This is an excerpt from a book I’m writing about my thoughts about art and the church…. to be released whenever I get it done.
If I think through my church upbringing, and you were to ask me what we’ll be doing in heaven, most of what I’ve heard is that in heaven we will “worship God forever”. Have you heard this as well?
I must confess that as a young man and even a few years ago, this idea sounded most distasteful to me. I think the reason is that when I hear the word “worship” all I have to recall is the countless formal musical experiences I have had throughout my north american church experience. Maybe you can relate.
“Worship” means this: we meet in a large room, very churchy in nature…. you know, a lot of beams, banners, and organ pipes…. Like a wooden ship that has been turned over and wooden benches put underneath it. Or if you didn’t grow up lutheran like me, it might look like a refurbished warehouse. You have people gathered in the room… evenly dispersed between the benches (“pews”) or hooked cushioned seats… all facing forward. Up front is a varying organized musical team singing the “worship” songs… meaning songs that are sung in unison exemplifying something about the Almighty or how we would like to be in relationship to him. This whole scenario can be very different for many people. It can be an organ player and someone classically trained doing that arm wave thing as we follow along in a hymnal. Or it can be a musical band, either representing a number of genres – rock, emo, soft rock, funk, R&B – or just strictly their own genre -adult contemporary Christian. And for the most part, this team is utlra energetic and peppy. We follow along by reading the words on the screen (overhead or projector)… or from memory if it’s a particularly favorite song… singing, clapping at appropriate times, and closing our eyes if we really mean it. In fact it seems that if we close our eyes and sing intensely enough, the Spirit may come down from heaven and do something crazy like make people faint or speak a different language.
Does something like this resonate with you? I’m joking and exaggerating a bit, but isn’t this what most of what our corporate worship experiences look like? For the most part, the times of gathering together and singing corporately songs to our Creator are a beautiful experience. What gets me though is when I get to a spot where I ponder eternity, where I think about an existence in relationship to all of humanity and to the I AM WHO I AM, and where I am told I will “worship God forever”, it is this corporate musical scenario that is put into that infinite timeline. For me, quite frankly, the thought of doing this forever sounds boring, non-enjoyable, and almost torturous. I mean, aren’t we able to fly? When can we get to that?
This idea of our heavenly situation is obviously wrong. I can’t believe the God who created peanut butter, parakeets, and shivering would ever come up with this lame scenario. Seriously, if it were so, would the band have to practice, or would they just divinely know it all? And who would run the powerpoint? Nobody likes that job… and I’m sure that someone who got put in that job might contemplate if they are really in heaven, or this is their hell.
The problem though is when this ”worship forever” thing is mentioned, I’ve never been presented with something else to insert into my mental constructs. It’s this corporate building thing that always pops in.
There has to be more. So this started my own journey in prayer and seeking what worship could be. I started at the beginning – Genesis. I wanted to find out where the first time worship is mentioned in the Bible. Now I’m not a Hebrew scholar and maybe I missed some key hidden definition that can only be found with a PHD, but with my English translation bible and the holy spirit, the first use of worship comes up with Abraham. And it’s this…
1 Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”
“Here I am,” he replied.
2 Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”
3 Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about.
4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance.
5 He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”
This scenario doesn’t really resonate with the clapping and the singing along that we are used too. What it sounds like is something very painful and obedience demanding. It sounds like sacrifice. In this story, obedience and sacrifice are their worship. We know that this can be backed up by Romans 12:1 which says we should offer ourselves as holy and pleasing sacrifices to God… this is our spiritual act of worship.
The second time worship is mentioned is when Abraham sends his servant to go get a wife for his son Isaac. The servant goes on a journey way way far away and prays that God would reveal the choice in a very specific way. Everything happens the way he prayed for and the servant drops to his knees and worships the Lord. So we see his worship coming out of a place of thanksgiving.
Obedience, sacrifice, thanksgiving, praise… Out of all these varying situations, it seems to me that at the heart of what worship is is that it’s responding to God. It’s a response to Him – His will, His requests, His nature, His character, His goodness, wonder, mercy, etc.
“Worship” then is the word describing our interaction with God. Therefore, living a life of worship is living a life that is constantly responding to God. When we put this definition in the context of eternity, it’s not so bad really. In fact it sounds pretty great. “Worshiping God forever” really means responding to God forever. This looks like praise, yes, for sure. We can see examples of this in scripture… heavenly song and physical acts of bowing down( Revelation 5). But we can also see conversations (1 Kings 22:19-22), joy and celebrations (Luke 15:7), and responsibilities (. I mean, the original intention of creation was for us to be on earth in God’s presence doing what we do now, but without all the sin.
[Side note: Have you ever thought about that everything you see in this world came from the world. Gameboys, lawn mowers, x-ray machines, fire hydrants, boats, parking meters, the space shuttle… it all came from the earth – the materials that are inside it. God put all these things in there from the get go. It’s not hard to imagine then without the fall ever happening that these technologies would most likely have come around into existence. Probably a lot less weapons, for sure, but there would still be an advance in technology. God gave us this world to tend, to tend all the things He put into it. And when Jesus returns to restore all things, we are still going to have that commission to dwell with Him and to tend all that He put in the world. Hmmm…..]
