The Art of Creating and Designing an Atmosphere for Congregants to Encounter and Respond to God
By Tom Matrone
In conversations about corporate worship, people often discuss and debate worship at every possible level. Some have even surpassed scriptural references concerning worship. But it is important to note that when we make the art of worship the subject, we are at risk of altering the very thing for which God intended worship.
For those of us who find it our privilege and responsibility to design a weekly worship experience for our congregants, we might find some wisdom in considering John 4. Here Jesus creates an honest, yet safe, space for the Samaritan woman to encounter, experience, and respond to Him in worship.
Most of my ministry has been immersed in multigenerational churches. The overused words such as balance and blend have been a part of my vocabulary and decisions in creating a unified corporate experience. I define these terms as respect and maturity, not style and preference.
It is important to consider our responsibility to educate, edify, and nurture the congregation by our choices and actions. It is also important to consider the peaks and valleys that exist in a corporate worship service. It is the ebb and flow of the human response that we tune into, coupled with guidance from the Holy Spirit. Considering our Pentecostal distinctive, it is part of our liturgy to have the element of spontaneity collaborating with the structure we believe will accomplish our mission.
Before the practicalities of designing a service, there are three relevant actions to observe from John 4.
Attitude (Pursuit of Truth)
Jesus said, “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him” (John 4:23,24, NKJV).1
The context of these verses come from a discussion Jesus is having with the woman at the well. She believes Jesus is a prophet and questions the place to worship God (verses 19,20). Jesus replied that the location for worship was not important to God. Rather, it is the attitude of acceptable worship that is the issue.
Even our best intentions may not be our best attitude. A defensive heart polarizes the human spirit, thus the miracle of transformation is put on hold.
Robert Turner was correct when he said: “Often our efforts to improve the worship are only efforts to regulate the form, and have little or nothing to do with improving the hearts out of which true worship must come.”
We must engage our spirits in the pursuit of truth.
Authenticity (Simplicity and Honesty)
What does Scripture tell us God is looking for? He is looking for those who are simply and honestly themselves before Him in worship.
Harold Best says: “Authentic worship is to be undertaken as an act of love, driven by faith, architectured by hope, and saturated with Truth, whatever the content, context, time, place, style or circumstance. Our corporate worship is acceptable and effective only to the extent that we are moment-by-moment living sacrifices, doing everything in the Spirit and according to truth, seeking out the beauty of holiness as our only path and our only walk, holding fast to God, who alone is our praise and our worship.”
The challenge for all generations is this idea of being an authentic worshiper. It boils down to this: Regardless of your musical preferences, your age, or race, the idea of pleasing God with your worship is not built around you. Authentic and godly actions count for so much more than what we think a worship service should look like.
The outcome of Jesus’ conversation with the woman was this: Jesus told her He was God (John 4:26). The woman had a revelation of sorts … not sure what to think but questioning the fact He might be God because He knew about her. This is just like us.
In her book, A Royal Waste of Time, Marva Dawn says: Keeping God as the center of our worship life creates:
- countless possibilities.
- endless resources.
- innumerable ways to encounter and express God’s infinite presence.
It takes considerable thought to create a space for worship where the participants actively engage in their hearts the elements of possibility and resource within our services.
When it comes to creating and designing the authentic worship experience we desire, we must transfer the philosophical to the practical. I have found over the years that for a congregation to truly enjoy a safe, uninterrupted flow of worship, those in leadership must align their hearts and minds to the mission for which God intended worship.
I use the following terms or guidelines as indicators to create a safe worship environment. These terms refer to congregational singing, corporate prayer, sermons, and response — our liturgy, so to speak.
We must choose well-constructed songs that have accessible melodies and average congregational vocal ranges, as well as songs that can be easily remembered during the week. The integrity of the text is primarily focused on the songs that we choose for the congregation. Of course, we must also consider the issue of doctrinal purity, but does the text have an ease of flow so we can achieve corporate expression?
The concept of selecting music that is theologically sound and inclusive of modern language assists the congregation to process the connection from mind to spirit. A mixture of simplistic textual structure combined with substantial doctrinal text that stimulates the mind can create a corporate expression that encourages the individual heart.
There is nothing wrong with simple choruses that can drive home a point. Equally, there is nothing wrong with singing more in-depth text that makes the participant pause and consider. There are wonderful classical hymns of our faith that enforce our belief system and we can easily musically update them without compromising the author’s original composition.
An example of a well-constructed composition is Keith Getty/Stuart Townsend’s In Christ Alone. Beside the strong musical composition, this song is a good model of textual integrity — telling the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ with a personal life application verse by verse. This particular song creates a sense of strength and hope in the believer’s heart.
It is important that in the ebb and flow of any service you give opportunity for celebration. This is not exclusively a musical moment in the service; it could be a testimonial or a ministry success story. Corporate celebration informs and heightens the awareness that God is at work among His people.
In the musical sense, I believe that joy is the operative word. We should sings songs that create an understanding that there is joy in God dwelling among His people. I am not referring to happiness, rather to the contentment and maturing of the saints.
Kevin Kay says, “True worship, then, is worship from the inside out. In reaction to dull, routine, lifeless, boring worship services, many who yearn for a more meaningful, gratifying religious experience, are crying out that we need more emotion, more feeling in our worship to God … there is a real danger in trying to produce with external techniques, that which must emanate from the heart.”
Reflection and silence
Here is where I believe we need maturing. Someone asked what I thought was missing in our Pentecostal worship services. My immediate response was, “Silence.” We are a society of “white noise.” We almost cannot do with out noise. It is in those moments in a service where there is the pause for reflection that we see the hand of God move in transformational ways.
The reflection part of any service can become the revelation that God is speaking not only corporately, but also individually. At these moments ministers create an opportunity for our congregations to encounter, experience, and respond.
We know Isaac Watts for his ability to write hymns with singleness of theme. Creating a worship service around a truth from Scripture can bring about powerful transformation in the heart.
It has been my method over the years to create a thread in the list of songs that will carry this singleness of theme. It is the uniting factor in the moment that lifts a congregation. I consider it one of the peaks that occurs in a service. A theme sets the stage for what is coming next —in most cases — the message of the Word.
Here is a recent example of a theme set on God’s glorious grace that our worship team created:
- Today Is the Day - Lincoln Brewster/Paul Baloche
- Glorious – Paul Baloche/Jason Ingram
- Wonderful God – Paul Joseph/Rita Gannon/Paul Baloche
- My Savior’s Love (gospel hymn) – Charles H. Gabriel
When corporate prayer follows a theme, we create the possibilities and innumerable ways to encounter and express God’s presence I referred to earlier from Marva Dawn’s book.
I saved this for last because I believe there is a need for growth in this area. I am not referring to hospitality in the context of food service or welcome centers. I am referring to taking time to know the person who sits next to you.
The greeting or welcoming portion of any service is a valuable time that churches could possibly enhance in creative ways. We cannot discount the importance of creating a connection with people. This truly is a Christ principle we should observe.
The importance of understanding the DNA of our congregation and community is the concluding thought I leave with you as we all strive to grow and improve our congregants worship experience.
The revelation that the Samaritan woman had is the same experience and revelation offered to believers every day. This Christ whom she encountered reveals the Father’s love and His desire to know and be known by His children.
Tom Matrone is senior associate/worship pastor, Central Assembly of God, Springfield, Missouri.