I was the guest speaker in a Wesleyan Church and by the time the service ended, the pastor had led the congregation in prayer five times – an opening prayer, pastoral prayer, prayer for the children, prayer over the offering and a benedictory prayer to close the service.
What moved me was the freshness of those prayers. They contained no sermonettes, no exhortations to the congregation, no subtle announcements, no hollow run-on of words.
Here was a pastor who obviously loved the Lord and loved his people and brought them together in prayer with anointed skill. The prayers were sacred moments during which he truly led his people into the Presence. They were worshipful and when each prayer ended I too had worshiped.
I’ve seen the worship of God carried out in a variety of ways. During a 23-year period I was guest speaker in more than 100 congregations — large, small, new, historic, formal, informal. So far as I knew, everyone was there for the same declared purpose, but they expressed that purpose in ways that were different in style, values, and culture.
There was, for example, the service in the Anglican cathedral where worship was so objective, so “vertical,” that I felt little of the warmth of human fellowship — the “horizontal.” But at the close the people appeared to come to the communion rail for holy communion with a sense of reverence.
By contrast, I also recall visiting an innovative congregation in which a praise band and praise team were spread across the platform of the auditorium. Its singers each held a microphone and swayed to the music, tapping their thighs with the tempo and singing with heads back and eyes closed. It seemed genuine but for me there was too much about it that was distracting, more like a performance. And I couldn’t help noticing that the congregation looked on, mostly in silence.
I sometimes think of the first style of worship I ever knew in my childhood. It was intentionally quite simple, with no prayers over the offering, no printed bulletins, no responsive readings of Scripture, no choirs, no piano, organ or other musical instrument.
As a growing boy I gathered from what I picked up that the peril being guarded against was “formalism.” There was unaccompanied congregational singing and there was preaching. The people’s experience of God was sometimes intense and expressed openly. I recall yet the sense of awe that sometimes affected me as the congregation worshiped.
In searching for a middle ground, I ponder the two main words for worship as they turn up in both Old and New Testaments. The one means “to adore; to bow down; to prostrate oneself.” The other means “to offer service” much as a servant would offer service to his master.
Adoration and service — styles of worship should be shaped by these words. For one thing, they call for reverence, a sense of awe, in coming into God’s presence. The New Testament calls us to “worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28,29). For another, they call us to give service as offerings of the heart.
In the prayers of the pastor who prayed five times, what moved me was his fitting combination of reverence and respect as he prayed.
The worship of God for me is beautiful and it prompts joy and humility, when it is simple, focused on the Triune God, rich in Christian content, marked by an artistry of leadership that does not call attention to itself, and made vital by the Holy Spirit, not just the spiritedness of leaders. It is lifegiving when the focus is decidedly vertical, but with the horizontal — the community element — represented, too.
There is good reason why this matter should be important to every Christian. “Worship,” Robert E. Webber writes, “is the summit toward which the entire life of the church moves and the source from which all of its ministries flow.”