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Experiential Worship
Discovering What Lies Beyond “Contemporary”
(Published in "Net Results"© Magazine)

One of my early memories of church was a heated argument over our youth director’s ill-fated decision to play his guitar in our regular Sunday morning service. I thought it was “so cool” and for the first time worship seemed to be something that related to me, to my real life, which was exactly what he had hoped for. Others were not so enamored: “What was he thinking?” “How could he do that do us?” “It’s just not right!” Ever since then worship style has been a source of conflict in every church I have attended. If you have been a part of a church for more than about two minutes, you have probably experienced some of that same conflict. Where did these “worship wars” come from and what does the future hold for our churches?

A Brief History of the Worship Wars
As the church-going boom of the 50’s gave way to the growing skepticism of the 60’s, declining churches in the 70’s started seeking new ways to bring people back into their pews. The phenomenon of contemporary Christian music seemed the perfect answer by making services more culturally relevant. “Contemporary Worship!” became the fervent battle cry of the denominational reformers which often brought deep division and underlying conflict to the surface. Many decided the mainline churches were beyond change and the vision of completely contemporary worship spawned a whole new movement of “non-denominational” churches.
In spite of the conflict change was inevitable. Established churches added praise choruses to the hymns of their traditional services and squeezed in a band alongside the choir and organ. The new churches took up residence in nondescript auditoriums and put their bands on stages to lead extended blocks of singing followed by expositional Bible teaching. This contemporary approach to worship brought people back to church, both believers and unbelievers alike. However, those new to church discovered relevant music didn’t mean they could actually relate to the service. Extended times of musical worship followed by complex biblical teaching often felt as alien to unchurched people as robes, pipe organs, and intricate liturgies.
In the 80’s and 90’s pioneers like Bill Hybels and Rick Warren, impassioned by the Great Commission and the church growth movement, reclaimed evangelism as the heartbeat of the church. Understanding that Sunday morning is the best time to reach new people, they moved from contemporary services to “seeker-services,” designed primarily with the unbeliever in mind. While countless people came to faith in such evangelistic events, it was at the price of diluting or excluding genuine worship from the primary weekly gathering of these churches.

New Voices on Worship
In the mid-90’s voices of dissent began to challenge the growing seeker movement. Sally Morgenthaler’s book Worship Evangelism delivered a definitive critique of the strict seeker model by demonstrating that biblical worship is always first directed to God while at the same time intentionally welcoming unbelievers. As Paul explained, “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if all prophesy, an unbeliever or outsider who enters is reproved by all and called to account by all. After the secrets of the unbeliever’s heart are disclosed, that person will bow down before God and worship him, declaring, ‘God is really among you’.” (I Corinthians 14:23-25)
When Christian worship is both genuine and intelligible, it becomes contagious and can draw unbelievers into transforming encounters with God. This biblical truth has provided a much needed course correction for the seeker movement and is informing a whole new generation of worship leaders who are reaching out to people in the emerging culture of the early 21st century. There is a growing passion to call believers into deeper and more passionate expressions of worship while at the same time inviting their unbelieving friends into life-changing encounters with the living God.

Postmodern Worship Confusion
Many of these emerging “worship evangelists” are realizing that in the name of cultural relevance we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, cutting ourselves off from the power and beauty of ancient Christian tradition. Others understand that worship in this emerging culture must be multi-sensory, communicating not just with words, but with sights and sounds and smells and touch. Still others recognize the Reformation urge to root out idolatrous practices has reduced most protestant churches to visual and artistic wastelands; antiseptic monuments of a rational modern world quickly being swallowed up in the visceral tapestry of postmodern experience. These worship innovators are drawing on the whole palette of creative arts to enliven worship—from drama to painting to dance to film to poetry and beyond.
So where does this leave us today? What is the center of these emerging trends in worship? Should we simply embrace the latest worship fads in an attempt to be culturally relevant? Or will this reduce our worship to trendy gimmicks that quickly wear thin and go out of style? There is a cacophony of voices trying to tell us what worship should be in this new millennium, but they have not yet united in a harmonious chorus. In the midst of confusion we need clarity, a guiding paradigm for worship that will help us make sense of emerging trends and find our way through constant social change. Across the centuries comes a familiar voice of truth, offering us that core, that guiding light.

