A Heart Story
I stuck out like a sore white thumb, but no one else seemed to notice or care. I was definitely underdressed; every woman there wore a hat and dress, every man a suit and tie. I was mesmerized by the choir; their deep soulful voices enveloped me with the most luxuriant gospel music I had ever heard.
As the pastor climbed up into the huge mahogany pulpit, he quickly took hold of the entire congregation. “Look at me now!” he ordered, and all present gave him their full attention. He proceeded to recount the parable of the prodigal son in a way that made me a participant in the story. Each line was echoed in choruses of “Amen!” “Preach,” and “Go on!” from the pews.
The pastor described how the father in the story stood on the porch, scanning the horizon for his lost son. Now he began to conclude by imploring us in his deep, booming voice, “Can you see the Father standing on the porch, calling to your heart, ‘Come home, my child, come home!’?”
The music began and the pastor stepped down from the pulpit saying, “If you have wandered far and squandered much, today the Father invites you to come home. Come and trade your rags for riches, your guilt for glory. Come now and never look back!” As we began to sing, people started trickling one by one down the aisles, and lay ministers came forward to pray with them. I didn’t go forward, but in my heart I wanted to come home. Deep within I resolved to stop squandering my spiritual inheritance, and I took a deliberate step toward my heavenly Father.
A Soul Story
I felt a twinge of apprehension as the music started. The air was electric with the sense that anything could happen in this church. Soon the people were on their feet, swaying to the rhythm. I found myself standing and clapping, swept along by the rising tide of praise to God. I had never sung these songs before, but that didn’t seem to matter.
The words weren’t as important as the energy building in the room. At one point, I realized the people around me were no longer singing with intelligible words at all. Somehow the most amazing blend of sounds was dancing with the music, and I felt a shiver run down my spine. Deep in my soul, I began to express love and awe and wonder to the God who created me and loved me far beyond words.
I don’t remember much about the subject of the sermon or exactly what the preacher said. What stands out was the emotion that came through every syllable. Mopping sweat from his brow with a towel, he finally took off his jacket so nothing would stand in the way of his passionate message that God’s love has the power to heal us here and now.
When he finished preaching, the singing resumed and we were back on our feet, swaying and clapping to the music. I’m not sure when it started, but suddenly I realized tears were streaming down my cheeks. It felt good, like a cleansing release of hidden pain. Driving home, I couldn’t explain all that had happened, but I knew I had encountered God and that his love had touched my soul.
A Mind Story
The academic robe only added to the professorial air of the minister as she spoke. Clearly this was someone who was steeped in biblical studies and educated as a scholar of the faith. But this was no abstract intellectual lecture; it was a teaching so clear and deep it quenched the thirsty questions that flooded my mind.
The complex theology of Paul became simple and yet more profound as we delved ever deeper into the reading from Romans assigned for that day. Every sentence contained another gem of insight into the meaning of grace and faith and salvation. What had always been an obtuse passage to me now seemed a bottomless treasure chest as the preacher mined its truth to set us free.
When we stood to sing the sermon hymn, I realized it had been carefully chosen to reiterate the message. As I sang the verses, the truths we had just heard began to take root in my mind. Proclaiming the ancient creed, I saw more clearly how these gems fit into the timeless truth of the age-old Christian faith.
For the first time, I began to truly understand how the paradox of God’s perfect holiness and his endless mercy embrace in the scandal of Christ crucified. This wasn’t just an abstract idea that fascinated me but a gripping realization that took hold of my consciousness and unlocked another door in the prison of my ignorance. Walking out of the church, my mind was reeling with thoughts and questions, and I knew I would never see the cross in the same way again.
A Body Story
The colored light of stained-glass windows washed over my weary body like a soothing breeze on a hot summer’s day. At first I couldn’t place the smell but then realized the strange odor tickling my nose was incense rising up from the altar. Settling into a wooden pew, the deep notes of a massive pipe organ reverberated off ancient stone vaults overhead and penetrated my bones. I resonated with the mystery of how huge yet close God really is.
The liturgy was complicated and hard to follow, but countless biblical allusions wove a rich tapestry of praise and worship to God. The priest seemed to be doing much of the work with intricate rituals, chants, and readings, but the people were fully engaged—sitting, kneeling, crossing themselves, standing, and sitting again. The priest’s chants were followed by responses from the congregation—a sacred dialogue, like good friends sharing important thoughts over a meal.
During one of the readings, I noticed a painting that depicted the very scene we were hearing in the words of Scripture. The artwork on the walls reminded me that we are indeed surrounded by “so great a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). As the priest consecrated the elements for Communion, I looked beyond the raised chalice of wine into the carved face of Jesus on the cross above and heard the familiar words in a completely new way: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20).
As the service came to a close, we stood to receive the ancient Aaronic blessing, and I pictured that Hebrew priest of old speaking those same words over the gathered people of Israel. It was as if time was compressed and all of God’s people from every time and place were gathered together in one mystical communion under the blessing of Christ. Though it wasn’t my normal practice, I even tried crossing myself as the priest concluded, “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.” Drawing in a deep breath, I felt peace and new strength flooding my body, and I knew God had literally touched me that day.
