When I Didn’t Encounter God During Worship

What comes to mind when you think about worship?

Or more specifically, what do you think of when it comes to singing in church?

For me, it used to involve emotional music, closed eyes, and of course, raised hands. Every Sunday, I’d look forward to the half an hour or so before the sermon where the lights in my church’s auditorium would be dimmed and the musicians would come on stage. The drummer would tap his sticks together three times and all together, the band would play.

Most of the time, the set involved two fast songs and two slow songs—except the times when the mood was “extra spiritual”—then maybe it would be one fast song, and three slow songs.

And while the fast praise songs were loads of fun, I have to say the highlight for me was always the slow worship songs. This was when things quietened down a bit, and the worship leader encouraged the congregation to shut everyone around us out as we focused on God.

I can remember many a Sunday spent singing my heart out, eyes tightly shut. At first, I’d feel very self-conscious about the people to my left and right. “Is it weird that I’m so into this?” was a question often at the back of my mind. But I’d trudge ahead, trying my best to forget that I was in a corporate setting and imagine the moment as one shared intimately between just God and myself.

Slowly but surely, as I repeated the lines of the song’s chorus, emotions would start to well up within me, bubbling up like a pot of water approaching boiling point. And before I knew it, they’d release in the form of tears streaming down my face.

This moment—when singing culminated in some sort of emotional release—always seemed to be my desired result of corporate worship. If I experienced those feelings, then I could call it a job well done. I’d done my part as a worshipper.

Over the years I’ve heard many explanations for this phenomenon: a touch from God, His presence falling on me, entering His presence, an encounter with God—these were just some of the phrases that pastors and worship leaders have used to describe the experience.

The problem was, for every time I can remember experiencing this, there were many more times when I didn’t. As much as I would try, I wouldn’t feel anything. No matter how tightly I clamped my eyelids shut, no matter how many times I passionately repeated the lines of a familiar chorus, the stirring of feelings within me just wasn’t sufficient to count as “a touch from God”.

In those times, my worship felt like a failure.

This was more or less my general attitude towards corporate singing until one day, I attended a meeting at my university’s Christian campus ministry. I had been joining in their small group Bible studies, but this was the first time that I’d gone for one of their weekly corporate meetings.

It had been a tough week of classes and I was feeling particularly worn out. An encounter with God and His presence was just what I needed.

But I found myself sorely disappointed.

First of all, the lights weren’t dimmed. In fact, all of the lights were turned on. This meant that it was easy to see that almost no one had their eyes closed while they were singing. On the contrary, their eyes were mostly trained on the lyrics projected onto the screen. I suppose this was a necessity because the set that night didn’t include the usual popular catchy songs that were played at my church. Instead of memorized lyrics, we were singing hymns with melodies that were as dated as their verbose verses. To make matters worse, not one hand was raised.

Needless to say, not a single tear ran down my cheek that night, and I didn’t experience any encounter.

My shock at the state of their corporate singing was only compounded by the fact that these people seemed to really love Jesus, and in all other aspects seemed very devoted to following Him. Why then, was it not reflected in the way they worshipped?

This question was at the top of my mind a few weeks later when I had the chance to sit down with the campus pastor.

When I brought it up, he duly pointed me to a passage in the Bible which has since changed the way that I approach corporate singing:

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:18-20)

Here, we see that singing in church isn’t about ourselves—it’s about God.

That probably wasn’t news to you. But what was surprising to me is that singing in church is not just about God, it’s also about the other people in the church. Paul tells us to speak to one another with “psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:19). That means that we’re not just singing to God, but we’re also meant to sing to each other.

As I processed this, I thought about how by singing truth to each other, we’re encouraging each other. Depending on the song, we’re reminding the people next to us—who might have had a terrible week or could be facing incredible pressures—about the gospel, about how great God is, or about the amazing grace that He has shown us. I know I’ve personally had moments where witnessing others worshipping has encouraged me to continue living a gospel-centred life.

I remember feeling so rebuked by Paul’s words in Ephesians as I realized I had made worship and singing all about myself and what I had felt during the songs when instead I should have been thinking more about encouraging the fellow believers beside me as we sing about the goodness of God.

To top it off, verse 18 suggests that singing to one another is a sign of being filled with the Spirit. In other words, it’s what truly spiritual singing in church should look like. For me, that was a huge break from what I had traditionally seen as a spiritual experience during the worship music portion of a service—which had previously been all about feeling some sort of emotional release.

That’s why today, ticking off the box of a spiritual encounter is no longer my agenda when worshipping. When I sing in church, I still sing as passionately as I possibly can. But instead of chasing a feeling, or an experience, I approach singing with a sense that I’m actively participating with my God-given family, following the Holy Spirit-inspired instructions of Paul the Apostle!

