Palpable Worship

I was glad when they said to me,

“Let us go to the house of the LORD!”

Psalm 122:1

I was in the lobby of the Baytown Little Theater a few years ago. My husband was in the cast of the show, and his bio was hanging next to his headshot in the lobby. As I read it over I was so proud that he dutifully mentioned he was a member of Westminster Presbyterian Church where his wife was pastor. Yes, I was so proud of him … that is until I read the bio of another woman in the cast which finished with “and I love to worship and meet Christ with the people of …”

I felt a huge pit of humiliation in my stomach … being a member of a church means nothing to un-churched people, but meeting Christ and loving it … now that speaks volumes! My humiliation was heightened by the revelation that there was no one in my church who could show as much compassion, joy, and relevance as this woman did when discussing our worshipping community. We were missing visible joy and desire in worship. We had more people watching their watches in worship, so they could get the good seats for lunch at the restaurant across the street, than we had people really engaged in joyful worship.

Rev. Dr. Joseph Kwak, pastor of a fast-growing new church in the suburbs of Seoul, Korea, visited with our new church development committee in January. His message to us was that the number one principle of church growth centers on worship … implementing piety worship. He says his church grew to over a thousand in worship in a few months because he expected people to meet God there. In his book he writes, “[Worship] is not simply a gathering of human beings, but God’s act of self-revelation and the Sacrament, which transforms the proclaiming Word to be become the living Word. Worship must be understood as the mysterious reality where the proclaiming Word becomes the living Word, which transforms, empowers, and sustains human life”

If this were truly the experience of people in our churches, then it would be palpable. We would feel the awesome presence of the mystery as soon as we enter the worship space. We would see it in their faces, their eyes, their smiles; they would all proclaim an expectant joy in their words and actions as soon as they enter the sanctuary.

Instead, I am reminded of all the pastors who have confided in me over the years that they are unable to worship themselves as they are leading worship. Some have confessed that if they weren’t the pastor, they would never choose to worship with their current congregations. But Rev. Kwak’s principle leads me to think that in a vital growing church, the pastor, too, should be visibly moved in worship. The congregation should be demonstrating authentic piousness during the service and the pastor should be the leader/model of that expectation. A Hispanic pastor told me that his congregation expects to see all the pastors of the church on their knees in prayer during the worship service, because watching their pastors encounter God is an important part of their worship experience … it helps them meet God.

Just about every time I have spoken with a group since I became your Associate Presbyter, someone asks the “worship question.” Do we have to move to contemporary music in worship? The short answer is “no.” But more important than what kind of music or the style or worship or whether the pastor wears a robe or preaches from the pulpit is this: Are people encountering the Living Word? Are their lives being transformed? Is the mysterious, awesome presence of God palpable in the worship service?

If you and your church members really expected God to show up on Sunday morning, wouldn’t it be visible? That’s what un-churched people are attracted to … the presence of God … more than music, preachers in blue jeans, or video screens. More important than putting on a good show, they need to know that your worship is real. They want to know that it makes a difference. They want to see your joy and your strong desire for Christ in your life. They want to know that you are genuinely glad when it’s said, “Let’s go to the house of the Lord.”

This was originally printed in the March 2006 issue of Connections, a publication of the Presbytery of New Covenant.