One of my favorite stories in the New Testament is the story of Paul in Athens. As he walks through the city, Paul is distressed by the ubiquity of idol worship. He reasons and debates with the Jews and the Greeks, the Epicureans and the Stoics, and ultimately delivers an address to the people gathered on the Areopagus. In his speech, Paul draws the people’s attention to a phrase inscribed onto one of their many altars throughout the city: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.
How would you worship an unknown God? You wouldn’t know where to start. You wouldn’t know what they want or how to please them. All of your worship would be guesswork. Paul uses this inscription to open the Athenians up to a conversation around the gospel, using the familiar to lay the groundwork for the unfamiliar. “So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23).
We don’t worship an unknown God. In a multitude of ways over thousands of years, the God we worship has made himself known to us. We come to know him in Scripture, in prayer, in community. To know God as he truly is, is the most beautiful thing a human being can experience. Yet it comes at a price. We don’t get to determine how we worship God. He defines that for us. He tells us who he is, who we are, and how we are to approach him. The way we speak to him, the way we sing to him, the way we relate to him are all prescribed for us in Scripture.
As a worship leader, it is my job to lead worship in a God-honoring way. Over my years of attempting to do that, I have found that there are two primary facets to doing so.
The first is a heart issue—approaching God and our work with a genuine devotion. True worship is found in the posture of our hearts toward God, the complete orientation of our being toward him. If we don’t serve out of love for God, there can be no true worship.
The second relates to the work itself—approaching God and our work with a spirit of excellence. Bringing our very best to the Lord. While these two facets of worship do not exist in opposition to one another, I find that they do live in tension with one another. To say “worship is all about my heart for God” but fail to approach God with the reverence, respect, and excellence he requires would be incomplete. But to obsess over the forms or details of worship without a genuine devotion to God would be merely ritualistic and, ultimately, joyless and lifeless.
At VOUS, we are a both/and church. Rather than trying to resolve the tension—settling for either this or that—we choose to live in it every day. When living with an ongoing tension, I find we go through seasons of emphasizing one facet or the other. In one season we may talk a lot about how we do what we do—the details of worship, the chords, arrangements, sounds, etc. In other seasons the pendulum swings and the focus shifts to why we do what we do—the heart of worship, our personal devotion, dependence on God, the power of his presence. Both the how and the why are always topics of conversation, but in different seasons we get new revelation and find new ways to talk about these things.
Lately, we’ve found ourselves talking a lot about the heart of worship and our role in it all. God’s been speaking to our team about going to a new level of devotion and intimacy.
A.W. Tozer once said: “The church that can’t worship must be entertained.”
Strong words. We have determined that we will not be that church—noise but no message, style but no substance, entertainment but no encounter. I’m not saying we’re going to abandon excellence or production value. I’m saying that for every conversation we have about excellence we are going to have a conversation about character. We are constantly going to remind ourselves and one another of what we do and do not do. What we do is minister to the Lord and lead people to do the same. What we do not do is perform, entertain, or seek to impress.
The power is not in our gift; the power is in his presence.
We are not performers; we are priests. When we gather as a church, we are going into the presence of God together. May we never deign to entertain. We will always strive for excellence, but may we never settle for a performance. When we get up on stage to lead our church, the environment may fool us into feeling like we’re just like all the other singers and instrumentalists in the world. We’re not. It is not our gifts that will distinguish us. No, the difference will always and only be the presence of God.
I’ll leave you with my new favorite passage on leading worship. I say that a bit facetiously, because it’s not really about leading worship. But I think you’ll see the connection. In Exodus 33, Moses says to the Lord…
“If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” Exodus 33:15-16
That’s my prayer for our worship team and for you: God, if your presence does not go with us, don’t send us. These are the words I hope our team will be whispering as they stand in the wings on any given Sunday: God, if your presence does not go with me, don’t send me. As worship leaders, we are people of excellence and people of passion. But we are not performers. We are not here to entertain people; we are here to encounter God. We are not here for a performance; we are here to go ourselves and to lead others into the presence of a living God. That, after all, is where everything changes.