Bringing the Heat

“I’d rather have someone sold out in passionate pursuit of God who can barely hold a tune, than some concert-level professional with no spiritual intimacy.”

I’ve been writing about building the fire of worship in ministry, starting with the needed structure of technical excellence as fuel. 2nd Samuel 6 has been my source text for this topic.

The next leg of that fire triangle is the heat, or in the case of worship, the heart.

The previous post looks at 2nd Sam 6:1-10 to see what happens when we don’t have the right structure in place in worship. But structure and musicianship is not all there is to quality worship ministry, just like arranging wood in a fire pit doesn’t actually give us a fire.

Starting in 2 Sam 6:11-23, King David makes a second attempt to bring the Ark back to Jerusalem, and this time, he starts it right. The appropriate people are carrying the Ark by the poles built into its frame. No ox cart is involved. On top of that, sacrifices are offered every few steps, and the King himself steps up to lead the worship and praise.

Here we see David’s heart in a right position before God and the people. Most of my thoughts here come from what Pastor Herbie Thompson shared with the Bellevue Christian Center worship collective for June – credit where credit is due.

Herbie pointed out that David leads by example in three ways which reveal his heart for God. First off, David worships with liberty.

Technical excellence calls for us to take worship seriously, but heart excellence calls us to be liberated and willing to set aside what seems proper. We must sometimes abandon dignity for authenticity in our worship. As worshipers in the view of others – whether on stage or in every day life – our expression of what’s on our heart provides an example and permission for others to follow.

What does that look like practically?

– Many traditional churches teach dancing is bad or at least dangerous. But when I read accounts of worshipers dancing before The Lord, I realize that it’s ok to permit my body’s movements to demonstrate the emotion in my heart that words cannot fully express. It’s not about my skill in dancing, it’s the fact that my heart moves me to dance before Him even as He dances over us (Zephaniah 3:17).

– I didn’t know I could get angry with God until I read the Psalms and saw worshipers expressing anger and frustration to God. Now I can be more honest in the hard times.

– We sing songs that speak of bowing down or kneeling, of raising hands in surrender, or of jumping for joy. It may not look ‘professional’ but my heartfelt physical response matching the words I’m singing – that tells others that they can do the same in church or in their everyday life.

– We often have times in between songs where we encourage the congregation to express their heart to God using their own words. If we never show what that looks like, if we never risk stumbling over spontaneous praise for fear of how it might appear or affect our reputation for technical excellence, then we’re not giving permission for the people to express their hearts freely.

Our structure has to be in place, but we can’t be bound to what’s written in a schedule or what’s printed on a page. We have to be willing to operate in liberty, so that those we’re leading can learn how to worship liberally.

The heat we bring to worship is also expressed by using all our might. David didn’t hold back in his dance and celebration. He didn’t encumber himself with the robes of the king or the heavy crown – he put on a functional priestly garment and got footloose. His physical and nonverbal actions communicated exactly what his mouth was saying.

How often do I bring that level of heart into my worship, in private or in public? Do my gestures and movements and expressions communicate the same as the words I sing? Am I singing about joy with a strained look on my face, or playing piano gritting my teeth as I try to get every note right? Am I singing a song of humility and brokenness with a wide grin on my face?

And am I giving it my all, or am I holding something back? Our expressions of worship may be the only tool someone has to figure out what worshiping God means. Do they see me bring half-hearted effort as if I have somewhere I’d rather be? Or do they see me give everything I’ve got, shouting praise till my voice is raw, because He’s worthy?

Pouring all of ourselves into worship teaches others how to do the same.

Finally, David worships with his title. He gets up as the King and he shows the people how important worshiping God is. “If the King is doing all that, then God must be important. If the King is dancing, and offering all these sacrifices… if the King took off his robes and crown and set aside his dignity to worship God, then so should I.”

David made it all about God. David took what seemed like the most important thing about him and turned it into worship of Him. Like the elders in Revelation 4 throwing down their crowns before the Throne of God, David shows the people that it isn’t about the King of Israel, it’s about the God of Heaven and Earth.

David correctly shows that the title is not as important as the testimony. His actions will be respected by those who saw him set aside his dignity for the sake of worship.

With titles and dignity, we can go one of two ways. We can turn them into another aspect of how we worship God, or we can use them as an excuse to take away from our worship of God. Michal goes that route in vv. 16-23. She goes off on David about how “the King” has distinguished himself – her primary concern was for his title, not for his heart toward God. She becomes a spectator instead of a participant, judging instead of joining.

It challenges me because it’s so easy to watch and critique instead of engaging in worship. “I wouldn’t do it that way. I would have played this song instead, it fits better.” When I find myself in that position, I need to watch out!

So, in all of this, I reflect on three questions:

What holds me back from liberty in front of other people? (Is it fear of their reaction, is it concern for my reputation? Is it shame or perceived unworthiness?)

