The worthiness of our worth-ship

I had an epiphany at church last Sunday morning. The fact that it was the Feast of the Epiphany is purely coincidental…I think. My “aha” moment came as we were singing a song about the magnitude of God’s love for us, and the arrangement of the refrain was stirring my soul such that my whole self felt engaged in a way I don’t always experience. The tune and the lyrics and the musicians and singers working together communicated something of the glory of God to me, and I responded in worship of him. That’s when the thought hit me, and though to you it may be “Well, duh” instead of “Aha,” to me this realization was a new one.

I’ve long known, of course, that the elements of a church service should reflect truth about the God we are coming together to learn of and worship. So the sermon or message should be biblical and the lyrics of the songs as well. But I had never, that I can recall anyway, saw this event that we commonly refer to as “church” as a demonstration and experience of God himself, in particular during what we in the evangelical community call the “worship” element. In other words, the playing and singing of songs should not only express truth about God lyrically but should reflect his grandness and glory in the way those songs are performed. His great worth demands that we make a genuine effort to prepare and offer our praises with as much excellence as we are capable of, and as much majesty as is appropriate to the song, because in them we are not just proclaiming things about God but we are proclaiming him. In those moments we are bringing the invisible, inaudible God to our senses, so the audio-visual experience ought to be directed towards communicating his magnificence.

Consider two different church services. In the first, three or four contemporary worship songs are unenthusiastically led by a poorly-skilled vocalist and 3 willing but only barely able musicians, who rehearsed just that morning for about a half-hour. Though the lyrics of the songs are technically biblical, they’re largely self-focused and repetitive, saying very little of God that is praiseworthy. Visually speaking, there is nothing of beauty or majesty created or provided to engage the sense of sight in the apprehension of God’s greatness. The whole “worship” experience is wholly mundane.

In the other service a well-trained worship leader and a team of talented vocalists and musicians who gave up their Wednesday evening to rehearse for three hours perform and lead the congregation in song. The music is dynamic and captivating, beautiful and stirring, with lyrics that boldly tell of God’s greatness and glory. Enhancing the auditory experience are moving images on one or more screens and dramatic lighting that visually stimulate as representative of a supernatural reality too magnificent to adequately depict. The whole worship experience at this service is wholly awe-inspiring.

The contrast is easy to recognize, and I think the conclusion as well, that God is glorified to a greater degree in the second service than in the first. That’s not to say that those leading the first do not genuinely love God and desire to honor him with their time and talents, only that their efforts fail to properly proclaim his greatness. The faithful congregants are not stirred to worship him and any unbeliever who happens to be among them would likely conclude that their God is as dull and ordinary as their proclamation of him. I recognize that some churches simply do not have the technological resources that others do, but they still have the option to either use whatever gifts, talents, and tools God has provided to their maximum benefit for his glory, or only do enough to get by.

This notion that a church service ought to engage our senses to help us connect with an invisible God beyond them is surely what draws many to liturgically-oriented denominations like Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox with their “bells and smells.” Our less liturgical denominations can compensate with “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” prepared, produced, and performed with excellence and artistry in awe and honor of the majestic God to whom they are sung.

It seems clear to me that whatever our differences of opinion and taste regarding styles of worship on Sunday mornings…contemporary or traditional, loud or subdued…we can agree that it should be designed and executed with the aim to glorify God. If it is vapid and lackluster and carelessly prepared it reflects negatively on him. But if attention has been given to aim for excellence in effort and exaltation of him who alone is worthy of all glory, honor, and praise, he is magnified and we are brought to our knees in worship.