One day not long ago I received a note from a couple with an unusual request. Here’s their letter:
Dear Pastor Wagner, we have attended your church on several occasions. While both of us come from a religious background, we are not sure if God exists, and if He does, can He be known? We would like to know if it is permissible for us to continue to attend Calvary Church. While we are not sure about the answers to our questions, we have sat next to some folks each Sunday who appear not only to believe that God exists, but who actually know Him.
I couldn’t wait to give these folks a call. What a delight not only to be able to speak with such honest individuals but also to hear of the impact that authentic worship has on those with questioning hearts and minds. Reality and authenticity are powerful evangelistic tools!
I believe that one of the most evangelistic tools the church possesses, one desperately needed in today’s society, is authentic worship. People want to know, first of all, if God exists; then second, can they relate to Him? If God exists, is it really possible to connect with Him in a vibrant, dynamic way? In genuine, authentic worship, observers see real people connecting powerfully with the real God.
Unfortunately, the current seeker-sensitive model — at least as many churches have practiced it — has led to a weak and anemic view of worship and prayer. That has led to weak and anemic relationships, both with God and with other believers. But the situation does not have to remain unchanged.
The outflow of a focus on God, a submission to the real Jesus, and an emphasis on ever-deepening relationships is an energetic, joyful, Spirit-filled, congregational worship of the triune God. Genuine celebration erupts when God’s people discover who they are in Christ. Powerful prayer arises from the hearts of those who have truly entered the presence of God.
If these elements are understood and rightly practiced, they will lead to a growing sense of community and connectedness. They are the essence of biblical community.
Authenticity in Worship
I’m thankful for the current emphasis on worship, but I confess that I have grown weary of all the discussions on form that miss the point of meeting in authenticity with God.
We all have met inauthentic people. Maybe you sat down with them over a cup of coffee, you talked for a few minutes, they gave you a really good line, and you walked away saying, “You know, they’re not real. They’re not authentic. They’re playing the role. It seems as though they have something to sell.”
Perhaps they’re politicians, or perhaps pastors trying to recruit us for the church. They’re like the salesman who says sixteen times in two minutes, “Let me be honest with you.” Now, why does he have to tell me he’s going to be honest with me? If he keeps telling me that, it probably means he’s not been honest with me most of the time.
Authenticity in worship occurs when we don’t play a role, because God is not playing a role. We come with an open heart, we lay ourselves open before God, and a divine and a sacred transaction takes place.
“Authenticity” means genuineness; it means I’m not hiding behind the facade of form. There exists an intimacy of expression in which I receive from God and then respond to Him in genuine praise. I give Him the adoration that is due His name. Every personal relationship requires authenticity. If I seldom give adoration or affirmation to my wife, our relationship shrivels. The same thing is true of my relationship to God. Here’s the Lord of the universe who provides me with all things richly to enjoy, both here and in the life to come. How can I not acknowledge His rightful place in my life? How can I hold back from proclaiming the centrality of His place in my life?
An intimate transaction takes place. It’s a subjective thing, but I don’t think worship has happened unless that is present. People today are looking for authenticity, and they especially need to see it as it is demonstrated in worship. The corporate aspects of adoration and praise are really a part of building relationship and romance and intimacy. In worship we have the opportunity not only to open our hearts to hear from God but to give to God.
Different Every Day
Authentic worship must be dynamic. By “dynamic” worship I mean that it’s always moving; it’s not static — just like other significant relationships.
My relationship with my wife and my children is always moving. I cannot say that today is going to be fine just because yesterday was great. Today has its relational aspects. I cannot say to Susan, “I told you I loved you a week ago. What’s the problem?” There has to be ongoing interchange. I must hear from her and she must hear from me. The dynamic between us is always changing. It is either going forward or backward; I don’t think any relationship can remain static.
In the same way, every day with God is different. On some days I need to have my soul purified because I have allowed so much junk to collect. On other days my heart bursts with praise and thanksgiving because God has just done something powerful or unexpected or astonishing in my life. Our worship needs to reflect these changing needs and moods and situations. Authentic worship is dynamic worship.
Something Always Happens
Whenever we authentically meet with God in worship, something always happens. We never walk away the same. What happens is more than just a feeling. Some piece of personal transformation takes place.
I have to admit that every definition I have ever read of worship — and every one I have ever tried to formulate myself — comes up lacking. To ascribe to God His worth? That doesn’t quite make it for me. Pure adoration? That doesn’t quite work either. A sense of awe and wonder inspired by God’s greatness that results in personal transformation? Again, not quite there.
