Some Musings about Worship as Gift and Task

Some Musings about Worship as Gift and Task

Before presenting my musings, let me issue a caveat that I always assume, but many people who visit here seem not to understand. These blog posts are my musings. I don’t regard them as carved in stone, deep theological conclusions such as I might publish in a book or even an article for, say, Christianity Today or Christian Century. Some people who come seem to expect me to provide proof for everything I say here. They come with wrong assumptions. What I write and post here are my own thoughts today, this week, perhaps this month and this year. But they’re not the kinds of thoughts that require footnotes or even full explication and defense. Occasionally a reader questions my veracity, if not my integrity, because I publish opinions here that I partially, at least, base on my own experiences teaching Christian theology for thirty years. If someone doesn’t believe what I say I have experienced, fine. I have no problem with that. But I wonder why they keep coming back if they think I’m lying? (I’m gradually developing a new policy where I will decline to post messages and comments that simply question my veracity or integrity and do not seem at all interested in genuine dialogue.) So, what I say here about worship is based on theological reflection (using theology’s primary sources and norms), my own experiences, and, to some extent, anyway, inevitably my own tastes and preferences. If someone disagrees, well, I’m not putting these opinions forth as “truth for everyone” in the sense of dogmas to be adopted or rejected. They are my own opinions, musings, thoughts, for whatever they’re worth. I’m sure to many people they’re worth nothing. Hopefully to some, they serve to stimulate thought and possibly action in terms of designing and leading worship or just participating in worship more profoundly.

With that out of the way, here are some of my musings about worship.

First, like everything else of real spiritual value, everything truly, positively transformative and good, worship is both gift and task (Phil. 2:12-13). Unfortunately, I fear, some contemporary Christians (and probably Christians of the past as well) tend to assume that worship is our doing. We create it and practice it and hope that God will show up. Rather, God’s presence precedes our performance of worship and, to the extent that God is not already “there,” real worship is not likely to happen. It cannot be manufactured or manipulated. This is why most Christians begin worship, especially communal worship, with a prayer of invocation. It’s not to try to get God to come; it’s to acknowledge God’s gracious presence and ask God to create true worship in and among us. If true worship occurs, it is God’s gracious presence “gifting” it to us. But (!), that does not mean we just sit and wait for worship to happen. God’s gift and our practice (“working out” as in Phil. 2) go together. The more we strive to worship in Spirit and in truth, the more we receive God’s gift. The more God gives and “works in us,” the more we worship truly. Worship, in other words, like the Christian life itself, is a synergistic event and process, but the priority is God’s gift. Our “contribution” is to receive it and act on it, use it, develop it with God’s help.

Why does saying that matter? Because too often we (especially Americans, I suspect) think of worship as something we are responsible for. It is our product and gift to God (if not to ourselves which I worry is too often the real case). But Scripture everywhere emphasizes the prevenience of grace and our inability to manufacture or manipulate it. When we think of worship as our product(ion) and worshiping as our autonomous activity, we miss the focus on God (even, often, where we say the focus is on God). We gather to worship, but worship does not happen unless God is there giving us the ability truly to worship him. Any other way of looking at it tends to bend the burden of creating worship down to us. And then we miss the joy of true worship and/or we take credit if we think “true worship” has happened.

I think we have a tendency to over-plan and over-prepare worship. We want it to be a perfect performance, no messiness, completely predictable, so that people feel “inspired.” But often what really happens is people feel entertained. They go away saying “Wasn’t that a beautiful worship service?” when what it really was was a polished performance. Now, don’t get me wrong (I know someone will); I think God can work in and through a well rehearsed choir anthem, a well prepared sermon, a hymn sung to beautiful pipe organ music, a chorus led by a practiced “worship team.” However, I also think all these things can become merely performances if no place is left in and around them for the Holy Spirit to do the unexpected. If worship is really a gift, we must strictly avoid treating it like a polished performance, finely tuned and rehearsed and absolutely predictable.

