In thinking about various aspects of worship, I came to what I believe is the most important:

Our worship must be our own.

Trust in Him at all times, o people; Pour out your heart before Him; God is a refuge for us. Psalm 62:8 NASB

Since I’ve been recovering from foot surgery, my wife has been driving me to work, so she has been picking me up for lunch each day. We’ve been enjoying the rare treat of time together during my work day, and we’ve been going out to lunch. I saw very quickly how daily visits to fast food franchises have been affecting my diet and my wallet. Sure, I can make decent choices and save some money or some calories. But the fact is, eating out every day is not the most wholesome and healthy option.

It’s so different from selecting my own ingredients, preparing each item or dish to my liking, adding in spices to match my personal taste.

So too when I sit down to worship – whether with worship music (David Crowder’s “After All” and Hillsong’s “Alive in Us” are playing in my ears as I type) or with Bible study resources.  How much of my worship comes pre-packaged and processed for me? How much is coming from my own heart responding to the Gospel and the God of grace?

Imagine giving Hallmark cards to your significant other, but when they open the card, there’s no personal note, no signature, no explanation. Just the poem or joke or pretty words provided by the company. How much would that touch someone’s heart?

Resources are great. The huge variety of worship music is a blessing, and the vast array of Bible study tools is helpful, no doubt about it. But these are tools that should propel my own response to God, not take the place of it.

When we worship in church, do we ever take time to use our own words? Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, and Jared Anderson are all amazing songwriters who can capture the heart of a message in a thought-provoking song, no doubt. But those words are theirs, written for our benefit and use, but still theirs.

How do we make it our own?

Consider the following:

In Bible study or devotional reading, we can set aside the commentaries and articles sometimes, and go to the God who speaks through His Word. Ask, “What does this passage reveal to me about You? What does it say about how I should live for You?” Pray for the Spirit to illuminate the meaning beneath the surface text.

In singing and meditating on music, the songs of others are a fabulous starting point. Can those inspire us to sing or pray our own additions, our own experiences put into words? For example, the current popular song One Thing Remains can call to mind specific trials and ‘mountains’ of mine, and give me the opportunity to cast those cares upon Him in light of His unfailing love.

In prayer, we may have specific structured methods or even liturgical and rote prayers, but these are likewise starting points that help us get out into the depths. Maybe it’s the Lord’s Prayer, maybe it’s an ACTS model (Adoration Confession Thanksgiving Supplication), maybe it’s something else. Whatever it is, I don’t want to stop there. I want to go further, to make my prayer time my own.

At one point, King David wants to make a sacrifice to God. He goes to make an offering, and the owner says, “Here you go, it’s yours, o King.” David says no, and purchases the items. His justification? “I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God which cost me nothing” (2 Sam 24:24 NASB).

It’s a little bit more costly to take the time to personalize our worship, but the expression of love and the experience of love in return proves well worth the price.

How else can we personalize our time with God? Drop a comment with your suggestions.

Check the Motive

My wife and I were discussing the A to Z, as I was making a list of potential topics. The first one she suggested was “motivation.”

What kind of motivation do you mean, I wondered.

“I always want to get to the heart of things, the ‘why’ behind what we do,” she answered.

Questioning motivation of others is very difficult. We can’t read minds or judge intent. We either take what the other person says, or we believe whatever we’d like about them in spite of what they say. But there’s no reliable way of knowing for sure. So my thought is that making assumptions about the motivations of others puts us in dangerous territory.

But I think my wife has a really good point, so long as we direct the question of motivation to our actions and intentions. Because I read Jeremiah where God tells us that our hearts are deceitful and wicked, beyond our comprehension. So when I feel like my heart is suggesting a course of action, I don’t want to give in and “follow my heart” as the conventional wisdom goes. I want to ask myself, “Why am I doing this, and is this what God would want?”

Think about the song list you might choose as a worship leader (assuming you’re in that position). I know there have been times where I’ve looked at songs based on:
what I like
what’s cool
what’s new
what sounds good
what flows together well

But if the point is to encounter God in the worship, then are any of those standards the most important one? Am I doing what I believe will best lead the congregation to a better revelation of God and His relationship with us?

Or am I concerned with sounding and looking good?

What about the arrangement of songs and how they flow together? I’ve sometimes thought of novel transitions, special instrumentals, or skillful techniques I think would be great on Sunday morning… but do any of those add up to more meaningful worship of God? Sure, we can have a sweet guitar solo, and then we can change keys four times in a rising crescendo until we hit the peak and everything drops off to a moving, quiet a capella melody. But does that glorify God in that moment?

