Worship from a Missionary Perspective
As missionaries for over 25 years, my wife and I have experienced many kinds of worship styles in a variety of circumstances and situations, from the underground church of China, to Eskimo and Chukchi villages in Arctic Russia, to churches in modern cities in various parts of the world.
This article is admittedly subjective. I am not a musician, nor am I a worship leader. Perhaps this will allow me to express a “laymen’s” perspective, and hopefully, not one that is simply “uncluttered with the facts.” My comments are intended to be helpful, and perhaps to encourage a dialogue concerning the state of worship in the Body of Christ today. The worship ministry in any context is demanding, and one in which worldwide, many extremely talented and anointed people serve. Many times the challenges in worship have nothing to do with the worship team and everything to do with the carnality of the people in the pew.
Nevertheless, if we were to suggest that worldwide, the worship ministry has room to develop at this stage of the Church’s pilgrimage on earth, I think that there would be consensus. The notion that we have room to grow in this area is not new. The true Church always longs to enter the Lord’s gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise. Frequently, however, our worship fails to take us “there.”
The most profound experiences that we have ever enjoyed in the presence of God occurred when the melodies and lyrics were simple, and the songs and hymns were about the Lord and sung to him. That may seem obvious, but a quick survey of many popular “worship” songs will reveal that very often that is not the case today.
My observations over many years have led me to the following conclusions:
- Two things are universal the world over. First, regardless of differences in language, culture, clothing, and cuisine, human beings are basically the same. Everyone longs for love, security, affirmation, and a sense of self-worth. Among Christians, this boils down to a profound and meaningful relationship with their Creator. Second, the tangible presence of God “feels” the same everywhere. In every place where the Lord Jesus Christ is worshipped in spirit and in truth, and his presence is in manifestation, remarkably it “feels” the same.
- The strong, “thick” manifested presence of God is frequently absent in worship services, regardless of the worship team’s sincerity and enthusiasm.
- The outcome of worship is not primarily or ultimately determined by the skill and proficiency of the singers and musicians; nor by the venue of the worship service; nor by the amount, quality and cost of the sound equipment and instruments; nor by the fame and popularity of the worship ministry whose songs are being sung.
- It is entirely possible for a worship service to be powerful, energetic, musically and artistically proficient, entertaining, and even emotionally moving and encouraging, without touching the deepest parts of our being. We have all experienced worship services that consisted of 30 to 45 minutes of sound and motion without being changed by the Spirit of God. Worship services can be animated, invigorating, technically proficient, and yet leave life unaltered; the heart of the people unreceptive; the words of the preacher less anointed. There is worship which is offered that does not make more room for God in the service.
- A good deal of worship songs are “about us.” Very often, they are not directed to the Lord. Sometimes they are about the Lord, in a round-about sort of way, but they tend to talk about us and our needs too much. A little bit of that is okay and even scriptural, but we ought not dwell there. Too many songs do not talk about God’s attributes or magnify him or speak of all his wondrous works, but it’s scriptural to do so. God says to do it.
- More than people realize, the words and thoughts expressed in today’s worship songs are imported from popular culture, and strictly speaking, are not scriptural thoughts. They are not God’s thoughts. They are not full of “God-talk.” God’s thoughts are in God’s word, the same way that our thoughts are in our words. Worship songs should incorporate God’s thoughts and God’s words.
- Sometimes the problem is not with the song, but with how it is used. There are types of songs that are meant to be performed before an audience, and they can be put to that use with marvelous effect. They are not in the form of worship directed to the Lord Jesus Christ. They will edify people to a certain degree, but they will not move the hearts of people into true worship.
- There is an inverse proportion between the complexity of the lyrics and the melody and the degree of anointing present. Many of the most popular worship songs that I have heard over the last 30 years have far too many words, and melodies that are far too complicated for ordinary people to sing. If a song demands that one have the vocal range of an opera star and be capable of memorizing paragraphs of lyrics, most people will stop singing and start listening. If people have to keep their eyes glued to an overhead screen in order to catch all the lyrics, how can they enter into true spiritual worship?
- The most profoundly spiritual worship I have experienced worldwide has been with songs that have simple melodies, few words, and that are directed in heartfelt worship to the Lord himself. They are not simply songs about the Lord. Definitely they are not songs about us. The songs that I have heard that fully engage the heart in adoration for the Lord Jesus Christ have simple melodies and express simple thoughts – these are the worship services in which I have experienced the tangible presence of God most strongly.
Interestingly, some of the most powerful worship experiences I have ever had in almost 45 years since I have been filled with the Holy Spirit, have been in a remote community in Northeast India where the people are simple and sincere, and sing songs that they received through prayer and fasting. Sometimes you will hear it said that “the presence of God came down,” but when I have been with them, there is a sense that we go up, into the very presence of God. In an atmosphere like that, God intervenes, and you are changed. Victories are won. Deliverance comes.
These are worship services in which we do not merely say that the Spirit of God is free to move, but in which the Spirit of God truly does move freely. These are worship services in which the worship leader does not have to ask, “Could we just worship the Lord a little bit now?” Nor are these worship services in which people have to be coaxed and cajoled into jumping or shouting. They may jump and they may shout, but it’s because they want to, or they need to—not because someone has told them to.
How people long for this type of worship! How needful it is! How is it that some people can lead us through the songs and others can lead us to the throne? Perhaps it is because the latter are worshipers themselves. Perhaps it is because the songs are directed to Jesus and are not simply talking about what he can do for us or how much we need him. Perhaps our songs are too much “about us” and not enough for him and to him.
We say that we long for the presence of God, and so many of our songs express that, but we don’t get “there.” And then there are times when the worship leaders do not talk about what we need or want or about how we need to “press in” to God’s presence, but instead with sincere hearts, they simply began to worship him with simple words and simple songs, and God seems to inhabit those praises. People are changed, hearts are mended, lives restored, hearts emboldened and encouraged.
Surely there is more! Surely we have not plumbed the depths of what could be in the realm of worship and praise!