The Story Beyond the Stories
Four different churches. Four unique encounters with God. Four distinct pieces in the mosaic of my worship experience. How have you encountered God in corporate worship? Is your experience of God more emotional or more intellectual? Does worship primarily engage your physical senses, or does it inspire you to make concrete decisions? All of us who feel strongly about worship have encountered God in ways that have shaped our lives and formed our convictions of what worship services “should” be like.
Maybe your experience of God has called you to very clear and specific commitments. Perhaps you can cite the actual day and moment you gave your life to Christ. Many worship services you have attended seem wishy-washy, never closing the deal, never calling people to actually live their faith. For you, worship should lead people to make concrete decisions and take specific steps as followers of Jesus. This experience reflects the volitional aspect of worship that has been captured by the Baptist, Methodist, Holiness, and Evangelical traditions. In movements such as the Great Awakening and in such people as John Wesley and Billy Graham, we can see how God has stirred up the hearts of his people and changed their lives through worship experiences that empower a response of the will.
Or perhaps you have had profoundly moving experiences of God’s saving power in your life. Many worship services you have attended seem dead, as if the participants are going through the motions without any real spiritual power. You identify with worship that is emotive, dynamic, and openly expressive. This experience comprises the emotional aspect of worship that has been captured so well by the Revivalist, Pentecostal, and Charismatic traditions. Whether it was in the so-called “burned-over district,” Revivalist tent meetings, or the phenomenon at the Azusa Street Mission, we can see how God has moved in history to stir up the souls of his people and change their lives through intense emotional experiences of worship.
Or you might have experienced God primarily through a cognitive understanding of the truth. Many worship services you have attended seem shallow and superficial, offering trite clichés and manufactured emotions in place of the truth. You understand worship as a learning process in which people come to comprehend more and more of who God is as revealed to us in the Bible. This experience conveys the intellectual experience of worship that is exemplified through the Lutheran, Reformed (Presbyterian), and Bible Church traditions. In the time of the Reformation, through such people as Martin Luther and John Calvin, we can see how God has lifted up his Word and transformed the minds of his people with an intellectual experience of worship.
Or possibly you have experienced God in mysterious and wonderful ways through concrete, tangible expressions of worship, such as ritual and sacrament. Many worship services you have attended seem bland and one-dimensional, with people talking about God but never actually engaging him directly. For you, worship is a sensory experience, in which God is encountered through physical expressions of his glory, majesty, and love. This experience embodies the physical aspect of worship that has best been captured by the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican (Episcopal) traditions. In patriarchs such as Augustine and John Chrysostom, in saints such as Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa, through liturgy and art that date back to the early centuries of Christianity, we can see how God has strengthened the church and changed lives through powerful physical experiences of worship.
Each of the stories above represents a different aspect of human experience in worship that has been championed by various movements in the history of the church.
***DESIGNER: INSERT CHART #1, HISTORICAL WORSHIP EMPHASES***
All Christians have a view of corporate worship that is shaped by personality, experience, and these historical emphases. Our presuppositions about the way worship “should be” are largely the results of how we have experienced God in the past. The beauty of this is that God works uniquely in the life of every person on the planet—we each have our own story with God! And in the broader sense, each worship tradition has its own story, its own function in the history of Christianity. However, the tragedy of these presuppositions is that they lead us to institutionalize and systematize that particular aspect of the worship experience. We determine that this is the way worship is “supposed to be,” and we ignore or reject other approaches. Even if this is not openly expressed, we all have our quiet bias and subtle pride that not only devalues other traditions but also keeps us from experiencing the full power of holistic biblical worship. When we start to see the bigger picture of biblical worship across traditions and throughout history, we take a step toward the rediscovery of what I call “Experiential Worship.”
Discovering the Grand Story
Admittedly, I am painting a picture with broad strokes and historical generalizations. Space prohibits including all of the variations of Christian worship, such as Mennonites and Quakers, Congregationalists and Campbellites, to name a few. But if we look closely, we can place our own tribe within these categories of worship experience: emotional, volitional, intellectual, and physical.
Of course, no tradition is defined by only one aspect of human experience, but each tends to emphasize one over the others. Usually, we can also identify a secondary strength within a tradition. For instance, Baptists emphasize the will with their altar calls but also address the intellect through their biblical teaching. Lutherans, with their theology of the Word, are strong on intellect but also involve the physical through the sacraments. The Orthodox church offers a profoundly physical worship experience yet clearly calls people to obedience with specific acts of the will. Pentecostal churches focus on emotions but also invite people into a very physical expression of worship.
Each tradition has captured only a portion of the full range of biblical worship, constricting its inherent life-changing power. We will experience God in transforming ways as we recover a more biblical vision of worship that encompasses not just our own story but also the Grand Story of Jesus and his followers in every time and place. This does not mean losing our distinctiveness or severing our historical roots; it simply means building on our unique strengths and learning from each other how to invite people into a more complete, and therefore more transforming, encounter with God. When we make the effort to transcend these divisions and worship God emotionally, volitionally, intellectually, and physically, we begin to taste the life-changing power of Experiential Worship.