Here at Calvary the definition of worship used to be “awe.” Yet in the scriptures, people could feel awe not only toward God but toward any remarkable event or person. The Israelites stood in awe of Samuel (1 Sam. 12:18). They held Solomon in awe after he correctly identified the mother of a baby (1 Kings 3:28). The very people who were often “filled with awe” (Luke 5:26) at the miracles of Jesus later called for His crucifixion While awe is certainly a part of authentic worship (Heb. 12:28), it’s only part of the whole package. But at Calvary Church elegant performance was mistaken for worship.
So what does happen in authentic worship? At its red-hot center, worship is a genuine connection between us and God. When that happens, worship occurs. Because God is wholly other, touching Him creates within me a sense of awe and wonder, but I also connect with the person of God. Only through His personhood can I truly understand Him. He’s great and beyond, but He also wants me to connect with Him as an individual. In authentic worship my heart actually connects with the heart of God. In biblically informed, culturally relevant worship, my heart touches the heart of God.
I cannot explain it much more explicitly than that, but when you are there, you know it. Isaiah had no doubt when he stood in the presence of the Holy One of Israel: “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty” (Isa. 6:5). Peter recognized the presence of the risen Lord, and he responded by jumping into the water and swimming to shore (John 21:7). When worship occurs, it demands a response. Maybe I flee in fear, maybe I run to Him in joy, but there is always a response.
No one is ever neutral in the presence of God. Some transaction takes place other than a mere feeling.
Inhaling and Exhaling
In a message some time ago, I used the image of “inhaling and exhaling” to describe the difference between praise and worship. Worship is when I inhale and take in the character and the glory and majesty of God. Praise is when I exhale in response to the holy and sovereign person of God.
We have created theologies of God and worship that “inhale” only. Stick to them, and eventually you will blow up. We have other churches that build their worship around praise, “exhaling.” Stick to them, and eventually you will collapse. The essence of authentic worship is sensing the presence of God and then responding with your whole heart. When Isaiah took in the majesty, power, and holiness of God, he responded by saying, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isa. 6:8).
Any talk of a relational ministry must begin with a relational approach to worship. Such an approach does not depend on any particular form of worship. It can occur within a tremendously wide field of cultural and stylistic preferences. Function is the most necessary piece, not form.
I have participated in contemporary worship services where people left saying, “That was a great service,” not necessarily because they had met with God but because they felt a sense of exhilaration. I have also been involved in more liturgical or traditional services in which people said, “That was an awe-inspiring, magnificent worship service,” and again I left wondering whether anyone had really met with God.
The human heart is an amazingly complex and puzzling entity. No wonder the prophet Jeremiah cried out, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). Our feelings can sometimes trick us into believing that we have really worshiped when in fact we have merely been touched and moved emotionally. Yet God wants our emotional involvement in worship, along with our mind and our will! We must therefore guard against equating certain forms of worship with authentic worship itself.
Is It God?
I received a letter the other day from a couple who basically insisted that anything other than a “traditional format for worship” (and their particular definition of “traditional,” which is always interesting) is nothing but an exercise in “me-ism.” How easy it is for us to throw such a label at anyone who worships in a form different from the one we prefer! The truth of the matter is that any form can be “me-ism” or “egocentric.” Too often we want what we like regardless of the content, and we call it worship because we “feel” something.
We tend to associate worship with feelings of nostalgia more often than with true worship. I know that if I choose certain hymns for the worship service, a certain group of twenty or thirty worshipers will start crying. Why? Because they connect that hymn to something significant in their lives. It may be “The Old Rugged Cross,” which was sung at my grandfather’s funeral. I don’t necessarily enter into worship when I sing it, yet I am emotionally moved. So often we mistake those points of nostalgia for authentic worship.
For others, the music they prefer, that moves them in worship, is the music they heard when they first came to Christ. They haven’t moved experientially in their walk with Christ since their conversion, and therefore they hold on to that which gives them feelings of nostalgia.
Just because someone cries or breaks down in a worship service does not necessarily mean he or she met with God. Perhaps they had been on such an emotional overload that the dam finally broke. In the midst of that breaking, however, they still may not have found the Shepherd of their soul. They may well go home saying, “God healed my soul,” only to see the pain resurface in four to five days. Why? Because they didn’t really meet with the Shepherd; they merely felt a momentary release from the pressure.
I get hammered from time to time by well-meaning people with classical training in music. They insist that worship choruses are nothing but drivel. “It’s ridiculous to sing the same little ditty over and over again,” they say. Yet two weeks later they’re happy as clams when the choir sings a piece by Mozart that simply repeats the word “Alleluia” and “Amen” 80,000 times, yet with a magnificent and intricate musical score and harmonization.
Again I ask myself, Was it worship? Does form automatically equal or fulfill function? Is the Requiem — the mass for the dead played on the organ during the offertory or as a prelude in many evangelical churches — is that worship? It’s a magnificent piece, but does that make it worship?
