Thoughts on Becoming a Worshipping Community…

Convictions of worship

1. Worship is our response to God’s love

“We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4.19). The good news of the Gospel is that though we are sinners who have broken relationship with God, through the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ we now have access to the presence of God. Worship is not us trying to prove to God that we are worthy. Instead, God has initiated with us – He “woos” us to himself. We worship as a response to the love and grace that has been extended to us.

2. Through worship, we express our awe, adoration, and astonishment of God.

“Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness (Psalm 29.2). “Ezra praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, "Amen! Amen!" Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground” (Nehemiah 8.6).

The word used most frequently for ‘worship’ in the New Testament is proskuneo, which literally means to prostrate yourself before a superior. Worship is the posturing of our heart in recognition of who we are, whose we are, and who God is.

3. Worship is a lifestyle of responding to God’s love

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is true worship” (Romans 12). Worship can never be something we just do on Sunday mornings. Worship should change our affections, our allegiance, our devotion, our money, our convictions, and our values. Worship should create a lifestyle that compels us to love and serve our neighbors, to challenge practices and policies of injustice, and to continually move to greater expressions of God’s mercy, love, and grace in this world.

4. Form is not as important as authenticity of spirit and truth

“Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4.23-24).

Debates over worship tend to be rooted in culture, personality, and preference, couched in theological terms. It is tempting for people to think their worship style is the most biblical. But the truth of the matter is that God longs to be worshipped in all styles, as long as we worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4) and in an orderly fashion (1 Corinthians 14).

5. Worship should engage believers and invite unbelievers

As the passage above states, “God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth (John 4.24). Worship is a response to the love that God has shown to His people, and must rest in the truth of who God is. We are able to worship in the Spirit and in truth when we have a relationship with God.

However, this engagement of the hearts of believers should not only avoid repelling those outside of the faith, it should draw them to God. In the model of the early church, we see the believers consistently worshiping God both in public meeting spaces and in their homes. Those outside of the church watched them worship both in word and in deed, and were actually drawn to God through this process. The Lord “added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2.47). Though worship can be a semi-foreign act for those who are not yet believers, it can become a powerful force for evangelism. Those who are not Christians yet can see how worship brings joy to our lives, transforms us, comforts us, challenges us, and connects us to the Spirit of God.

6. God expects us to be sensitive to the fears, hang-ups, and the needs of unbelievers when they are present in our worship services.

“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity” (Colossians 4.5). At times worship and evangelism are pitted against each other, but they shouldn’t be!  Environments where believers worship God in the Spirit and in truth are not meant to be in opposition to environments where not yet believers can seek out the Spirit of God.

Jesus said that he has come to seek and save those who are lost (Luke 19.10). Jesus said that he did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life (Matthew 20.28). A clear sign of maturity in a congregation is the combination of a desire to worship as well as a desire to sacrifice so that those who do not yet know God will be drawn to the Gospel.

Values of worship

Intimate

“I no longer call you servants, because servants do not know their master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15.15). We are called into intimate relationship with God our Father. In worship we want people to receive and respond to the incredible love and mercy that God has demonstrated to us.

Spirit Led

“God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth (John 4.24). The Spirit of God is the central catalyst of worship – the Spirit reveals Jesus to us, who brings us into knowledge and experience of the Father. We have not truly worshipped the Lord until Spirit touches spirit.

Therefore we are continually praying that by the Spirit we will be led into worship. We pray to God for Spirit guidance during our preparation process. We also seek the Spirit’s direction in the leading of the worship service, searching for ways to respond to the promptings of the Spirit in both truth and spirit.

Expectant

“The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3.8). The Spirit is like the wind – we don’t know which direction it is coming from, we cannot manipulate it, but we know it is there.

When we come into worship we come in expectantly. We know that the Spirit is there, and that God is initiating with us. In response we listen humbly, expecting great things of God. We expect that the Spirit will move within us, as well as prepare our hearts for the teaching of Scripture and the truths that God will reveal to us there.

Transformative

“Just as worship begins in holy expectancy, it ends with holy obedience. If worship does not propel us into greater obedience, it has not been worship” (Richard Foster, in 'Celebration of Discipline'). When Isaiah has the most powerful encounter of worship he would ever experience, his response was to what Foster calls ‘holy obedience.’  He is emboldened to walk more closely with God and to enter the world with a sense of mission (even though it would never result in accolades or applause).

