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Awesome Worship 

John R. Cionca

This is chapter 12 from the forthcoming book , Catching the Wind of the Spirit: Setting a Course for Church Health


No area of church life has the potential for drawing people closer together, or alienating them further from one another, than the area of church worship. Some churches maintain one established form of worship. In corporate terms, they have carved out a market niche, and reach to a specific subculture within their community. Other congregations, in an attempt to reach a diverse population, offer two styles of worship each Lord’s Day. Typically, one is traditional/blended, while the other is a praise/contemporary service. Larger churches have differentiated their services even further. The range includes liturgical, traditional, blended, contemporary, even jazz and country. Pastors may change their clothing from robe, to suit, to Dockers to fit the ambience of the service and the clientele attending.

Congregations are also adapting their structures and facilities to accommodate the various preferences of their people. While many morning services are still in an auditorium with fixed seating, an increasing number are moving to a sanctuary plus format. One service will meet in the more traditional sanctuary, and a less formal service will meet in a family life center or gymnasium. In addition, a number of churches run a live video feed to lounges, cafes or food courts. And while choirs and pipe organs will remain a staple in many churches, how we do church on a Sunday morning will become increasingly diverse. But with all the hype about traditional services, contemporary worship, seeker models, etc., weekend worship formats remain fairly similar. Most churches say you come to us for a half-hour of music, and then we’ll give you a half-hour lecture. Most often a group of people practice ahead of time (preacher, soloist, worship team, readers, etc.) to perform for the congregants. Except for participatory singing, the typical attendee is expected to remain quiet. People entrenched in music wars have usually lost perspective on what worship is all about. They argue about familiarity of lyrics, musical instruments, choirs or bands, uplifted or folded hands and even standing versus sitting. At the heart of our struggle is that we’ve lost the big picture. Just as J .B. Philips reminded us that our God is too small, so, too: Our understanding of worship is too puny.

Healthy churches maintain a high view of God. They retain the word awesome for God alone, not a pair of jeans, a football catch, or a video. They understand seven dominant themes about worship.

Worship is more About God, than About Me

The Creator of our universe made us a diverse people. Complexity and diversity is stamped throughout his whole world. Since people have different preferences in apparel, entertainment, cars and food, it shouldn’t surprise us that they have varied preferences for worship. It is not the place of this book to discuss how those cultural preferences are acquired, or to relate how neurological patterns habituate, which makes other worship styles emotionally and physiologically uncomfortable. The bottom line is that when we come into community, God is praised when diverse groups of people draw together with one voice in adoration of him. It is noble for a congregation to seek a balanced blend of music pulled from the great orb of styles and enriched history. And it is wise for a church to offer a traditional and contemporary service. But if congregants are allowed to get feisty over what they don’t like or upset that others enjoy another style, then this self absorption misses the entire point of worship—that it’s all about what pleases and praises God.

Several years ago a presenter at a conference derided country music. I found this rather interesting, particularly because his congregation was located in cattle country. During a break I asked him a question: Does God enjoy country praise? He thought for a moment then admitted: I think God enjoys all praise. While it’s OK for his church to primarily do classical music, it’s not OK across congregations or within a congregation for people to believe that God is only praised in one way. Matt Redman in his song The heart of Worship says it well: I’m coming back to the heart of worship, and it’s all about you Jesus, it’s all about You. Worship is about adoring God. He is honored by all praise that comes from a grateful heart. We are free to orchestrate a service to accommodate generational preferences, but we must continually remind our people that we are about worship, not entertainment. God is the audience; we are the instruments. Healthy churches remember that worship is more about God than about us.

Worship is more a Medley of Theology, than a Collection of Songs

Some people view worship as the preliminaries. For them, including many pastors, the sermon is the main event. Unfortunately, this is a shortsighted view of worship and preaching, and definitely a misunderstanding of human learning. Let me try something with you. Recite the alphabet. Many of us can remember the order of letters because of a tune that we hear in our minds. The bottom line is that words set to music are more easily retained than words just presented sequentially. Something in the chemistry of our brains facilitates the deepening of neurological patterns (memory) better through melody and image than via straight verbiage. So if there is a main event on Sunday mornings, it is the worship, not the sermon.

Now I say this, not as a worship minister, but as one who preaches each Lord’s Day. The pastor who thinks his pearls exposited from the Greek will impact a life more powerfully than a Biblical text in melody (especially accompanied by image) is naive. And that same pastor is plain foolish if he or she thinks that a weekly 25 minute exposition will offset the value stamping of dozens of hours of CDs, radio, cable and videos that are being watched weekly by the flock.

It is not uncommon in multigenerational congregations to see a difference of opinion regarding the appreciation of their pastor’s sermon. Older congregants who grew up in a linear, analytical, sequential world can track with an oral, logical, didactic sermon. But young adults and youth growing up in an imaging society are less captivated by expository monologue. Effective preaching that reaches cross-generationally must use story and captivate attention by creating images in our minds. Preachers need to communicate more like Jesus, who even today could capture the postmodern mind.