At the same time, I have similar difficulty with many worship choruses. Are they biblically rooted? Do they express biblical truths? Do they help people to move beyond nostalgia to meet with God? Does the simplicity of the music deny God’s transcendence? I admit that much of this is highly subjective. In genuine, authentic worship, we truly meet with God, and some kind of personal transformation takes place.
Moving Past the Nostalgia
What does it take to move beyond the nostalgia and truly connect with God in worship? How can we use the old hymns, the contemporary choruses, the majestic classical pieces, and other forms and styles of music to help the hearts and minds of our people touch the heart of God?
I admit that it’s not easy. But we might start by giving our people creative ideas for Scripture readings, new things to try in personal and private worship that go beyond reading a page out of a little devotional. We might help them and equip them to engage in spontaneous types of prayer and praise.
At Calvary, it was a major step to stop publishing an order of worship for the Sunday service. We found that people wanted to know exactly where we were going basically because they timed the service — or worse, they used the bulletin as they would a libretto at the theater, a crutch to help them get through the service. They wanted to know when we got to the last hymn so they could blast out of there. As a result, we removed the order of service from the bulletin.
Of course, we still plan a basic order of service, but those of us on the platform view ourselves as worship leaders, not as professionals. Continually throughout a service we ask God, “What are you saying? What are you doing?” Sometimes in the midst of a service, we allow a spontaneous open altar or a time of prayer even though it wasn’t in the original order. At other times we change the music when God seems to be taking us in a different way.
All of these things require flexibility and an ability to attune oneself to the movement of the Spirit. They also show why such a big difference exists between music directors and pastors of worship. When at times we move with the unexpected in response to God’s Spirit, we not only worship authentically, but we provide a teaching model for our people.
And always, we must be assessing. We have to ask ourselves, “Is the end result of preparation by the choir to present something that is flawless musically? Or is it to present something in such a way, from the depths of our hearts, that we draw people into the message of the music so that they, too, join us in worship?” Musical excellence should exist because God is worthy of excellence, but it must not detract from the message of the various pieces. Do we sing works because they are nice or intricate or because we believe they help us all to connect with God in Spirit and in truth? Discussions like these must constantly take place among the leaders of a church.
The Body in Worship
Authentic worship needs to involve the whole person — body, soul, and spirit. In worship, our whole being cries out to connect with the undivided God. True worship requires the head, the heart, and the body.
It’s unfortunate that we have allowed the Lord’s Supper to become a once-a-month, or once-a-quarter, or once-a-year experience. In the Lord’s Supper we involve our whole being in the worship of God. We touch the bread and the cup, we feel the elements sliding down our throat, we taste the body and blood of our Lord. Likewise in baptism, the Lord shows us that he wants our entire being to enter into His presence in worship.
While in Israel we visited Christ Church near the Jaffa Gate. I was told it was the first Protestant church built in Israel. As our little group sang out in worship, I looked over a couple of rows and saw one of our college students almost in a ball on his knees in the middle aisle. Now I know the church back home to which he belongs is a staid, conservative church. Had he assumed such a posture there, you had better believe it would have raised a few eyebrows (at least). Yet in the midst of that worship service, with only fifty or sixty people gathered in Jesus’ name, he felt as though he could do nothing else. He felt compelled to bow before God with his entire body. I know he didn’t do it as a show; he felt it was his only possible response, based on what God was doing in his life at that moment.
Why does this seem so strange to us? Why does it make so many of us feel so uncomfortable? We read in both Testaments of the close connection between earnest worship and the physical response of the body. Consider just a few examples:
“The royal officials have come to congratulate our lord King David, saying, ‘May your God make Solomon’s name more famous than yours and his throne greater than yours!’ And the king bowed in worship on his bed” (1 Kings 1:47).
“But the Lord, who brought you up out of Egypt with mighty power and outstretched arm, is the one you must worship. To Him you shall bow down and to Him offer sacrifices” (2 Kings 17:36).
“The whole assembly bowed in worship, while the singers sang and the trumpeters played” (2 Chron. 29:28).
“At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship” (Job 1:20).
“Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker” (Ps. 95:6).
“On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped Him” (Matt. 2:11).
“… that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Phil. 2:10).
“The twenty-four elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and worship Him who lives for ever and ever” (Rev. 4:10).
It’s easy to say, “Well, that was just their culture; we don’t do that here,” but I can’t help but wonder if that might be one reason why we sometimes feel so dead, so lifeless. Our bodies have to be involved somewhere. God has made provision for that, not only in our personal lives but corporately as well. Somehow in worship, we have to recover the use of our bodies. I don’t mean, of course, that we all need to curl up in a ball as the student did (although I doubt it would hurt too much if we did), but that we make it our aim to enter God’s presence with everything in us.
