I seem to have finally settled on a church near our home, after trying five other churches, although Kathy continues to cast a roving eye at another church in the area. While there is probably always a better church on the other side of the fence, I feel that our family needs the stability of choosing a church, and this one has a number of the elements we consider critical. First, they are governed by a board of male elders. Church government structure wasn’t always so important to me, but after a negative experience with one church, I have come to consider this a critical criterion in choosing a church. We enjoy the liveliness of the worship service, which seems well-designed to glorify God in a joyful manner. The pastor of the church is a good preacher, and is forthright and likeable. There is a good program for our children, but no Sunday school for grownups (a worrying trend: Sunday school seems to have fallen out of vogue in many churches). The church has a large number of home-group Bible studies (we have not yet managed to join one, but have high hopes).
Our pastor has recently started a series on Worship. Ordinarily, after leading us in a few songs, the music team nips off-stage before the offering is taken. But last week they stayed on the platform for the duration of the service. After the pastor identified a number of the ways that we worship (Praise, Thanksgiving, etc.) we would sing a song that highlighted that attribute of the worship experience.
This week he focused on the different modes of worship, and again we were invited to a higher level of participation than is usual. We were taught on each subject and then practiced singing, shouting, bowing, clapping and the raising of hands as some of the modes of worship frequently mentioned in the Bible. The pastor claimed he couldn’t dance and thus was unwilling to teach on that expression … I suspect he knew that many of us would be a little put off by being required to dance in church.
Once again, I throw in a bunch of non-pertinent pictures, just because I can.
Participative worship is a bit of a stretch for me … I’m more comfortable with a reserved, unemotional worship style. I don’t generally raise my hands or clap or shout ‘Amen’ during the service. I have never been known to leap over chairs or dance in the aisles and am suspicious of churches that are long on emotional worship experience and (sometimes correspondingly) short on Biblical teaching.
But it seems that solid teaching and enthusiastic worship are not mutually exclusive. This pastor does an excellent job of sticking closely to the scriptures in his preaching and teaching, yet the worship that we enjoy is vibrant and full of emotion. It was a strange experience for me to progress through the various physical modes and through my corresponding emotional responses.
Singing was not very hard … I am a firm believer in singing loudly (and occasionally on-key) and am no stranger to the feeling of joy and enthusiasm that often accompanies such expression. Most songs have lyrics I can sing without hesitation, although there are a few that contain excessive hyperbole that I won’t sing. There is a chorus we used to sing in a previous church that talks about the way that God’s presence can be ‘felt’ in the church … it includes the phrase, “I can hear the angel wings brushing the walls” or something like that. Call me stubborn, but I have never yet heard the angel wings, so I don’t sing that song. Being a bit of a literalist, I’m not that keen on poetic license, anyway.
Next we practiced shouting, with focus on the words ‘Amen’ and ‘Praise the Lord!” Again, this wasn’t too difficult for me, although I’m wary of using this mode of expression as a way to say, ‘Hey, look at me, aren’t I spiritual!” I’ve attended churches where one or two people sing out an ‘Amen’ or ‘Preach it, brother’ every time the pastor pauses or finishes a sentence … personally, I find it pretty distracting, although it might be an encouragement to a pastor. At least he would know that someone was awake. But in this case, the whole congregation was invited to shout out together, and I found it … surprisingly powerful. There was a feeling of inhibitions being cast off and of moving to a higher level of sincerity in my worship toward God, disregarding the opinions of those around me. Since worship is all about God and very little about me, this seems appropriate. I shouldn’t be worried about looking (or being) a fool for Jesus’ sake. It made me think about the way the Israelites would sometimes shout — as they did while marching around Jericho, for example.
Sometimes it is fun to just say “Wow!” to God.
We moved on to bowing and kneeling, which was a major departure from my usual worship style. I’ve attended churches with kneelers, but rarely used them; in such cases the practice has been thoroughly encysted with rote and ritual. The pastor simply asked us to kneel in place (if we could fit) or to bow our heads while the worship team sung ‘We Bow Down’ (a praise chorus made popular by Twila Paris). I scooted out to the aisle and dropped to one knee, attempting to humbly present my soul before the throne of God. As I knelt there before the King, I began to weep, tears dropping off the end of my nose and onto the carpet, creating a sizeable damp patch. I had the sense of being like one of the vassals of King Richard (the Lionheart) in the days of Robin Hood, presenting myself before the King upon his unexpected return and accounting for my conduct and my secretive support of his usurping brother, Prince John. While I have not openly supported my King’s enemies, there are many sinful things I have done which do not stand up well to scrutiny. It was a very uncomfortable feeling, yet one I am loath to forget. The simple physical sensation of bowing my head and causing my body to kneel seemed to produce in me feelings of humility and subordination to God that are (sadly) quite unusual for me. I felt deeply ashamed as I knelt there in the shabby rags of my pride and arrogance, squinting my eyes against the glory of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And so I wept for the entire song, unable to sing a word, although I know it well.
We moved on to clapping (which I dislike, possessing not a rhythmic bone in my body) … several times the pastor had us clap for God, giving Him honor with our hands. The problem with clapping for God is the question: how do you stop? God is worthy of infinite praise; he who stops first is somehow unspiritual, and there is no clear end-point as there is with a song. While I have no problem with giving honor to God, I don’t think clapping is the best avenue of expression for that … I’d much rather sing or shout something more meaningful that engages the mind. Plus, I was getting bruised hands from trying to be super-spiritual.
Finally, we sang a chorus with our hands raised … the pastor talked about how this posture communicates (among other things) affection, vulnerability and trust toward God. I was a bit skeptical, but I found that I did actually feel a little more connected to God when singing with my hands raised. I’m not sure I will adopt this practice as a part of my worship style, but I am much more open to it than I was before.
It was a moving experience, one which transformed a routine church service into a visit to the actual House of God. I have reflected on this most of the week, and have come to a few tentative conclusions:
- While any worship style can, over time, become rote and meaningless, some styles are less prone than others to becoming disconnected from the heart.
- Proper worship of God needs to incorporate a sense of humility. Kneeling seems to go a long way toward accomplishing this.
- I need to be a lot less concerned about what other people think of me, and a lot more concerned about what God thinks of me, when I am attending a worship service.
When King David wanted to honor God by bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, the occasion was marred by the death of Uzzah, son of the man who had kept the Ark in the years since it was fearfully and apologetically returned to Israel by the Philistines (as described in I Samuel 6 & 7). Uzzah, who ought to have known better, touched the Ark to steady it when one of the oxen pulling the cart stumbled; the wrath of God killed him for his presumption. This made David think less about the Ark as a talisman of God’s favor and more about God’s holiness and majesty … so he left the Ark outside the city for three months while he thought it over.
When he finally did bring the Ark into the city, it was with elaborate precautions and sacrifices. David himself was so anxious to please the Lord that he set aside his kingly dignity and danced in his undergarments in front of the Ark as it was brought into Jerusalem (II Samuel 6). David seemed to understand (as his wife, Michal, did not) that the only audience worth caring about was God.
Who knows? Maybe I’ll start dancing at church one of these days …