Worship Blog Series

Post 4: The Human Role in Worship

Worship Leaders

In this blog series we’ve been having a conversation on worship. We started with a brief definition: Worship is giving honor, service, and respect to God.  Based on this definition it could seem like worship is only something we do for God. So recently we explored God’s role in worship. We saw that God is not a passive recipient, but is active in our worship.  

Worship begins with God’s call. We worship through Jesus, who leads us in worship.  The Spirit empowers and directs our worship.  What then should we think about worship leaders in our church services?  If Jesus is our worship leader, do we really need people to lead worship?  Perhaps you’ve never thought to ask about this, but I think it’s important to consider our role in worship.

As we said before, the priests in the Old Testament were the worship leaders: they acted as mediators for God’s people in worship, they facilitated the worship rituals, offering to God the sacrifices brought by the worshipers.  They also taught God’s people from God’s Law.  As our great high priest, Jesus fulfills the role of the priests; we have access to God through him.  But God still calls men and women to serve as worship leaders.  In our church the pastors, the choir, and the wardens help to facilitate the worship of the congregation.

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 gives us a picture of what is means to lead worship.  God’s people were instructed to bring an offering to God in the Temple. In v. 4 it says the priest is to take the offering and put it before the alter, but in v. 10 the worshiper is to put the offering before the Lord.  These verses seem like a contradiction, until we realize that the priest was only facilitating the act of offering.  He wasn’t worshiping in place of the one bringing the offering, he wasn’t standing in place of God either.  The priest as a worship leader helped the worshiper bring the offering to the Lord. In the same way worship leaders today help God’s people respond to God in worship, by facilitating the worship service. 

Some of us are called to lead worship, but worship is something we all do together.  

All Believers

This first observation leads to a second, all believers are called to lead worship.

Although Jesus is our High Priest, and some people are called to a priestly ministry, it is also true that God’s people are called to a priesthood. In Exodus 19:5-6 God told the people of Israel that by being in a covenant relationship with him they would be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” God’s dream for his people was that they would all have access in worship, and that they would lead the nations to worship the Lord.  

Sadly, Israel often failed to be a light to the nations, and they worshiped idols instead of the Lord. But the Apostle Peter picks up God’s dream from Exodus and applies it to the Church. Peter writes to the church, saying, you are “to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” He also says, “you are… a royal priesthood, a holy nation, …that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:5.9).

Peter wasn’t talking to the pastors or worship leaders only, and he wasn’t even talking to a rich or powerful church. Peter wrote these words to a group of believers under persecution. In spite of their circumstances God’s dream for them was that they would together offer worship to the Lord, and lead others to worship Him.  

This same idea reappears in Revelation.  At the beginning of this blog series we looked at worship in Revelation 4-5, to which we return now at the end of our series.  In Revelation 5 the praise offered to the Lamb, Jesus, includes, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (vv. 9-10).  In Jesus we become the kingdom of priests that God always wanted his people to be.  In Jesus true worship is restored.

The Church is called to be a “priesthood of all believers,” as the classic Protestant teaching says. We are all called to worship and to be a light to the people around us so that we might lead them to worship the Lord.  Part of the way we do this is in our work.  As we are sent out from Sunday worship into our daily lives, our work becomes an offering to the Lord and the way we witness to the world around us.

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Worship Blog Series

Post 3: God’s Role in Worship

The Father

In these posts we are taking time to think more deeply about worship.  So far we’ve focused on what we do in worship: giving honor and glory to God because he is worthy.  We’ve also explored four dimensions of our worship.  But it is important to recognize that worship isn’t just about what we do for God.  In fact, God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is involved in worship. So we need to think about God’s role in our worship.  

Worship begins with God.  It may seem like we initiate the worship service each week, but true worship is initiated by God; He invites us to worship him.  Scripture testifies that worship begins with God’s action and invitation.  God called the Israelites out of bondage to worship him (Exodus 8:1).  Jesus says that the Father seeks people to worship him (John 4:23).  Paul says that God’s plan in redeeming us is to create a people who will worship him (Ephesians 1:4-5, 12).

Worship begins with God, which means worship is about responding to God, saying “Yes” to his invitation.  If God is the one who calls us to worship, what kind of response is required?  Think of the way we enter into our worship services.  Have we taken time to prepare, or do we think worship will just happen by accident?  Do we arrive on time?  What kind of attitude do we come with?  Our response to God in worship begins with the way we answer his invitation from the moment we arrive.  

Here’s a practical suggestion.  On Saturday evening remind yourself (and your family) that God has invited you for worship on Sunday morning.  Prepare your heart by reading the passages from the lectionary, and praying that you would be ready to say “Yes” to God.  Make sure you get enough rest, and set an alarm to wake you up in time to arrive before the service starts.

