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Dr. Tom Lawson is a professor of New Testament, Old Testament and Worship at OCC.
For more than 25 years, I’ve posed this question to college students taking my course in Christian worship: “What is the single greatest worship experience of your life?”
Since it’s a general course, broadly required for their degrees, the students who attend aren’t just those training to lead worship. They vary greatly in age, nationality and background.
I first asked that question to a class in the late 1980s. Rich Mullins’ hit, "Our God Is an Awesome God," had just been released, and Hillsong Music didn’t even exist. Much has changed since then, and yet, strikingly, over the years, students’ answers have remained remarkably the same.
Students almost never mention the particular musicians who were on stage at the time. (Sorry about that, if you’re on a praise team.) In fact, in many of their stories, there were no musicians up front at all. And, preachers, don’t think we come off any better. Students also rarely even talk about the sermon—much less mention who happened to be speaking. And not a single student in all these years has ever waxed on about dazzling technology or the creative use of lighting or smoke machines.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that the music, sermon or technology play no role in worship. They just rarely, if ever, are what moves worship from good to great.
The most wildly unpredictable aspect of my students’ stories, in fact, is the worship setting. You just can’t predict what it will be. A few will mention worshipping with thousands at a major youth conference or national gathering. A large number talk about worship at a summer church camp.
For others, the worship stories come from a short-term missions trip. Several will tell of impromptu worship with a few friends in a dorm room or while hiking in the mountains on a wilderness retreat. The worshipers in these experiences vary from thousands to hundreds to dozens to a handful to just an extended time of private worship, and the locations include well-equipped auditoriums, modest church camp chapels and third-world gatherings in rural areas without electricity.
There simply is no one right setting for powerful, life-changing worship.
Another similarity among students’ experiences is that nearly all of them defy reproduction. Whatever factors uniquely opened people up to the Spirit’s work in that particular worship experience cannot be dissected, packaged and programmed to occur on demand—no matter how hard we try or how noble our intentions.
Why? Because often, circumstances in the student’s life leading up to their worship experience are fundamental. A young man relates how his parents were going through a bitter divorce. A woman talks about facing a personal health crisis. One older student weighs the risks for his family as he decides to leave a career and train for missions work overseas. A young husband shares that he and his wife had learned that their long-anticipated pregnancy had ended.
In other words, genuinely great worship experiences are often rooted in very personal and individual matters. The single greatest worship experience of one student’s life might not be as meaningful for those directly around them. That’s not to discount the importance of the body of believers; the community in which we worship is woven into our worship itself. Even so, those moments of worship so intense that we recall them years later are, even in the midst of other believers, intensely and almost mystically personal.
Every semester as students share their experiences, it becomes clear that great personal worship is often born of great personal pain. In story after story, one of the trademarks of truly great worship is tears. As much as we may enjoy singing about joyful dancing on spiritual mountaintops, life-changing worship more often comes in the valley of darkest shadows. It’s as though our sorrow and suffering somehow pull our hearts wide open to receive “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort.”
This link between suffering and great worship may be what Scripture means when it describes the ever-present God being very present in a time of trouble. How can God who is always present become very present? There are times when our general day-to-day desire for God becomes an urgent and desperate need for him. In those times, we need him more than we need the sun to come up in the morning. We need him more than we need our next breath. And it’s often, then, in the midst of tears and desperation, that we experience God in worship in ways that change the rest of our lives.
All this serves as a powerful reminder that worship is not a manmade event. While it’s good to strive for excellence and to focus on important details like practicing music and tuning instruments, worship remains very much a God-thing. Those of us up front may never know who in the congregation is experiencing life-changing worship, who is experiencing more “ordinary” worship, and who is just standing there making noise or pretending to be interested in the message.
It is God—alone—who is the audience before whom our worship is performed. And it is God—alone—who knows when worship is in Spirit and Truth. This doesn’t mean there’s not value in training for worship leadership, but that our education, preparation and programming are simply a framework in which worship may occur. We should strive to provide through our music and message opportunities for the people of God to encounter God.
At Ozark, we encourage students—those involved with music, Scripture reading, public prayer, the message, or the technology we use to enhance the service—to strive for excellence in all they do. But, in the end, worship leaders only lay a framework in which worship might occur. And people’s remarks—whether positive or not—on the quality of our music or the creativity of our sermons are not reliable indicators of genuine worship.
Nearly everyone tasked by God to lead his people in worship have had the experience of things going wrong in a worship service—out-of-tune musicians, crashing PowerPoint, screeching feedback over the sound system—only to have someone say afterward what an incredibly moving worship experience it was. In subtle ways and obvious, God reminds us that we do not control the Spirit. Rather, simply, “the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those who hearts are fully committed to him.”
A final observation made from listening to hundreds of worship stories over the years: As King David understood, great worship is always measured by great personal cost. The decision to move your family to Joplin and go to Bible college, or to leave the safety of your own culture for another land, is bound up in worship that is as costly as it is life-changing.
That’s why a service at church camp or a CIY conference or a hymn sung around the hospital bed of a dying parent might be remembered years later—because that was the time in worship when you laid your life on the altar of sacrifice and said, in effect, “Here, Father. This is no longer mine. It’s yours, and I leave it in your hands.”
In those costly, often painful moments, you experience a depth of worship so intense and powerful that it’s etched into your soul, making grooves through which the living water of the Spirit will flow for years to come. And, even years later, if some teacher says, “Tell me about the single greatest worship experience of your life,” you’ll recount how God interrupted your service and brought you to worship.
This article first appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of our college magazine, The Ambassador. Read this and other issues at occ.edu/ambassador.