. The negative part of this is much like going to a family reunion and saying, “All those 13 and under go to this house, and everybody 14 to 20 go to that house,” and so on. That is not a family reunion; that is a meeting by age categories. When I do this, I rob my grandparents of the youth and zeal they get from being around my kids. And I’m robbing my kids of the heritage of hearing my grandparents tell their stories. Everyone is robbed when people are selfish in church.
What are common mistakes pastors and worship leaders make with regard to the worship service?
Wood: One common mistake I see is that during a time when pastors are asking people to come forward for prayer, the worship is so loud that those who are praying for people cannot even hear their prayer requests. We need to be attentive to those kinds of issues.
Another mistake pastors make, and one that communicates to congregations that pastors are no longer the primary worship leader, is this: In many churches the pastor sits on the front row instead of on the platform. This has come from an attempt to truly be a humble servant of the Lord and be one with the congregation. Pastors are not better than anybody else. I understand that. But the presence of the pastor on the platform helps.
When the congregation is singing at a level of excitement and earnestness, it brings a sense of God's presence.
I am in several churches throughout the year, and I learn things by being on the platform and looking over the congregation. I learn immediately whether the congregation is responding to the worship team or not. If I was senior pastor and I noticed that about half the people were coming into the service 15 minutes late, I would want to know why. I see this happening in church after church. It is not just that people are tardy; it is because some people don’t like the worship. They say, “I’ll get as little of it as possible. I’ll come and hear the preacher.”
If pastors are sitting on the platform, they will notice what is going on in the congregation. They will notice the participation, the flow, and the reception by the congregation to what is happening in the service. You can tell a lot by looking at people and responding to them.
There is another important reason for the pastor to be on the platform. In Pentecostal or charismatic services, we believe in the operation of the gifts of the Spirit. If pastors are going to promote the operation of the gifts of the Spirit, there needs to be a control mechanism. If a person who is out of order needs correction or an explanation needs to be made, a pastor can do that immediately. Pastors can size up an atmosphere within a congregation much better when they are facing a congregation than when their back is turned to them.
When we reverted to the pastor sitting on the front row with his or her back to the congregation, we lost a vital tool of communication and leadership as it relates to worship. The pastor became secondary, defined more as a preacher, announcement maker, and offering taker than as a worshiper.
Davis: I would like to add to what George Wood has said. Congregations read pastors. When pastors sit on the platform with their legs crossed and not participating, that sends a signal to the congregation that this is not really important. On the other hand, when pastors sit on the platform where the congregation can see them and they are worshiping, that sends a great message.
I have also seen musicians and worship leaders lead in worship and when it’s time for the message, they slip out and have coffee and doughnuts. I want to ask, “When did you reach such spiritual maturity that you can say to the congregation, ‘I don’t need what you’re about to get’?”
The congregation needs to see the pastor fully supporting the worship leader and the worship leader fully supporting other ministries. I tell choirs that I don’t care if someone is making announcements about the senior citizens dinner; they are to act like it is the most important thing they have heard all week. When we do this, we are sending a strong signal to the congregation that what is being said is important.
Multiple generations are present in most congregational worship services. How can everyone’s musical preferences be served?
Wood: In newer churches and in church plants, the style of worship music is not a divisive issue because these churches began using one style of music and people are used to it. Where you have an established multigenerational church, and a pastor comes in and totally changes things overnight, this is where the conflict is occurring.
If you are going to have an intergenerational church—and that is your goal—then you need to find a way to bring people together. The reason there are worship wars is simply a failure of love. The older people are regarded as not being sufficiently mature to flex and handle the new music. And then the older people look at the younger people and see their music as rock and roll nightclub music. This whole issue goes back to pastoral leadership, which has to set the agenda. We must have an attitude that we are coming together.
I can tell story after story where churches have been emptied of a generation—usually an older generation—who went somewhere else because the music styles changed. They were basically told, either verbally or nonverbally, “If you don’t like it here, there’s the door.” That is a failure of love.
We are to bring people together in the bonds of Jesus Christ. The whole issue of loving has to be addressed, because where there is true love among believers, there is going to be an ability to be flexible and tolerant of other forms of music.
On a given Sunday morning in the church I pastored, we would have everything from Bach to soft rock. We had purposed to be a multigenerational church. If I had a worship band that had people stand for 45 minutes, 25 to 30 percent of my congregation would not enjoy that. I wanted something that crossed generations and brought people together. I told the congregation they might hear a song this morning they may not like. I told them to rejoice because somebody else in the congregation likes it and is getting blessed and your turn will come. We will get a song that you like. We had a track record of building community in the church by letting the worship service minister to all people. Don’t cut out a significant slice of the congregation because they can’t bring themselves to participate in what’s going on because it’s unfamiliar to them.
Davis: Pastors need to know their congregations and make sure they are being ministered to and fed. Pastors can’t promote a musical style that caters to one segment of the congregation. The question should not be, “What do I think is the latest trend?” but rather, “What does my flock need?” “What will feed them?” “What kind of music will help them grow?”