This relationship between man and God, this responding forever, is modeled in the idea of marriage. In fact, that’s what we see scripturally how God frames our connection to him…. like we are married. In the garden we are naked and one with him. There is a great divorce where we have to move out. But his intent is to always get back to being among us again (dwell with you). Then jesus comes. He says that eternal life is that you would know the father and the son whom he has sent. That word “know” is the same word on how a husband knows his wife. Oneness. Marriage. And when he comes back to restore all things… what do we see happening? A marriage. A groom coming to get his bride. And what are we going to do from there? Be married and live together.
A pastor i knew gave me some advice about figuring out if you would like to be married to a certain person. He said if you can, find a room with no distractions in it. no tv. No books. No nothing. And the two of you just go in there and spend 8 hours together. He said that if you could do that, that your marriage to that person would probably work out because marriage, when you get to the short of it, is just really about being together for the rest of your life. and you really just need to like being around the other person.
I’ve been married for 3 years now and it’s been great. Not always easy, for sure. But it gets better and better. I remember holly and i went out to our favorite restaurant in seattle on a Friday night. We had both had really exhausting weeks and although we hadn’t seen that much of each other, we had been catching up on everything before we went to bed. So on Friday night, there was nothing really new about to talk about. We just wanted to be around each other. So there we were, eating our favorite meals, but not talking. Now i’ve worked restaurant jobs for many years and i’ve waited on a plethura of people. So i’ve seen the couples sitting there, not talking, while they have dinner together. It looked so pathetic and i hoped that i would never be in that scenario when i was married. But here i was in that scenario, but on the other side, and it was great. I told holly what i was thinking and she agreed that it was a good thing. We didn’t have anything to say. We just wanted to be around each other.
So we are married, in a sense, to the almighty. Through jesus we are offered the chance to experience this kind of connection now. Although there is an absence of that garden presence, we can still know him in the biblical sense. And living a life of worship is living a life in response to him – in praise and adoration of course, but also in obedience, sacrifice, grief, and thanksgiving.
So this leads me to another question? What do we mean by the term “worship leading”?
I know that the usual definition to this term is someone who leads the musical performance during a church gathering. I’m not refuting that. But I’m wondering if we can get to a deeper meaning than just during services. Here are some thoughts.
First, we as worship leaders are responsible for living this response lifestyle. If we don’t pray, if we don’t listen and hear, we have nothing to lead others into. In a video about Rich Mullins, Michael W. Smith (go west young man!) said about Rich’s music that is was like he would go into places that you couldn’t see, into the darkness, and he would go and meet with God. Then he would come out of the darkness and write about what he saw and heard. This is a great picture into what being a worship leader is. You can’t lead people into places you have not gone. Your role is never taken out of our own personal journey with God.
Second, we are creating a space for conversation. We – through music, prayer, art, scripture reading, etc. – are creating a place for response to happen. Jesus’ conversations with each person will cause different responses – some people may respond with joy, others repentance. It’s not in the methods themselves. The words, harmonies, crescendos, pictures… these are all catalysts for creating an open doorway to the spirit. I’ve found this to be true a lot when i paint live. I’m rarely on the observation side of live painting. but in my conversations with people, i find as they are watching me, there mind is trying to decipher what i am painting and when the final product is going to be. As the mind is doing this, it begins to put meaning to the shapes, colors, the overall composition in the painting. now i can’t tell you when this happens, but at some point in this process, it seems that a conversation with the Spirit begins. I believe this cause when i’m done, i’ll have people come up to me giving different accounts of what the painting means. This color means this, right? This painting is about this, right? And the thing is they’re not wrong. It could be interpreted that way even if there might be some intention to the meaning of the painting. what i see happening is that the spirit begins a personal conversation with the person and speaks to them about what they need to talk about. The painting process is just the catalyst for conversation. The words of songs are this too. So is the music. So are our words. We are being asked to be the curators of this conversation space.
Third, we are to live out our response through our giftings. Now this is where “worship” opens up to everyone and we have to begin to change the way we think about “worship leading”. If worship is to respond to God, then leaders help teach us how to respond to God in all giftings. What we’ve done though is taken this whole range of gifts for the body and the kingdom, and only highlighted the ones that can be done during a service, i.e. leading music, preaching, tithing, and the ministry of being an usher (very important). Most of the gifts God has given to His people are going to be lived out outside the church service. The kingdom is much much bigger than our services…. and to lead in a life of worship is going to lead us to our everyday happenings. Worship leaders can be gifted hospitality people, leading us to a place of comfort and acceptance, teaching us how to care for others. People gifted in numbers and finances can lead us to a place of stewardship. Gifted quiet people can lead us to a response place of silence and meditation, and help us deepen our prayer life in the midst of a loud world. Can you see that worship leading is not an occupation for good musicians and artists in church services? It’s so much more. For those of us who do lead in music and art, we must go to that place of response outside of our responsibilities at church. We must go there in our craft, and then lead when we play at coffee shops and bars, or lead when we hang art at galleries and third places. We lead in this world, in the neighborhoods and communities we dwell in, by responding out of our time with God with the gifts He’s given us to proclaim His kingdom.