What Does Spirit-Filled Worship Look Like?

Zac HicksWorship Theology & Thought7 Comments

“Holy Spirit Coming,” by He QiThere’s a lot of talk about what the Spirit does in worship.  Often, we hear assumptions about His work through comments like, “Wow, the Spirit was really moving this Sunday!” or, “I really felt the Spirit’s presence during that song.”  Often times, we equate the Spirit’s presence and power with spontaneity coupled with ecstatic emotional experience.  I do not want to take away from this in what I am about to say, because I believe that when the Spirit moves in us, that movement is often accompanied by surprising, unmanufactured, full-bodied, whole-personed experiences, which include our emotions.  Goosebumps do often accompany the Spirit’s work.

But goosebumps are not equal to or the litmus test of the Spirit’s work.  I get goosebumps when the air conditioner is blowing on me the right way or when my wife massages my feet.  I get goosebumps when I hear a touching story, listen to a stirring piece of music, or observe a striking piece of art.  So how can we know what is truly the Spirit’s work among us, particularly in worship?  To be sure, much, perhaps most, of the Spirit’s work is mysterious to us.  But God has revealed to us a measure of His ways, and this is where Trinitarian theology makes a huge difference.  To answer this question, we need to turn to the very Spirit-breathed Scriptures (“Spirit-breathed” is actually redundant in biblical language) to ask, “What does the Bible say about the role of the Spirit?” 

The Spirit’s Work is to Preach Christ to Us

Let’s just look at one passage, John 15:26:

[Jesus said,] “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me.

It’s pretty clear.  One of the Spirit’s principle jobs is to testify about Christ to the hearts of men and women.  But “job” isn’t the best word.  Really, the Spirit delights, revels in displaying the Son.  We can even say that the Spirit lusts after making much of Jesus.  If that language seems too strong for you, check out Galatians 5:13-26 (“desires” means “lusts”), upon which Tim Keller comments in a sermon, “The Spirit has Jesus pinned up all over His wall.”  In other words, the Spirit Himself gets goosebumps whenever He thinks of the Son.

Some of us here are tempted to think that the Spirit’s testifying about Jesus is basically for non-believers who need to “get saved,” but in John 15, Jesus is speaking to His disciples, urging them to be comforted about what the Spirit will ongoingly do for them, and, therefore, for us.  We never move beyond our need for the Spirit to perpetually testify and witness Christ to our wandering hearts, again and again.  We never “arrive” at moving beyond needing to hear the good news of the gospel. 

Spirit-Filled Worship Transforms Us BY Displaying Jesus

What does this mean for worship, then?  It means that if we want to talk about worship being “Spirit-filled,” we first and foremost aren’t talking about something experienced but Someone proclaimed to our pensive, doubting, fearful hearts.  Worship is Spirit-filled when Christ is on display!  This is precisely His work!  Its what He loves to do!  And I don’t know if you’ve experienced it like I have, but when Christ is on display in preaching and in the sacraments, and when we respond through prayer and singing about Him and His work, goosebumps and other emotionally ecstatic experiences often follow for those who truly engage worship in the power of the Spirit.  This experience is not only an ecstatic one, but a transformative one.  2 Corinthians 3:18 goes on to explicate the Spirit’s work:

And we all, who with unveiled faces reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

Puritan theologian Richard Sibbes describes it this way:

The very beholding of Christ is a transforming sight. The Spirit that makes us new creatures, and stirs us up to behold this servant, it is a transforming beholding…A man cannot look upon the love of God and of Christ in the gospel, but it will change him to be like God and Christ. For how can we see Christ, and God in Christ, but we shall see how God hates sin, and this will transform us to hate it as God doth, who hated it so that it could not be expiated but with the blood of Christ, God-man. So, seeing the holiness of God in it, it will transform us to be holy. When we see the love of God in the gospel, and the love of Christ giving himself for us, this will transform us to love God.*

Wow!  If this is true, then Spirit-filled worship is sanctifying, too!  And the work of sanctification happens not as we try harder to conjure up “worshipful feelings” about God and not as we try harder to please God with our outward worship, but as we behold Christ! 

Planning Spirit-Filled Worship Services

Some people don’t believe that “planning” and the Holy Spirit can be used in the same sentence.  Some say that the Spirit is purely spontaneous and any attempt to plan is an attempt to thwart, quench, and domesticate the Wind that blows where it wills.  But, we must remember what was spoken above.  Yes, the Spirit works mysteriously and powerfully, but the Spirit’s work, without a doubt, is to display Jesus.  So, if we as worship leaders, pastors, and worshipers desire to walk in step with the Spirit when it comes to planning and participating in our worship services, we will see to it that, from top to bottom, the elements of our worship make much of Christ, from our praying, to our preaching, to our singing, to our participation in the sacraments. 

