Surprised By God Wonder and Awe 3
Real worship in the Bible is to see God and sense/experience His presence… see His nature and character and think about His almighty deeds… see who we are to Him and sense our unworthiness and brokenness… and bow our hearts before Him, LOST IN WONDER, PRAISE, THANKSGIVING, AND JOY!
In the Bible narrative, real worship happens – and surprises us – as we discover God in places we didn’t expect to find Him, in events we thought Him to be distant from, and in people we thought knew little or nothing about Him. This discovery is due to our ignorance, not God’s limitation… He is omnipresent.
Read Genesis 28:10-21 (NIV)
When God is present and we see Him, we will always be overtaken with wonder and fear. Doris Akers wrote these simple, beautiful words:
There's a sweet, sweet Spirit in this place, / And I know that it's the Spirit of the Lord; / There are sweet expressions on each face, /And I know they feel the presence of the Lord. / Sweet Holy Spirit, Sweet heavenly Dove, / Stay right here with us, filling us with Your love. / And for these blessings we lift our hearts in praise; / Without a doubt we'll know that we have been revived, / When we shall leave this place.
You’ve no doubt heard “prior preparation prevents poor performance.” Preparing ahead of time – whether us as individuals, the planners, or the leaders – should aim to lift us up into God’s throne room so that we leave knowing we have met Him, a very real God, a Living God, and that we must give our lives to Him. C. S. Lewis said it beautifully, “The perfect church service would be one where we’d walk away unaware of everything that happened except that all our attention had been on God.”
So let’s look at poor planning and the boring, predictable sameness that results in our formal worship time. If worshipping God is the greatest joy and privilege we have, then we should want to craft every minute like an artist crafts a great masterpiece. Robert Webber has written a book titled Worship Is a Verb. Why that title? His premise is that worship takes involvement and participation, from the one planning to the ones leading to everyone in the pew.
This framed poem is hung in the entryway of an old church in Hawkshead, England, where famous poet William Wordsworth worshipped as a boy:
This is the house of God and He is here. / No man entering a house ignores him who dwells there… / Then pray then to Him who loves you and bids you welcome, / Give thanks for those who in years past built this house for His glory, / Rejoice in His gifts of beauty in art and music, architecture, and handicrafts, / And worship Him, the one God Father of us all through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. / Amen
Do you think that maybe right beside our sign “You are entering a safe place” we should hang another one saying, “This is the house of God and He is here”?
There are different aspects to preparation. One is the individual worshipper’s hearts. We’ve spoken of it some. Here, each one of us is responsible for our own preparation. According to our respective spiritual maturities, some will come prepared, others not. Based on our lives’ respective circumstances, some will come prepared, others cannot. But none of us doubts that the more prepared we are to meet God when we gather, the higher the likelihood we will.
A second aspect is the responsibility that planners have to build plans that lead us to worship... how well they set the stage. Consider… One of the arguments made against having communion every week is that that frequency makes it become commonplace, ho-hum, old hat. Those of us who have taken it every week for a lifetime know well there is the danger of that. So how, where do we set it so that it always takes us to the cross and tomb and Jesus’ coming again?
A question might be asked of the Offering… do we ever set it up so that it is clearly a worship act? Not very often. What of announcements? I’ve said that I’ve come to see them as opportunity for fellowship… binding us together in God’s family. So I think they are essential to our worship; you might disagree. Other questions planners address are how many songs, what songs, what kind of songs (written lately or long ago?), the ones our youth like best or the ones the long-time members love. A full lesson is in the works on singing.
Most churches around us have what they call a “call to worship.” This is a song, prayer, Scripture reading, drama, video, testimony – that clearly alerts every worshipper to leave the world behind for a bit and look up to Heaven and understand that at least an attempt to worship is coming.
The role of planning will be touched on again. But now I want to speak to the third aspect… the leaders themselves, and their actual leading. How well prepared are they for their role?
I am about to be a bit critical, and since I am, I want to state a couple of premises. First, notice please that my criticism is in general and not aimed at anyone specifically. Notice please that I thank God for any and every effort to lead the church, in worship or ministry, and ask God’s rich blessing on every willing heart.
With that said, we could and should plan better to do public leading. Our public praying can show it. Many prayers are repetitive; what we say is expected and without surprise. While “guide, guard, and direct us” can be a phrase indicating deep submission, it can also become meaningless if repeated too often. It’s not about praying, but overuse of songs can have the same effect. I must not name songs for fear of tainting one forever in your mind, but I have repeatedly sang songs – likely some of the greatest worship songs ever written – until they became stale and uninteresting. Many can likely relate to that.
