Returning to the Heart of Worship 2: Worship and the Transformed Heart

In my previous post, I introduced the topic of Returning to the Heart of Worship and why I think such a message is of critical importance to those in worship ministry, especially in this time and season.

In this post, I want to begin with this proposition: true worship emanates from a transformed heart. And transformation comes when we behold God.

We cannot talk about the excellencies of worship without dealing with the issue of the heart. Especially because worship musicians and singers are tasked to lead people into encounter with God through music and song.

“Leading people into encounter with God” is the key task. Music and song is the vehicle.

I started going to church when I was 12 years old. It could not have been more other worldly, and I mean that in a bad way. It was almost a daggy anti-culture, where everyone spoke in code and wore saccharine smiles.

The supposed crowning moment of the two-hour gathering was actually the zenith of tedium – this strange monologue called the sermon. (Taking notes was a great way to stay awake and still look interested).

Despite this, there was one part of the service that captivated me. It was the first 30 minutes when the band would play music and the people sang together. I have always liked music, but something about the music at church was different – there was something about the atmosphere when the people lifted up their voices together. It was only later that I would realise that this was the presence of God.

Encountering God’s presence in church ultimately changed the course of my life and my calling. It sparked in me a desire to lead others in worship, so that they too could experience the presence of God they way I did when I was growing up.

Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:8 that when we behold God with unveiled faces, we are constantly being transformed into His own image in ever increasing splendour and glory.

Bill Johnson says:

The impulse that drives the life of the believer isn’t the need to perform for God but to commune with Him. Only when we perceive the face of the One in whose image we were made do we come to know who we are and the One for whom we were made. And because of who He is, to behold Him and remain unchanged is impossible.

True worship changes our hearts, affirms our identity and propels us into our destiny.

In the following posts, I will explore four characteristics of the heart of worship.

Returning to the Heart of Worship 1

In about February this year, the worship director of our campus ministry asked me to share at their worship team retreat about the Heart of Worship.

When I crafted the message for the retreat, I prayerfully considered what God would have me say to this group, without thinking much more about the impact of that message.

Since then, I have now shared the Heart of Worship message three times. The one which I have recorded and which you can listen to in this post was the most recent, which was shared during our main service Worship Team Night on 26 April 2016.

The second time I shared the message (in a modified form) was during our leaders’ meeting. After I shared the message, I saw our worship pastor Dave cry. This was quite an achievement (or perhaps more correctly, something which the Holy Spirit achieved). I have walked with Dave for the past nearly four years, and until that moment, had never seen him cry. He has gone through difficult challenges, criticisms and conflict, but he has always taken them in his stride. Occasionally, I wondered if he had any emotion at all.

So it is quite an honour and a privilege to serve with a leader who, when he cries, cries about the things of God.

Dave and I took over the leadership of our church’s ministry in July 2013. Since then, we have put a lot of effort into honing our craft and building teamwork. These initiatives have increased our skill level significantly to the point that if you visited our church, the level of “delivery” in our worship sets is pretty consistent each week.

But we realised that, at least in a public setting, not once in that time did we ever address our team about the heart of worship.

So this message on the Heart of Worship has become a necessary mid-course correction for our team. Not so much that what we have been doing so far has been wrong. In fact, what we have been doing has been very good and should be celebrated and improved upon. But we also need to balance our focus.

This is because we cannot talk about the excellencies of worship without addressing the heart. Primarily, the task o the worship team is to lead people into encounter with God through music and song. “Leading people to encounter God” is the key task. Music and song is the vehicle.

Jesus tells the Samaritan woman in John 4:23-24 that the Father is seeking worshippers who will worship in spirit and in truth. What is conspicuously missing in His description of worship is any mention of click tracks, guitar riffs or, for that matter, music and song.

Put simply, worship in spirit and truth is worship that emanates from the heart, guided and transformed by the truth of God’s word. True worship happens when we encounter God in our heart.

Many people have now asked me to put my message on the web, so here it is. It probably wasn’t the best delivered message – I was pretty tired that night – but I pray that as you listen to it, God will really minister to you.

Over the next few posts, I will include and amplify on some of the main points.

Be blessed!


Music in Its Rightful Place: The Importance of Capacity and Context

In our last worship leader’s mentoring session, we talked about the role of music in worship. In the modern worship landscape, music and worship are almost synonymous. Of course, the more informed amongst us are keenly aware of the separation, but often struggle to articulate the difference or to hold the tension.

