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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.

Does It Matter How I Worship God?

Written By Madeline Twooney, Germany

A couple years ago, a colleague of mine invited my friend and I to visit an African church. l settled in my seat at the beginning of the service, expecting a heartfelt but rather demure time of praise and worship, just like the kind of church services I grew up with in Australia.

Gosh, was l ever wrong! As the worship band dropped its first chords, there was a wave of raised hands and fervent clapping that resonated throughout the church. People stood up and started dancing; some even held tambourines that they jingled animatedly to the rhythm of the music.

It was a wondrous sight, and l marveled at the energy and enthusiasm for God that this church community displayed. However, it was totally out of my comfort zone. Though l didn’t feel pressured to raise my hands, I just couldn’t see myself worshiping God in such a lively manner. It didn’t seem like something a shy, quiet person like me would do, so I did not join in.

However, after moving cities and joining my current church, l found myself raising my hands as l clapped and danced in worship. My actions surprised me. Until then, l had never considered myself a hand-raiser! But I was in a strange, new city, my husband was away on a trip, l was in a new church, and l didn’t know a living soul apart from God. So, l clung to Him and wow, did it feel fantastic to raise my hands and worship Him! I felt a freedom l hadn’t felt before, because l had finally found an avenue to physically express to God how much l love Him.

My journey has prompted me to wonder: Does it matter how we worship God? Are the people next to me insincere in their love for God, just because they aren’t singing or raising their hands? Should people be encouraged to worship in a certain manner if they don’t feel like doing it?

Here are four truths about worship that I’ve arrived at:

 

1. Worship begins in the heart

Though Christians sometimes discuss whether or not to raise hands in worship, it is important to remember that worship is first and foremost a desire to praise and honor God. It is the attitude of our hearts that takes precedence in worship.

What changed my worship experience was that my heart changed. In the past, l had viewed the worship part of a church service as lyrical and enjoyable. But l did not have a heartfelt encounter with God until I experienced burnout and depression last year. Since then, l have started raising my hands and dancing around during worship. When l do so, l feel the depression and anxiety lift, as though through raising my hands, l am handing over my problems to God.

This is how I best express my love for God. We may all praise and love God in different ways, but the most important thing is the attitude of our hearts when we come before God in worship.

 

2. Worship is more than just singing and raising hands

Though singing is a fundamental part of worship, the essence of worship is to ascribe worth to God. King David writes in Psalm 29:1-2, “Ascribe to the Lord, you heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness.”

Worship is a gesture of reverence to our God. The Hebrew word for worship in the Old Testament is shachah, which means to “bow down” or “prostrate oneself.” The New Testament uses the Greek word proskuneo, meaning “to do reverence to.”

To me, revering God can be expressed by singing, clapping, or raising our hands, as well as by kneeling, praying softly to ourselves, or even bowing our head in reverence.

Romans 12:1 further calls us to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” This verse has encouraged me to view worship as an act that isn’t just expressed by outward actions, but with our entire lives.

 

3. Worship is greater than our feelings

I am a hand-raiser, but that doesn’t mean that l always feel like lifting my hands when l worship. Sometimes l am tired, or l feel weighed down by problems that are affecting me outside of the church’s four walls.

However, though worship can release intense emotions and can be itself an emotional experience, its purpose is to bring us into the presence of God in humility and thankfulness. When we choose to worship even when we don’t feel like it, we honor God and show Him that we trust Him above our emotions.

 

4. Worship should be done in spirit and truth

Jesus said in John 4:24 that God desires worshippers who “will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth.”

In other words, God wants us to worship Him filled with the Holy Spirit—with love, peace, and joy that come from Him in our hearts—whether by dancing to a contemporary worship song, or by singing a hymn in solemn reverence.

God also wants us to be guided by the truth that Jesus preached on earth—that He is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). After all, we are not set free by standing on ceremony in worship, but by this precious truth (John 8:36).

 

I’ve learned that singing, raising hands, and clapping during worship doesn’t make us holier than our brothers and sisters. Nor does standing in reverence and singing hymns. Everybody has their own approach to honoring God, and that in itself is to be honored.

So, next Sunday, if you see your neighbor raising his hands and singing his heart out during worship and you’re not feeling it, know that God sees your heart to worship, and that’s what matters.

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.