Or is it being done to show our skill, to say “Look what we can do,” to call attention to us in a moment when all eyes and hearts should be fixed on God? My wife asks, is it being done to manipulate people into a “better” worship experience? And is that our job?

As singers and musicians, we may not be in charge of song selection or arrangement, but we still play a pivotal role in the ministry. Our actions can impact the overall team, so our motivations matter. This is an area that can make or break a worship set. If everyone gets up as individuals intent on making sure their awesome skill is heard, then there is no team. There’s just a bunch of musicians trying to one-up each other. When we worry about the team dynamic, we can realize “How do I support the overall sound?”

I might be able to play a great part on the piano, but more often than not, what I need to do is hold down a synth pad… which is boring, uninspiring, lame. A trained monkey can do it. C A F G repeat. Yawn. But that synth pad fills in a hole in the overall sound, and it allows the bass to stand out in the low ranges, and then the rhythm guitar fills in the mid range, and the lead guitar wails out a haunting tone to complement the melody, and the background vocals fill in their harmonies…

And now we have a team where everything is functioning for the benefit of the whole instead of the individual.

Question motivation when it urges you to show off, when something comes to mind that says, “Oh, hey, I could play that part, I could fill in what that guy is doing.”

Vocalists have this question to consider as well. One of my favorite jokes is the Kim Walker “ha-ha” at the end of key lines. @WorshipSoundGuy on Twitter made the joke, “Background vocalist, unless your name is Kim Walker, if you do that ha-ha again, I’m straight-up muting you.”

I doubt many have that burning desire to “ha ha” each time they sing about grace, but what about the vocalizing and stylish flair we can add to our performances? Are we adding it because it adds something to the whole, or because it adds something to how people view us? Just because you can shimmy down the scale and back up again within the space of two words doesn’t mean you should. But sometimes that may serve a purpose. You have to check your motivation.

Let me share a story that captures what I mean here:

I remember one of the first times I got the chance to lead worship for the Sunday morning service. I was so excited. And our church was in the middle of a time where we focused on a very specific style and range of songs: spiritual warfare songs.

Not my favorite.

And there were a few other folk who also thought, “What I wouldn’t do for a good Vineyard song about just loving Jesus.”

So I said to myself, “Great, now’s my chance.” And to the disgruntled folks, I said, “Oh, just wait until next week when I lead. We’ll do all those love songs.”

We start the service, and get through one of the songs. And it’s ok, I tell myself.

We’re in song two, and I’m playing and singing and leading my heart out. And it’s pretty much getting a “meh.” Maybe I tried to start song three, or maybe it was just in the middle of song two, but the official worship leader leans over and whispers, “This isn’t going right. Let’s switch to such-and-such song.”

The song I was most sick of hearing. The song that had nothing to do with how much I love Jesus and He loves me.

I got through the set under her direction and song selection, and walked out of the sanctuary as soon as it was over. I was fuming. So were a few of my disgruntled friends.

This was supposed to be a time of intimacy and love in the worship, not more spiritual warfare and declaration! How dare the worship leader usurp my opportunity to lead the congregation, and redirect our focus to the theme the church was currently studying!

(You probably see all the holes in that logic, but I was mad, so I didn’t.)

I even got into the “us” who loved intimate songs versus the “them” who wanted to do all this spiritual warfare stuff, never considering that “us vs. them” is really really wrong in the church body.
I stepped outside to cool off and not distract from the service.

In the middle of my tirade, one of “my” folks, one of the “us” came outside. I saw her approach and smiled, knowing she’d agree with me.

She opened up with this:

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:17, 18 NASB)

Conviction stabbed my heart like a sword of fire. She was kind enough to not lead with the two verses prior, about jealous and envy and selfishness.

The worship leader later sat down with me and let me know she understood. “Dave, you have to remember, this thing on Sunday morning, this isn’t for you. It’s for them. It’s for God and what He wants to do in them. There are so many days I’d love to just melt in His presence and sing love songs. But that’s what I do on my personal time. That’s for me, so that I can come in here and know what God wants to do with them, and follow what He’s saying to the Pastor. I can’t pick songs on Sunday for me. It’s not about me.”

That’s the essence of considering our motivation for what we do as worshipers, especially if we are up front on stage, and even more so if we are leading.

“It’s not about me.”