What do I hold back in worship that keeps me from giving all my might?

What are the titles I hold that I deem most important, and how do I turn those around into amplified expressions of worship? (i.e. father, husband, manager, coach, writer)

Technical excellence and heart excellence are what we bring – the fuel and the heat. Next I’ll look at the last leg of the triangle essential for maintaining fire: the oxygen of the Spirit.

Building the Fire

I was a bit of a pyromaniac as a kid.

I might have burned several toys over the years. I may have used a lighter and hairspray as a makeshift flamethrower to kill bugs in our basement. I possibly was involved in dousing an indestructible metal Tonka truck in gasoline, but I’m pretty sure that was my brother’s idea.

I did set a dumpster on fire, but that was purely by accident.

But at camp I learned how to build and maintain a fire. Fires need three things: fuel, heat, and oxygen. Set up the fuel correctly, and you ensure that oxygen can flow through once you get the flames started. Set it up haphazard, and you potentially smother your fire. Most importantly, if you build it right, you can keep it going.

Worship ministry is similar. It starts with fuel, a foundation of technical expertise that gives us something to build on.

In 2nd Samuel 6, we see a few pictures of worship around the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of the presence of God. And the first is about this technical expertise.

Once King David secured his throne, he turned his attention to God’s presence. David wanted the Ark in Jerusalem, and went to retrieve it. He brought 30,000 men, all of them ready to praise their hearts out. They put the Ark on a new cart, and they started a celebratory procession to bring God’s presence back to the city of the King.

But the Law was clear about the way the Ark would be moved. It had poles fitted into rings on the corners (see Exodus 25) and had to be carried by the Levites (Deut. 10:8). The use of a cart was forbidden.

So the cart is jostled, and the Ark moves, and Uzzah, one of the guys walking along next to it, reaches up to make sure it doesn’t fall over. I mean, that would be pretty embarrassing, right? If the holy Ark fell in the dirt along the road?

Uzzah dies on the spot. The celebration stops. David says, “How can this Ark come to me?” and he sends the Ark off to a nearby house instead.

David had all the passion in the world, surrounded by a crowd praising their hearts out, and it wasn’t enough without the right structure.

Last Sunday, my wife and I were discussing worship. She noted how worship ministries often seem like a pendulum, swinging from emphasis on the right heart and attitude to emphasis on impeccable performance and musicianship. I’ve heard it said, “I’d rather have a struggling musician playing with a heart after God than have a concert-quality musician who’s in it for themselves.”

But we miss the point if we look at this as a dilemma, as though you can only have either technical expertise or passion for God, not both.

We can throw some folks together on stage and go after God with abandon, and it might be a powerful moment. But it’s not a sustainable model for a worship ministry.

I could set things on fire as a kid… but I didn’t know how to build a fire that could be kept burning.

The fuel for our worship “fire” is technical excellence. It’s the structure we set up, the way we arrange and organize all the parts of the ministry.

We can call it practice, musicianship, or competence. But it goes further than notes played on instruments or words sung by voices. The sound crew, the lighting manager, audio/visual technicians, administrators who organize songbooks or communicate schedule details – any group that plays a part in the technical details has to be involved in the overall development of skill for the team. They all have to be involved in this process of growth and maturation because any one of them can create a positive or negative impact during the ministry time.

For our church, this means changes like incorporating a click track to play in our earphones so that everyone can (hopefully) stay on tempo. It means getting the different instrumentalists and vocalists (and sound crew, and A/V crew, and lighting crew, etc) together to hone each other’s skills. It takes time and effort and commitment.

I used to think heart was all that mattered. I led worship based on feeling and a sense of what I hoped was the Spirit’s leading. We might practice a set on Thursday, but by Sunday morning, I would change the set because another song felt better. Or we’d practice a song in one key, and then I’d come in on Sunday and change keys so the songs would transition together better. We had a small team of adaptable and skilled musicians who would essentially shrug and say, “If you think so, sure.” Then they’d play so well it was like we planned it that way months in advance.

We had a trumpet player join. He warned me he was getting back into playing after years, but he would try his best. And I thought he did quite well, adding in here and there to complement the band.

I didn’t learn until weeks later that he was taking the music home Thursday and painstakingly transposing all the songs to the right key for his trumpet so he could spend hours practicing what we played. When I changed things on Sunday based on “heart,” I was essentially putting him on the bench for those songs. On top of that, I was disrespecting the hours he spent honing his craft every week to be able to participate.

I thought all the structure was stifling, and the refusal of organization liberating.

But the structure makes a ministry that can burn strong and keep on burning.

Take away one side of the fire triangle, and it goes out. Take away the technical excellence, allow it to atrophy, and the fire of worship ministry is extinguished.

Next, I’ll look at the other side of that pendulum – heart excellence, the “heat” to our fire.