June 16, 2010

Aiming for His Presence

2010 1517 page16 caps part of my present responsibilities, I have the privilege of worshipping with a different congregation almost every weekend. I’m invited to speak in worship settings among various cultures in the United States, as well as in countries around the world. As such, I’ve developed a great appreciation for worship styles of all kinds. I have deliberately chosen not to be beholden to any particular style of worship expression. If there’s a sense of God’s presence in the place, I want to be there.

Regrettably, I’ve walked into many places where people are having “church,” yet there’s this noticeable absence of God’s presence. And when His presence is absent, true worship cannot take place.

There’s this notion that if the bulletin is closely adhered to, if the musicians perform with precision, if the order of service flows efficiently, if worshippers stand and sit on cue, if the sermon is delivered decently, and, most of all, if everything ends on time, worship has taken place. Not so!

We can get so used to having church without a sense of God’s presence that we don’t miss it when it’s absent. Again, real worship takes place only in God’s presence. And while many understand this in theory, I’m not sure we experience it on a regular basis.

During the children of Israel’s painful journey through the desert, with their penchant of regularly breaking the heart of God, there’s a singular time when they really stepped over the edge.
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Moses had gone up the mountain to be with God, as was his regular habit. Can we even imagine the level of mutual enjoyment they must have had? I’m sure Moses lingered each time before he had to leave that mountain and the holy atmosphere of God’s presence.

But while Moses was on the mountain receiving instructions and worshipping God, Moses’ brother, Aaron, was on the desert floor leading worship of a different kind. In that “worship” service, there was music, great ambience, powerful singing, and Aaron, the stand-in leader, gave a “message” of sorts, albeit a self-serving one.

We all know the sordid details of the story. God was clearly not the center of that worship service; He had been replaced by a golden calf. Nevertheless, it was worship—of a strange kind.

But let’s not walk away from that story too quickly. As I mentioned, all the accoutrements of worship were present. But the presence of the true and living God was nowhere to be found.

The point is: you can have the best of everything in a church service and still not have God’s presence. For God to show up in a worship service, His presence must be pursued, aimed for. What do I mean?

God desires to be with us in church. But sometimes we miss Him in our effort to be so highly structured and efficient that we have not learned the value of praying for, waiting for, and aiming for His presence. That is best done in a worship environment I call planned spontaneity. That is, we plan the worship services well, but we intentionally leave room for the working of the Holy Spirit. In other words, He can take the service anywhere He wants, at any time.

I have been in worship services where God’s presence was so manifested that the Holy Spirit impressed me to invite people to receive Christ after the offering, or to teach the Word after the invocation. What I’ve learned is that the bulletin is there to guide, not to control. Without a doubt, I believe greatly in worship organization, but not to the point where God is “organized out” of being in full control of the service.

Praying for and aiming for God’s presence is the object of worship. Any other reason we show up is not worship. That means allowing God to show up and move upon His people any way and anywhere He chooses.

Frederick A Russell is president of the Allegheny West Conference, with headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. This article was published on June 17, 2010.