True Worship from the Heart and How it Happens

Zac HicksWorship and Pastoral Ministry, Worship Theology & Thought3 Comments

Album art from Matt Jackson’s terrific record!Many worship leaders (including me) are vexed by the question, “How do I get my people to worship?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked that question by fellow songleaders. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard or read some speaker or writer on the topic. I was never fully satisfied with some of the answers I got. Often times they were pragmatic “tricks of the trade” like raising the volume, creating seamless worship sets, or moving from fast songs to slow songs (championed by the so called “praise and [then] worship” model). I want to swiftly cut through the tall grass and ask two questions which I have found satisfying starting places to begin answering this greater question: (1) Where does true worship begin, and (2) How does it happen?

Where True Worship Begins

J. I. Packer was the first to help me grasp a very important distinction between knowing about God and knowing God. He said,

How can we turn our knoweldge about God into knowledge of God? The rule for doing this is simple but demanding. It is that we turn each truth that we learn about God into matter for meditation before God, leading to prayer and praise to God.*

In a recent sermon podcast, “Beholding the Love of God,” Tim Keller put it similarly but more poetically:

Knowing God is when the truth (about God) overflows the mind into all the rest of you…when it all of a sudden makes your rationality go crazy… It flows out into your feelings, it flows out into your will, it flows out into every part of you.

True worship begins in the human heart, the seat of his or her affections, and it begins when knowledge of God (who He is and what He’s done) spills over from mind to heart. Put another way, worship begins in a human being at the moment when theology begins to gush. Two places in Scripture are illustrative. 1 John 3:1:

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.

I think the ESV here soft-sells the emotion of the apostle John. I like the King James’ rendering of the opening Greek word for “see”: “Behold.” I also think that the translation could stand an exclamation point or two. As Keller points out in his sermon, it’s as though John pauses from the teaching of his epistle to simply marvel. All of a sudden, John is gushing. John is showing us what worship looks like. It is the overflow of truth, spilling forth in praise.

Paul does the same thing, even more gloriously, at the end of Romans 11. After eleven solid chapters of gospel-gold, Paul must stop and doxologize:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!…For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

Pass the plates, folks. It’s time to explode in praise. True worship is like an uncontrollable alien bursting forth from the chest of the unsuspecting theologian. In all true believers, theology simply cannot stay caged in the confines of the person. It breaks free.

(I might just briefly point out here what I’ve said elsewhere. I’m fully on board with the thought-pattern of those who see that “going through the motions” of ritual is not a vain, empty enterprise. Ritual has a shaping-effect, even if our heart is not engaged. But the best, truest, fullest worship happens when all that ritual intersects with and flows forth from the human being’s fullness, integrity, and shalom.)

How True Worship Happens

Based on all the things said above, it may sound like we are in control of said heart-gushing. We might think, “Well, okay, if I just try harder to let the things of God spill over into my heart, I’ll be a more integrous, authentic worshiper.” Though we’ve said that true worship begins in the human heart, this is really only true from our experience. The truth is that worship can only begin when a catalyzing Agent, outside of ourselves, prompts us to do so. True worship only happens by the power of the Holy Spirit.

In both the above instances with John and Paul, it’s not most accurate to say that John and Paul are gushing the praises of God. It is really the Holy Spirit in them gushing forth with adoration of the Father and the Son. True worship is really a Trinitarian enterprise that we get sort of “caught up in.” It’s as though, in meditation upon the truths of God and His great salvation in Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit revs up the engine of praise in our heart until it’s roaring, guzzling gas, and firing on all cylinders. When the Father and the Son are displayed in their glory it is as though the Holy Spirit becomes a little kid who sees a popiscle placed before Him. He can’t help but scream and dance for joy at the sight. 

This is the “Trinitarian moment” that happens in us when we worship. This is why some hymn writers rightly describe worship as a “rapturous joy.” True worship feels like a kind of rapture, where we’re beamed up into the glorious intra-Trinitarian light.  Sometimes it happens as we let things “sink in,” and sometimes it just hits us out of nowhere.

So how do we get people to worship? Well, first we acknowledge that we actually don’t. It’s a work of the Holy Spirit. That said, we should be aware that as worship leaders we are called by God to be the ones to prepare the soil for the buds of worship to burst forth. The question then becomes, “What causes the Holy Spirit to gush?”  Well, Jesus does. His Gospel does. This is the essence (I think somewhat lost on my charismatic brothers and sisters) of what “Spirit-filled worship” looks like (read more about that here).

*J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: IVP, 1973), 23.

3 Comments on “True Worship from the Heart and How it Happens”

  1. Zac,
    The word gush is pretty helpful! As I read your post I couldn't help but think of Harold Best's word "outpouring" and James Smith's word "desire." It seems like both are involved here. When the truth has really taken root in your heart it "It flows out (outpouring) into your feelings, it flows out into your will (desire)." I guess, if we are continuous outpourers of worship, then true (Godward) worship begins when our desires and affections (formed by deep meditation on God) pour out of us instead of self worship and idolatry. This is a great thing to talk about and keep pondering. I certainly want to worship truly. Thanks!

  2. Zac,
    You made an interesting side-point about the bodily-shaping influence of liturgy.

    Interestingly, in James K.A. Smith's second book of the cultural liturgies series, "Imagining the Kingdom," Smith defines the imagination as the nexus between the immaterial and material aspects of the person (ie the mind and the body). It's similar, in kind, to how Jonathan Edwards defines "the affections." Worship, then, is best when it is both reflective and embodied, but the body has a way of being-in-the-world that can carry the "heart" along, so to speak. No doubt, like the great commandment, worship is most supreme when it is mind, heart, soul, and strength.

    Your post does nod to the primacy of the heart to bring about embodied worship. If the heart gets the Gospel, then the body will worship, in a way. I think that's probably true most of the time, at least as to what we can see. But it can work the other way, as you point out. Perhaps the interesting point to note, though, is how we tend to frame the discussion as evangelicals.

    For instance, the post is titled "true worship from the heart…" It might never occur to most evangelicals (or charismatics for that matter) to think of it in a totally different way: "true worship from the body…". But it's just as important. I think what we need is some precision in our anthropology.

    SO, if the heart is defined the way Edwards does (ie the all-encompassing "affections"), then I don't mind the heart's primacy in addressing the question. If it simply means "the emotions," then I'd rather bring up Smith's view of the imagination again.

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