Teaching People How to Worship
by Peter Churness
Years ago when I was a youth director I landed upon an important discovery: people need to be taught how to worship. This discovery, though no doubt obvious to some, was for me quite a revelation. At first I resisted the idea. Isn’t worship a “Spirit thing”? Shouldn’t worship just come naturally to those who have fallen in love with Jesus and who have been baptized in the Spirit? Doesn’t trying to teach people how to worship lead to something artificial for them?
The answer to that last question is, “Yes, I suppose it can.” But I find that the opposite is true as well. Not teaching people how to worship leads some to fake the expressions of worship in order to fit in with the group worship dynamic, while helping people to learn how to connect with the Lord in worship at both the heart and mind levels can lead to a more genuine expression of worship.
This discovery for me came during one of our Sunday morning youth gatherings. I had finally reached the point where I was tired of trying to lead the kids in worship with no one really following. Here’s how it would typically go: I’d sing and pray, and they would sit there looking bored and distracted. This confused me because I knew those kids –they loved the Lord and had a living faith. Then it occurred to me that perhaps the reason they weren’t entering into worship was because they simply didn’t know how. So one Sunday morning I taught those bored teenagers a simple four-step, biblically based process for preparing our hearts for worship. And then I lead them in worship. To my great delight I found I was no longer alone. Those kids who just the previous week had been looking so bored and distracted were standing together with hands in the air as they experienced a genuine encounter with the real presence of Jesus.
There is nothing unspiritual about teaching people how to worship. When the disciples saw how Jesus prayed they noticed they were missing something in that arena. And so they asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. Jesus didn’t scold them and say, “I can’t teach you how to pray—it’s a Spirit thing—it should just come naturally to those who love My Father.” No, He didn’t scold them. Instead He taught them how to pray. Jesus can teach us how to worship as well.
Four Steps to Enter into Worship
I’d like to share with you the four step process I presented to those kids that day many years ago. I’ve since taught this to whole congregations as well as to house churches full of unchurched folks who had never even sung out loud before in a group. In both cases the result has been a deeper experience of genuine worship.
Step #1 – Kill the Flesh
Step number one flows out of Galatians 5:16-17:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.
I often use a “country” illustration at this point. I invite folks to think of their lives as a country or a kingdom where the flesh once reigned supreme but where the governance has now been given over to the rightful King, Jesus. But the flesh was not obliterated—it just went into hiding and now operates a kind of guerilla warfare with rebels wreaking havoc on the countryside of our lives. Often we find that the flesh regains the upper hand and retakes the capital. What we want in worship is for there to be a revolution in our lives every time we gather for worship. We throw down afresh the illegitimate government of the flesh and reinstate Jesus as Lord of our lives.
After this cursory explanation of what the flesh is, I usually ask two questions. First I ask, “How does our flesh feel about worship?” It doesn’t want to do it. Then I ask, “How does God’s Spirit united with our spirit in us feel about worship?” Longs for it. So what must we do to enter into worship? We must eliminate the opposition. We kill the flesh.
Now, technically I know we’ve already crucified the flesh through baptism into the death of Jesus (Galatians 5:24), and I also recognize there can be a subtle theological danger here in my “country” illustration. It would seem to be diluting the heights and depths of our rich and secure position in Christ. But don’t get nit-picky on me! I still find it helpful to phrase the step in this way. The point and emphasis here is that worship involves an act of the will. We make a decision to worship regardless of how we feel (i.e. how our flesh feels).
Sometimes at this point I will talk about raising hands in worship. I’ll note that most people probably think that when they see me raising my hands in worship, I’ve just become so overwhelmed in the worship experience that my hands just natural go up in the air with joyful abandon. Occasionally that may be the case, but much of the time I raise my hands in worship because I’m feeling nothing. I raise my hands as an act of the will as if to say, “Regardless of how I feel, I’m going to say ‘no’ to the flesh and surrender myself fully in worship to my Savior.” And as I do that, something usually breaks for me and the feelings come flooding into my heart.
Step #2 – Remember the Goodness and Greatness of God
If the first step is an act of the will, this second step is an act of the mind. At this point I talk about John 4:23-24
But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.