5 Ways to Do More of What You’re Made to Do—Worship!

By Janel Breitenstein, USA

So recently, I had one of my favorite kinds of nights: date night. I won’t gush too much. But suffice to say, I don’t take for granted being married to my best friend. I love tucking myself under his arm at a movie, wandering around a bookstore and laughing at off-the-wall titles, and sharing real conversation that changes us right over the top of plates from our favorite salad bar. Mostly we just get to enjoy each other. To revel in being an “us.” This is the beauty of date nights—there’s a luxury to simply being with the people we love.

Not unlike the burst of intimacy from a date night, there’s something to be said for being in God’s presence . . . for setting aside our flurry of effort and productivity to simply revel in our God. It should be the first and only thing, right? To love Him with everything we are.

But often, as an achiever (not to mention a “spiritual blogger”), I tend to want to feel productive even in my time with God—to view it as another thing to accomplish instead of sweet time with someone I love. Remember what all those ancient catechisms said was the chief reason for existence? The this-is-the-main-thing-thing? They said the reason we exist is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

I have to admit that the “enjoy” snippet requires mindfulness on my part, especially between packing lunches and work deadlines and “Mom, have you seen my Sharpies?” inquiries. Somewhere in all of the craze of life, I need to find a way to seek God’s presence—to let being with Him be the exciting, refreshing, rejuvenating time I look forward to. Where I can say something like, “Let me just hang out and get happy here, looking and experiencing and reveling in the presence of God.”

For me, that means intentionally seeing ways to see God and worship Him daily in the midst of my busy life. I hope these five low-prep tips can help you to do the same.

 

1. Praise God for the people He made

Ephesians 2:10 states we’re each God’s workmanship. And as we spend time together, we see qualities in each other that remind us of Him: Oh, there you are! Even amidst profound sin and brokenness, that original image is still there for us to excavate and savor.  For example, as a wife, I see my husband’s advocacy for me; his passion for truth and his gentleness. In my son’s fascination with nature, I see God’s passion for beauty and design. In my daughter’s love for dance and her sheer delight with life, I see his love for art in all forms, His ecstasy in this life He created for us.

 

2. Lose yourself in His personal expressions—nature

Recently on a much-needed day off, I did what I should have done a long time ago: Took a hike in a national forest. Some striking horizontal, stair-stepped tree roots snapped me to attention. As I studied the roots, my senses buzzed and I came to a bigger realization. All of this nature—it was sort of like God, as the creator, leading me through His own art gallery, sculptured and painted by a meticulous yet generous hand. Romans reminds me that in nature, God showcases His eternal power and divine nature (Romans 1:20).

That day, I was awe-stricken. At one point, I found myself in tears from His sheer beauty and care.

If you get out in creation, you can witness God’s self-expression in nature, and let it move you to worship.

 

3. Use music to speak the language of the soul

Unique to humans is this mind-blowing, heightened art form called music. When we want to say something most profoundly, we often communicate it in art—and particularly, song. Whether it’s listening on iTunes, belting it out in the shower a capella, or playing an instrument—try immersing yourself in music.

In my time alone with God, it’s not uncommon to find me singing while I play the piano. Sometimes I use the words to pray for friends, or to express what I can’t put into words myself. And far more important than the quality of my music is the quality of the song of my heart (check out 1 Samuel 16:7).

Not everyone creates or enjoys music in the same way. But for you, perhaps it’s listening or singing along, or penning your own lyrics.  How could music bring a new language to your worship?

 

4. Keep your eyes turned up

It’s really easy to focus on the things that are going sour in life. It can be a challenge to see things to be thankful for in the midst of pain. But gratitude is one of the most constant ways to keep our eyes turned upward all day—helping us in that fight to see God’s goodness.

Personally, gratefulness allows me to see the gifts God’s piling around me, rather than all the things that aren’t going my way. Somehow gratitude tips my chin up—away from my own belly button, and instead, in the sweeping context of a mysterious, infinitely greater God. It reminds me of God’s steadfast kindness to me in the past, too.  Gratitude creates worship in me. Rather than placing myself and my desires as “god” in the center of the universe, gratitude points me to an infinitely bigger Giver, which leads me directly into worshiping Him.

 

5. Learn how you worship best

Consider the way you personally best adore God. Authors like Gary Thomas explore our “sacred pathways”: the ways our hearts specifically connect with God. Perhaps it’s through nature, activism, the five senses, tradition, self-denial of certain indulgences, serving, contemplation, or intellect.  But beyond categories, I like to think even more specifically and creatively about the ways my faith comes alive. What can I do that helps me feel connected to God?