Jesus’ Vision for Worship
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength (Mark 12:30). Jesus’ Great Commandment is so profound it sums up the very purpose of our existence in one short sentence and offers us a way to live the fullest possible lives. At the same time, this familiar teaching offers us an insight into worship as it is meant to be in every time and place.
At its core worship is about loving God. Our whole life is meant to be an expression of love for God, but worship is the one thing we do for the sole purpose of expressing our love directly to God. Jesus is calling us to worship God more completely, in fact with all that we are. In contrast to the popular imagery of our time, in the Bible “heart” refers not primarily to our emotions but to our will, that God-given power to choose. “Soul” points not so much to an immortal substance within us as to the seat of our deepest emotions. “Mind” describes not just to our ability to store and recall facts, but to our intellect that can perceive the significance of information for our lives. “Strength” in this context means the physical body, where all these aspects of our experience intersect.
Jesus is telling us worship is meant to be an encounter with God that engages us intellectually (mind), emotionally (soul), volitionally (heart), and physically (strength). When people encounter God in this way, they are empowered to give themselves back to him more completely, to love him with heart, soul, mind, and strength. This kind of encounter, in which God engages us on all levels and we respond by giving all that we are back to him, is what I have come to call “Experiential Worship.”
Remember when Moses encountered God at the burning bush? First of all, it was a physical experience: he saw the burning bush with his eyes, a staff changed shape, a leprous hand was made clean, and water turned to blood. Second, it was an intellectual experience: God explained his purpose for the people of Israel, Moses’ role in freeing them from bondage, a strategy for confronting Pharaoh, and instructions on how to lead the people out of Egypt. Third, it was an emotional experience: Moses hid his face in fear and doubted his ability to lead. Finally, it was a volitional experience: God called Moses to respond with specific choices and concrete actions: “Remove the sandals from your feet . . . say to the Israelites . . . go and assemble the elders of Israel . . . go to the King of Egypt and say to him . . . now go . . .” (Exodus 3:5,14,16,18).
Before this encounter Moses was a fugitive shepherd hiding from his destiny. After this encounter he was still plagued with doubts and weaknesses, but he did exactly what God called him to do: he led God’s people out of bondage. How? By the power of an encounter with God that moved him to respond with his heart, soul, mind, and body. This is exactly what will happen to people in our churches if we begin to invite them into more complete encounters with God through Experiential Worship!

Recovering Biblical Worship
In my life I have lived in the country, in suburbs, and large cities. I have lived on both coasts of the United States, in Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East. Along the way I have sampled the amazing variety of Christian worship traditions, reflecting various cultures and traditions. No matter what the setting, whether an Ethiopian Orthodox mass or a Pentecostal revival meeting, I have discovered every Christian worship gathering ultimately has the same purpose: to invite people into an encounter with God that moves them to give all they are back to him. What differs in every setting is how each tradition seeks to fulfill that purpose.
Through my different experiences I have noticed that each historical worship tradition tends to focus on one of the four aspects of human experience. For instance, a Baptist service that culminates in a powerful altar call captures what it means to worship God volitionally, loving God with the heart. A Presbyterian service featuring a strong sermon conveying biblical theology is a good example of intellectual worship, loving God with the mind. A Pentecostal service filled with shouts and speaking in tongues is a vivid expression of emotional worship, loving God with the soul. A Catholic service with Holy Communion, incense, and icons can be a profoundly physical kind of worship, loving God with the body.

The diverse mosaic of worship traditions is beautiful in its variety, and yet it seems that the life-changing power of holistic biblical worship can get lost in these derivative expressions. Sadly, worship in Spirit and truth, that mighty river of Living Water that Jesus promised the Samaritan woman at the well (see John 4:1-26), has been siphoned off into so many tributaries that they have become tiny rivulets, unable to move people at the deepest levels. Richard Foster offers us a different vision in his prophetic book Streams of Living Water:

“Today a mighty river of the Spirit is bursting forth from the hearts of women and men, boys and girls. It is a deep river of divine intimacy, a powerful river of holy living, a dancing river of jubilation in the Spirit, and a broad river of unconditional love for all peoples. . . . The astonishing new reality in this mighty flow of the Spirit is how sovereignly God is bringing together streams of life that have been isolated from one another for a very long time.”

Foster’s vision is a call to learn from each other and regain the full historical content of our biblical faith so that the Spirit might move dynamically through the various expressions of Christianity once again. As we learn how to bring together the four aspects of human experience in our own unique tradition and setting, we will see the life-changing power of Experiential Worship unleashed in the lives of those who are willing to give their whole selves back to God!

Experiencing God in Your Worship
No matter what the tradition of your church or characteristics of your unique setting, God is calling you to love him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to help others do the same. As you plan and lead the worship gatherings of your church, will you begin to intentionally consider how you can engage people intellectually, emotionally, volitionally, and physically? As you reflect on your own tradition, will you identify which of these aspects are weak or lacking in your worship and find ways to bring balance, adding the missing elements?
If you decide to answer this call, you cannot (and should not) do it alone. Will you invite others into the creative process of imagining worship that engages people more completely? Will you involve more people in the process of making that kind of worship a reality on a regular basis? Will you stretch yourself by learning to lead worship in a way that involves all of who you are and invites people to follow your example?
If this feels like a challenge beyond your strength or capability you are right—only the gracious power of God’s Spirit within you can accomplish these things. But if you are willing to open yourself and seek the resources you need to answer Jesus’ call, he will provide all you need. Don’t stay caught in a backwater of the Spirit. There is a mighty river called Experiential Worship that is drawing you deeper into the heart of your Father. Paddle out into the stronger current! Help your people worship God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and with Paul you will be able to say, “Our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit, and with deep conviction” (I Thessalonians 1:5)

-Bob Rognlien

Bob Rognlien is senior pastor of Lutheran Chuch of the Good Shepherd in southern California and author of Experiential Worship: Encountering God with Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength (NavPress, 2005).

 


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Copyright © 2004 Robert P. Rognlien
All rights reserved. Any reproduction or transmission in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, or by any information storage and retrieval system without the expressed written consent of Robert P. Rognlien is strictly prohibited.