Surely there can be (and I think should be) a balance between preparation and rehearsal, on the one hand, and space left for spontaneity and the unanticipated, on the other hand.

I don’t mean to boast or hold myself up as the model for everyone to follow, but a few times, when I have been asked to lead worship, I have intentionally left room for people in the congregation to respond as they feel led by the Spirit. Yes, it was risky. But why do we assume that worship should not be risky? Because we’re afraid of what God might do if we actually give him space in our program?

Again, don’t get me wrong, when I was asked to lead worship I planned it prayerfully, together with those who would play instruments, sing, pray, etc. I didn’t just get up and “let the Spirit move” as I experienced in some churches when I was Pentecostal. (Don’t get mad; I said “some!”) However, believing that worship is a gift, and that asking the Spirit to be present and active means something more than “bless what we already have planned and will do,” I said this to the congregation: “Now is a time for you to participate in worship, as you feel led by the Holy Spirit, by speaking a brief word of exhortation, comfort or testimony, singing a song, uttering a prayer request or prayer, reading a passage of Scripture or whatever else that can be done decently and in order. I will sit down and we will wait in reverent silence for you to contribute to our worship this morning.” Then I sat down and waited. One time, an elderly gentleman stood and sang a verse of a hymn, and the chorus, and then sat down. After the worship service a little old lady came up to me in the foyer and said “That’s why we don’t do that!” In other words, she didn’t like his song! I chuckled to myself and thought “But that’s why I did do that!” I suspected that others were blessed by the old saint’s song even though it was anything but polished. On no occasion did anyone do anything wild or disorderly or heretical or attention-getting. I was prepared to step up and silence anyone who did. Each time I left room for the Spirit to “move” that way, it was a positive experience except for those who thought worship should be a performance.

I’m not suggesting that this is the only way to practice awareness of the gift nature of worship. But I do think we need to reflect very seriously on our too common assumption that worship ought to be humanly planned and performed without any opportunity for God to show up and do something unexpected.

One evidence that we tend to think of worship as performance is congregations’ tendency to applaud with clapping. I admit this drives me almost crazy. When it happens I want to stand up and shout “Folks! This is not a performance!” Inevitably, clapping for a choir song or “special number” or sermon or whatever gives the impression that what just happened is entertainment. We (at least in America) are unconsciously accommodating so much about church life to non-spiritual norms and expectations. I’ve written here before about how we wrongly talk about “hiring” a pastor. Not only business language but business habits are invading the churches. So are entertainment habits. When we clap (unless we somehow know we are clapping for God which is sometimes said), we are congratulating the singer(s) or the preacher on a wonderful performance. Gradually, the mindset is taking hold in too many churches, that everything should be highly polished so that only those people whose “performance” will possibly draw applause are asked to sing or speak.

Some years ago I knew of a “worship leader” who tried to require everyone who would sing or read Scripture or pray or do anything else “up front,” so to speak, to attend a series of talks he delivered about how to, I can’t think of any other word than, perform.

If worship is truly a gift, we ought to relax somewhat and allow space for the Holy Spirit to show up and do the unexpected and we should strictly avoid saying or doing anything that would put the spotlight of attention and applause on a human being (other than Jesus, of course). If worship is truly our task as well, we ought prayerfully to plan the worship service and see that everything is done decently and in order and avoid chaos and distractions.

This morning I woke up with the following worship song on my mind: “Set my spirit free, that I might worship Thee; set my spirit free, that I might praise Thy name. Let all bondage go and let deliverance flow; set my spirit free to worship Thee.” (I would gladly give the lyricist credit, but my sources tell me it is “Anonymous.”) If I were planning a worship service today, I would plan on starting with that. It may be simple, but it profoundly expresses the truth that worship is a gift.