As we encounter God in worship our hearts and minds should encounter the same transformative experience. We should come into worship with holy expectancy and come out with holy obedience. We should experience life change, submission to God’s will, and a renewed heart for bringing the full power of the Gospel to a lost and broken world.

Freedom

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3.17). There is no one ‘right’ way or form to worship God. As long as we pursue worshipping God in both the Spirit and in truth then there is great freedom in how we worship.

With that being said, we want to continually nudge ourselves towards learning how to worship in new and different ways. As we worship in a diverse and multi-ethnic environment we will consistently find ourselves out of our comfort zones. The freedom of the Spirit gives us opportunity to venture out beyond the boundaries of where we may normally stop.

Hospitable

“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity” (Colossians 4.5). In a context like River City, there will always be groups of people who will feel like ‘outsiders.’  Church traditions, cultural practices, socioeconomic differences, and spiritual openness are just some of the many factors that shape the variety of our congregation.

Therefore we need to not only celebrate the diversity of people of different races, ethnicities, cultures, and socio-economic and worship backgrounds, but we need to help everyone find a place in worship to genuinely express themselves. We equally esteem the diverse cultures and lives of all people. We need to consistently be sensitive to those in our community who are not yet believers. We also need to be sensitive to the dominant cultural representation of whoever is leading worship and create a climate of hospitality for anyone who may not feel as comfortable with that culture.

Relevant

To become relevant is to catch up with the time, people, and context that we are intended to serve. Relevance is not conforming to a certain expectation; it is about communicating the truth and power of the Gospel in a timely and understandable way.

Therefore everything from our music style, stage setup, and choice of instruments will continue to evolve as we seek the best way to connect our people to God and send them into the world on mission.

Excellence

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3.23-24).

It is the Lord Christ we are serving, and therefore when it comes to the preparation and execution of our worship service we work hard and give the very best of what we have. Excellence is not to be confused with perfection!  Excellence is giving the best and doing the best with what we have (see also Exodus 12; Deuteronomy 17:1; Psalm 33:3, 1 Timothy 4:14-15; Hebrews 11:4).

Authentic

In John 14.6 Jesus says he is the path to truth and life in the Father. One of the dimensions of worship is that we are all in different places within the path, and should strive to be authentic to that. Jesus meets us where we are on the path, and we come authentically as we are.

Authentic worship means we pursue God’s heart more than a finished product. Authentic worship means we are being honest to ourselves and honest to god. Authentic worship means that we can celebrate or grieve; shout to joy or lament; as long as we are honest to where we truly are.

Philosophy of worship

Worship is bedrock to the vision of River City Community Church, and is the central focus of everything that we do. Therefore those who have the assignment of leading us into worship in our Sunday morning venue play a crucial role in the vision of our church. The worship leader (and team) are the ones who combine music, creative arts, Scripture, and spoken word to create an environment where the congregation can become sensitive to the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. The following quote is one of many ways we could understate the importance of music in the overall vision of worship:

“Worship is our response to what we value most. I think all music – not just Christian music – is worship music, because every song is amplifying the value of something. There’s a trail – of our time, our affections, our allegiance, our devotion, our money – that leads to a throne, and whatever’s on the throne is what we worship. We’re all doing a great job of it because God has created us to be worshippers. The problem is that a lot of us have really bad gods.” (Louie Giglio, ‘The Air I Breathe’)

Worship is the passageway by which we respond to God’s love, express our awe, adoration, and astonishment of God, and respond to God’s love through a transformed lifestyle. In addition to that, worship in the Sunday morning venue becomes the window by which most people will peer in to catch a glimpse of River City. When we are working at our best, worship, evangelism, racial reconciliation, social justice, and spiritual formation will all be deeply interconnected.

The purpose of this section of the document is to explore some of the philosophical underpinnings that connect all of these streams.

Worship and Racial Reconciliation

The second pillar of River City is reconciliation, and the role of the worship ministry is inexorably linked to this value (particularly in the expression of reconciliation as it burns through racial, cultural, and socioeconomic barriers). Multiple Scriptures could be used to make this point, but here are a couple of specific passages in Revelation that drive it home:

“And they sang a new song… because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God members of every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5.9).

“After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb… they cried out in a loud voice: "Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb" (Revelation 7.9-10).

Not only will our primary function in Heaven be to worship God, but it will happen in the context of a multi-ethnic, multicultural choir made up of all of God’s people!  Together they will cry out in a loud voice, singing songs of praise and worship to God.