For me, that’s often serving the poor, writing, authentic conversation, gardening, creativity, crossing cultures…and the list grows as I experience more of how God has made me.

 

So I’ve discovered that because worship isn’t always natural, there are ways I can choose to train myself toward God, fastening myself to him like a vine on a trellis—so my soul continues to point and grow upward.

But it’s more than a discipline. Cultivating worship cultivates my joy. And finally, I can do what I was created to do.

 

This article was originally published on the writer’s blog here. This version has been edited by YMI.

3 Misconceptions I Had About Worship

Written By Daniel Hamlin, USA

I looked over to see my mom trying to hold back her laughter. I’m sure we’ve all experienced it at some point—that extremely difficult task of not laughing when everything in us wants to. It usually happens at the most inappropriate times and in the most inappropriate places. This was the case for my mom. We were in church and the worship band was on stage leading the congregation in song, while my mom stood next to me trying not to burst out laughing. I looked at her, trying to figure out what I had missed that was causing her such amusement. She gathered herself and we kept singing. After church I asked my mom what had made her laugh in the middle of worship.

She said, “You.”

I answered in surprise, “Me? What did I do?”

“Daniel,” she said, beginning to laugh again, “I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anyone miss every note in a song before.”

My lack of musical talent was no surprise to me, and so we both had a good laugh about it. (I should mention that my mom and I have a great relationship, one in which we can tease each other and not be offended, knowing we both have nothing but love and support for each other).

Thankfully (for my sake at least), God’s acceptance of our worship is not based on how well we sing. Worship is much more than song. Jesus stated, “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Over the years I’ve found that in order for me to worship in truth, the Lord has had to remove some major misconceptions I held regarding worship. It’s been a gradual process, mostly involving prayer and time spent in God’s Word. I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject of worship, but I hope what I share about my own journey will help you if you’ve struggled with similar issues as well.

 

Misconception #1: Worship Is Only for Religious People

I used to think that the only people who participated in worship were religious people, or people of faith. I viewed worship as solely a religious or spiritual act. But I now believe everyone worships, whether they realize it or not. We all worship something or someone; we were created to (Psalm 86:9-10).

We worship whatever we value most in life. For some, this might be a job, a loved one, an object of some sort, or oneself. Worshipping such things may have nothing to do with religion or faith, but it remains worship. When we place more value on these things than on God, we are worshipping them.

Sadly, I’ve worshipped many things in my life. I’ve worshipped myself, my passions, my time, my relationships—any number of things that are not bad in themselves, except when we give them higher value than we give God. Instead of worshipping the blessings that God has given me, I should be worshipping the God who gave them.

When I find that I’ve usurped Christ’s rightful place in my life by valuing something or someone else, I ask Him with repentant humility to retake the throne of my heart. He graciously accepts repentance and invites me into deeper relationship with Him.

 

Misconception #2: Only Religious Activities Are Worship

Worship isn’t simply singing in church, prayer, or thanksgiving. These are all forms of worship, but they are not the only ones. One of my biggest misconceptions about worship was that I only participated in worship when I was involved in some religious activity.

But the truth is, our whole lives are an act of worship (Romans 12:1, 1 Corinthians 10:31).

In the Old Testament, King Saul made the mistake of thinking religious activities meant worship. But God responded by pointing out that religious activities are no measurement of a person’s worship, because true worship starts in the heart and reveals itself in our daily lives: “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22).

This points me to a greater awareness of the importance of being in fellowship with Christ. I’ve realized that true worship is a relationship with God, rather than feigned obedience to a set of rules. Whether we are eating, working, studying, on vacation, doing laundry, we are worshipping whether we realize it or not. We either live life with Jesus reigning in our hearts, or we live life with something or someone else holding that place. I am learning to ask myself, do I love God in my work, my study, my daily life?

 

Misconception #3: Worship Is for God’s Benefit

Perhaps the biggest misconception I had about worship was that it was somehow for God’s benefit, as if He somehow needed our worship. The truth is quite the opposite: worship benefits us, not God.

David declares, “How abundant are the good things that you have stored up for those who fear  you, that you bestow in the sight of all, on those who take refuge in You” (Psalm 31:19). God is pleased with our worship, but He doesn’t need it. He is all-sufficient, self-existent, eternal, not created. He is not in need of anything, but He is the source of all life and all joy (Psalm 16:11).

God created us in order that we might know Him and experience His life and joy, and worship is the doorway into that life and joy. The Psalmist says, “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere . . . For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favor and honor; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless” (Psalm 84:10-11). God is eager to bless us and give us peace; when we worship we open the doors to His peace and blessing. This isn’t to say that we will never see trouble in this life because we worship God, but He does promise He will be a stronghold in the day of trouble to those who trust in Him (Nahum 1:7).