  • http://marcia-rolling.blogspot.ca/ Marcia Janson

    I don’t have anything to add to what you said, Mr. Olson – you expressed it well. I’ve been pondering similar things lately. Just wanted to “Amen!” you :-)

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  • Steve Rogers

    I do think it is possible to clap one’s hands in gratitude and praise to God for a worshipful moment through a song or sermon and not be applauding a performance.

  • Rebecca

    Thank you for this. As a worship leader currently preparing for our church’s “big” annual Christmas service, I found it both convicting and encouraging.

  • Carl Bruun

    The ‘Set My Spirit Free’ lyrics may have been written by Nancy Henigbaum (“Honeytree”). I believe they were on her first album, ‘Honeytree’. (And I confess to have been singing these lines to the Lord nearly every morning since 1975.)

    • rogereolson

      Wow. I haven’t hear that name (“Honeytree”) in years. I’ll have to google her and see what she’s up to. I heard her sing at a church way back in the 1970s. Thanks for the clue.

  • Michael Schirmer

    Thanks for the comments on worship. Its a subject difficult for me to grasp. I do agree with Steve. Its possible and its possible for others its entertainment, especially when bands are used. What does bother me is people have a tendency to call the music portion worship when there could be no music at all and its still can be worshipful.

  • Stephen S

    I’ve struggled with this question of worship vs. performance a fair amount, but mainly in a different light. Here’s my question:
    If a worship service shouldn’t resemble a performance because it takes the Holy Spirit’s role out of it and puts the focus on the people, can an event that is meant to be a performance (orchestra concert, choir concert, rock concert, dance recital…) be truly worshipful? For all? Only for some? Although I do not claim this to be absolute truth by any means, I want to say it can be based on both my experience but also some reasoning.

    My experience tells me this is possible based on going to but more importantly playing in concerts (the orchestral and rock variety) in which I have felt as though I were at a worship service, and in which I have believed I have been worshiping. Nothing at these concerts were possible without the prevenient grace from God for those performing to do so.

    As for the reasoning, I guess this where I may differ from you wrote above: you say that we should “allow space for the Holy Spirit to show up and do the unexpected” (I will get to the rest of the sentence in a sec). In a performance setting, is it not possible for the players and director (if there is one) to choose to leave space for the Holy Spirit to do that exact thing in the context of the performance? As someone who has played in many concerts, I would have to say that the best concerts are the ones in which something unexpected happens and you play in the moment. I want to believe the Holy Spirit has something to do with that, and why shouldn’t He (or is the HS a She? I’m no scholar…)? To say that the Holy Spirit cannot be at work to create worship by all participants in a performance, especially if performers and audience members are seeking to worship in that performance, seems to put Her (might as well switch it up) in a box.

    The rest of your sentence was that “we should strictly avoid saying or doing anything that would put the spotlight of attention and applause on a human being (other than Jesus, of course).” This is difficult to tackle when it comes to performance because they seem to be about people who are physically in the room. And, to some extent, I guess I think that is okay. For people to recognize the effort put in of other people to work hard and seek beauty and truth in music seems to be okay, as long as ultimate praise is offered to the Lord for what has occurred, with the knowledge that none of it would be possible without Him. In a concert setting, this rarely happens because most praise/applause is for the performers alone with no gratefulness to God for what has occurred, but does it have to be that way? Can an audience member to a concert praise the performers with ultimate thanks to God? Can a performer receive praise with ultimate thanks to God? Let’s look at it on a much smaller level.

    Say you’re in line at a church potluck (of which I’m certain you’ve been to countless) and you sit down to eat after going through the line (which took longer than expected) when you realize you forgot a napkin. A napkin is extremely necessary at a church potluck so you’re going to need to get one. Your friend sees that you’ve forgotten the napkin and offers to grab one for you. You naturally say thank you and your friend feels your gratitude. They are performing the act of getting a napkin for which you are saying thank you to them. Ultimately, because you are both Christians, you are hopefully thanking God in some way for what is occurring: for your friendship, for your food, for your church, for your life, for Jesus Himself, but you do not say it at that time because your friend is grabbing you a napkin and you are thankful at the present moment for him.