The Place of Prayer
While this isn’t the place for an extended discussion on prayer, I have to say that no relationship is ever any better than the communication that takes place within it. I have seen a lot of people who communicate frequently but who go about it in the wrong way. You can holler at people incessantly, but that doesn’t mean your relationship is getting better. No one can have bad communication and a good relationship. That explains why prayer is such a vital element to our worship and personal spiritual growth.
I have a friend who calls prayer the toughest part of the faith, but at the same time his most enjoyable discipline. Why would he say such a thing? Because while it can be difficult to keep up the lines of communication with an invisible God, prayer yet offers incredible benefits to the worship experience and to the Christian life in general. Let me suggest six.
1. Through prayer we gain peace of mind.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7).
2. Through prayer we gain purity of heart.
When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your unfailing love; according to Your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin …. Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow” (Ps. 51:1-2, 7).
3. Through prayer we gain purpose in life.
“Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in Him and He will do this” (Ps. 37:3-5).
4. Through prayer we gain joy in God’s presence.
“You have made known to me the path of life; You will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (Ps. 16:11).
5. Through prayer we resist temptation.
“Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak” (Matt. 26:41).
6. Through prayer we gain power for service.
Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen” (Eph. 3:20-21).
I know that many churches these days are cutting out corporate prayer from their worship services, but I think they are slitting their own throats. Seekers want to know how to connect with God, not how to watch the latest video clip. In honest prayer, we enter into the very presence of the living God. What can substitute for that?
A Great Work, But Hard
Last summer I received a lengthy and thoughtful e-mail from a Florida pastor who had just read my previous book, Escape from Church, Inc.: The Return of the Pastor-Shepherd. The hard lessons he learned about God’s methods of growing a healthy church have helped him find joy and satisfaction in his calling … but those lessons didn’t come easily. As he told me:
My wife and I came to Florida over four years ago with a calling to be used by God to lead this church toward becoming a healthy church. Back in the winter of 1997, the church was down to 30 people and was in need of being revitalized. By God’s grace we have seen this body of believers become committed to reaching out and growing within. It is by God’s grace alone that we have been able to see the Spirit harvest from the soil that the dear people here have planted and cultivated.
But I must admit that I struggled during my first three and a half years here. One of the major issues I faced was the congregation not “coming through” as I thought they would. I came here, having read some of the finest church growth literature, and I was ready to set the world on fire. I naively thought that all this church needed to be healthy was a pastor who would preach the word of God and cast a vision for the way things could (and in my thinking, “should”) be. The more I reflect upon my ignorance (and arrogance), the more I am convinced that I came with a mind to manage, rather than minister, to the sheep.
From a theological perspective, I knew that the health of a church was deeply connected to how well it genuinely worshiped God. I had even seen that in the church where I had previously served as an associate pastor. I agree fully with your sentiment (and John Piper’s) that missions exist because worship doesn’t. I knew that there was no substitute for calling the people to humble themselves in the sight of the Lord. But that is all hard work. And I don’t think that I wanted to take the time necessary to foster that deep sense of reverence before God.
Does creating an atmosphere conducive to authentic worship take a lot of hard work? You bet it does. Would it be easier to substitute some currently popular model designed to entertain and inspire a passel of anonymity-loving seekers? Surely. But does true transformation come out of the latter? Do those who sit in the audience truly connect with God? Do they see others touching and being touched by the heart of God? I doubt it. Certainly it takes a lot of effort to worship God authentically. But there is no substitute. The letter continues:
I considered that I was called here by my District to turn this church around and start producing buildings, bodies and bucks! So I foolishly took the more popular route, giving in to the constant mantra of the pastoral pundits who told me that if I did “X” I could count on “Y” happening in my church. One problem with any attempts to manufacture growth in “my church” … it is “God’s church” and must be regulated by His ways of “doing” church.
I must admit that I have felt like a freak, of sorts. This painful desert experience, with its accompanying drought (same building, not many bodies or bucks) has been a loving reminder from the Great Shepherd that I am to love Him by valuing what He most greatly valued … His sheep.
I would find myself wondering, though, if my renewed commitment to focus on shepherding was a sanctified smoke screen for not having what it took to be the new kind of leader (CEO) that was needed in the church of the 21st century.
Eventually this young pastor concluded that God really had called him down the path he had begun. It didn’t gain him the immediate results he once had desired, but it did help him to cultivate the rich fruit he longed for. He ended his note with the following observation, and I can think of no better way to conclude:
Guys like me in the trenches have found that growth is a mystery (both personal and corporate) and can’t be microwaved. Shepherding truly is hard, arduous work — but it is the greatest work if it is given you by God.
A big part of what makes it such great work is that we shepherds have the privilege of helping men and women, boys and girls, to connect with God in authentic worship. And what could be better than that?
Excerpted from The Church You’ve Always Wanted: Where Safe Pasture Begins by E. Glenn Wagner, Zondervan, Grand Rapids Michigan, (c) 2002 by E. Glenn Wagner. Used with permission.

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