If you consider yourself to be up-to-date on the biggest trends in worship music, the billboard hits on K-LOVE, and the debuting artists in the CD racks at Lifeway, then you probably consider yourself an avid “worshipper”. For a long time that’s what I considered myself. And I still do. But only because I’ve seen what true worship does and does not look like.
I grew up listening to Steven Curtis Chapman, Michael W. Smith, Rebecca St. James, Rich Mullins, Phillips Craig and Dean, Crystal Lewis, and D.C. Talk. I was raised Southern Baptist, so I grew up singing all the hymns, and, once my parents became a part of the church’s first “contemporary worship” praise team, I started learning those songs too. I still remember when “Rock of Ages,” and “Shout to the Lord” were among the biggest hits in all mainstream churches. I remember all the songs on the WOW Worship albums my mother had collected.
But worship encompasses so much more than song. Worship is prayer, it is the teaching of the Word, it is the silence of self-reflection, it is the cry of brokenness. Worship is the state of our heart before God. Music is simply a way to prepare our hearts, to lead us closer to a state of communion with him. It is also a commandment. Song is one of the oldest ways that we still use today to share communion directly with God. All throughout the Psalms, we are told to Praise the Lord with our voices and with instruments of all kind. “Hallelujah” literally means “Praise the Lord” in Hebrew. And Psalms is “Tehillim” in Hebrew, which means “Praises.” And not all the Psalms are happy, as many people will know. Praising God is not something we only do when we are “happy.” Some of the greatest times of praise and worship come from the depths of the darkest valleys.
John Piper, in his book, When I Don’t Desire God: The Fight for Joy, writes:
The effort to delight in God through music involves a thoughtful testing after the music has already awakened joy. Is this joy rooted in something good about God? Is it shaping my emotions into a Christ-exalting configuration? Is it stirring my desires to know Christ better and love him more?
The worship songs that give us chills and bring us to tears are the ones that stir something in the very deepest and innermost places of our heart. So many lyrics in worship songs are taken directly from Scripture, and it is the lyrics of the songs that God uses to reach us in those moments of awakening through music.
I used to pretend when I was younger that, when I was worshipping, I was standing by a cross on a high hill, with sunshine all around, and that I was before Jesus all by myself. It helped to eliminate my fears of being judged by others in the congregation. But was that necessary? I should not have been worried about others’ opinions to begin with—I should have been focused on my heart before God.
Just as John Piper talks about the effort to delight in God through music, he also warns about the effect of trying too hard to delight in God through music when he says that “innocent sensations are one second away from becoming substitutes for the sweetness of God.” Is that “high” we feel in worship really from God speaking to us, or is it just the physiological effect of the bass and the drums vibrating in our chest cavity? Is it just the tingling on our arms when the young David Crowder look-alike leading with the acoustic and Scripture tattoo belts a perfectly pitched note at the end of a powerful chorus? Is it the lights that dim and flash for effect that have us closing our eyes? Is it the psychological coercion of either a few dozen or a few thousand lifted hands and voices around you that causes us to feel the Spirit in that moment? I am as guilty as the next person for craving that concert atmosphere.
But that’s not what it’s about. It is about that moment when, even amidst resounding music and shouts of praise, we find complete and total stillness in our heart, mind, spirit, and body because we are so consumed with His presence. When we find that we cannot sing because we can only surrender, with tears welling up behind closed eyes, and bask in the glory of simply standing before our Love. That is true worship.
Photo by (flickr cc) susieq3c