(1 Cor 14:25b) [vistors] fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”
I have a theory, but God will show himself as he pleases. This is not to limit God.
First, and this is the easiest part (not that it’s easy), you have to eliminate those things that get in the way. Bad singing not only doesn’t encourage, it can be discouraging. I don’t mean the old woman with a bad voice (obviously). I mean when the congregation as a whole is being badly led. That means the church isn’t using its gifts to their fullest.
Not everyone cares about the quality of the music, because some of us weren’t born sensitive to these things. But most people (including me) are very attuned to the quality of the song service — which means we can be lifted to the heavens by great singing and deeply discouraged by bad singing. If you’re not that way, well that’s how God made you, but don’t impose your views on those created with different needs.
And it’s not that hard to get rid of long-winded prayers, tedious, thoughtless communion services, and all the other things that we tolerate just because we don’t have the courage to make a change. Consider what’s less than edifying, and do better. Ponder whether God really wants poorly thought-out communion talks or repetitious, sermonizing prayers. He’s actually spoken plainly on the prayer thing —
(Mat 6:7) And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.
I don’t see how we can simultaneously have such a high view of worship while at times being so very shoddy about how we do things — we sometimes just seem to think it’s about checking the 5 boxes. It’s not.
Sometimes we act (and teach and preach) as though the assembly is supposed to be painful experience endured to make God happy — I guess because he enjoys watching us suffer. It is, after all, all about God. But God says it’s all about edifying his children. And so, the way we honor God is by honoring his word, and we honor his word, ironically enough, by having assemblies the edify the members and show the very presence of God to visitors. When we trivialize the needs of the members, we dishonor God.
And there’s the odd strain of thought that worship is not entertainment, and therefore doing anything that we enjoy is somehow wrong. Wrong! The Bible does not speak in terms of entertainment pro or con. It tells us plainly to encourage and edify and show the very presence of God. If that entertains, fine. Entertainment yes or no is the wrong standard because it’s not a biblical standard — indeed, obsessing over whether we might accidentally entertain someone is to add a command to the Bible that’s just not there. Obviously, entertainment that doesn’t edify, encourage, or show God’s presence would be wrong. But so would be a sermon that does none of these things.
Once a year we have a school supply drive. One of the leaders routinely makes the announcement dressed as a giant blue crayon! It’s very entertaining — but it’s also a very effective encouragement to love and good deeds. It is therefore very scriptural.
Second, and this is harder but much more important, you need to have a Spirit-filled congregation. If you do, the Spirit’s presence will show in the faces and hearts of the church. It’ll well up in the singing, in the communion talks, the foyer conversations — it’ll radiate God’s glory in everything the church does from the bulletin boards to the budget.
(1 Cor 14:24-25) But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, 25 and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”
Paul was speaking particularly of the Spirit’s work through prophecy, which must have included the ability to know someone’s past or such like. But the principle is much broader. I can’t imagine Paul meant that if this particular gift of the Spirit isn’t present among you visitors shouldn’t perceive the presence of God. Rather, his point is surely that the Spirit’s work should be evident in the assembly, regardless of the gift of the Spirit being used. And it’s clear that the Spirit is still in the business of giving gifts, even when they aren’t as spectacular of some that read about in the Bible. We do, after all, also read about the gifts of encouragement, leadership, etc. Moreover, Paul tells us —
(Phil 3:3) For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh–
And so, it seems, that our worship should display the working of the Spirit, even there’s no manifestation of the Spirit beyond Spirit-driven worship. And visitors can, indeed, tell the difference. This hardly means that there’s no human involvement in planning and directing the worship. After all, it’s the Spirit that gives the gift of leadership. Failing to use it in the assembly would be an insult to the Giver.
Now, leading a church so that the presence of the Spirit is manifest even to non-Christian visitors is no easy task. I think the process is kind of like this (not that the Spirit is at all confined to any human process) —
* Lots of prayer. Ask for God to fill the church with his Spirit. Outloud. In the assembly. Until you’re comfortable speaking about the Spirit in Biblical terms, you’re going to frustrate his work.
* Lots of grace. Teach grace repeatedly in the classes and from the pulpit. Never miss an opportunity. You see, every book of the Bible is permeated with God’s grace. So you really can’t do a proper job of teaching the scriptures otherwise. A preacher who’se afraid to preach grace is a preacher afraid to preach the gospel. And grace taught without the doctrine of the Spirit will only be a shadow of the real thing.
* Lots of mission. When we understand God’s generosity to us, we understand how generous we are to be toward others.
A church that prays, knows grace, and is on mission will show God’s presence in its assemblies — unless the singing is terrible. God will certainly be there even if the singing is atrocious, but it’ll be hard to notice when you want to climb the walls because the song leader is just … so … very … very … very … slow.
PS — It’s entirely possible to do all these things a cappella. The biggest problem with the a cappella thing is the deeply flawed theology behind the idea that instrumental music is sin — even damnable. The biggest danger of remaining exclusively a cappella is allowing that theology to lurk about.
When I wrote the original post, I intended to follow it with another post on how to do worship well with a guitar. There are also some very bad instrumental services out there, too, you know. But I soon realized that I’m not expert enough to share an opinion on the subject, and so I never finished the second post.
My point is certainly not that we must be a cappella. Long-time readers know this very well. My point is that we can do much better within the a cappella tradition. Even if you add an instrumental service, you should want the a cappella service you continue to hold to be top notch. (And many of the same points apply to instrumental services.)
PPS — Do I have a problem with people speaking other than the preacher? No. I have a problem with bad speaking by anyone, especially the preacher. It’s just that we generally don’t tolerate poor preaching, while many churches tolerate poor song leading, poor communion services, and poor leading of prayers. Saying this is not being unkind to those who are bad at these tasks. Rather, the leadership should take the trouble to train people to do better. Most people can do a decent job if someone will just tell them how — and encourage them to visit churches and events where it’s done well. Some people have no idea what good song leading is because they’ve never heard it.
Some of the most powerful talks I’ve ever heard were testimonies by people with no experience in public speaking. But they spoke of their own experiences with God from the heart. I’ll listen to those all day every day!
PPPS – And if we wouldn’t insist on dividing into tiny congregations that war with the other churches in town, we’d be amazed at the talents God has given us that we’ve buried through our divisiveness. God doesn’t want us to be so divided, so we shouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t give us enough song leaders etc. to staff as many congregations as we have. If we don’t have enough talent, it’s because we have too many congregations, not because God hasn’t been generous enough.