More than Just Singing
I grew up singing in church. If you were part of the 80’s Christian church culture, you will get me when I say that I can “Father Abraham, right arm, left arm, turn around, sit down” with the best of ‘em. My declarations that “I am a C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N” were the loudest in my Sunday school class.
Throughout most of my childhood I always enjoyed the music in church but my first memory of any kind of authentic worship experience didn’t happen until I was in high school. I saw a girl at church, singing during worship. She stood with arms stretched straight outward, eyes closed, face turned up to the ceiling and was not paying attention to anyone else around her. I remember thinking: “She’s doing more than just singing. She genuinely looks like she is connecting with God.”
As I had more worship experiences, I strove for this. Not to take on a particular posture, but to connect with God instead of just singing songs. I genuinely wanted to experience God’s presence. And here’s what I found out: as soon as I was ready, God was there to connect with me, too.
The Tension of Attention
Years ago I started this discipline during worship of closing my eyes and imagining the room around me was completely dark. Although there were many people in the room, I would imagine no one else was there, except me and God. I would try to imagine what his face looked like. And I would sing. Just to him. Blocking everything and everyone else out. It would just be me and the King. These times with Jesus were so sweet. As I intentionally engaged my heart and mind in what I was singing, Jesus met me there so many times.
For those of us who lead worship from stage, we can’t just close our eyes and block out the world. We have several things that need our attention: How are people connecting? Am I keeping time? Am I in tune? Am I listening to the other band members? For an instrumentalist on the back line, sometimes just knowing what lyrics are being sung can be a challenge. All the while, we are trying to balance these things with actually connecting with God.
I call this the “tension of my attention.” It is not a battle to win, but a tension to be managed.
Why We Sing
Musical worship isn’t just part of our Christian culture. We don’t do it simply because it is tradition or we need to fill time in our service. We sing together as a congregation because, well, the bible tells us to. And also God knows that when we sing, especially when we sing together, we don’t just learn about him, we experience him. In the presence of God, we can know peace, freedom, healing, and as David wrote in Psalm 16:11, the “fullness of joy.” The presence of God and the nearness of his spirit is his blessing to us.
As I continued in my journey of experiencing God’s presence through worship, I was also struck with this conviction: musical worship isn’t just about beautiful sounds, it is a conversation with the Most High. When I sing words like “I surrender all to you,” or “You are my all in all” (reference to my favorite Jr. High camp song), he is listening. Like, really, listening. And more than just listening, the all-knowing, all-seeing God is also looking into my heart. The words can come out of my mouth, but if my heart is not aligned, how pleased could he be with my act of putting lies to melody? And as a worship leader, this makes me all the more accountable. How can I stand in front of hundreds, and declare powerful words that fall flat because they aren’t true in my heart?
This leaves me with the realization of how desperate I am for God’s grace. Like the father who begged Jesus to heal his dying son, I find myself praying over and over “I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Or, “I genuinely mean what I’m singing, Lord. Help me to genuinely mean what I’m singing.”
Preparing to Be Present
While there is no formula, no step-by-step tutorial in how to authentically experience God’s presence, there certainly are a few disciplines we can engage in to better connect with him. The bottom line is, the more intentional we are in engaging our minds and hearts to bend toward him, the more fully we can experience his presence. Some people refer to this as “pressing into” God. Here are a few examples of this:
- Before you start worship, whether it is playing or singing – pray. It really can be that simple. Ask God to meet with you. Calm your heart and mind. If this is a challenge, ask Him for help to release the things that are distracting you.
- Think about what you are singing, or, if you are not a vocalist, at least be aware of the lyrics in each song. Be intentional about not making worship ‘just something you do.’ Remember who you are talking to.
- Ask for forgiveness and recognize your need for grace to enter into his presence. He is King. You are servant. Approach him with humility.
- Receive God’s grace and forgiveness and allow your worship to be an expression of your gratitude for all Christ has done for you.
- Take a physical posture of worship. For some, this response feels easy. For others, it’s a discipline. Whether it’s something simple like closing your eyes or lifting your hands – even getting on your knees. You might be surprised at how it gets easier to actually feel God’s presence when you change your physical posture.
We don’t have to ask God to be with us. He already is. Our sincerest desire when we gather for musical worship is that we would become “more aware of his presence so that we can experience the glory of his goodness.”
What is it like for you to “press into” God’s presence when you worship? Do you struggle with it? Are you able to do it with ease?
What are the types of things that distract you from focusing on God during musical worship?
How do you normally prepare your heart to enter the presence of God?
What is one thing you can add to or change in your routine to better prepare?
Take some time to meditate on Psalm 16: 7 – 11. Read it a few times to yourself.
“I will bless the Lord who has counseled me;
Indeed, my mind instructs me in the night.
I have set the Lord continually before me;
Because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad and my glory rejoices;
My flesh also will dwell securely.
For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol;
Nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.
You will make known to me the path of life;
In Your presence is fullness of joy;
In Your right hand there are pleasures forever.
Look at how the psalmist is intentionally pointing to ways he’s engaging the presence of God. Through God’s counsel, instruction, awareness of the Lord, being hand-in-hand with God. Next notice that he has a gladness of heart and a rejoicing in the soul. What are some ways that your heart and soul testify to God’s presence with gladness and joy?