At River City we desire to move toward this reality of Heaven someday here on earth now. But hoping for that and experiencing that are two very different things. An experience of that reality in modern day America requires something of a spiritual high wire act. Creating a multi-ethnic, culturally diverse worship experience requires the bridging of some significant stylistic differences, musical differences, philosophical differences, and theological differences.

Due to the difficulty of this type of vision, here are some philosophical convictions we have in terms of worship and reconciliation:

1.} We must acknowledge and accept the difficulty of building this type of worship culture. Assuming the best case scenario that we are able to draw a multiethnic and culturally diverse group, we must still recognize the difficulty of creating an agreeable worship culture. Some of the pressing challenges include a.) Empowering everyone in the community find a place to genuinely express themselves, b.) Esteeming all of the cultures equally, and c.) Creating a sound that includes as broad of a swath as possible.

Therefore we know going in that there will be many times when this process is not easy. At some point almost everyone in the congregation will feel frustration over a style they don’t like and wish that they could go back to a culturally centered experience. Those on the worship team will get frustrated because things are not happening the way they are used to. We know this going in!  That is why this is point 1 – philosophically, we believe that embracing the tension is critical. Those who create these types of worship experiences must believe to the bottom of their heart that this is God’s will, that the vision is from Heaven, that the tension is actually a positive thing, and that the sweetness we experience along the way will be far greater than the frustrations.

2.} We must acknowledge the inherent beauty in styles that we are unfamiliar with. Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 are both great case studies on race, culture and church life. In both passages Paul addresses ethnic-cultural tensions as the Gentile and Jewish Christians strive to understand the Gospel. But Paul takes an interesting turn when he tells both groups that the ethnic-cultural framework they carry makes them weak in understanding certain aspects of the Gospel, and strong in understanding others. The point is that if we desire to have a comprehensive worship experience, we need to be brought into the perspectives that other cultures carry in their worship styles. Said more succinctly: we don’t just tolerate each other’s worship styles; we desire them in order to go deeper in our own worship expression.

3.} We must have a sacrificial spirit as we embark on this journey. James Forbes Jr. (from The Riverside Church in New York City) summarizes this point well when discussing compromise and the comfort level at a church:

“A truly diverse congregation where anybody enjoys more than 75 percent of what’s going on is not thoroughly integrated. So that if you’re going to be an integrated church you have to be prepared to think, “hey, this is great, I enjoyed at least 75 percent of it,” because 25 percent you should grant for somebody’s precious liturgical expression that is probably odious to you; otherwise it’s not integrated. So an integrating church is characterized by the need to be content with less than total satisfaction with everything. You have to factor in a willingness to absorb some things that are not dear to you but may be precious to do some of those coming in.”

4.} We will pursue the vision of a “New Song.” Historically, churches that are intentionally multicultural tend to take one of three approaches to worship style:

1: Alternating Sundays. This approach recognizes the distinct differences in each of the worship styles, and caters to those differences. They form a band around each of these styles, and rotate them each Sunday. For example, there could be as many as 4 worship teams, with a Latin-salsa style band, a Black-Gospel choir, a Caucasian-Christian rock band, and a conservative-hymns based approach.

2: Alternating Styles: A modified version of the above, except, instead of having different bands, they have one band attempt to alternate styles within one worship service.

3: An eclectic style: This approach doesn’t classify itself as a certain style; rather, it allows the diversity of the worship team to create something unique to its musicians.

These differences are worth noting, because our philosophical leaning is towards the third approach, which we have labeled the ‘New Song’ approach. In Revelation 5.9 John says that this multi-ethnic, culturally diverse community of believers came before God and sang out a new song (see also Psalm 33.3; 40.3; 96.1; 98.1; 144.9; 149.1).

Our hope and vision is that the River City worship team would be filled with a variety of ethnically and culturally diverse people who represent a wide spectrum of musical origins. Each of the team members would leverage the cultural roots and experiences they have, and as the process unfolds, a New Song would emerge that gives honor and glory to God. If it works right we expect that each ethnic-cultural group in River City would both recognize their culture within the New Song while simultaneously finding the sound to be stretching and comfortably foreign to them.

