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).