But back to public praying… With public prayers (and other public worship functions) we are guilty in many churches – some have a habit – of pulling men from the crowd at the last minute. Contrast that with George A. But trick’s attitude:
“If I have time before a service to prepare only my prayers or my sermon, I will choose every time to spend my time on prayers.”
Or the attitude of John Killinger, an experienced worship leader:
Whatever is worth saying publicly to God is worth premeditation. I’m convinced that if we considered more carefully what to say in our public prayers, that consideration alone would raise the spiritual temperature of our services fifteen degrees.
I know well that it’s not always the words of a prayer… Likely, we’ve all been struck with awe before when some halting prayer with no eloquent words is being prayed, but an unmistakable air of sincerity and humility comes out of the prayer leader.
While true, we’d generally lead better if we prepared better. Writing our prayers is a good way. This is one clear instance where we need to put in the “big rock” before “pebbles and sand.” Our prayers are mostly “off the cuff” and very apt to have filler phrases we’ve heard from our models and mentors.
What if prayers had more focus and purpose? For example, “opening prayers,” if possible, should be centered on the time of worship to follow... asking that worshippers will encounter God while here and leave determined to “knock down the devil, step on his face, and spread the love of Jesus all over the place.” Our religious friends call their 1st prayers “Invocations;” a word that literally means “inviting God to come,” to enter songs, prayers, readings, sermon, offering, communion – to indwell all we are about to do in our attempt to worship God – and call down His blessings in the results it brings.
We all know… we have had a long-standing practice of resisting practices of our roundabout religious friends for fear they’ll drag us down some “slippery slope” into perdition. But if ever there were an instance of throwing baby out with bath water, this is one… Truth is… other folks have some wonderful ideas and have discovered some wonderful principles and practices of worship we’d be wise and to learn, and blessed because of it. For example, most Baptist worship services I’ve seen never have “dead time.” Their M.O. is that, when a song ends, whoever is doing whatever is next is instantly at the microphone; everybody is on stage or nearby and they all energetically move to the podium to carry out their task.
At a church where I worked (but was not preaching) I was thinking about this issue and began to notice lots of “dead time.” So I decided to time the dead air with a stopwatch to see how much it was – in a 1 hr. 15 min. service… dead time added up to 13 minutes… nearly 1/5 of the total time: prayer leader moving from his pew almost at the back to mike, song leader coming to the mike from front seat, song leader announcing song #s 4x each (we were using songbooks, 15-20 sec. each new song)… 13 min!
I didn’t believe the stopwatch! But it was right! And, yes, you’d be right if you think I didn’t do much worshipping that day. But I would have had a difficult time anyway with that much dead air in the service.
Similarly, “closing prayers” mean far more when they give thanks for God being with us in worship and remind outgoing worshippers of themes covered that will bless them in the challenges of their coming week.
So if “opening (first) prayers” and “closing prayers” should be about worship and taking what we’ve found out for use in our world, a question arises, “What about our heartache for people we love who are sick, heart-broken over loss, or in the midst of a life or faith crisis?” Of course we need prayers for those situations because we know they bring God’s power to problems. We have instances where prayers are requested. Our prayers in response will usually be our most fervent because we are touched and eager to respond. They also have immense value to body life because they intertwine our lives. So the answer to the question is simple… we plan time for prayers focused on those requests.
Now, with all this said, let’s talk just a brief minute or two about spontaneity (from impulse, without premeditation). One worship planner says his first planning thought is “less predictability means higher impact.” The unplanned can bring us wonder. There has been times when some event caused us to deviate a little or a lot from what was planned – those are among our most memorable services. We should allow it and make room for it, for times when the Holy Spirit breaks in and surprises us. But “spontaneous” shouldn’t be a “worship plan.”
Now, let me sadly admit that no matter how well prepared most worshippers are as they come, no matter how well planned a worship time is, and no matter how energetically and well leaders lead it, some present will still not be drawn into worship. Some challenge will always remain. But on the other hand I will gladly grant that in a poorly planned, dull, highly repetitive worship atmosphere, people can and will on their own be finding God.
I say it again: I thank God for every willing participant and I would never ever call for eliminating men who say repetitive prayers or a young man who does two-minute sermons – that is sometimes necessary to the learning process. I thank God for every faithful, following son or daughter who is willing to lead in any way. A young man’s first sermon that he thought was 5 minutes but turned out to be 2 is a BIG DEAL and we here know it, don’t we? We will keep them coming, and we’d better! I even wish some older men who’ve never led would step up and lead, too, simply because God has grown in their heart (other ministry areas too).
What I’m saying is simply this: generally, though God can do as He pleases and inspire us in ways we would never have imagined, better preparation means better inspiration.
As I have reminded ending both previous lessons on worship… I hope to teach you to worship here and grow in God… but know this if you choose not to worship God either in worship services or life, “every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to glory of God the Father.”