Exciting Worship

A few days ago Bob Kauflin, Director of Sovereign Grace Music, wrote a post on his blog Worship Matters entitled, “How Exciting Should Our Sunday Meetings Be?” He began his post by sharing a comment from a friend, who told him that his pastor “wanted their meetings to be more exciting.” Kauflin then proceeded to expound upon why striving for excitement in our church services–at least excitement as our culture defines it–is not what we should be pursuing. If you look at the definition of “exciting”, as Kauflin does, then you would no doubt agree with his conclusion that anytime the body of Christ is gathered together should be a time of excitement purely because of the very nature of the gathering. Kauflin writes,

Certainly, nothing should cause greater enthusiasm and eagerness than meeting with the church to recount what God has done to save us from his wrath through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. All our sins are forgiven! We have been adopted into God’s family! Jesus has triumphed over sin, death, and hell! We are new creations! We are part of God’s unstoppable, unchangeable, unrelenting plan to have a people on earth who will display his glory, truth, righteousness, love, and compassion!

What can be more earth-shattering, soul-shaking, and EXCITING than rehearsing and reveling in those realities?

To that I would say a hearty Amen! However, I would also agree with Kauflin that that is almost certainly not what his friend’s pastor had in mind, nor is it what many people in church leadership, worship ministry and the schools who train those individuals likely have in mind. When we think about the things in our lives that we might describe as exciting we probably think about things that get our juices flowing, that get our heart beating, that bring a smile to our face and a twinkle to our eyes–things that we enjoy in the moment and think back on fondly after the fact. Depending on who you are and what your interests are, “exciting” for you could be a theme park roller coaster ride, a deep sea fishing excursion, a professional sporting event, a classical music concert in a world class venue or a hike in the Rockies. All of those things are fine and good–there is nothing wrong with any of them. Rarely do any of us think about church the same way we would think about one of those activities, though. I think that is interesting for several reasons, and I see some similarities and some differences.

First, with the exception of hiking in the Rockies, each of the activities above occurs in a setting designed specifically for the purpose. (Yes, I realize the ocean is not a venue designed specifically for deep sea fishing, but the boat and equipment used would be specific to the activity). Similarly, church services are often–though, I realize, not always–held in facilities specifically designed for corporate worship or, if not designed for that purpose, at least set up accordingly. Second, excluding hiking again, each of those activities have personnel present for the specific purpose of aiding and assisting in your experience, whether to take tickets, provide directions, show you to your seats, explain the safety instructions, sell you food and beverages or ensure that you are outfitted appropriately for the event you are about to experience. Similarly, many churches have ushers, greeters, teachers, etc. to assist members and guests.

Here are a couple of differences I see, too. First, rarely does anyone engage in any of the activities I described above without planning and preparation beforehand. I realize that someone with easy access to the Rockies may decide on a whim to take a hike or someone in close proximity to an amusement part may decide to go spend the day there, but for many of us any of those activities will involve planning: buying tickets, getting direction, arranging our schedule, organizing our finances so that the necessary funds are available and so on. I would suggest that there are very few people–myself included–who put anywhere near that kind of preparation into going into the House of the Lord. I know I’m going to church on Sunday, so I do not plan anything else to do and I make sure I am up on time, but the intentionality, planning and preparation that goes into my attendance at church on Sunday is not even close to the level of preparation I would put into one of the activities above. Second, every one of the activities above would involve, for the vast majority of people, dressing in a manner specific to the occasion. Whether it means wearing the jersey of your favorite sports team, putting on a suit or dress for the concert, lacing up your hiking boots and strapping on your backpack for a hike in the Rockies, putting on your swim trunks and flip flops for the fishing trip or whatever the case may be, rarely do any of us engage in any of those activities wearing whatever we usually wear for our normal day-to-day activities. Many people do exactly that when it comes to going to church, but I have addressed that topic elsewhere, so I will leave it go at that.

Kauflin addresses the growing tendency in churches to make their services more exciting, more stimulating, more emotional. “[A]n increasing number of churches,” he writes, “have sought to add elements to their gatherings that will make them more ‘exciting.’ Meeting countdowns. Fast-paced videos. Engaging dramas. Creative humor. Breathless, energetic emcees. More upbeat songs. Smoke machines. Light shows. And a mindset that views dead space as the supreme excitement killer.” In other words, too many churches are trying to turn their services into a show that gets everyone’s adrenaline pumping and hands clapping. I am not suggesting that church services should be boring or sleep-inducing. I have defended the position that worship should be an emotional experience. (After all, how sincere can worship be if it has no connection to one’s emotions?) When we go to church and just go through the motions, God is not pleased by that. At the same time, when we go to church and get wrapped up in the show and the activities at the expense of why we are there in the first place and Who we are there to worship, God is not pleased by that either.