The Father calls us to worship.  What about God the Son?

The Son

Presentation, the presentation of Jesus, is an often overlooked event in the life of Christ.  In liturgical worship, following a lectionary, the day of presentation comes during the season of Epiphany.  Presentation is all about the presentation of the baby Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:22-40).  Mary and Joseph brought Jesus in obedience to the law, it was time to present him to God and offer a sacrifice for purification. The whole context of the passage is worship, the focus should be entirely on God.  So it is amazing that from the moment Jesus was brought into the Temple he becomes the focus, but not as a distraction.  For Simeon and Anna, who were present, the presence of Jesus resulted in praise to God.

I think there are two implications of this for us. First, children are important contributors in worship.  They are not a distraction.  Let’s encourage the presence of children whenever we gather together.  Second, this passage reminds us of the important place of Jesus in our worship. His presence with us is at the heart of what our worship is all about.

At our church we begin our service with these words as part of our opening prayers: “through his Son Jesus Christ” and “through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  In this way we acknowledge that we worship through Jesus, as Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

What does it mean to worship through Jesus?  This is about Jesus’ priestly role in our worship. The priests in the Old Testament acted as mediators for God’s people in worship, they facilitated the worship rituals, offering to God the sacrifices brought by the worshipers. They were the worship leaders.  In the New Covenant, Jesus is our mediator (1 Timothy 2:5) and high priest (Hebrews 4:14).  As the perfect high priest, Jesus has entered into the heavenly temple to be our mediator before God for all time. Hebrews calls him a “minister in the holy places” (8:2).  The word “minister” speaks of someone who serves.  Jesus serves as a priest, He is our worship leader.

Worship through Jesus means that we submit to him as our worship leader.  True worship happens in dependence on Jesus.  We depend on him because our worship falls short of God’s glory, it is “offered in a broken vessel,” but through Christ it is pleasing to God.  God accepts our imperfect, half-hearted worship through Christ.  In submission and dependence we find freedom and boldness.  We don’t need to worry whether or not our worship is “good enough.” In fact, with Jesus as our high priest we can draw near to God with confidence (Hebrews 4:16).

The Spirit

The Father calls us to worship, the Son leads us in worship, and the Spirit guides and empowers our worship.

We’ve already seen that God is not a passive observer of worship services.  Instead, God is very active.  Here will will talk about the role of the Holy Spirit in worship. 

Some people think that denominations like Anglicans aren’t much interested in the Holy Spirit, or that the Holy Spirit is only present in Pentecostal styles of worship.  But I think the Holy Spirit is very important in all worship services and setting, regardless of denomination, and I believe he is very active.  Let me mention three ways the Holy Spirit is active in worship.

First, The Holy Spirit brings us together.  We’ve said that the Father calls us to worship him.  But when we come to worship we arrive as individuals.  There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But part of God’s goal for us is that we would be a community, a people called together.  This is what the Spirit does.  We see the way the Spirit brings the church together and makes us one in Acts 2:42-47.  At the beginning of Acts 2 a crowd of people gathered around a strange phenomenon, the disciples were speaking in their languages.  By the end of Acts 2 people from that same crowd had become a community in the best sense of that word: a common unity.  Luke makes it clear that the believers, the brand new church had a common life: “all who believed were together and had all things in common” (2:44).  

Another way the Spirit is active in our worship is in helping us to understand.  In worship we respond to revelation of God and his Word, but we can’t respond rightly if we don’t apprehend or understand what is revealed.  This is where the Spirit works. It is the Spirit who reveals knowledge of God and gives understanding (Ephesians 1:17).  We rely on the Spirit to understand and enable our response to God. 

Finally, the Spirit is active in sending us. Our worship services don’t just end with “have a good week.”  Instead we are sent from worship into our week to be witnesses.  As we see in the book of Acts, the Spirit is God’s empowering presence for our mission.  It is in the power of the Holy Spirit that we are sent out.  As we go out in the Spirit’s power we are made ready to live and work for God’s praise and glory.  

So, the Holy Spirit’s role in our worship is to gather us together into a community, to help us understand God’s revelation, and to send us out from worship as witnesses.

God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is intimately involved in our worship.  How does this inform or challenge the way you lead worship?

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Worship Blog Series

Post 2: Harmony in Worship

Broad and Narrow Worship

In the last post I began a conversation about worship.  We saw that Christian worship is about the honor, service, and respect of which God is worthy.  With this basic definition in mind, let’s continue to expand our thinking about worship.  In this post I want to look at four dimensions of worship: broad, narrow, inward, and outward.