    I don’t think our applause of a concert (or even worship music in a worship context) needs to be necessarily different. It is difficult not to praise/applaud beautiful music because humankind’s natural response to enjoyment is praise. There is also nothing wrong with enjoyment, and thankfulness doesn’t need to have a cap. If you would thank your friend for grabbing a napkin, I don’t see much wrong with thanking people for music really at any time, as long as, again, all praise is ultimately to God.

    Well, I’ve written a little much, and it’s been a little scattered, and I don’t have too much to back my opinions up with, nor do I want to seem to be attacking you because you should know that I highly enjoy and learn from your writing. I simply have wrestled with this idea for quite a while now and will do so for the rest of my life as a likely music educator and church musician.

    A side question: something I never directly addressed but would be interested to hear your take on is whether a “worship” context brings in necessary differences when it comes to music that specifically “allow for worship” (weird phrase) that are not the same in “performance” contexts. Is the simple fact that a worship event is publicly declared to be a “worship service” the reason for these differences? If so, are performances good for anything in the Christian life? (these questions might not have made sense, but I did not know how else to word them)

    • rogereolson

      I haven’t been to many concerts that begin with an invocation. Sure, a concert (or other kind of performance) can be “worshipful” without being “a service of worship of God.” I, for one, refrain from clapping for people who participate in the latter. I think that clapping for someone’s gift to God and us in a service devoted to worship of God distracts from the true focus. For one thing, such applause seems always to be measured to the person’s (or persons’) talent or ability to satisfy the congregation’s taste or preference. Which is more likely to get loud, sustained applause in a service of worship? A preacher’s prophetic, convicting sermon that challenges the congregation’s vested interests and calls them to repentance or a sermon that “inspires” and “uplifts?” In my experience, only the latter (usually filled with illustrations and rhetorical devices) gets applause. I have the same concern with choir “numbers” and “offertories” and other things people do in worship services. Why is a very talented solo, for example, worthy of more applause in a service of worship that, say, an offering of song by someone who is sincere but not particularly talented? I think expectations in services of worship should be wholly different than in a concert. In the latter, we go expecting everyone who participates to be talented and well rehearsed. In the former, we should not go with that expectation. We should expect to be convicted, not just spiritually “inspired.” We should go expecting everyone to be able to participate, not just talented people. Applause corrupts the atmosphere of expectation which should not be on talent but on God. I have no problem applauding at a concert because the expectation and focus are very different.

      • Stephen S

        So you’re saying that there is a clear contextual difference between a worship service and concert, which makes sense, but I would say this seems easier (at least to me) from a congregation-member/concert-goer’s perspective than from the stage. Where I struggle for myself as someone “on the stage” regularly (a trumpet player) is that I want to be worshiping God in both contexts. And, in my experience, I’m not sure how to change how I approach music from context to context. The “music” seems the same at least on my own personal level because it is not like I want to play poorly in a worship context, and I certainly want to worship God in a concert context. It could lie in simply how I view the other players and audience/congregation, as I probably should not feel as strongly about the skill level of fellow worshipers as I do about fellow performers in a concert (everyone indeed should be able to participate!), and I should see the audience/congregation as participants in a worship service and spectators in a concert context.

        I guess on a personal level, I do feel that mistakes aren’t as big of a deal in a worship context because much more important than perfect execution is my heart’s attitude of surrender and thankfulness to God. Nevertheless, I guess I just want to say that I’ve found having two approaches to be hard and seemingly not ideal from a musician’s perspective who travels back and forth regularly. By the way, I know music isn’t your area of expertise so don’t feel the need to have an answer to my quandary, but I’ve appreciated the space to get my thoughts out. I should probably talk to a worship pastor. . .