I have been to churches at both ends of that spectrum. I have been in churches where all the routines of a worship service were present but it seemed as if no one was engaged at all. There was no emotion, no energy, no excitement. Everyone was basically putting in their time. That is draining, let me tell you, and I would seriously question whether anyone was really worshiping. I rather doubt God was feeling worshiped! I have also been to churches where there are huge screens, massive choirs, full orchestras, live bands, “recognizable” personnel on stage and so on. It looks like, sounds like and feels like a major concert experience. There is a lot more emotion, energy and excitement but the question in that situation is, on what–or on whom–was that emotion, energy and excitement directed? If it was directed at the “worship leaders” then God is not pleased. If it was directed inwardly, at how it makes “me” feel, then God is not pleased with that, either.

“Strictly speaking,” Kauflin writes, “God never says the goal of the church gathering is excitement. It’s edification for God’s glory. We meet to stir up one another to love and good works, not simply to have an emotionally electrifying time. We meet to behold God’s glory in Christ through his Word, responding in ways appropriate to his self-revelation (Heb. 10:24; 2 Cor. 3:18).” Here is the rub. I do not believe God is displeased or dishonored by lights, bands, orchestras, mass choirs and recognizable people on stage. I believe any or even all of those things in combination can be used to worship the Lord and to lead a church service that is appropriate focused. To a certain extent, the focus of the service depends on the people sitting in the pews (or padded chairs). The person(s) leading the service can have their focus in the right place and the heart and mind of the folks in the congregation can be elsewhere. That is a personal matter between those individuals and God. What is not a personal matter is the heart, focus and intention of the pastor and other personnel leading the service. If the purpose is to generate excitement purely for excitement sake, that is wrong. If the intention is to sell more books or CDs, or to increase one’s Twitter following, that is wrong. If the purpose is to engage those in the congregation in order to help them grow in their knowledge and understanding of God, in order to stir them up for good works and to be doers rather than hearers only, then that is a good thing and God is pleased. Kauflin clearly sums up the purpose of a church service as follows:

Our greatest need when we gather is not simply to feel excited, but to encounter God: to engage with the certainty of his sovereignty, the reality of his authority, the comfort of his mercy in Christ, and the promise of his grace. We need to be strengthened for the battles against the world, our flesh, and the devil that will confront us the moment we wake up Monday morning, if not before. Mere emotional excitement, however it might be produced, won’t be sufficient. We need God’s Word clearly expounded, God’s gospel clearly presented, and God’s presence clearly experienced.

If that is what is happening in your church, then you are at a great church, regardless of whether you use hymnals or words projected on massive screens, whether you have an old upright piano or a live band, whether you have the local insurance salesman leading the singing or an internationally-recognized worship leader at the front. Ultimately, everything other than what is contained in Kauflin’s statement above is peripheral. Maybe that sounds harsh or oversimplistic, but that’s the truth. We could get into debates about all of those other elements of church services, and the odds are good that we may have very different opinions about what what we prefer or think is most effective. Since God does not give explicit instructions on the order or elements of a worship service, though, I think there is room for a variety so long as the focus and purpose remains where it needs to be. When he explains that church services are not to be rock concerts or pep rallies, Kauflin also explains, “They’re something much more mundane, and at the same time something much more eternally and cosmically significant. Our plans, lights, smooth transitions, technology, videos, sound systems, visual effects, and creativity don’t make it so. Christ dwelling in the midst of his people through his Holy Spirit makes it so. That’s why if we understand what’s going on, sharing the bread and cup during communion can be one of the highlights of our week, transcending the greatest of world championship sports rivalries in its effect on us.” That is where he hits the bulls eye. All of that extra “stuff” is, as I said, peripheral. None of it makes the church service successful from God’s viewpoint. At the same time, none of it prevents the service from being successful from God’s viewpoint when it is all used to accomplish the purpose of encountering God, growing in our knowledge of Him and truly worshiping Him, in spirit and in truth. So the real question is not, “Should our services be more exciting?” The real question is, “What are you trying to accomplish with that ‘excitement’?” If the purpose is excitement, then there is a real problem. If the purpose is to stir the hearts of the people to know and worship God, then go for it–so long as that focus never changes. Yes, church leaders need to carefully and prayerfully reflect on why they do what they do and why they want to do what they are considering. At the same time, each of us needs to carefully and prayerfully reflect, too. When we say we’re looking for something “more” from the services at church, what do we really mean? What do we really want–and why? If anything, and I mean anything, seems to be more exciting or desirable than the sovereignty, grace, mercy and love of God then we better check our definition of “exciting.”

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