Wired For Divine Experience
Jesus’ Dream for Our Worship
(Published in "Worship Leader Magazine"©, March-April Issue)
Missing the Mark?
“The balance between the band and singers sounded perfect, no matter where you were sitting in the house!” “The video behind those lyrics looked like it was made for that song!” “Those lighting transitions were silky-smooth and on time, every time!” “The visuals during the sermon were stunning!” Any worship team that invests long hours, hard work, and careful planning into utilizing technology as a tool to facilitate genuine worship loves to hear that kind of feedback. Yet I know when our team hears these kinds of comments, we have probably missed the mark in our worship gatherings that week.
The whole point of using technology in worship is to draw people into deeper encounters with God. When people are talking about technology rather than the God who is the object of our affection we have missed the mark. One of the pitfalls of technology in worship is losing sight of the fact that worship is first and foremost a human experience with God.
Think instead of those fleeting moments, whether in a high-tech house of worship or all alone in the privacy of your personal prayer closet, when it all clicks; when every outside distraction and thought of self slips away and you are pouring your whole self out to God. You bow your whole body in a posture of stunned reverence, your mind reels with truths too huge to contain, your soul explodes with unbounded passion for the God of your salvation, and your heart bursts with a longing to follow Jesus and do his will. This is worship! This is what we were made for . . .
When Adam and Eve walked with God in the Garden, their unbounded joy was the byproduct of worship born in perfect intimacy with the Father and unhindered by the constraints of sin. When one day we walk the transparent streets of the New Jerusalem, that joy will be restored because we will finally be free to live in the same kind of complete worship. John offers us a glimpse of our destiny when he writes, Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (Revelation 22:3-5) At last we will become who we were created to be: complete worshipers of the one true God!
Design and Destiny
If we were created to worship and are destined to recapture the fullness of that purpose, then it follows there is within every human being an intrinsic pattern designed to express worship to God. For those of us who plan and lead public worship gatherings it is critical that we recognize and understand this pattern. As important as it is for lead worshipers to study emerging cultures and learn to use cutting-edge technology, certainly it is even more critical for us to study and learn how people are “wired” to worship God.
Jesus gave us profound insight into this human design when he said, 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). Obviously loving God encompasses all we are and all we do, but there is no activity exclusively devoted to expressing love for God except worship. If Jesus’ greatest commandment applies to anything, it certainly applies to our worship. A closer look at this teaching of Jesus will help us understand the particular way God has designed us for worship.
When Jesus calls us to love God with all of our heart, he is not using the imagery of a modern Valentine’s Day card as we might assume. In biblical anthropology the heart is the seat of the will, the volitional aspect of who we are. To love God with our heart is to choose worship as a deliberate act. To love God with all of our soul, means to express our deepest feelings to him. Over and over again the Psalmists use the word “soul” to localize their intensely emotional expressions of worship. To love God with all of our mind recalls Jesus’ teaching that genuine worship is both in spirit and truth. In worship we are meant to intellectually reach for the truth of God that ultimately sets us free. To love God with all of our strength points to worship as a physical act, reflected in the literal meaning of the primary biblical words for worship, “to bow down.” Paul captures this when he tells us, “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit . . . therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20, emphasis added).
Here we begin to see the pattern for worship that God has hard-wired into every human being. We are designed to worship God physically: bowing down, kneeling, covering our face, standing up, clapping, lifting hands, smiling, even dancing (just ask King David!). We are designed to worship intellectually, pondering deeply the mysteries of God, comprehending the meaning of our words and actions. We are designed to worship emotionally, pouring out the deepest passions inside of us as an offering to God. And we are designed to worship God volitionally, making deliberate choices that bring glory to God. When all of these come together in an encounter with God it is a transforming experience because it engages us completely as we were designed to worship. This biblical model is what I have come to call “Experiential Worship.”
Imagine a church made up of people using their whole bodies as instruments of praise, intentionally engaging the Word with their minds to understand more and more of who God really is. Enflamed by this truth they pour out all their emotions with great passion as a sacred offering and translate this experience into deliberate decisions, demonstrating in their daily lives the very character of the God they worship. This is a community engaged in Experiential Worship—and I don’t know about you, but that is a church I would like to be part of! But the truth is we see very few churches like that today . . .
Some of our churches do a good job of communicating truth in worship so people can understand more of who God is. Others diligently lead worship that calls people to act on their faith through deliberate choices. Some churches provide intense emotional experiences in worship. Others worship in a way that involves people’s bodies in sensory experiences. But each of these approaches to worship is sorely lacking the life-changing power that characterized biblical encounters with God. What is missing in most worship gatherings today? Maybe we have forgotten the pattern for worship God designed into every human being.