Too often we worship leaders think that the way for people to “get into” worship is to plan for a bunch of songs that take people on an emotional journey of intimate encounter with God.  We often select songs that point inward to ourselves—what we want to do for God, or how we feel about God, or how we’re trying to experience God in a given moment.  Though this may feel good, it doesn’t necessarily line up with the way the Spirit predominantly works. 

We may be fooling ourselves into having a “spiritually moving” experience when what we really need is for the Spirit to move, not by making much of us, but by making much of Christ.  The irony is that Christ is made much of when we actually seek to make little of ourselves, humbling ourselves to confess that we are broken, rebellious, stiff-necked people.  Spirit-filled worship, then, becomes more of a reality when we seek, not to exclaim what we want to do for God, but when we confess our failure to offer anything to Him of worth and value.  This should make us think twice about singing with gusto “triumphalist” songs that exclaim, “I’m living for You,” or, “I’m giving it all away.”  There’s a place for that, in consecration and in response to the finished work of Jesus, but we short-circuit the Spirit’s display of Christ when we either jump to that language too quickly or when we give such language dominant and repeated airtime.

But on the flip side, when we chose to make little of ourselves and much of Jesus, every Sunday becomes a true “Christ event,” and then we will see what happens among us as the Spirit fills, stirs, and moves.

*Richard Sibbes, “A Description of Christ,” in The Works of Richard Sibbes (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1862-1864), 1:14; qtd. in Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012), 92.

7 Comments on “What Does Spirit-Filled Worship Look Like?”

  1. As a teenager I remember thinking exactly what you addressed in this post–that you couldn't plan and still say the Spirit was moving. Like so many things in a life following Jesus I think there is an important balance to be struck here. The Spirit can certainly move without planning, but I appreciate your point about planning being very helpful (nearly essential?) to making much of Jesus. At the same time, when we devote time to careful planning and practice we can be wary of responding to the movement of the Spirit in the moment. A balance between the two is hard to hold onto.

    For those (like me) who are more apt to fall off the "let the Spirit move in the moment" side, I think an important test is to evaluate if those times we feel the Spirit moves lead to making much of Jesus or just lead to babbling on or making much of ourselves. If it is truly the Spirit moving then he will only move us to make more of Jesus than we had planned. If that doesn't happen its not him.

  2. I had been thinking about worship and sanctification lately. This clarified my thinking and proved some of my thoughts to be correct.

    Thanks Zac

  3. So important to remember how important it is to plan a worship set-list.

    How great a care we should take when we place words upon our congregations through songs!

    Deep post Zac!

  4. Our personal philosophy of worship has rather large implications on our view of the Spirit's role. For far too many of us "worship" has become a noun instead of a verb. "Let's go to worship (noun) this sunday." is considerably different than, "Let's go to worship (verb) this sunday."

    Engaging in the ACT of worship requires the Holy Spirit. Attending worship does not.

  5. Very inspiring, thought out, and informative article. I truly appreciate the simple yet very much needed information. Well written and thought provoking. Jesus open our eyes. May God bless all who read your article. Be blessed.

  6. JEREMAIAH 23:23 SHOWS US THAT GOD IS EVERYWHERE AND HE FILLS THE EARTH. ITS ONLY IN DIFFERENT SITUATIONS THAT HE MANIFESTS HIS PRESENCE.
    PSALMS 139: 7, HE FILLS EVEN THE GRAVES… WE ONLY EXPERIENCE THE PRESNCE OF GOD WHEN HE MANIFESTS THROUGH DOING EITHER GOOD AS HE DID WITH DAVID AND THE ARK OF THE CONVENANT: OR WITH DISASTER AS HE STRUCK SEVENTY SINNERS WHO TOUCHED THE ARK THAT DAY.
    IT DOESNOT MATTER WHERE WE ARE, GOD IS THERE AND ONLY WAITING FOR US TO CALL UNTO HIM SO THAT HE CAN ANSWER US AND SHOW US "THE GREAT AND MIGHTY THINGS THAT WE KNOW NOTHING ABOUT"… JEREMAIAH 33:3. WE CALL HIM, THEY CALL HIM, I CALL HIM… BUT HE IS THE GOD OMNIPRESENT, OMNISCIENT, OMNIPOTENT WHO FILLS THE WORLD WITH HIS WHOLE BEING…………………… GOD BLESS YOU, REMEMBER WE ARE IN THE LAST DAYS. BE WATCHFUL AND PRAY

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