I posited seemingly disparate themes to the group:

1.  Music and the Heart of Worship

For many of us who were around in the 1990s, the role of music in worship was beginning to reach dizzying heights. The praise and worship movement which began with grassroots, organic musical expression began to mature until we got to the point where we began to exalt musicianship and excellence above heart. Musical servants gave way to worship artistes.

Against this background, Soul Survivor Church’s Mike Pilavachi wrestled with the idea that the church had become connoisseurs of worship, rather than participants in it. So, he sacked the band. Until  the church learnt how to bring its own offering of worship, there would be no musicians on the platform.

Out of this context, Matt Redman’s song “Heart of Worship” was born. It spoke out of, and to, a church in a particular season where worship did indeed become a spectator sport. Pilavachi challenged us to all be performers of worship – for the audience of One.

2.  The Power of Music

Music is inherently powerful, either within the context of worship or otherwise.

We all know this instinctively. When we watch a horror movie, the best way to dampen the suspense and sense of encroaching fear is to simply block your ears. Once that happens, the tension and stress of a scary scene is almost immediately lost.

Plato once said:

Give me the making of the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws, I will control its people.

Historians say that the music of the Beatles, broadcast from the West, penetrated the Iron Curtain and helped spark the collapse of communism. Mikhail Gorbachev said “it taught the young people of the Soviet Union that … there is freedom elsewhere.” The music of the Beatles catalysed a political and cultural revolution. This is the power of music.

Pioneers of church worship recognise this power, too. Lamar Boschman said:

Music is one of mankind’s most fundamental avenues of communication, and one of the most successful because it transcends the conscious mind and reaches the subconscious.

Music affects us; it moves us; and it stirs our emotions.

In the context of worship, the question is: where does the power of music end, and the power of God’s Spirit begin?

3.  Music and God’s Presence

We often hear worship leaders say something like this: “we enter into God’s presence with singing”; or “God inhabits our praises”; or “as we play and sing, the Holy Spirit is going to move in our midst”.

The suggestion is that somehow, musical praise might somehow bring down God’s presence.

We might ask the question this way: did the sound of the trumpet bring down the walls of Jericho?

Harold Best says:

Whenever we assume that art mediates God’s presence or causes him to be tangible, we have begun to trek idol territory. Our present-day use of music as the major up-front device for worship is a case in point. We need to ask ourselves if we, as worship leaders, are giving the impression that we draw near to God through music or that God draws near because of it. Is music our golden calf?

Can we worship without music, and if so, why don’t we? Why do we put ourselves in the way of temptation?

4.  The Scriptural Impetus of Music in Scriptures

Despite the inherent dangers of music and the risk of idolatry, it would seem clear that the Bible mandates the use of music to accompany worship and sacrifice, even if the Bible doesn’t clearly define the relationship.

We see example after example, such as Miriam’s celebration song after the Exodus; David’s establishing of musicians and singers to minister around the Ark; the use of musicians when Hezekiah restored temple worship; Paul and Silas’ singing hymns in the prison. Even the largest book which sits in the middle of the Bible is a collection of sung verses.

Holding It All in Tension

So, how we do hold it all in tension? We know that music is Scripturally-mandated. We know it has something to do with God’s presence. And yet, we know it is dangerous and can often steal our hearts. It causes us to mistaken emotional hype and sensation with God’s tangible presence.

Music must be given its rightful place. Worship is first and foremost about the heart. Music is a tool. But it is an effective tool.

Here are some thoughts:

  • Music gives structure. It unifies the gathered church to sing one melody to one rhythm; it moulds us together out of our disparate thoughts and focuses us back to God.
  • Music engages us. It beckons us and calls us away from our own burdened souls; it moves us emotionally and gives voice to our innermost cries.
  • Music affects us. It moves our faith beyond the realm of the intellect to something which is felt.

Ultimately, music is not the end of worship, God is. Music and the musicians are merely servants.

Good Music versus Bad Music

If music is an important tool (and I think it is), then the question is: what of good music and bad music?

In my church, we are blessed with a pretty decent group of some 50 or so musicians and singers and we are always pushing ourselves to only get better at our craft. You might say, well, if music isn’t the end game, should we care how excellent we are?

And what of the small church down the road with hardly any musicians, all of whom have plenty of heart but less so musical competence?

What of quality?

This is where, as my wife pointed out to me (because she always has lots of revelation) that context and capacity matter.