The Story of Worship
Authentic worship is nothing less than a personal encounter with the living God. God comes to us and we respond; the mysterious and transforming intersection is what we call “worship.” This intersection can happen anyplace and anytime we are loving God and seeking him: on a mountaintop, in the car, even in the shower. True worship is not limited to an event or a place but becomes more and more a lifestyle in which everything we do is an expression of our love for Jesus. As Louie Giglio, founder of the Passion worship festivals, writes, “Worshiping God is what we do as we respond to His mercy in our ‘walking around life.’ It’s not the words I sing, but me I bring; I am the offering laid at Your feet, my steps the melody oh so sweet, all of me in praise of Thee.”
Furthermore, something unique and powerful can happen when we gather as a community to seek an encounter with God together. Jesus promised his special presence when we gather in his name (see Matthew 18:20). Although there is much more that comprises a life of following Jesus, this weekly gathering for worship is the cornerstone of the Christian community and the special calling of those who lead that community. To lead corporate worship is to show others the way to this divine intersection by both our role in the worship gathering and by our own example of worship.
As we lead others into these divine encounters, God is always the focus. What freedom it is to discover that worship is not about us! As a popular worship song says, “It’s all about you, Jesus.” However, biblical worship is bidirectional: God comes to us, and we respond by giving ourselves to God. That means that while God is the focus of worship, our own experience does matter because that is what empowers our response.
The experience of the worshiper is of particular concern to those of us who plan and lead worship gatherings. We have been entrusted with the responsibility of facilitating encounters in which God can transform us from self-centered consumers into true God-centered worshipers. Experiential Worship leaders do not propagate a self-absorbed church culture in which worship is centered on our own felt needs but instead facilitate experiences that move people to focus their worship on God alone. As people encounter God more fully, they will be empowered to give themselves more freely to God, offering their worship to him with heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Owning Up to Our Present Story
Biblical worship is a life-changing encounter with God himself, moving us to give all that we are back to our Creator. However, we realize that these kinds of encounters are best-case scenarios and do not reflect the effect of typical worship services today. Even if we do occasionally witness key turning points taking place during our gatherings, far too rarely do we see in the lives of those who worship regularly the incremental changes that constitute an ongoing process of spiritual transformation.
In the majority of our churches, life-changing experiences, even incremental ones, are more the exception than the rule. If we are honest, we will admit that our services can easily slip into meaningless rote, driven more by habit than spiritual passion, and that many people attend every week and leave unchanged.
This worship impotence is not due to lack of effort. Most of us put tremendous energy into planning and leading meaningful worship experiences. Many are willing to make sacrifices and endure criticism in order to create an environment in which people can worship God and be touched by his Spirit. But for all our effort, the lack of actual changed lives can be a crushing disappointment to those who give so much.
The way out of this predicament is to rediscover the wide range of historical worship traditions and learn how to connect them to our emerging culture. We are in the midst of nothing less than an epochal transition, a tectonic social shift, a cultural revolution that is birthing a world we call “postmodern” because we can only describe what it is not. Like fish unaware of the sea they swim in, we have often planned and led worship without recognizing the impact of our changing cultural environment. But now the currents have shifted. No longer is the water flowing in the direction of the traditions we inherited. If we do not learn to navigate these new waters differently, we will be swept away by this relentless tide of cultural change.
The rediscovery of Experiential Worship is not just an optional diversion for those attracted to innovation and experimentation. It is a necessity for every ministry that seeks to live and share the good news of Jesus Christ in this emerging new world. The time has come to transcend the contemporary worship trends of the late twentieth century and go beyond the calls for “multisensory” or “postmodern” worship in the first part of the twenty-first. We need worship that is thoroughly biblical, post-contemporary, pre-traditional—worship that leads us into a more complete encounter with God.
How can we help our members consistently experience God more fully so that incremental transformation becomes the rule rather than the exception? How can we plan and lead worship gatherings that invite people to move beyond ritual and habit to giving themselves more completely to God? As we learn to create gatherings that encompass the full range of biblical worship and human experience, we will see lives profoundly changed through more complete encounters with God.
Jesus’ Story for Worship
When we read biblical accounts of people worshiping God, we find them engaged on all four levels of human experience. Everyone who encounters God in the Bible walks away profoundly changed. Imagine what it would be like to worship like that! What if you worshiped God in a way that involved you physically, engaged you intellectually, moved you emotionally, and empowered you volitionally? It would be a more holistic, biblical kind of worship—the kind that God can use to continually change your life.
Once when Jesus was asked to name the greatest commandment, he gave a simple but profound answer that forms the basis for this kind of 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). Worship based on Jesus’ greatest commandment recaptures a biblical paradigm that brings the disparate stories of Christian faith together into one powerful dynamic and transforms the lives of those who experience it. This more biblical, more complete, more life-changing approach is what I call “Experiential Worship.” Let’s go sit at the feet of Jesus and discover what he has to teach us about this kind of worship.