Biblical worship always engaged people on every level of human experience: physical, intellectual, emotional, and volitional. That is why accounts of worship in the Bible are so powerful and transforming. Think of Jacob at Peniel, Moses at the burning bush, the disciples in the upper room on Pentecost. But somehow over the centuries these holistic encounters with God have been diminished by the selective focus of various streams of worship tradition.
For instance, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican (Episcopal) traditions have tended to embody the physical aspect of worship. In saints like Augustine and Francis of Assisi, in the sacraments, through liturgy and art dating back to the early centuries of Christianity, this stream of worship has offered a tangible sensory experience of God’s mystery and glory. On the other hand, Lutheran, Reformed (Presbyterian), and Bible Church traditions have promoted the intellectual aspect of worship. In the Reformation, through people like Martin Luther and John Calvin, this stream of worship has lifted up God’s Word and transformed the minds of people through a deeper cognitive experience. Other movements like Baptist, Methodist, Holiness, and Evangelical traditions have tended to focus on the volitional aspect of worship. In phenomena like the Great Awakening and in people like John Wesley and Billy Graham, this stream of worship has called people to very specific commitments empowered by an experience of God’s grace. In recent centuries Revivalist, Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions have championed the emotional aspect of worship. Whether it was in the so-called “burned over district,” revivalist tent meetings, or the Azusa Street Mission, this stream of worship has provided moving experiences of God’s saving power.
Each of these great streams of tradition was meant to function as a renewal movement for the whole church. But through parochial conflict and partisan jealousy, these streams became separated over the centuries. Picture a once-mighty river diminished by many small tributaries siphoning off its relentless power. Sadly this is what has happened to the life-changing power of biblical worship over the course of history. But Jesus’ greatest commandment calls us to a renewed vision of worship as it was meant to be. Richard Foster describes a movement he sees toward this vision:
“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.”
I believe this is what we need above all in our worship today: a confluence of these streams of traditions that draw people into Experiential Worship! Robert Webber describes this as “convergence” and tells us this ancient road is the way into the future. I see hopeful signs in nearly every corner of the church today where these streams are being brought together in new and creative ways, particularly in the “emerging church.” Varied traditions are learning from each other to create Experiential Worship gatherings.
Evangelical churches are rediscovering the Sacraments and inviting people into the mystery of God through the creative use of ancient liturgical practices. Liturgical churches are learning to embrace culturally relevant music, cutting-edge technology, and more effective modes of communication to reach new generations. Bible teaching churches are making more room for the power and work of the Holy Spirit. Charismatic churches are discovering the value of a clearer doctrinal foundation. Grace-based churches are beginning to teach intentional discipleship. Discipling churches are discovering grace as the basis of true obedience.
However, this confluence of worship streams is in an experimental stage and those participating in it are often unsure of its purpose. The danger is that these movements will be driven by passing fads of culture, rather than a clear biblical directive. Jesus’ vision for more complete worship and his call to love God with all that we are, is the directive we so desperately need right now! As we begin to design worship gatherings that intentionally engage people on the physical, intellectual, emotional, and volitional levels, we will see them experience God in a more complete way. This will empower them to respond by giving their whole selves back to God in passionate worship that overflows from the weekly gathering into their daily lives and the world around them.
This is what we have seen happening in the worship ministry at our church over the last five years and I, for one, will never go back to the stagnant tributaries of partial worship! A recent experiential Easter gathering focused on the life-giving power of the sun as a metaphor for the life-giving power of Jesus’ resurrection. The truth of resurrection power was clearly communicated to the mind using biblical exposition supported by ancient art, digital images, looping videos of burning sunrises, and charts illustrating photosynthesis. The emotional impact of resurrection power grabbed the soul through personal stories, moving songs, connections to current events, and an ambient drama illustrating the stages of life in a beautiful park that unfolded throughout the service. People were invited to respond to this message in a deliberate act of the will by kneeling to confess their need for this resurrection power and then stand to profess their faith in the God who offers it. Then during a high-energy set of worship songs celebrating the power of the resurrection, worshipers were invited to come forward with a sunflower, planting it in a planter, and turning it toward the cross as a symbolic act of faith involving their entire body. Newcomers and veterans alike shared with me that they experienced the power of Jesus’ resurrection in a new and powerful way that day and I am convinced it was no accident. They were beginning to taste the life-changing joy of loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength!
Of course this will look different in each local setting, because every Christian community is made up of different people with unique gifts in a particular context. But whether it is in a stone cathedral with organ pipes, or a storefront coffeehouse with pillows, or an average middle-class suburban congregation, Jesus is calling us to help people experience him on every level so we all might move toward our destiny, the purpose for which we were created: to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength!
Bob Rognlien is Senior Pastor of Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd and author of Experiential Worship: Encountering God with Heart, Soul, Mind, and Strength (NavPress, 2005).