If music is used to serve the people, as no doubt it must, then we must ask: what people are we serving? If we are serving a church full of musicians in Nashville, then mediocre garage band quality might just not cut it. Even now, amongst our church musicians, some of them get easily distracted with the slightest hint of off-pitched singing or imprecise rhythm. (Thankfully, God has gifted me with musical dullness so I can’t hear all the imperfections!).

On the other hand, a small home group will be much more forgiving on the musical technicalities, and be easily led by a display of heartfelt (but off-tune) praise.

Capacity then looks at what you, as a church, can afford, and what level of skill, as an individual, you can offer. As worshippers, we ought to only give God the best offering we can. If you have more to give, then give more. If you can afford a more lavish set up, then by all means bring it before the Lord as your sacrifice of praise. Don’t skimp on quality or even expense. But be prudent about it. If your congregation can’t discern the difference, then you might be a better steward to deploy your resources to other ministries which serve the congregation better.

I like how Mike Cosper, in his book Rhythms of Grace thinks about the role of music in worship. He uses the catchphrase, “Worship: One, Two, Three”. He says:

  • worship has one author and object, that is God;
  • worship has two contexts, that is, worship scattered as we go about worshipping in our everyday lives; and worship gathered, whenever the church comes together to instruct and edify each other;
  • worship has three audiences: God, the church and the watching world.

When we think about worship with three audiences, instead of One, context and capacity becomes all the more important. We understand that our musical offering is first and foremost service unto God, but we must also hold it in balance as it serves and teaches our fellow brothers and sisters, and then as it draws the seekers amongst us. Seeker-friendly and Spirit-friendly are not mutually exclusive, but part of the one continuum.

Worship for the audience of One was right for its time, but I believe now, faithful musical offering requires us to balance capacity and context to serve three audiences.

How Worship Leaders Should Respond to Compliments

In Faith Community Church, Pastor Benny has initiated our mentoring phase as part of our 2-year DNA campaign. Quite amazingly, there is a strong mentoring buzz now in our church with heaps of people getting connected into mentoring relationships.

Yesterday, I had the honour of launching our worship leadership mentoring group with worship leaders from Kinetic, Vibe, Young Working Adults and the Adult Zones in our church, the idea being that we would meet regularly and talk about all things related to worship leading.

It was actually really refreshing, despite a busy weekend, to be able to sit down in an informal setting with like-minded people just to talk about something we were all passionate about!

As we began our first session together, one of the key messages I wanted to get across was the importance of maintaining a heart of worship – that beyond talent, skills and outcomes, we have a responsibility of keeping the right posture of heart in a ministry that is often fraught with danger and hubris.

Tim Hughes once warned:

As worship leaders, are we getting too preoccupied with the sounds and songs we are creating? Is there a danger that we look first and foremost at gifting and talents, and forget the key thing: the heart?

John Wimber said:

The difficulty will not be so much in the writing of new and great music; the test will be in the godliness of those who deliver it.

One of the issues we talked about was how worship leaders should respond to compliments. Quite often, after you have finished leading worship, a well-meaning congregant might come up to you and say: “I loved your worship leading today”. Or “I just want you to know how nice your voice sounded”.

I don’t think we should over-spiritualise it. Imagine if you’ve just grilled a perfectly succulent steak. You are told ‘wow, you cooked that just right. You are really good at cooking steak’ and you respond with ‘no, I did nothing at all. I just stood at the barbie and the Lord moved through my arms and my tongs and compelled me to turn the hunk of meat just at the right time’. In any other context, if someone complimented you, your natural response would be to say “thank you”. So why not respond in the same way? After all, you did spend all that time putting in the effort to make your voice sound better, or to make sure the set flowed well, or to make sure your team played in unity.

One way of holding the tension is to accept the compliment for what you have control over, i.e. improvements in your vocal quality, the cohesion and drive of your team, the depth of preparation etc. In other words, by all means, accept the compliment for the fruit of your effort. But whether people encountered God and the resultant effect of His presence, well, that only happens by His Spirit, because true worship is by the Spirit. That aspect, we can’t take any credit for. God alone gets all the credit for the fruit of worship!

Bill Johnson actually provides an interesting spin on this. He says (in Experience the Impossible at p 179):

Humility is Kingdom; pride is at the root of everything evil. But the pursuit of greatness is not necessarily evil. In fact, it seems that those who spent time with Jesus had latent desires awakened in them regarding their own significance. As a result Jesus never rebuked His disciples for their desire for greatness. He simply redefined it by pointing to a child.