When you think about worship, is it an activity for Sunday, or is it a way of life?

The answer should be, both! Worship is both broad (comprehensive, extensive) and narrow (limited in scope, specific).  It is broad in the sense that it extends to every area of our lives. Consider what Romans says about worship, “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (12:1).  The basis of this new covenant offering is all that God has done for us, which Paul described in Romans 1-11, calling it, “the mercies of God.”  Because of all God has done for his people, Paul encourages a living sacrifice.  Unlike the Old Testament scarifies in which something had to die in the place of the worshiper, the people of God are to offer God their lives as worship.  Our lives can be offered as worship to the Lord.  All of life is worship when it is directed to bringing honor, glory, and worth to the Lord.

On the other hand, worship has a narrow sense. The church worships the Lord in specific ways when she gathers together. We see an example of this in Acts, where the gathered church is worshiping the Lord (possibly praising) and fasting (13:2). Narrow worship is what we do when gathered together on Sunday each week. 

Worship is both broad and narrow. But which is more important? 

The truth is that we can’t have one without the other. Broad and narrow worship go together (see Hebrews 13:15-16), so they need to be kept together. One without the other is incomplete, and can become something that really isn’t worship at all (See on Isaiah 58 below).

Outward and Inward Worship

So far we have briefly explored broad and narrow worship.  The point is that we need consistency between our worship on Sunday and our lives of worship in the rest of the week. Anything less is not true worship.  Now I want to look at another aspect of worship: inward and outward worship. 

Outward worship is worship that is outwardly expressed; worship that is seen and heard. This includes our singing and serving.  On the other hand, inward worship is worship that is inwardly expressed; worship that wells up from our hearts before the Lord, and includes our emotions.  As with broad and narrow worship, there needs to be harmony between our outward and inward worship. 

Where does your focus tend to be?

On the one hand outward worship is not enough. Jesus said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Matthew 15:8, quoting from Isaiah 29:13).  For Jesus the emphasis seems to fall harder on inward worship.  Worship that doesn’t come from the heart is just lip-service, going through the motions, putting on a show.  True worship begins in the heart.  

On the other hand, inward worship isn’t enough.  Heartfelt worship will necessarily result in acts of outward worship. Isaiah rebuked God’s people for assuming that their inward worship was all God cared about. He reminded them that inward worship will overflow in outward acts of justice and mercy.  This is what Isaiah 58 points to.  The people were complaining that God wasn’t responding to their worship, their fasting and contrition.  It was like their worship wasn’t achieving the desired outcome; God seemed far away.  This was because God knew the hearts of the worshipers; while they were doing those worship rituals, they were also neglecting justice and mercy.  Worship had become corrupted, and misdirected as a way of manipulating God.  God’s rebuke shows that worship and justice go together.  In fact, it shows that the outward expressions of worship reveal the heart of the worshiper.  True worship would have resulted in having in themselves God’s own heart for the poor and oppressed, expressed in justice and mercy.  If they were really worshiping inwardly, then it would show in their lives outwardly. 

All four dimensions of worship are part of true Christian worship. 

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Worship Blog Series


Post 1: Series Introduction and Definition

As a pastor I find that one of my biggest jobs is helping to plan and lead worship.  I don’t know if all pastors are as involved in the worship service as I am.  I imagine that some focus mainly on planning, and delivering the sermon each Sunday, and leave the “worship” to the worship leaders.  But that isn’t my experience.  

When I became the head pastor of our church, an English service in Kigali, I committed myself to building up the worship of our church.  As I saw it, we hadn’t been very intentional about what we were doing on Sunday mornings, we had gotten into a routine of just showing up and hoping worship would happen.  We had allowed worship to be simply what the worship leaders and choirs were doing, and since that wasn’t our job, we had become disconnected from the planning and leading of worship.  

I’m sure we were walking a street that travels in both directions, but as the leaders of the church we should have been more intentional to make it clear that the whole service is worship, and that we were involved in it, participating and leading.  So we resolved to focus on worship, and creating services of worship.  This of course meant that the pastors needed to work more closely with the worship leaders, and the choir.  As we did this we noticed that the service itself started to feel more coherent, and unified.  

But I also realized that the people I was leading worship with didn’t have a clear sense of what worship really is, they didn’t have a big enough theology of worship to allow it to be more than just the songs.  This blog series is meant to fill in the picture and expand for pastors and worship leaders a vision of worship big enough to include the whole service and all of life.  I hope this helps them find common ground on which to work and worship together.

A Basic Definition

Let’s begin with the main question: What is worship?  How would you define worship?

