As I was talking at lunch with some of my best friends about worship, and what it should look like, one friend mentioned that at certain churches, he feels, subjectively, more free to worship, while at others, he feels restrained. The others at table all agreed. This is an experience I’ve had many, many times. Certain atmospheres are almost tangibly filled with faith, and walking into them is like walking outside on a humid day; you just feel it. And in other places, a worship service feels more like a morgue, where there are a whole lot of lifeless, motionless bodies.
And as we were talking, the Lord brought to mind 2 Corinthians 3:17: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” The surefire sign of the Spirit’s presence is freedom. That means in a worship service, when the Spirit of the Lord is present, the worshiper should feel freedom to worship, not restriction from raising their hands or clapping or singing loudly or dancing, all of which are biblical marks of worship. That also means we have a reason to question whether the Spirit is truly present if there is no freedom. That’s not to say that you’re truly worshiping just because you’re physically expressive, but it is to say that true worship is impossible where physical expression is restricted.
Worship must be both Spirit and truth, as Jesus said. I’ve been to four concerts in the past few months, and I was especially struck by something that I saw at the band LANY’s shows. At all four shows, but specifically both of LANY’s shows (I had to go twice because the first time was too good), people were raising their hands. They were physically expressing themselves to words that aren’t inherently bad at all, but are simply devoid of real, spiritual truth. Yet they were raising their hands and freely expressing themselves.
Now, these people were not necessarily worshiping the God of the Bible with their physical expression at the LANY shows, which is a good reminder that mere outward movement doesn’t guarantee true worship. But shouldn’t it challenge churches where the Lord of all the universe is being worshiped, yet hands aren’t raised to the heavens but crossed on the chest? And shouldn’t it push us as worshipers, that if we don’t have such joy welling up in our hearts as we worship God, that there must be some sort of malfunction between our minds and our motions? Music is inherently spiritual, as it was created by the God who is Spirit. And it illicits a spiritual response that, if allowed to flow naturally, will manifest physically. So, as those who lead churches, we’re charged to cultivate an atmosphere where worship can happen freely. And as those who attend church, we’re to look for places where unrestricted worship is natural and common.
Let me quickly say that not everyone worships in the same way. Some will naturally be more expressive, and others naturally more reserved. Also, in the broken world we live in, life can be extremely difficult. People will go through tragedies, and they’ll go through seasons so dry that just showing up to church will be an act of faith. This article isn’t meant to minimize that, but rather speaks to what ought to be the common practice of worship by the average attendee in a church with a healthy worship culture.
What follows are a few brief reflections on church worship culture in general.
Worship Flows From the Top
When a senior leader of a church prioritizes worship, the church will, too. All culture will, at some extent, flow from the top. A head pastor who loves authentic worship will surely talk about worship and teach on what it is, but the true mark of a pastor who values worship is that they’ll worship. When the singing is happening, they won’t be standing in the front looking uncomfortable, or constantly glancing through their notes, they’ll be totally engaged in worship.
Worship is Learned.
Worship is natural, in one sense. Our hearts are created to worship something, and we’ll do it in some way. But biblical worship, which is heartfelt, free-to-be-expressive worship, is learned. And it’s learned primarily by the congregation from the worship leaders. When worship leaders take seriously verses like Psalm 134:2, which says “Lift up your hands to the holy place and bless the LORD,” Psalm 149:3 “Let them praise His name with dancing” and Psalm 47:1, “O clap your hands, all you people; shout unto God with the voice of triumph,” by actually doing these things themselves, the worship experience at a local church will be one marked by freedom, not frozen hands in pockets.
Worship is a Culture, Not a Performance.
Authentic worship can’t be faked. It can’t be merely preformed. It must be a lifestyle, and it must be infused in the fabric of the soul of the individual and the collective soul of a church. Places where the atmosphere is full of faith and Spirit are places of prayer, and they’re places where worship teams and worshipers don’t just sing from the platform, but in private.
Worship will Catch On.
Ultimately, within every local church are primarily Believers who deeply love Jesus. Most often, churches where expressive worship isn’t present don’t simply “hate the Holy Spirit” or view contemporary Christian worship as “the devil’s music.” They just are working with years upon years of the status quo being crossed arms and frowning faces, and sometimes tragically not working to make changes, or they simply don’t see physically expressive worship as a mark of Biblical worship. And the people within these churches primarily don’t just “love God less” than those who worship passionately; they’re just uninformed or more informed by their parents than the Word of God. But, while cultivating a culture of freedom isn’t easy, if you pursue it, it will happen. You can be sure of it, because you’re pursuing the same thing as the Holy Spirit, God Himself. For where He is, there is freedom. And as we work to create places of freedom, the very breath and blessing of God will be on our side.
Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. For all Christ has done on the Cross in saving us, He is worthy of not just heartfelt, passionate praise at church, but of us laying our lives down that He may live through us. May we be faithful to do both.