If we are truly concerned with taking a message from a text and using it to transform minds, then this is most powerfully accomplished when the entire morning service is thematically correlated. If the morning worship experience is just a selection of a couple of hymns and a few choruses to please everybody or the repetitious singing of a few favorite songs, then we miss the great dynamic of synergy. The best Christian music is theology with melody.

Therefore in the designing of worship experiences, those responsible for drawing the congregation together in praise have the same task as the morning preacher. Together they are communicating a truth to be valued by the people. We must continually raise the bar in our worship ministries to combine the soundness of theology with the most captivating medium. For many, the systematic theology that will stick the deepest in their souls is that which reverberates through their mind in song and image.

Worship is more a medley of theology than a collection of songs.

Worship is more Sensory, than Auditory God has given us eyes to see, ears to hear, mouths to taste, olfactory senses to smell and bodies to move. All of these senses can draw us to God and can be used in the praise of his name. For most of us the primary way we worship has been through the auditory gate. In fact, the words worship and music are used interchangeably by many. Some churches, for example, have a Minister of Music, while others employ a Worship Pastor.

Certainly the auditory sense is powerful in capturing attention, stirring the heart and imprinting our minds. But worship goes way beyond music; it is more holistic. Yes, I adore God when I hear of his goodness in song and praise him personally through voice or instrument. But adoration is also stirred by and offered through my other senses.

Let me illustrate. In my office hangs a picture of Jesus walking on the water with the Apostle Peter walking toward him and beginning to sink. There are no words on the canvas or frame, but it carries a powerful message. For decades that painting has lifted me and hundreds of my guests into moments of adoration of Christ.

Many churches are increasing the use of imaging in their services. Nature scenes accompanying PowerPoint are not uncommon. Some are using video clips in the service. Others use photographs and sculpture to tell a story. We are told that in the American population 20% are auditory learners, 40% visual learners and 40% kinesthetic learners. Almost half our population learns best by touching, manipulating, moving and experiencing. For all learners, especially these tactile learners, worship can also include movement. Some churches engage their people through drama teams, while others include creative dance. The use of this type of movement on the platform, even a dramatic sermon in period costume, widens the participation level of the church family and captivates the interest of the whole congregation. As a child, I remember using rhythm instruments in our Sunday school. I never did like the triangle or bell, but I did enjoy the sandpaper blocks. Now that I’m in big church they only let a few people on the platform play with the blocks, drums and bell. In an auditorium of a thousand congregants, only a handful get to be hands on. One kinesthetic expression of worship is clapping. Granted, not everyone is comfortable clapping (or raising their hands in prayer for that matter), but it does offer an opportunity for those who are comfortable with this physical form of expression to put their physical self in worship. Movement, whether swaying or dance, also allows people to express their praise.

Rarely are the senses of taste or smell used in our worship services. We can do better. If I were to preach on John 6 again, or perhaps Matthew 26, I think I would have several members of our congregation make bread in small ovens or small bread machines beginning at the start of the service. No doubt the smell would permeate the auditorium. The text would be on Jesus being the Bread of Life and would move to the Lord’s Table. The very warm, fresh loaves would then be distributed to the congregation. Taste, touch and smell would infuse a multisensory impression of Christ’s life on our behalf.Worship is more sensory than merely auditory.

Worship is more Participation, than Performance

For too many people church is an event or an activity. They are attendees. And while we may complain about their misunderstanding, we are largely responsible for perpetuating the situation. The fixed seating in our auditoriums, for example, is arranged for everyone to see the performers. Morning services comprised of a few hymns, special music by a choir, soloist or praise team, announcements, a pastoral prayer and a 30-minute sermon limit congregational participation.

When our reading of scripture becomes more dramatic, using responsive readings, antiphonal reading, or multiple readers acting parts from a text, then we become more inclusive. When we use the people’s prayer offered by a congregant rather than the pastor, we have again widened the participation level of the church. When people share faith stories that describe their spiritual journeys, we become more inviting. And when we coordinate the work of visual artists, musicians and dancers, we again involve more people from the faith community in leading the faith community.

We can also become more intergenerational in our worship. We can begin by allowing the children to come to Jesus, and not always shuttle them off into their own programs. They can act in a drama, collect the offering and lead in song. They are captivated by a service that is children friendly. They can also learn in the adult community. For example, I remember sitting with my Uncle Steve during a communion service (a great object lesson) and asking him if I could have a sip (referring to the cup). He said: Johnny, when you’re a Christian you can. This raised questions for me as a young child, which, with other experiences, eventually led to my acceptance of Christ as my Savior and Lord. Children, youth and adults all benefit from worship that is more participation than performance.

Worship is more a lifestyle, than an event

One of my pet peeves is when a worship leader says: Let us now enter into worship. My first response is to shout: Where has God gone? Haven’t we been worshipping in spirit and truth throughout this week? Do you mean worship only happens in this auditorium?