A lot of the problem has to do with culture. For instance, Pentecostals have a cultural predisposition to respond in a certain way. The music in their services might be fervent and emotional. This is what they are used to. In some of these churches, if somebody did something outside their particular box, they might ask, “What’s going on?”
Morgenthaler: I have thought about that. In a mainline traditional church in the rural Midwest, their DNA is going to be vastly different than an urban church from a different faith tradition. Knowing your culture is important. This is where collaborative worship planning comes into play. Don’t live a cubical life by yourself. If I ask two or three others to come alongside me, I have four or six eyes and ears, and we can talk through these things together. We can experiment. We can expand the power as we expand our sensitivity to our community. That is what I love about planning in community, because I don’t have to think to myself, Is this the right thing to do? Even if you have six or eight people working on something, you are still going to flop at times, but it is less likely. We are more likely to be responsive to the whole congregation if there are more working together.
It is also easier to bridge the generations if music is not so important. One of the reasons we are having these worship wars is different styles of music in the church are a new phenomenon. Within the history of the church, it is new having cultures and generations built around musical styles. Part of the problem is exalting music to this high level where it equals worship, and we don’t have other avenues of expression. We need other avenues of worship expression that are not so explosive, not so ridden with generational division. There is a stronger connection culturally to the music style that we were exposed to between the ages of about 13 to 23 than anything else. And because we do not have other ways to express and respond to God, we are lost with this one area that is divisive, because in our culture it is.
We need to find creative ways to help people get past the investment they have in a musical style. There are other legitimate expressions of worship—corporate reading, prayer, or other expressions. I see generations coming together where the worship options are expanded and generations don’t fight over musical style.
What practical wisdom can younger worship leaders glean from those who are older and more seasoned in music ministry?
Wood: The most critical thing is to begin a conversation. Older people are more flexible when there’s a personal relationship. We all are more flexible when there’s a personal relationship. But if younger people are leading the worship service, it would be wonderful—and maybe the pastor should arrange this—for the worship leader to sit down and have a heart-to-heart talk with some of the older people in the congregation. The worship leader needs to ask, “What is meaningful to you?” Many older people today are sensing that even if they have been faithful to their church that it doesn’t matter because they feel ignored. Some of this is self-serving on the part of older people, but these are the people who made the sacrifices to buy the property, build the buildings, and other aspects of the church. Now they are being told, “Move over.” When the current generation gets to about 55 years of age, suddenly all their songs might be thrown out when a whole new group comes in. Then they will understand the feelings of rejection that some older people feel now.
It is sad when people who have been in a church for many years and have been faithful to the Lord and taught Sunday School feel left out. These people are not gripers and complainers. They say, “I don’t feel that’s my church anymore.” That is a sad commentary on a church and on pastoral leadership that allows this disenfranchisement to happen. However, this fallout can be prevented through loving care and through dialogue. That is what I would urge younger ministers and younger worship leaders to do.
One of the difficult things for an older generation is standing for 45 minutes. A lot of people past 50 years of age have back problems, and standing for 45 minutes is torture, not worship. If you have more highly educated people in your congregation, sometimes singing the same monosyllabic words 10 times in a row drives people out of their minds. Being sensitive and loving says we’re going to take those people’s needs into account as well. And maybe we need to think about not only mixing the variety of the music but also the sitting and standing.
Davis: The older I have become, the smarter my dad has become. The wisdom from an older generation could safeguard the younger generation and save them many mistakes. Human nature is pretty much the same from generation to generation. An experienced worship leader has dealt with some issues and has learned some things along the way. By dialoguing with a mature person, I can learn things that will help me in my role. If I learn some things that didn’t work, then maybe I can avoid the same problems. We learn and benefit from their wisdom and years of experience, which can help quantum leap us further down the road and save us from having to go through the same hard knocks. What I encourage ministers of music to do—and this is what I did when I served on staff—is to arrive at church early, even before rehearsal. Older people tend to arrive early. Visit with the people, shake their hands, and hug them, and tell the older ladies how pretty they are. And then stay late. When church is over, don’t rush down through the tunnel and act like you’re being protected by the CIA to keep from being mobbed. The older people knew I had them at heart. The young people liked me too because I tried to align myself with every age group in the church. It paid off. We did a variety of music. I earned their trust. I could get away with almost anything musically, trying different styles, as long as I had earned the trust of the people. You don’t earn that any other way than just by getting out there with them and talking with them and becoming their friends. It’s the smartest thing I ever did.
Morgenthaler: One word comes to me: incarnation. That is what God did. He came to us and landed where we were at a specific place and time. He went the distance. We have to be the leaders of a ministry of incarnation, being totally in tune with who people are and where they are. We need this relational base. We’ve lost that. Generations need to get involved with each other around a task. We need to involve our seniors as photographers, videographers, composers, musicians, and greeters working collaboratively with them in planning services. That doesn’t mean just sitting down and having a cup of coffee, but going a step further and getting their talents involved. Maybe they’re not going to be on the worship team, but maybe they will be behind the scenes creating some incredible things for you. When we work together for the glory of God, our relationships deepen incredibly.