If we simply look at the word, “worship” comes from an old English term, “worth-ship.”  “Worth” is the primary idea behind worship: it is about recognizing and giving worth to someone or something.  In addition to this basic definition, the Biblical words for worship include ideas of honoring (to bow down), giving service (or sacrifice), and showing respect (sometimes called “fear”).  

Any of these words could be applied to a person, or even to things, but Christian worship is ultimately about ascribing worth to God, as Revelation 4:11 says, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”  John’s vision of God’s heavenly throne room is a vision of unending worship.  God is worshiped in heaven because he is worthy of worship.  John also sees the Lamb, Jesus, who with God is worthy of glory and honor (5:9, 10, 12).  The climax of this vision is that God and the Lamb are worshiped by everyone and everything: “And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’” (5:13).  Worship is much bigger than just the style we use on Sunday.  Worship is a heavenly reality we get to enter into from earth.

It probably goes without saying, but it is possible that worship be directed, or misdirected to lesser things, those things less worthy of our worship.  Christian worship is about the honor, service, and respect of our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The Lord is worthy above everyone and everything to receive the worship of His people.

We will add to this basic definition and talk about some of the ways we worship in future posts.  But for now, how does this basic definition of worship challenge you about what we do in our worship services?  How does the vision of Revelation 4-5 expand your understanding of worship?

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Habakkuk and Times of Uncertainty (Part 3)

In a weekly email update for St. Etienne Cathedral (Kigali) I have been working through a series of messages looking at the book of Habakkuk for strength to hold on in uncertain times. These are the final two messages, slightly revised.

In the complaints and responses of Habakkuk chapters 1-2, we see God in His sovereign faithfulness. God is controlling events for the good of his people, even when circumstances seem to suggest the opposite. Here (Part 3) we turn to Habakkuk’s response to God.

Habakkuk’s first response is confidence. We see this in his prayer (3:1-16). Actually, Habakkuk was already praying, his complaints are a form of prayer called “lament.” Now in response to God he turns from lament to petition. Habakkuk realizes that in God’s sovereignty His plans must be carried out. God will punish the sin of his people. But even as he accepts that this is God’s sovereign plan, he asks God to have mercy: “in wrath remember mercy” (3:2). Although judgment is sure, Habakkuk looks for mercy, waiting for the destruction of the enemies of God’s people (3:16).

Habakkuk can be confident of God’s mercy because he knows God’s work of salvation in the past. Verses 3-15 recall God’s former acts of salvation, especially the exodus from Egypt. God was like a warrior, fighting the enemies of his people (see Exodus 15:3). Habakkuk wants God to save his people in the present the way he did in the past. He has heard of the mighty deeds of the Lord, but now he wants to see them for himself (3:2). In anticipation of God’s mercy Habakkuk has moved from complaint: “how long, O Lord?” (1:2), to confidence: “I will quietly wait for the day of trouble” (3:16).

Quiet confidence in the mercy of God is a source of strength to hold on in times of uncertainty. Generally, confidence grows as something or someone is proven worthy of trust. Confidence in God grows by continually reminding ourselves of God’s past faithfulness, reassuring ourselves that he can be trusted. Waiting for the Lord is an exercise of our trust and a source of strength: “they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength” (Isaiah 40:31).

This brings us to the final verses of the book, and the other part of Habakkuk’s response to God. In his final poem (3:17-19) Habakkuk responds to God with joy. This may come as a surprise, since Habakkuk has accepted God’s sovereign plan to punish his people. There are dark days ahead. The prophet describes the loss of life’s basic necessities: figs, grapes, olive, wheat, sheep, cows (v.17). Although this loss could be hypothetical, for Habakkuk this is a reality that is soon to happen. The Babylonians are going to cut of supplies and ravage the land as they carry out God’s judgement. God’s people are going to experience suffering and exile.

In spite of such catastrophic loss Habakkuk chooses joy instead of despair: “yet I will rejoice in the LORD” (v.18). Even when all of God’s blessings are removed, Habakkuk will rejoice in the Lord. Habakkuk’s response is a stubborn refusal to despair and a determination to “take joy in the God of my salvation,” even if he does not save in this situation. Habakkuk chooses joy in spite of circumstances, and in this way finds God to be his source of strength: “GOD, the Lord, is my strength” (v19).

Joy in the Lord is a source of strength to hold on in times of uncertainty. So often we look for joy in our circumstances, but Habakkuk reminds us that joy is a choice we can make in spite of circumstances. We have watched Habakkuk go through a transformation, from complaining to confidence and joy. In our times of uncertainty God wants us to experience a similar transformation, to be a people of confident trust and determined joy.  When times of uncertainty come our way God himself will be our strength to hold on.

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