First Peter 5:6 says “therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time.” Here we see the tension between humility and a desire for greatness. Johnson says that whilst being under the hand of God might seem like a frightening picture, God’s hand is actually one of a loving Father – a hand of covering and protection. And that’s exactly what we need as worship leaders (or any leader in the church for that matter!) – covering and protection as we pursue a place of greater influence in God.

We usually have no problem with accepting the need to be humble. Johnson says:

What is difficult for us to handle is God’s response to our humility: ‘that He may exalt you’. What do we do with that? Many of us squirm or say things to undermine the honour given to us. Yet if we do not know how to receive honour correctly, we will have no crown to throw at His feet.

A culture of honour is an important element in the community life of every church. We need to understand how to receive honour to allow such a culture to be propagated. It requires us to be quietly confident about the skills, planning and hard work that we have put into our service, and yet humbly dependent on God for the things that only He can do. And then, like Paul, be able to count all our accolades – the significance in our greatness and influence – rubbish for the sake of knowing Christ more. Then we will truly be able to hold that tension; to walk the paradoxical line of humbled exaltation.

Worshipping in the Dark

We got to church this morning at about 6.30 am to begin setting up as we weren’t able to rehearse in the auditorium yesterday. About 20 minutes into the set-up, it went completely dark except for a couple of dim emergency lights. The power had cut out.

Maybe this was a temporary thing. Someone must have tripped the circuit and all we had to do was flick a switch.

Forty-five minutes later, we began to wonder whether we should all grab breakfast in the hope that when we came back, the electricity would somehow come back on.

We then sat around running through the songlist, trying to make the best use of time whilst waiting.

At about 8.30 am, we were preparing for the worst. I sent a quick text to my wife: “No power at the church”. She responded: “hahahahaa i’ll assume you mean no electricity”. Yes, that was what I meant. Despite there being no electricity, of course there was power!

We had to change tack and simplify the songlist as there were no words to be projected – so the songs had to be familiar to everyone. There was no amplification, so certain instruments became useless. And because there was no amplification, all the musos had to sing as well.

Instead of a band on stage leading the worship, everyone on the team stood in a line at the front of the stage: about 10 voices on the platform with two acoustic guitars – completely unplugged in the literal sense.

When the service started at 9.30 am, our worship leader, Dave Wong said something to this effect: the apostle Peter preached to a crowd of 3000 without any sound system. We only had 800 or 900 in an enclosed space.

What followed was half an hour of passionate singing, most of it coming from the congregation. I think it was the loudest we’ve ever heard the congregation sing. Something always triggers the congregation’s ownership of their own role in worship when the band can’t do it for them.

It reminds me a lot about what happened in Soul Survivor that led to Matt Redman’s penning of the song “Heart of Worship”. Mike Pilavachi, the senior pastor of Soul Survivor, said:

We seemed to have lost the spark.  We seemed to be going through the motions but I noticed that although we were singing the songs, our hearts were far away from Him…. Then it clicked; we had become connoisseurs of worship instead of participants of it.  In our hearts we were giving the worship marks out of ten:  ‘Not that song again’, ‘I can’t hear the bass’, ‘I like the way she sings’ …  We made the band the performers of worship and ourselves the audience.  We had forgotten that we are ALL performers of worship and that God is the audience.”

From that revelation, Soul Survivor got rid of the band and went through a season of re-learning what it meant for the congregation to bring their own worship to God. It was only when the lesson was learnt that they brought back the music, adding fuel to the flame, so the speak. The song “Heart of Worship” was born through that experience. Ever since, the words of that song have sought to lead us back to the place where the music fades and all the trappings of worship are stripped away.

There’s something about simplicity that brings us back to the heart of worship. So much of our worship today had never been seen or experienced by the early church. They had none of the technology, nor the vast hymnody. Yet people connected with God in life-changing ways.

Sometimes I wonder whether all the good of modern worship has become the enemy of the best. When we don’t educate the church properly on how to worship, we can easily let the music, the technology, the band and the worship leader become our crutches. We may not admit that they are doing the worship for us, but we certainly let them bear most of the burden.

Days like today remind us that the core of our worship cannot (and must not) ever be delegated to others to do. As much as worship is corporate, it is also a deeply personal transaction with God.

A lot of people remarked after the service that the worship was great today; that they really sensed the presence of God; that they were amazed how loud the congregation could sign; and that it was great that the whole congregation participated. We said things like “we should do this more often”.

But the sad thing is this: next week, when the electricity comes back on, we’ll be back to doing worship the same way we did before. Until the next time we are plunged into the darkness again…