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Encountering God in Worship
Do our services offer worshippers an opportunity to experience and respond to the presence of God at work among them?

What's the purpose of corporate worship? What is it we try to do when we come together to worship God? Those might sound like straight-forward questions but, as the Barna Research Group in the U.S. found out a few years ago, there are a surprising range of answers.

In a 2002 survey on worship, they asked church-going adults to identify the primary purpose of worship. To their surprise, one out of every five people admitted that they had no idea what the purpose of worship really was. Close to half of those surveyed (49 percent) felt that worship was an activity undertaken for their own personal benefit. Only three out of ten (29 percent) saw worship as something focused primarily on God.

If you asked the same question in your church, what do you think the answer would be?

Over the years, my own views on worship have changed. When I was a young child, I had a fairly simple view: worship was something we did for God. We came to church freshly washed and combed, dressed in our best clothes, on our best behaviour, bringing our best offerings of praise and prayer. I always pictured God hovering somewhere just underneath the wooden ceiling beams, watching and listening as we sang and prayed.

As I grew older, my understanding of worship grew as well. I came to realize that worship wasn't just one-way communication—something we did for God—but that God was actively involved, too: speaking, inspiring, challenging, forgiving, listening, healing, encouraging, sending and blessing.

My growing understanding of worship was affirmed by what I read in Scripture. In the Bible, corporate worship—the gathering together of God's people—is a deeply participatory, relational activity between God and the community (see Exodus 24; 2 Chronicles 6; Isaiah 6). The primary scriptural metaphor for worship is that of a dialogue—an honest, two-way conversation in which we not only speak but also listen to God. God is not merely the audience for our worship, but a living and active presence among us.

Is this how we understand and experience worship today? Do we encounter God when we gather together for worship? Do our services offer worshippers an opportunity to experience and respond to the presence of God at work among them?

Many people would say that they don't. In his book, The Great Worship Awakening, Robb Redman suggests that many Christians no longer even expect to encounter God in worship. "A service is an opportunity for fellowship and inspiration," he writes. "Protestants may be good at talking about God, but less comfortable talking to God."

Adds Sally Morgenthaler, a long-time pastor and worship consultant in the U.S.: "We are not producing worshippers in this country. Rather, we are producing a generation of spectators, religious onlookers lacking, in many cases, any memory of a true encounter with God...."

A more recent survey done by the Barna Research Group bears this out. In it, they discovered that eight out of every ten Christians surveyed did not feel that they had entered into the presence of God or experienced a connection with God during a worship service over the past year.

In an article for Christianity Today, Gary Burge suggests that worship in many churches has become more of a time for education and discipleship than an encounter with God. Says Burge: “Rather than being an ‘otherworldly’ encounter reminding us of our heavenly identity, it has become ‘worldly’ in the sense that its focus is horizontal, sharpening our discipleship in the world.” He goes on to say that many Christians today are yearning for more—for worship that brings them into dialogue with God.

How can we experience this kind of worship for ourselves? First and foremost, we need to acknowledge that the primary goal of worship is to bring us into an encounter with the living God. Worship is a dialogue between God and God's people in which God reveals His divine nature and we, through the intercession of Jesus Christ and the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, are enabled to respond.

A second step may be to take a closer look at the worship order we use—the placement of the songs, prayers, sermon, offering and announcements. One of the encouraging trends in many churches these days is a growing willingness to re-evaluate traditional worship orders. Does our order of service make it clear that worship is a dialogue between God and His people? Does it include both revelation and response—moments when we listen for God's voice as well as moments when we are given a chance to respond to what we hear God saying?

I sometimes wonder if the reason we have trouble seeing worship as a corporate dialogue with God is that we've lost a sense of the ways in which God speaks to us. How might we strengthen God's voice in our worship? Here are a few suggestions:

Acknowledge God's presence. Begin worship by recognizing God's presence in the gathered community. Pray for the active presence of the Holy Spirit during worship.

Use more Scripture. I am often amazed at how little Scripture reading occurs in many worship services. God speaks most clearly through His Word. For this reason, congregations have traditionally prayed for the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit before the reading and preaching of the Word.

… consider intentionally creating quieter spaces in which the Holy Spirit may move.

Create space for the Holy Spirit to move.  Instead of filling each moment of worship with activity, consider intentionally creating quieter spaces in which the Holy Spirit may move. In his book, Transforming Worship, Timothy Carson suggests that the experience of the transcendent in our midst requires "margins of intellectual and emotional space in which a worshipper may swim."

Take time to listen to one another.  God's presence among us becomes real as we share stories about how God is at work in our lives, and as we experience the love of God in the fellowship of His people.

Speak on God's behalf.  There are moments in worship when it is the role of leaders to speak God's Word to the congregation. 

Words of assurance following confession, words of blessing and benediction— these are God's words, not ours. Leaders need to allow themselves to become a conduit through which God blesses and encourages His people.

Strengthening the congregation's role in the dialogue—their response to what they hear God saying—is equally important. Are worshippers given an opportunity to acknowledge the presence of God in their midst? Do they have a chance to speak honestly to God about how they have fallen short of what God desires? Do their needs and concerns help shape the prayers offered to God? Are they given a chance to respond to what they hear God saying, and to re-affirm their desire to live as God's people?

The songs we sing are also an important part of the worship dialogue, and should be chosen as much for their texts as for their music. Those who choose songs for worship are literally putting words in people's mouths. Choosing songs needs to be done with great care, and with an awareness of how the text of each song helps further the dialogue with God.

True worship, says theologian John Witvliet, is "charged with divine activity." Unless we encounter God—unless God is an active presence in our worship—we miss out on the primary purpose of our worship gatherings.

Dr. Christine Longhurst, BRS, BA, MMus, MSM, DWS, is former Pastor of Worship at the River East MB Church in Winnipeg, Man. She offers workshops on worship and music in congregations across Canada. She can be reached at www.FaithMatters.ca.

Originally published in The Messenger, May 6, 2009.

Used with permission. Copyright © 2009 Christianity.ca.

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