As a pastor, you set the tone for true corporate worship.
Every pastor wants to raise up a group of people who God considers true worshipers. Jesus defined these people in John 4:23 as those who "worship the Father in spirit and truth." He even added that these are the ones after whom the Father seeks.
We have the chance to cultivate these kinds of worshipers every Sunday in our services by how we lead. Whether you are a senior pastor or a worship leader, you serve as a model for true worship. You play a key role in creating an environment that is conducive to the moving of God's Spirit. To excel at both of these requires some understanding of what I believe are fundamental principles of congregational worship.
• "Worship time" is not a setup for the sermon. If we're not careful we can develop a dangerous mind-set that believes the praise and worship part of a service functions merely to prepare the congregation for the preaching. Though preparing people for the message can certainly be one benefit of a good "worship time" (and I use that term begrudgingly), it must not be its primary purpose.
A healthy, worshiping congregation recognizes that when members come to worship—both individually and corporately—they are truly entering the presence of God, presenting themselves to the Lord and making their hearts vulnerable to His voice, conviction, healing and guidance. To worship in this way is an end in itself, not simply a means to something else.
• The senior pastor is the senior worship leader. When we look at spiritual leaders in Scripture—whether it's King David in his palace or Paul in prison—we see that they were unashamed worshipers. A senior pastor must lead not only with words, but also by modeling whole-hearted, unreserved worship. A congregation will follow its pastor. Remember David's example: "David danced before the Lord with all his might ... wearing a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting and with the sound of the trumpet" (2 Sam. 6:14-15). Ministering to the Lord in worship, with inward fervency and outward demonstration, is one of the most potent expressions of leadership a shepherd can make.
• The worship leader and senior pastor must demonstrate one heart. These two leaders usually influence a service more than any others. So it's no surprise that the vital relationship between these two servants is a primary target for the enemy. If the pastor is exercising ungodly control or if the worship leader is operating with sinful ambition, the enemy will exploit these weaknesses and wreck havoc in the body.
They must have clear lines of communication and spend time together in prayer. The worship leader should demonstrate an attitude of support for the senior pastor. If he cannot, then he has a responsibility to take a break from ministry until the relationship is restored. Likewise, if the senior pastor has serious concerns about the worship leader's character or behavior, it is the pastor's responsibility to curtail that person's public ministry, no matter how gifted or anointed the worship leader may be.
•The purpose and strategy of the service need to be clear. I have seen several churches suffering identity crises. They don't realize it, but they are unsure who they are or why they are there. As a result, they don't know what they are doing in their worship services. Let me explain.
It is through prayer, fasting, discussion and the Holy Spirit's leading that a church must determine the core identity and context of a Sunday morning service. This may change from season to season, but it begins with some fundamental questions. For example, a church must ask: Are we a seeker-sensitive church? A renewal church? A family church? An emergent church? A traditional church?
Each of these ideas will express itself differently in a Sunday morning service. If the pastor sees the church heading in one direction but the worship leader has a different vision—all while other congregants see it moving in various other directions—the result will be disastrous. You'll experience Sunday after Sunday of disjointed "stop and start" services.
I am not a big proponent of the seeker-sensitive movement, but if a church decides to be seeker-sensitive, that needs to be clear so expectations are established and up-front. When the leadership resorts to ambiguity because they are afraid of offending or losing people, they dilute the church's message and purpose.
• A "call to worship" brings focus to the worship service. Distractions diminish our ability to receive from the Lord in a worship service. We come to church tired from a full week, harried after pushing through traffic and trying to find a parking space, and 10 minutes late. We walk into church and presto!—we are supposed to enter the presence of the Lord.
Many worship leaders fail to challenge congregants to be mindful of what they are actually doing in worship. They aren't just going through the motions; they are coming face-to-face with the living God. Rather than abruptly beginning a service, I advocate a "call to worship." Perhaps this could take the form of a hymn, a Scripture verse read corporately, or an exhortation to focus one's heart or to lift one's hands in worship. Whatever shape it takes, we should try to lead others into the presence of God with focused minds and grateful hearts.
• Physical expressions are at the heart of biblical worship. Here are a few Bible verses that demonstrate this truth (emphasis added):
• "Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord our Maker" (Ps. 95:6).
• "Oh, clap your hands, all you peoples! Shout to God with the voice of triumph!" (Ps. 47:1).
• "Praise Him with the timbrel and dance" (Ps. 150:4).
• "Lift up your hands in the sanctuary, and bless the Lord" (Ps. 134:2).
• "I will sing and give praise" (Ps. 57:7).
If we are to worship in spirit and in truth, we must employ spirit, soul and body. People will follow our example.
• A worship service engages in the battle for time. As more things compete for more of our time, the spiritual discipline of "waiting on the Lord" becomes more difficult. But if we fail to model this important practice, how can we expect our congregants to apply this vital habit to their daily devotional lives?
In Pentecostal and charismatic services not too long ago, we had "tarrying" services. During these protracted times of worship souls would soften. People would approach the altar, perhaps with music quietly playing in the background or with the pastor leading in a prayer of repentance, intercession or adoration.
Today almost all Sunday morning services are 90 minutes long to the minute. Most Sunday night services have been cancelled. Does the church have the fortitude to stand up against the demands of culture and fight for time with the Lord? Nothing can replace an uninterrupted, intimate awareness of His presence.
As servants tasked with leading the body of Christ, we must grow in spiritual maturity and in expressions of worship. May we champion His purposes, knowing that our choices will impact not only us, but also our brothers and sister in Christ. And may we live with His priorities at the forefront of our leadership.
Robert Stearns, founder, executive director of Eagles' Wings Ministries, has ministered in 30 nations. He is the author of Prepare the Way and Keepers of the Flame, and is also an accomplished worship leader, recording artist and speaker. For more information, visit eagleswings.to.