3 ways to mess up worship

May 25th, 2015

My husband is Latino. Whenever we go out to eat, he wants to eat Mexican food. Yes, we’ve got great WyoMex food in our part of the country. And I like Mexican, too. But every time?! To Jerry, though, it’s “mother’s milk.” It nourishes him and feeds him; it touches his soul.

Corporate worship is mother’s milk for the church. We can’t survive as a body without it. We need it to gather us, fill us, unite us, grow us and send us forth as light into the world. We need it for disciple-making and correction. We need it for our very identify.

The truth is, your church won’t survive long as a going concern without it.

But for too many churches worship has become rote. One call to worship, two prayers, three hymns, the offering and the sermon. Yes, you might add Holy Communion, announcements, a children’s message, a benediction, a prelude and a postlude. Maybe even a bit of comedy or drama. But it’s a fill-in-the-blank experience.

I want to share three ways we consistently mess up worship. And three best practices that can revive the soul of worship  for you, for others and for God. Longing for some mother’s milk? I have been to lots of different churches in my work. In my experience, these are the top three ways to mess up worship.

  1. Talk about God … but don’t leave space to experience God. 
  2. Call for silent prayer … then fill up the space with music or rush on to the next thing. 
  3. Follow the bulletin … not the Spirit. 

Each of these mistakes is common in churches. Each communicates a hidden message that undermines the primary message. We say we can know God, that we can experience the holy, that by following Jesus we can transform the world. That’s our primary message. But the hidden message is we don’t actually expect to encounter the transcendent in worship. You’ve got to get that on your own time.

But what is worship if not the time to be in communion with God, and for God to be in communion with us?

So what does it take to have meaningful worship? Here are three best practices to create that sort of experience.

1. Prepare to experience God. As a worship leader, it’s essential that you spend time in personal communication with God. Every church leader runs on empty sometimes, but when it becomes a chronic condition it’s a problem. You have much less to give. The light can’t shine through you.

Also, consider what helps you encounter God personally. Chances are, you are not the only one. Pray for insight about how to incorporate these elements into corporate worship. Talk with others too about their experiences of experiencing the presence of God. Exchange ideas about how to include these ideas into worship.

2. Silence is golden. When it’s time for corporate prayer, be sure to include silence. Enough of it so that it really constitutes silent prayer. There is so much noise in the world that silence is countercultural. Alert people ahead of time about what is coming. Perhaps begin with one full minute of silence. No background music. No words. No nothing. Work up to two minutes. Then three. Let people know why. Finally, give them something to focus on during this time: on a word or a phrase from Scripture, a biblical image, an experience in nature, a prayer to lift up or a word to listen for. Finish with soft music or a musical refrain that is known to the people.

3. Be ready to flex. There will be times, if you are lucky, when the Spirit moves in worship. If the Spirit and the congregation are lucky, you will listen and respond accordingly. Are you called to sing an extra verse or change the words to the music? Is it time for a testimony? Maybe you’re prompted to call for the laying on of hands. Or maybe its time to chuck the sermon and say something altogether different. When this happened in the black church I served, we would say to each other, “Didn’t we have church today?!” It didn’t happen every week, but when it did, it was a joy!

I’ve had some terrific Mexican food. When it’s time to eat out, I know which restaurants I’d like to go to. And which I steer clear from. The same is true for church. When it comes time for your Sunday worship, make sure your congregation is on the short list of top places to go.

Rebekah Simon-Peter blogs at rebekahsimonpeter.com.

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