Our congregation had a small group series with the title “Re-Imagining Worship.” The purpose of this short Bible study was to find out more about the meaning of worship and to compare our current version of corporate worship as a church family to what it could look like in the future.
This group met for three weeks, and out of the discussions came the following conclusions from the gathered group of believers:
• we worship God because he is awesome;
• God is worthy of praise;
• no matter what is going on in us or around us, we are always capable of worship;
• we are made to worship—if we aren’t worshiping God, we are worshiping something else.
So what is worship? Webster’s Dictionary defines worship as “the act of showing respect and love for a god, especially by praying with other people who believe in the same god: the act of worshiping God or a god.”
So anytime and anywhere you show love or respect for God or his creations you are engaging in worship. It does not have to take place in a sanctuary. Most of the time when thinking about worshiping, though, we usually think of it in the corporal sense that takes place in our congregations on Sunday mornings.
For the past four years, I have served as a worship leader in our small congregation. I vividly remember the first Sunday that I filled this role because we did not have a piano player. I had to lead songs from the front step, by myself, without musical accompaniment to help guide me. This is a normal occurrence for a Mennonite church, a denomination with a rich history of a capella singing, but for a former Catholic girl brought up singing hymns with an organ, let’s just say I was not necessarily comfortable with this prospect.
Since I had accepted the request to lead that Sunday, I decided to make the best of the situation and became determined to do a good job my first time out. I consulted with the pastor about what songs would be good choices to pick for the theme on that Sunday. He offered me suggestions of songs that he felt would be familiar to our congregation. That sounds easy, right? We could not have been more wrong with our final choices.
It turns out the songs our pastor felt would be old, familiar favorites were not familiar at all. I learned a powerful lesson that day as I stood up there on that step trying to lead songs I did not know to people who did not know them either. Every congregation, regardless of denomination, has its own set of favorite hymns that are tried and true. What was familiar to our pastor, who was new to our congregation, turned out to be an epic fail for me. I hung in there by the grace of God until we had stumbled over the last lines of the songs. Fortunately, the congregation was supportive and gracious about the whole thing.
This is what started my walk as a worship and praise leader. It was a humbling experience but probably one of the best ways to begin in retrospect. It made me fearless when trying new things, because I could not possibly fail any worse than I did that first Sunday. Since then I have had some OK worship experiences as well as some that were incredible.
During this journey, the twists and bends in the road have helped me draw some conclusions about the nature of worship in congregations. Conversations with worship leaders in other congregations seem to point in the same direction. These conclusions may not apply to everyone, but in general the congregation struggles with one or more of these. It is the humanity in us. We are fortunate that with lots of prayer and trust our Father in heaven can help us through.
Let me say that again. People have worship preferences. Fear of redundancy is the only reason I am not making that statement a third time. We all have ideas of what are acceptable forms of worship and what are not. We criticize those who have practices that differ from ours. At times we may even feel smug and superior to those whose worship we feel does not measure up.
It does not matter what piece of the service is changing. It can be something major, such as changing from a traditional service to a contemporary service. Or it can be something minor, such as moving the place in the service where the offering is collected. We do not tend to welcome changes of any type. Maybe this is because the thought of the sheer magnitude of the awesomeness of God can be overpowering. It is also possible we do not feel worthy or deserving of the mercy and love shown us by this awesome God, and our guilt makes us feel uneasy. So doing what we have always done is more comfortable. We cling to the familiar when showing our thanks and praising our gracious heavenly Father.
The method and music styles we learn as children at church are usually our preferred style of music for worshiping now. Music comes in many varieties. Some are rich in melodic accompaniment; in others the simple harmonies are found in a capella. We hesitate to incorporate new types of music into our worship services for fear of using music that is not Christian or is displeasing to God.
Psalm 98:4-6 tells us: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises. Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.”
Are all the musical endeavors we are using to bring praise and worship to God pleasing to his ear? After all, God gave us the gifts to create all the endless musical options out there. How could we displease him if we are using our gifts the way he intended?
At times, you can actually feel the current of the Spirit moving through the sanctuary when true worship clicks on in the congregation. The feeling of that presence is extraordinary.
Surprisingly, being a worship leader has brought me more blessings than I ever would have imagined. In leading others into worship, it has helped me worship more fully in ways I had never been able to worship before. At times, the tasks of leading can be daunting. Some Sundays I feel overwhelmed by life and do not know where to begin to get to that place to worship because I just don’t feel like it. But when I step into my place on that step in the sanctuary, all my troubles fade away and I am transported to that place where true worship can occur.
Shannon T. Martin is a member of Midway Mennonite Church in Columbiana, Ohio.
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