A few months ago, I began to get that restless feeling in my spirit that I have come to recognize as preparation for a significant change – usually a new ministry assignment. As I talked with Marion and sought to discern the Lord’s leading, we eventually realized that we were being reassigned to a little neighbourhood church here in Vanier known as The Village.
The Village is pastored by a wonderful couple who live just one block from our house, and our initial assignment was simply to come alongside them and provide friendship, encouragement and prayer support. However, as this relationship has developed, Marion and I have also been invited to assist in strengthening the Village’s ministry of sung worship.
This is an excellent fit for us on a musical level. As a worship leader my style is very simple and unsophisticated. I play my acoustic guitar and sing. No band; no lights; no smoke machines; no mosh pit; no screaming fans; no gear beyond a very basic sound system with a microphone and a pickup to amplify my guitar. Not that I’m against any of that other stuff, but for me they have never seemed necessary (although I have to admit, having a bass player would be a great blessing). I’ve always led worship in very small settings – small groups and home churches. The Village is not a home church, but it is a very simple church, so a simple approach to sung worship fits right in.
As for Marion, the simplicity of the musical culture at the Village has provided a perfect context for the djembe (African hand drum) that I gave her a few years ago, and it has been a delight to see her gaining confidence as a hand drummer. Acoustic guitar and djembe make a very good combo, and her playing helps to keep me anchored with a solid rhythmic base that adds some punch to our musical offering.
The simplicity of music and worship at this new place of assignment is also a good fit on another level. It is a constant reminder that worship is not a show, but an offering of love.
I’ve had seven years to re-learn this lesson. From the spring of 2006 until this recent shift to The Village, Marion and I had been part of two mid-size churches. Both these churches were blessed with plenty of talented musicians, and despite my love for worshipping the Lord in song, I knew that the Holy Spirit was restraining me from joining the praise and worship team at either church. At the time, I didn’t think of it as a sabbatical, but I now realize that the time span of seven years was no accident.
The lack of involvement in worship ministry was a big change for me, as prior to this I had been the main worship leader as well as the pastor and teacher in our house church for many years. But with the subtle pressure of the Holy Spirit keeping me from joining the public worship ministry of either City Church or All Nations, I played my guitar and sang my songs of worship in my basement, in my small group, at prayer meetings with a handful of intercessors. It felt strange at first to be restricted to using my gift in such a limited way, but I knew that God was pruning me, testing my heart to see if I would still choose to be a worshipper when He was the only one watching or listening.
About two years into this seven-year sabbatical, I was introduced to the worship coming out of International House of Prayer in Kansas City, and spent many hours letting my heart be changed in the fragrant atmosphere of devotion that flows from the IHOP Global Prayer Room.
Now that I am stepping back into a more public role as a worship leader at The Village, I am constantly reminded that this is a priestly function. When I am leading worship, I am not serving myself or my own need for attention. My entire focus needs to be on helping the people of God to be true worshippers who bring a pleasing offering to God. To do this, I need to first of all be a true worshipper myself. And so, I have been asking myself some old questions, and finding that the answers to those questions – though I have known them for many years – are reaching my heart in a fresh way.
Why worship? What is the point? Why does God value worship? Specifically, why do we worship with songs?
Those are very big questions, and a single blog post is far too short for adequate answers, but here are a few thoughts.
We don’t worship to entertain God, to impress him. Though the simple worship songs offered by a tiny church in Vanier may seem unimpressive even by human standards, the best worship band on earth pales in comparison to the worship offered in the heavens. Nothing we bring could ever compete with the sights, sounds and smells of the worship in the heavenly throne room. And so, humility is called for. We need to get over ourselves. Even with the most skilled singers and musicians, the latest and most anointed songs, a world-class sound system, lights, smoke, and thousands of people – we’re not that impressive. Beloved, yes – amazing, yes – but only because we are the handiwork of an amazing God. He is the one who is truly impressive.
Nor do we worship to make God like us, or to convince him of how devoted we are. God has no illusions about us, and His love for us isn’t dependent on how well we sing our songs or play our instruments. Our hearts are transparent to Him – he sees right through to the core of who we are. He sees our love for Him and our sincere desire to please him, but he also sees our fears, our pride, our judgments, our preoccupation with ourselves, and much else besides. Nothing we do in worship can change that, nor should we even try. After all, God hates pretense. His favour is attracted only by a broken and contrite heart with no deceit.
So why do we worship?
God is worthy
First, we worship because God is worthy. He is before all things, all things come from Him, and everything exists for His pleasure and glory. Any created thing that we consider to be beautiful or good or true is only good because it comes from His hand. True worship is not about us but about God. It is a declaration of His supreme worth, a declaration that He is the reason why we live. In the words of the apostle Paul, in Him we live and move and have our being.
But God is not only worthy of praise because He created us. He is worthy of praise because of His self-giving, sacrificial love. We bow in wonder before the One who took on human form and allowed himself to be broken and crushed on the cross. We are in awe of the One who took away our guilt, washed us clean and gave us a new heart so that we could stand before Him without fear in His presence as beloved sons and daughters. We are amazed at the prospect of sharing in resurrection life with Him forever in His Kingdom that will have no end.
And so we worship not only because God is worthy. We worship God because we love Him. His amazing generosity towards us causes love to flow from our hearts in response. We love because He first loved us. Love for God is the first and greatest commandment.
Now, if we are honest, we would have to admit that we don’t always feel love towards God. Although we have passed from death to life and from darkness to light, our minds and hearts are still in the process of being renewed, and much of our life in this age is still preoccupied with our own concerns. It’s only by the Holy Spirit’s power that we are able to love God at all.
Invited into intimacy
God is better to us than we know. He is fully aware that we are not capable of loving him with our whole being. And that is precisely why He has given us the Holy Spirit, and commanded us to worship him with songs. When we sing songs of praise and thanks and adoration towards God, the Holy Spirit takes our own words and uses them to change our hearts, and we find that our thoughts towards God begin to line up with the words we are singing. The Holy Spirit reminds us of how much He loves us, and our hearts begin to engage with God’s heart, and we find that we are once again in awe of His goodness.
And so, although worship is first of all for God – it is a way of honouring Him and expressing His worth – it is also very much for us. It is a gift that God in His mercy has given us so that we can draw near to Him and our hearts can be transformed in His presence.
One of the most wonderful truths about God’s character is that He delights in our love for Him. The King sees us, He is moved by our love for Him, He invites us into His chambers. This intimacy with the Holy God is one of the amazing paradoxes of worship. Though the Lord is on high, yet he looks with affectionate love on those who humble themselves and seek Him with sincerity.
Why do we worship? Because God has commanded it; because He is worthy; but also because He loves us, and we are invited into intimacy with Him. What an amazing privilege, to come into the experienced presence of the King of Kings for an advance taste of the glories that will be ours forever when His Kingdom comes fully on earth as it is in heaven.
And so, as a worship leader, I want to be careful to keep my focus on Jesus; to remember His goodness and mercy and His supreme worth; and to remember the price He paid and the value He sets on the precious ones whom it is my privilege to lead into His presence every time I offer my songs of worship before God’s throne in the presence of His people. What an amazing and humbling privilege. To God be the glory.