 

God cherishes our worship. He understands it can be difficult for humans to worship what we cannot see, and perhaps that’s why our worship moves Him so deeply. I know there is still much I need to learn regarding worship, but I’m thankful the Lord has righted these misconceptions I once held. I now have a greater understanding and a deeper relationship with God than before. And maybe someday, perhaps when I’m in Heaven, when I’m singing in heartfelt worship, I’ll even be able to sing the right notes. But until then, I’m grateful to know that I can worship God with my every act, and that God loves my worship regardless of my singing abilities.

When I Realized I Was Lukewarm

In 2012, I was in a near-fatal car accident and suffered extensive brain injury as a result. Up till then, I had been working as a family doctor in northwest Indiana, USA, for six years.

From my earliest recollections following my accident, I remember hearing over and over again that people who suffer a brain injury have to find a “new normal.” They said my brain injury was so severe that there was no chance of me going back to who I was before my accident.

However, for the first several months, I shocked nearly everyone with my unexpected, unexplainable, and rather quick recovery. This led me to believe that my brain injury wasn’t nearly as bad as my doctors had suggested and that I’d be back to my old self—my old normal—in no time at all.

But it wouldn’t be long before my recovery slowed down to a crawl and it became clear that I simply wasn’t going to return to my old self again. The long-standing effects of my brain injury had become undeniable.

I no longer had the mental capacity and the ability to easily remember any and all sorts of information. No matter how much effort I put into it or how hard I tried, the focus and concentration I once had was no longer there. This, as well as many other signs, pointed me to the realization that my doctors had been right from the start. I now had a new and very different kind of normal.

This led to a season where I felt overwhelmed by my new reality and I started angrily asking God a lot of questions about what He was doing. I still consider the day of my accident “the day my life changed forever.”

However, a second life-changing day took place about the same time I was starting to question God’s plan for my life.

I was at a Christian media conference in Dallas, an event I had begrudgingly agreed to go to with my wife. Even though I went to the conference with low expectations, to my surprise, I heard a Bible verse while I was there that would change the trajectory of my life once again!

The verse was from Revelation 3:15-16:

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

Now, this wasn’t an unfamiliar verse to me. It was one I’d heard plenty of times before . . . but this time something was very different. It affected me in a way it never had previously. Every time I heard this verse in the past, I’d thought, “Man, I’d hate to be one of those lukewarm guys spit out by God!” But when I heard those words that day, I suddenly became aware and convicted of my lukewarmness, and thought to myself, “I think I’m actually one of them.”

You see, I had always tried my very best to make my faith an important part of who I was. I never strayed too far from the church or God, and most people thought of me as being a “good Christian.” But I had an awakening that day and realized how “lukewarm” I truly was.

Part of that awakening involved starting to understand that I’d been following an “inverted gospel.” I claimed to be following Jesus, but in reality, I’d just invited him to follow me. I had never fully given everything to God and was still trying to handle most things myself. I thought that Jesus was a way for me to get what I wanted and to help me stay comfortable, but never considered how much He deserved from me. I don’t think I ever fully trusted that God knew what was best for me so I made sure to always take the lead.

This realization lit a fire inside of me that I’d never experienced before. I wanted to learn more about who Jesus truly was and what a life completely surrendered to Him was supposed to look like. I felt like I’d been given a second chance to leave behind my lukewarm ways and to live a life completely for God, the only kind He deserves and the kind I should have been living all along.

My whole escape from “lukewarmness” was not a single, instantaneous event. It has been a journey—one where I am learning more and more every day about what it means to surrender my life to God. So far, I’ve discovered that surrender includes letting God lead me, and trusting His ways over my own. Unlike my approach to life in the past, I’m learning that I don’t need to know exactly how things are going to play out before taking the first step, before moving forward, or before making a decision—but can trust Him to lead me each step of the way.

One thing that stood out to me about my escape from lukewarmness is that I had nothing to do with it. I didn’t see it coming. But what I did have control over was how I was going to respond to what God was teaching me about being lukewarm. Was I going to fight with God on how He was trying to change me or was I going to accept it? I thank God that I had the courage to accept it.

I used to wish my brain injury had never happened, but over time, I have learned to focus on how God used it to bring about really positive things . . . like saving me from my lukewarmness. I wish there could have been another way, but I’m learning to not question God’s perfect plan, and instead thank Him for the good He brings out of negative situations (Romans 8:28).

I’m not sure where you are right now or if any of what I said about being “lukewarm” resonated with you. But if you were able to relate to my story, I hope you know that God loves you, and desires for you to live a life surrendered to Him too.