5.} We will be intentional about the ‘dominant note’ of our worship voice. We have the expectation of anyone in senior leadership at River City that they will have central to their theology and philosophy a commitment towards multiethnic and culturally diverse ministry. But we also have a realistic understanding that no human being can grasp all cultural values, preferences, and styles equally. He/she will always have a ‘dominant note’ that they work from. In other words, they will always have a certain set of values, preferences, and styles that they gravitate back towards even in the midst of trying to build diverse teams.

As the Senior Pastor of River City, my dominant note is anchored in a white, evangelical, educated perspective. My heart’s desire is to build a multiethnic and culturally diverse church, but my natural gravity will always drift back towards my lifetime of experiences in the cultural landscape I was formed.

This is important for the philosophy of our worship ministry, because it is crucial that the worship ministry is anchored to a different dominant note than the Senior Pastor. This is not about ensuring cosmetic diversity on our staff; it is about bringing cultural balance to our church. Said in a negative way, if the worship leader at River City had the same cultural dominant note as I did, we would be hard pressed to create a church culture that could genuinely welcome in people from a variety of cultural upbringings. Said in a positive way, when the worship leader shares the same theological convictions and philosophy of the Senior Pastor but a different dominant note, it creates a cultural ethos that is both spiritually and ethnically inclusive and ripe for growth.

6.} We will develop a team-approach to worship leading. Though there will be a dominant note that the worship leader will inevitably feel more comfortable with, it will be crucial that the worship leader can also develop a team that can worship in more than one tradition (i.e. Gospel, Latino, Hymns, Christian Contemporary, etc). The worship leader will play a pivotal role in modeling reconciliation and a consistent desire/willingness to learn from other cultural backgrounds. The worship leader will be someone that shows consistent capacity and desire to create space for people of a variety of backgrounds to use their gifts to create a multicultural worship capacity within River City. The worship leader will also disciple the team into growth and maturity in their own lives.

Worship and Evangelism

Not just racial reconciliation, but spiritual reconciliation

When exploring the factors involved in building a racially and culturally diverse church, it is paramount that we don’t limit the discussion to just the experience of the already convinced. Worship does not exist solely to connect Christians to God; it also exists to draw a watching world into relationship with their Creator. Jesus himself declared this as one of the central purposes of creating a unified body. “My prayer is not for [believers] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17.20-21).

At the surface, it could seem that creating an environment where Christians are intensely worshipping God while at the same time being sensitive to non-believers might be mutually exclusive. But we believe that this can and should happen. God commanded Israel to invite the nations to join in declaring His glory. Zion was to be a center for world-winning worship. “Praise him all ye peoples!”  Israel’s worship was supposed to be attractive worship that compelled others to join Him.

So, how does this philosophically happen?  This metaphor from a fellow practitioner in the South describes our philosophy well:

“In the South we are huge college football fans.”  If you meet someone that is not yet a Florida Gators fan, you can take one of two approaches to convince him. Approach 1 would be to take him to a coffee shop that had no Gator paraphernalia, and try to convince him of the merits of being a fan in a safe, non-threatening environment. Approach 2 would be to take him to a Florida Gators game, and let him breathe the air, smell the scents, listen to the cheers, feel the vibe.”

This is how we philosophically approach our Sunday worship service. We are trying to take everyone into a powerful experience (personally and communally) as we approach the throne room of God. While doing so, we recognize that the journey to get to that point has unique elements (and even barriers) for each person. Some of them are cultural (which are addressed above), and some of them are spiritual. This philosophy shapes the way we do a number of things during a Sunday morning worship service:

1.} We recognize hospitality as a supreme virtue in the worship experience. As the church was borne in the New Testament, a flood of admonitions followed to take hospitality very seriously (1 Peter 4.9; Romans 12.13; Hebrews 13.2). Hospitality was considered such an important virtue that you couldn’t be in senior leadership without it (1 Timothy 3.2; Titus 1.7-8). We believe that an important part of the worship ministry is to become experts at hospitality, and to spiritually guide the experience of all the different backgrounds present, especially unbelievers.

2.} We are very careful with the vocabulary we use. For those who teach, speak, or lead at any level in worship, we aim to be as inclusive as possible in our use of language. We always assume that in addition to the believers present, there are also many who either do not come from church backgrounds, or were marginalized by the church experiences they did have. Whoever is speaking or leading will speak from the cultural context they come from, yet continuously grow to be mindful of the non-believers who come from cultures and backgrounds different than theirs. We will not overly spiritualize words or phrases that do not need to be over-spiritualized. Instead we will attempt to convey the concepts in a language that our entire church body can understand.

