In churches across America, a scene will be replayed over and over. Lights will be dimmed. Screens will splash fancy graphics. A band of well rehearsed musicians will begin to play and some energetic individual will jump to the stage and ask the congregation to stand to their feet and worship God.
If you were uninformed to what was happening, you might assume that you were a part of something of great spiritual significance. More than likely there would be people with hands raised and eyes closed. Maybe even a few would be dancing to the music. If you were able to ask the participants what they were doing, the answer would be universal. We are praising God.
Praising God, it has always been one of the most important parts of our Christian faith. It is a Biblical commandment that unfortunately I believe we are failing in. If only our worship services were truly about the praise and worship we claim they are. Unfortunately, if we look deeper there is something wrong with our praise. Real praise and worship is dying in our meetings. It is being replaced by something cold and lifeless that is just one more cause to the decline of relevance of the American church.
The greatest indicator of this truth can be found in one simple place. Notice what happens when the song ends. Where does the worship go? I have seen the same people who just moments ago with hands raised turn to each other and start a conversation or even worse, grab a cell phone and respond to a text. As soon as the next song starts their hands go right back up in the air or they continue the dance they stopped when the music faded away.
How many times have you scanned the audience and noticed the numerous faces staring at the stage. Not singing or participating much more than nodding their heads to a beat and standing in silence. More and more we have beautiful, professional music being played for masses who have come just to consume. It is about the show and they offer up little to the One who they claim to follow.
Praise and worship has been a foundation block of the charismatic church. Back when the Charismatic movement took off, it was praise and worship that defined the movement. That deeply personal interlude that followers would have with Jesus was treated as a sacrament in those early days. Intimate fellowship with Jesus and songs were sung with heartfelt resound by people who knew that the I component in worship was the key to connection.
The Psalms tell us over and over to praise and worship God. It is the response of the writers that intrigues me as they respond in unison…I will worship…I will praise. Praise and worship is the one place where it really is all about what you do, yet in our modern worship services that has changed. Worship used to be what happened in the pew but today it has shifted to what happens on the stage.
That personal place of intimacy, praise and worship held for Christians so many years ago became a force that attracted many unbelievers into the church during the 60’s 70’s and 80’s. People were looking to fill the gap that life was leaving in them. Finding God was not seen as joining a group of extremist but a way to finding the solace that people were desperate to have. It drove our services and defined the times but sadly it didn’t last long. Praise was the invitation to the Holy Spirit to come and manifest Himself in our meetings. We knew and acknowledged that it was only by His intervention that lives could and would be changed. The question has to be asked, “Where has the Holy Spirit gone?”
Times changed and praise and worship became a code phrase. Every church had to have it. It was out of this rush to fill that need, we started to see the beginning of the end…specialized worship. Today many churches offer multiple worship experiences. There is the contemporary service, there is the traditional service, and even the blended service. We started creating experiences for people based on their desires. Instead of praise and worship to God, we replaced it with worship to a form. It has become more important to find a style that fits our personal likes than to realize that praise and worship is about a believer lifting the name of Jesus. That lifting of Jesus is not bound to style or even language it is about someone opening their mouth and exalting the Lord for who He is, what He’s done and what He has promised to do!
Things have gotten worse as technology has invaded our sanctuaries. We can now set the mood with proper lighting that changes with the intensity of a song. The special effects in some services rival those used in secular concerts. We live tweet and Facebook what we are feeling during the meetings. Worship leaders have become cheerleaders. Musicians have become technicians and God is finding less room than ever to fit into our agendas.
John 12:32 (NKJV)
32And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.”
Jesus spoke these words in reference to the cross. He knew that it was the cross that was the key and by extension, every time His people would praise and worship Him for that miracle as well as His promises, mankind would be drawn to Him. Anything else but that kind of worship would leave us cold and defeated.
How many times are we coming into services with grave needs in our lives and leaving unchanged because we never got past the outer court? How many services are actually being visited by the Holy Spirit verses another skilled performance by a worship team that we credit to a visitation by a God who was never truly welcomed?
May I make a few suggestions that I believe can help us get back on track?
The first is, let’s get back to singing songs to God instead of about God. When our songs are a personal expression of our love for Him, then the words that we sing will again take on powerful meaning. I wonder if we were to ask the average Christian what the songs they sang that day were about what the answer would be? I imagine most would say they were about God but could they answer the question what about God were you singing about? When praising God is personal, then connection happens and the Holy Spirit will come to do His work. Praise is the incense that draws His Spirit.
The second is restoring praise and worship to a place of being a sacrament in our meetings. Let’s get rid of the gimmicks. Can we remove the fancy lights, smoke machines and time clocks that have driven the Holy Spirit out of meetings? Services created for specific worship experiences have created a consumer mentality to praise and worship that is killing the power of the Holy Spirit. If a song is a good song that lifts the name of Jesus then let’s just sing to God with our whole hearts and stop needing to be emotionally manipulated. God is big enough. Let Him do what only He can do.
Third, we need to learn to open our mouths and stop being observers. The Bible says that out of the abundance of the heart our mouths speak. If we have lived a life of praise and worship all week, then we should be primed to enter into corporate praise and worship, when entering into the service, with our fellow believers. There should be an excitement and expectation to what God will do in our meeting that day. An expectation that lives will be changed and souls won for Christ. When we are just observers and not participators, He is not welcomed and the Holy Spirit will not force the issue. He needs an invitation and it starts with us vocally giving Him the praise and honor He deserves.
Last, to my fellow pastors, we need to teach the importance and the mechanics of praise and worship to the people. We assume they know what to do and why, but I believe as a new generation of believers enters the church they are being left out in the cold. They are only responding to the form of worship we have created for them to follow. Isaiah warned, without knowledge we go into captivity, and that is being played out in our services. We have to teach the building blocks of spiritual maturity. Teaching the latest trendy doctrine is not preparing people to stand in difficult times. Teach the basics my friends and watch your people grow. Teach them to be worshipers of God.
I add my voice to those who are sounding the alarm today. Something is amiss and we must recognize the problem and begin to take steps to correct them. People are walking into our meetings with greater needs than ever before and I fear many are leaving just as broken as when they entered. This doesn’t have to be. The power of the Holy Spirit hasn’t changed. We need to get back to making sure He knows He is welcomed to come into our services and do whatever He wants to do. Your will not ours Lord. Your plan not the one we’ve crafted.