For many people, worship is a once a week event. It is a service that somebody puts on for them. Oh yes, they’re invited to sing, but if asked when they worship, they would probably say at the 9:30 hour. But this is far too limited a concept of worship. If worship is adoration of our great God, then this can happen in thought, word and voice throughout the week. If our worship is multisensory, then I praise the Lord for a good meal when I smell the dinner coming. I thank him for joy when I see the laughter in a child. I praise him for seasons when I rake leaves and smell their unique fragrance. I praise him for being the One who refreshes the earth when I smell the fresh rain.

The Greek word for worship is latreia. That word is used in Romans 12:1 where it affirms that presenting ourselves to Christ is our spiritual act of worship. Interestingly, however, other versions translate the text as our reasonable service (KJV) or spiritual service (NAV). For that Greek word can mean either worship or service. In reality if we have a full concept of worship, then we adore God for who he is whether praising him with our mouth or serving him with our hands ¾ both are true forms of worship. Spiritual formation for some people is reading the writings Dallas Willard while on a silent retreat. At the other end of the continuum are those who think spiritual formation happens by helping someone on the highway change a flat tire. Some maintain the habit of daily Bible reading and prayer, while others journal. Some write songs or sing words of praise. In reality, all of these disciplines are beneficial for helping us treasure our God. The businessman completing a noon basketball scrimmage can praise: Thanks, Lord, for a body that works the way you designed joints and ligaments to move. This type of adoration could also be heard from the senior who reflects: That key lime pie was really great, Father. If you make these sensations possible by just putting a few taste buds on my tongue and roof of my palate, I’m dazzled to think of all the complexity of your diverse creation. Praise can also flow from an exhausted mother who says: Lord, take Johnny’s life and let it be, consecrated completely to thee. And Lord take this bundle of energy and use it for building up your kingdom. God I worship you for the privilege of birth and nurturing. Adoration also comes from the schoolteacher who reflects: Father I know I collect a paycheck from the school system, but you know I’m working for you. May my teaching this day be praise to you because I’ll use the passion and skillfulness that you’ve given me, and because these students need to see a reflection of a Christ today. Honoring God for who he it is not a thirty-minute event on Sundays. Worship is more a lifestyle than an event.

Hoisting the Sails

Here are several specific ways to enhance worship awareness and practice in a congregation:

Live Q & A Time Following the Message.

Move the sermon up in the service to allow a brief time for questions generated from that text. The questions can be placed on cards during the offering, handed to an usher, and then given to someone who will ask them of the pastor.

Thematic Calendar.

Utilize a six to twelve month thematic calendar to coordinate preaching and multisensory worship. Creativity, recruitment and rehearsals require adequate lead-time.

C D Worship Songs.

Sell, at a reduced cost, professional worship CD’s that people can use throughout the week, thus facilitating the Word of God to richly dwell within them.

Video Cafes.

Consider scheduling a simultaneous service in a café atmosphere. The band should be live, though the message can either be live or a video feed from another service.

Cell Groups Studying a Resource on Worship.

Use in small groups a book such as Sally Morgenthaler’s Worship Evangelism to educate the congregation on the role of worship in our mission.

Halfway House Services.

These off campus sites can meet in coffeehouses, storefronts, apartments, etc. to provide places for small group worship and teaching. These venues may become increasingly strategic for those who won’t come into church buildings.

Rear Projection.

While churches have benefited from this technology for years, many congregations still use a flat screen, which is hard to see with natural or platform lighting. Seniors, particularly, need good contrast (dark navy background, with yellow lettering is best for them). Professional biblical presentations (e.g., Lord’s Supper), interviews by the man on the street, image accompanying lyrics and sermonic illustrations are a few expressions of this medium.


Instruments energize worship. While there is a place for a single guitar, keyboard or organ, the addition of percussion and brass, sax and bass enriches the worship atmosphere. Younger adults and youth especially like to feel their music. Developing teams of instrumentalists builds levels of participation and deepens congregational worship.


Where possible utilize multiple styles of worship. Some people like predictability, so for them a liturgical service may be preferred. Others like spontaneity. So don’t worry about a bulletin for them, and vary the format from week to week. Some people prefer anonymity; others engagement. And the list goes on. Movie theaters have shifted to multiplex; restaurants have clustered into food courts. These industries have discovered a cultural reality. We may want to examine the discoveries they have made about the people in our communities.

Visit Worship Services.

Most people who plan worship services, including the teams who lead them only attend their own services. Visiting and interviewing the leaders from churches known for dynamic worship is highly informative and motivational.

Demographic Studies.

When considering the addition of another venue for worship, conduct through demographic studies on the nature and preferences of the target audience. Don’t assume everyone wants an upbeat, rock style. Younger generations tend to be more eclectic than most Boomers.

Guest Interviews.

The richest source of feedback for a congregation can come from people who have visited your church but have chosen to go elsewhere. Their needs and preferences are particularly important. The faithful may put up with anything. The antagonistic may never become interested. Those who sense a spiritual need, and have come to you to investigate, are an important feedback group.

This is chapter 12 from the forthcoming book , Catching the Wind of the Spirit: Setting a Course for Church Health All rights reserved. ©2004 Ministry Transitions, Inc. Duplication and distribution without written consent of author is prohibited.



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