I had a rare opportunity to be a worshiper on Sunday, sitting in the pew with my family instead of up front as a leader. This prompted me to think about what I value in worship.
The first expectation I have of a worship service is rapport. An excellent worship experience can only happen when there is a good relationship among the leaders and participants. I rarely have worshipful experiences at conferences or workshop settings, for example (unless I happen to know the people leading worship).
Worship is the primary ongoing formational event for a congregation, and the experience of worship becomes deeper and more meaningful the better you get to know those who are leading it. Occasional services have their place, but in general to extract the worship service from the life of the congregation wounds it. While there are a few general concepts that may be discussed in the abstract, worship is mostly a contextualized phenomenon.
I want to be welcomed as a friend and invited to participate fully in the service, I want to share myself and I expect the worship leaders to share themselves with me also, I want to sense a back-and-forth between and among the worship leaders and the congregation. If there is rapport among worshipers, it allows for rapport with God.
The second is engagement. In worship we gather with Christian friends to remember God, to remember who we are and to whom we belong, and to renew our commitment to live as God intends. This is no casual get-together. Worship is not an opportunity to hang out with a few friends, sing some songs, and hear a story or two. I come to worship to do some pretty intense stuff, and I expect to engage that stuff at a pretty deep level.
That means I expect those who are leading the service to have a deep level of engagement, to set the tone for those who are gathering. The leaders must convey a sense of the importance of this event, the sheer significance of what we are doing. I don’t mean that they have to be joyless and severe. Not in the slightest. Comedians are some of the hardest working people in show business, for example.
I mean that the worship leaders have to internalize the service so well that they can lead me through it almost by memory. (I need to work on this part myself.) It means that worship leaders are never distracted by things that are superfluous to the worship experience, and are always fully present in each moment of the service. Worship leaders must be so fully engaged with the service that they pick up on the slightest logistical shifts and address them before anyone else is even aware of them.
Next, I expect elevation. The last thing I want from a worship experience is a copy of something I would experience in my day to day life. I want the mountaintop! I want to sing a song that I would never hear on the radio accompanied by instruments that I never get to sing with other places. I want to utter liturgical phrases that I would never dream of uttering in a normal conversation. I want to pray ancient prayers that dozens of generations of Christians have prayed before me. And so forth.
And I expect all of that in balance with relevance and meaning and applicability. The two perspectives are by no means mutually exclusive. To be clear, I have nothing against singing a popular song or watching a current movie clip or using the pattern of Charlie Brown’s shirt to make an altar cloth. There is nothing wrong with referring to “real life” stuff in worship.
What I’m saying is that the pop song must be infused with sacred meaning, and the ancient prayer must be infused with new life. I expect to be elevated in worship, to be given a chance to set my mind on things that are above, to seek first the Kingdom of God. I want to be taken to an alternate reality – God’s alternate reality. It’s not that I want to shut the world out; not in the slightest. I want to transcend the world in worship, so that when confronted with the world’s crap later on, I will have the hope of God that I experience in the worship encounter to buoy me.
There are other aspects of worship I know, but rapport, engagement, and elevation are my top three criteria for a truly God-centered, transformational, excellent worship service.