When the woman at the well brought up the side issue about where the appropriate place to worship was, Jerusalem or Samaria, I find it significant that before landing on this key passage referenced above, Jesus actually gave her a real answer. The answer was ‘Jerusalem.’ Truth matters. We don’t worship for the sake of worship. Worship has a real object and that real object can be either true or false.
In this step we are called to bring to our minds true things about the object of our worship. We bring to mind true things about God’s character, His Person, and His work. In a corporate worship setting there is a great apologetic for maintaining the content of confession and absolution and the creed in worship. We want a liturgical depth to our worship, regardless of how contemporary it may appear on the surface. And by liturgical depth, all we really mean is that our worship be immersed in the truth of the Scriptures and in the content of the gospel.
But also in this second step we can think back over our lives and reflect on those watershed experiences when God made Himself known to us in a very real way. We remember and reflect on those times in a similar way to Joshua instructing Israel to reflect on their real-time deliverance by setting up stones positioned in the Jordan as memorials to what God had done. Set up your own memorials and then reflect back on those times as your prepare yourself for worship.
Step #3 – Experience and Visualize Him
Jesus said worship should be in spirit and truth. In the previous step we hit the truth part. Here we land on the spirit part. Worship should not just be a mental exercise, but should involve our heart and emotions as well. It should be a deep experience that captivates our whole person. We are called to not just worship God with our minds, but to worship God with our hearts as well. Spirit and truth worship is heart and mind worship.
I find it helpful to point out here that there is a reason step #2 comes before step #3. The object of our worship is at stake here. In step #2 we bring to mind what is true about God. Now in step #3 we visualize God in that way as we enter deeper into the worship experience. I find it helpful at this point to mention the use of our imaginations. One of the reasons God gave us an imagination was so we could visualize true things about God that we cannot see in the physical. Many of the psalms are doing exactly this. We find images in the psalms of God on a throne, or covering us with His wings. This is imaginative fantasy with objective truth as its basis.
I remember being a teenager, closing my bedroom door, sitting cross-legged on the floor, and then just picturing in my mind Jesus sitting cross-legged on the floor right across from me. Then I would just worship him while playing my guitar. I’d look into His eyes and see His love for me shining back. All this was my imagination, but all this was also true and real. It was a subjective experience that had its roots in the objective reality of what I knew to be true about Jesus based on His Word.
Step #4 – Release the Spirit to Lead
Finally, step four is really just a completion of the process begun in step one—a completion of the transfer of government. In step one we eliminate the opposition. In step two we get a clear picture of the object of our worship, and then in step three we embrace that picture. Finally in step four, by a simple prayer of faith, we release God’s Spirit to fill us and lead us in worship. At the end of the day, it really is a “Spirit thing” after all.
Last, I always close by warning against turning these steps into a formula for worship. These may be helpful steps, but they are only steps to the goal—they are not themselves the goal. The goal is a deeper experience with the real presence of Jesus in worship. For some people, the ability to engage at intimate levels with our Lord in worship happens in an instance without the aid of any steps. You could say that some people have an almost natural disposition for worship. For others, the steps may be helpful for a while and then can be discarded once no longer needed. Personally, I find that I still use these steps at times, but I often go through them in a matter of seconds, almost in an instant.
Another thought I’ll often convey as I close this teaching is to note that most of us are either “heart people” or we are “mind people.” We have either a natural tendency to worship chiefly with our mind, or we have a natural tendency to worship chiefly with our heart. We really need to do both. “Mind people” need to learn to worship with their heart, and “heart people” need to learn to worship with their mind. The same is true for corporate worship. Our worship gatherings must be in “spirit and truth.” All truth and no spirit leads to a dead ritualism. All spirit and no truth leads to empty emotionalism. Churches and individuals need to enter into worship with both their entire intellect and with every thread of their emotions. It’s what the Father longs for.
Here are the steps again in summary form:
- Kill the flesh (WILL)
- Remember the goodness and greatness of God (MIND)
- Experience and visualize Him (HEART)
- Release the Spirit to lead (SPIRIT)
The aim of this teaching is that we would simply enter into a holistic worship experience as best expressed in the words of the Great Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).
Peter Churness is the director of a house church network called Life Together Churches. In 2003 he co-founded the award winning game development studio Rebel Planet Creations which creates spiritually themed video games. He lives in Minnesota with his wife and three kids.