Quite at the last minute yesterday, I felt nothing less than a strong compulsion from the Holy Spirit to urge our congregation to do something in worship quite foreign to us. Many moons ago, I posted on physical expressiveness in worship with what I’ve found to be a very compelling argument. It was an argument from football that basically goes as follows:
(a) Person X claims that he isn’t all that physically expressive. He worships “from the heart,” so he says. Lifting his hands, lifting his head, or even smiling, simply “isn’t me,” so he says.
(b) Person X, right after a worship service, goes home to watch a football game. His home team is playing. They score a touchdown. Person X rises up, and, to use some of the biblical language for worship, immediately “claps,” “lifts his hands,” and “shouts for joy.”
(a) and (b) don’t compute. Perhaps Person X rationalizes (a) by saying that the worship of God is different, requiring a more restrained, reverential approach than warranted in the actions of (b). Read the Psalms. “Restrained reverence” hardly covers all that they teach us about worship and expression. I’m convinced that it is incongruous to say that physical expressiveness just “isn’t you” in one context when it obviously is you in another.
Well, this argument came flooding back to me an hour before worship was to start, as I began thinking about the fact that here, on Super Bowl Sunday, we were going to be singing our rocking setting of Psalm 100, which exclaims:
Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth!
I began that internal wrestling match about whether I really wanted to enter into all of this (including all the fears and insecurities that accompany sticking your neck out), knowing that times like these have the very real potential to crash and burn. I was even wrestling up to the fifteen seconds before I was to speak the opening words to usher us into worship. So, when it came time, in my mind I literally said, “Alright, God, you’re in charge of this,” and I opened up my mouth and began to blab.
I talked about how hard it is for us to offer up physical expressions of praise in the context of worship compared to how effortlessly it flows forth in a living room in front of a glowing rectangle on a Super Bowl Sunday afternoon. In a backhanded way, it was a kind of argument from the lesser to the greater: “If we can so easily express ourselves vocally and physically in cheering on a bunch of uniformed men in a field, how much more should we be able to do so for the living, redeeming God of the universe?”
After asking such a question, I admitted that what we would attempt to do might feel awkward and even a little cheesy to some, but that we would do it anyway, simply because (a) Scripture encourages us to, and (b) our God is worth it. So, I asked everyone to applaud our great God. What began at that moment was nothing short of a Spirit-filled miracle that really lasted the entire service.
The church began to applaud, and then they didn’t stop. They rose to their feet and kept going. So I responded and yelled out, “Lift up a shout of praise!” A few cheers gave way to a small roar. We began the song and at certain junctures, I encouraged the people to lift up a shout. They did. It was quite infectious. It didn’t feel forced. I didn’t get the sense that our people felt coerced or manipulated. What started as odd quickly moved to genuine, and all of a sudden a big barrier was broken. People were engaged, singing, and excited to encounter the living God.
What followed was a wonderful flow of liturgy—confession, assurance, praise, offering, prayer, preaching—all culminating in celebrating the Lord’s Supper. When we celebrated the Lord’s Supper, we sang two songs, the second being David Ruis’s “We Will Dance,” which has become a mainstay for our celebration of the Feast. Again, the wave of participation amplified into shouts of praise, claps, cheers, raised hands, and genuine, full-blooded joy. I’ve never seen anything quite like it in the contexts where I’ve led worship (I know, Pentecostals see it every Sunday…but I don’t).
The entire service was rich and full of life. There was a shared corporate experience that became larger and more impressive than the sum of its parts. The Holy Spirit broke us open. These are the types of Sundays you really live for and pray for as a pastor and worship-planner.
Several authors and thinkers in worship talk about worship as “protest.” Authors like James K. A. Smith and Jean-Jacques von Allmen speak of worship being a subversive act where the values of the world are weighed and found wanting. Yesterday, in the midst of the slightly raucous praise, a small protest took place. It was a protest asking, “Why should football teams, players, and programs get all the praise?” It demanded, “God is infinitely more worthy of our affection and attention.” It was an act where we said, corporately, that our culture has it wrong. The values of the world were matched up against the values of the kingdom, and the world (which includes us) was called, implicitly, to repentance.
What a day!
I might add that you didn't prompt this outpouring at the end. It was simply a manifestation of how the Holy Spirit was already working. And it wasn't contained to a "few people." It was simply most- yes, most- of the congregation manifesting worship in some visible and outward way: clapping or hands raised or more shouts or bodily movement to the rhythms of the music. People I would never thought would have felt comfortable doing such a thing were doing it all around me.
It wasn't a "wow, we finally have over 20 people raising their hands" it was a "is most of the congregation really raising their hands? What happened" kind of thing. Did the vocal volume level really go up? Yes. Yes it did.
YES! Just reading about it, I am as thrilled and uplifted as those who were there.
Agreed 100% to Dave's comment. I was held up and did not get to experience what you wrote about at the beginning of the service. There was certainly no prompting at the end (which I did experience)… simply a beautiful outpouring of the Spirit, manifest in the worship of God's people. And then the kids got to make music at the end too… absolutely beautiful!
Hello! Just wanted to say a job well done to the articles being put up here! Just two words: insightful and blessing! I have been a believer for 12 years now and a song leader for 10 years (and still learning!) by God's grace! It has always been a humbling experience to sing songs that convey the hope that we have in Christ amidst His people. And oftentimes as in this article, people in the church where I am at, lag in terms of physical expression. But however, I would like to single out a point made in this blog (and even one of the comments)
regarding the act of "prompting the people" as in to sing jubilantly with the clapping of hands, and shouting of
praise. This made me reflect and evaluate.
As a song leader at church we are tasked to lead the people to be engaged in worship of our God in singing
and other bodily expressions that goes with that. I laud God's work in you Zac for having that burden to, nonetheless heed and employ God's Spirit who for sure orchestrated that "internal wrestling match" of declaring the need to physically and actively commissioned in praising God. Surely the congregation that you are serving (as with mine) are very much aware of the plethora of biblical verses that speak of worship involving the body. But who will remind them unless we mention it to them time and again? Can we generalize this as an act of "prompting the people" to use the body during congregational worship?
I for one cannot "prompt the people" to lift their hands when singing or jump for joy in praise. They have their own volition to do that as they wish. I am not highlighting the role of a song leader for God gives the calling. And if one receives the calling, the burden will go with that (such as the struggle of making the people aware of the need to use our bodies as instruments of worship). Receiving that burden would then lead us to be empowered (by grace), for how can one be called without being empowered?
More blessings and insightful thoughts. God bless
The thing about Pentecostals and others who see this every Sunday is that it often becomes contrived. It's better to have it organic and inconsistent than for people to try to force it. It probably shouldn't be added to the liturgy. I find it risky to add a ton of joyful stuff to the liturgy because it can crowd out honesty for those time when joy seems far away, but there are certainly times (like this!) where it is most appropriate. Great story!