3.} We work in partnership with our River City attendees. We are very clear in our philosophy that the Sunday service is not a performance put on by professional musicians and pastors; it is a communal partnership to reach our city for God. The only way that River City will be effective in these evangelistic efforts and vision for spiritual renewal is if our parishioners are regularly taking relational risks and inviting friends to church. Only then can we have authentic dialogue as to the current effectiveness of our Sunday service to reach our friends for Christ.

4.} We commit to bringing non-believers ourselves. The clearest way for a worship team to lose touch with its evangelistic effectiveness is to plan and execute church services for people they do not actually interact with. If the members of the church are taking relational risks and inviting friends to church but the worship team is not, then we are putting on an inauthentic service. A clear part of our worship philosophy is that we as the worship team are inviting non-believer friends into our church experience alongside the rest of the church members.

Worship and Spiritual Formation

I will say less on this one, not because it is less important, but because we follow in a long line of Christian saints who have focused on worship as a time to come before God and have our spirits formed in His presence. We believe that at the end of the day, nothing is as important as our relationship with God, and the worship time on Sundays is an opportune time for us to come before the presence of God in worship and reverence. Below are some of the Scriptural commands of what we are to do in times of worship, and we intend to pursue all of these in every worship time:

1.} Lift high the name of Jesus Christ -- John 4:22-26; John12:32; John 14:6

2.} Lead God's people to lift their hearts and voices to Him, giving Him praise and thanks in music and lyric (Nehemiah 12:45-46; Psalm 66:1-4; Psalm 95:1-2);

3.} Prepare hearts to hear the Lord speak through the proclamation of Scripture (Psalm 95:6-9; Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 2:41-42);

4.} Emphasize fresh and contemporary expressions while retaining traditional elements that recognize the richness of our heritage in the faith (Deuteronomy 32:7; Psalm 33:3; Isaiah 46:8-9; Matthew 13:32, Ephesians 5:19; Revelation 5:9);

5.} Pursue excellence in worship, knowing that God is worthy of our best (Exodus 12; Deuteronomy 17:1; Psalm 33:3, 1 Timothy 4:14-15; Hebrews 11:4).

Expectations of worship Leader

Some thoughts on expectations I don’t think we can flex on…

1.} Already has a demonstrated commitment to the same vision and philosophy of River City. We don’t want to ‘convert’ our leaders to a commitment to reconciliation, social justice, evangelism, multicultural ministry, community development, etc. Do they get the kingdom vision of every tribe & nation worshiping God (Rev 7.9) and how we (especially at multi-ethnic churches like RC) have the opportunity to experience a taste of that worship here on earth?  Do they believe in the role that multicultural worship can play in exemplifying racial reconciliation, and the importance of worship in a multi-ethnic church?

2.} Will be an active part of the life of River City. Membership, staff meetings, neighborhood development functions, etc.

3.} Values teamwork and equipping people. In the spirit of Ephesians 2, this should not be a performer as much as someone who identifies, trains, develops, and equips musicians and singers in the body to be able to bring their gifts to the worship experience.

4.} Can work with and learn from people culturally different than themselves. Is the leader able to lead different styles and from more than one worship tradition?  (i.e. Gospel, Latino, Hymns, Christian Contemporary, etc.) Are they willing to learn from other leaders and grow in their own worship leading or do they think they've more or less arrived and the church can take what they have to offer?  Do they understand that with a multi-cultural congregation, it is their responsibility to learn about the various worship styles represented in the church and incorporate various aspects of them into their leading?

5.} Is a person of spiritual maturity who can lead worship as an outflow of where they are already at with God. Leading people in worship should naturally flow out of a person’s character, integrity, and personal relationship with God. Does this person already demonstrate intimacy and connection to God?  Are there open wounds or broken relationships that could obscure their ability to lead a congregation in worship?

6.} Understands how to lead a congregation in worship. The leader need to understand that the songs, the prayers, the verbal transitions—they are all leading people from somewhere to somewhere. The worship leader is creating a sacred place, an environment for God to move and speak to people’s hearts & minds. Can they select songs that fit a purpose and direction?  How are they with verbal and musical transitions?  Are they sensitive to the Spirit leading during worship?  Do they have a balance in listening to the Spirit in proper preparation as well as in the actual leading?  Do they show a proficiency for being able to take people on a Spirit journey, whether that be to confess, to remind, to proclaim, or to respond?