One of the joys of my job with DiscipleMakers is I have the privilege to be a worship leader, and I get to train other worship leaders as well. It's awesome and humbling, because typically I work with much better minds and musicians than I could fathom.
But there's a frustration in my heart when it comes to leading worship. Just when I think I have it "right," someone gives me feedback about something that "isn't" worshipful. "You played too many old songs." The next person giving feedback will say this, "I didn't know any of the songs... they were too new!" Go figure.
Now... there are a lot of things brewing in my heart when this happens, most of them are things I need to repent of. But here's what's crazy. When I think of how I often evaluate the "worship" at a church, conference, or other venue, it's often more about my preferences than about Jesus. Which is missing the point entirely of why we worship in the first place, and exposes often my true heart about what I'm looking for. I look for an awesome experience to get lost in... songs that are powerful and catchy, words that are theologically deep, and skill that is just a shade below heavenly... but is that worship?
What is worship, exactly?
Psalm 96 says to sing to the Lord, and to declare His Glory and marvelous works to the people. The psalmist goes on to describe the character of God, His power, beauty, and majesty.
Matthew 2 shares a different type of worship, one where wise men travel far and wide to find Jesus as a baby to bring gifts to Him. They worshiped him by giving up time, money, and gifts to find the child, for they knew at least some of the reason why He came. They also had great joy and responded in obedience.
Jesus quotes Isaiah 29 in Mark 7, saying that the pharisees, though they worshiped with their lips, that their hearts were far from Him. Their traditions, sacrifices, and made up regulations and standards were not the things that could change their hearts to genuinely worship the King of Kings.
Romans 12:1 says "I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present
your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is
your spiritual worship."
Revelation 4 and 5 share about a scene of worship in Heaven in which we all will bow down to worship Jesus.
So, just from this smattering of scripture, let's unpack what worship is. It's belief in God, it's proclaiming and declaring the greatness of God and His Character, believing in the life-transforming work of Jesus on the Cross and how it impacts our lives, and our need to submit and worship Him.
Notice what it doesn't say. It doesn't say it's ONLY an experience. It doesn't say it's ONLY an emotion. It doesn't say it's ONLY musical. Rather, worship is ALWAYS centered on GOD, and how we respond to HIM.
For me, this is convicting, because I often want to say worshiping God is about achieving the ultimate "worship" experience. Now, I'm all about the experience, and it's good to have our musical worship have little to no distraction for that sake, but we can worship in spite of our experience as well. We know this because the ultimate experience of worship will happen in heaven, not here (Revelation 4, 5).
It's also convicting because it's easy to think that it's about having positive emotions and feelings, rather than worshiping Jesus. Now, I'm not advocating that having positive, maybe even an overwhelming emotional, response to the musical worship is a bad thing. That's very much a good thing. But it's a byproduct of worshiping Jesus, not at the core of it. If it's all about the "emotional high," then you're actually worshiping yourself and the feeling you get, rather than Jesus. I'm guilty of this constantly, but I mask it as "feedback." This is similar to the Mark 7 passage, where I'm "honoring" God with my lips, but in reality my heart is far from Him as I sing, because all I care about is the emotional kickback. In reality, if the worship is about Jesus, it means you can worship even if the musicians have a rough outing, pick a set from the 90's (or 1600's), or have bad AV equipment, if it's centered on the Lord!
Also, I question whether I'm actually declaring God's works and character (Psalm 96, Matthew 2) both in a corporate setting as well as I "give my life as a living sacrifice." (Romans 12:1) If I'm not worshiping in my life outside of the "worship experience," I'm probably not actually worshiping corporately, no matter how powerful the music is, nor how rich the lyrics are theologically. My heart is most likely selfish, wanting just to feel good without the need for God. This is the opposite of worship, in fact, it's sin.
So how do we actually "escape" self-centered worship?
Repent and Believe the Gospel: Acknowledge and turn away from your sin, and believe that God has drawn near to you! Did you know that when we turn from our sin and actually worship God, He has a much stronger voice singing back, because He can't believe that He has us (Zephaniah 3:14-17)! He loves us dearly, in spite of our sin (Romans 5:8), because Jesus paid the penalty of sin.
Ask God to help you worship: This might sound weird, but God actually delights when we ask Him to help us worship Him. In fact, it's only through His Spirit that we can actually come to worship Him.
Give feedback that concerns biblical conviction and aiding in growing leadership: It's easy for me to judge a worship team or leader by the songs they choose. Sometimes that can actually be helpful, most of the time its not. Our conviction should always be helping the worship leader consider how to lead the congregation towards worshiping God. The way a set (musical, prayer, testimony, etc.) is brought together can actually help or hinder our focus on the Lord. Now, we need to be willing to look past mistakes, but we can actually have valuable feedback, particularly if a worship leader picks a lot of songs that either don't fit together, don't fit with the theme, or lend itself to self-worship (songs that focus ONLY on how much we are loved, and how we should be filled, etc.). As a note, songs like that (How He Loves, Set A Fire, You Hold Me Now) can be VERY effective when mixed with other songs or framed so that we are pointed back to Christ.
Let preferences stay preferences, and not "authoritative truth": While I personally often feel that Keith and Kristen Getty songs aren't awe inspiring by their sound, their lyrics help me to reflect on God in a very rich and deep way! However, if my church played only their stuff over and over, I'd probably speak up about it. However, there is nothing sinful or wrong with doing only Getty Music. But it's easy to speak in an authoritative way when it comes to what's helpful about what music to use. Instead of saying, "Getty songs aren't worshipful, time to change the music," it would be more helpful to first seek why I don't like them, and then ask if there are reasons why we don't branch out to other music. If they don't change the music, feel free to keep asking why, and be honest about your preferences, but also be willing to submit to the worship leader, knowing that you can worship God through any music that is God-Focused (As a side note, for you worship leaders out there, this is NOT an excuse to ignore preferences from your congregation, worship team, or others who might offer suggestions. If you're attached to one artist or style, it might be a good opportunity for you to ask God how you can branch out and serve the people you're ministering to!)
Let us all press on, and escape self-worship together, by worshiping the King of Kings!