When Worship Doesn’t Work

I watched a worship service on the internet recently. I was pretty familiar with the church I was watching. It had been known for its powerful worship and a big joyful choir. Clearly, God had worked in this church in a dynamic way for many years.

But since moves of God are hard to sustain, over the years the choir and the church had dwindled. They began spacing choir members further and further apart to cover up the declining enrollment. Leadership had changed hands several times over. With all the changes, they struggled to hold onto the spirit of praise that had once permeated the sanctuary.

Sound anything like your church choir?

Anyway, this particular Sunday, they’d invited former choir members to return and sing with them for a special occasion. They’d again perform some of the old numbers God had used in the church’s past. It would be a great joyous reunion.

As I tuned in, lo and behold, the choir loft was again overflowing as it had before. As the orchestra struck up the notes to an old favorite, I sat back in my chair ready for God’s presence to take charge once again…

Except, it didn’t.

As I watched, I couldn’t decide what exactly was wrong. All the former ingredients were in place. The singers were rehearsed and ready, the instruments in tune and on the beat. Soloists sang well enough, the director was competent in his leadership, and I seriously doubt any participants were in spiritual rebellion against God. Their pastor wouldn’t have allowed them to participate.

But the Spirit that had been there and taken over the proceedings before was glaringly absent, or, at least greatly minimized. And I think most everyone knew it, though few would be rude enough to say it out loud.

The presence and power of God in a church is a mercurial, unpredictable thing. For those of us who’ve led worship, understanding why dynamic worship happens or doesn’t is often like trying to nail jello to the wall. You can insert the same ingredients that before brought great life-change and commitment, but today all you may see is a faded copy of the glory that had been there in the past.

What makes the difference? What is the key? What is it that hinders God’s movement in one service, and yet invites and welcomes it in another?

I once asked that in my former church. I wasn’t only the pastor, but occasionally lead worship in our church as well. Now, this song I’d prepared had always been greatly used to draw people into worship in the past. I’d been saving it for my new congregation for almost a year now, expecting it would draw our people toward a deeper level of worship.

When the moment for the song came, I sang it passionately with a clear conscience before the Lord. As far as I could tell, both the Spirit and the delivery were God-honoring.

But after the song  was over, I could tell it had clearly made no impact at all. I might as well have been singing in a foreign language.

As the old expression goes, it went over like a lead balloon.

Worship is a great indicator of a church’s love for God. Nothing betrays a church’s health like a fever for God in worship. But that fever is something that must be caught, not just taught. All the doctrine can be right, all the notes sung and played perfectly, and yet…their heart are unmoved.

Nothing will happen of worth unless the wild card of God’s Spirit fills it all up.

Passionless worship is like a helium balloon that someone unknotted. It hisses and flails, eventually going limp: a shriveled, empty sack. Nothing is wrong with the balloon, except there’s simply none of that “special air” lifting the balloon to the heavens.

Sure, we can try and blow it up with our own human air, which is what many churches do every Sunday. But the balloon will never rise. Toss it in the air and it will fall straight to the ground. Human effort is of no use unless that special helium is injected.

King David found this out the hard way in 2 Samuel 6 when he tried to move the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of God’s power and presence, back to Jerusalem after being captured by the Philistines. He thought he could just move it the most logical and convenient way, on an ox cart (the same way the pagans had done it). But he had ignored Moses’ law that gave strict instructions that the Levite priests must move it on foot.

His honorable goal of returning God-centered worship to Jerusalem ended in the death of one of the transporters, who reached out to steady the Ark during a rough patch of ground. David learned the hard way that worship is not just a matter of our strategies, or how we prefer to do it.

Real worship is all about our obedience and submission to God. It is not about “how we’d prefer to do it” or “what styles we’re comfortable with,” any more than moving that ark was about the most convenient, preferred way to do it!

So when all the ingredients seem to be there but passionate worship doesn’t happen, we need to stop and ask ourselves some hard questions…

  • why is God choosing not to enter into our worship?
  • why is passion missing?
  • what is standing in the way of God being in our midst and taking control, since he desires nothing more?

Could it be our balloon is limp with the air of human effort alone, and with no “heavenly breath?”

These are the questions the church I was watching on TV needs to ask themselves. When worship doesn’t happen, the problem is most often not in the performance of it, nor with the ingredients. The problem must be uniquely spiritual.

That’s because worship was never meant to be about the feelings our music brings to people. It must start with a passion in our own hearts, a passion for God that is only using the music as a means to express itself.

But when we are spiritually impotent, all the notes can be there and yet our songs will still ring hollow. That’s because the songs never held the power in the first place—they were only the carriers of the fever with which we’ve been stricken.

That fever is from a lovesickness and longing for God himself. But without that heat, nothing rises up to the throne room.

The problem with much of our worship is that we’re just singing for our enjoyment, and filling it up with our own desires. Because whose air it’s filled with makes all the difference as to whether our worship rises or falls.

And without a God-breathed passion within it, our worship is just a lot of hot air.

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