Significant and meaningful are the words of the psalmist: "O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness" (Ps. 96:9). What is worship? It is something more than outward observance. Unless there is inward experience it is not worship. Personal relationship between God and man is really the holy of holies of human personality. True worship is the most dynamic and creative experience possible to man. The minister of the gospel is fulfilling his highest function when, as a leader of worship, he directs the human spirit Godward, enabling young and old to become conscious of the Eternal.
A fundamental need lies at the heart of worship—the need of God. Let us ponder these words: "There is nothing more needed in the work than the practical results of communion with God."—Testimonies, vol. 6, p. 47. In Testimonies, volume 9, page 143, the two definite types of worship are contrasted: "The evil of formal worship cannot be too strongly depicted, but no words can properly set forth the deep blessedness of genuine worship." (Italics supplied.)
How our congregations need the experience of genuine worship! Jesus said, "True worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him" (John 4:23). What a staggering thought! God seeking worshipers—those who will worship Him in spirit and in truth.
As a people we emphasize work and service, and rightly so. Such expressions as "finishing the work" are familiar in Adventist parlance. We specialize in training our congregations to work, and we used to sing, "O there'll be joy when the work is done," as if there could be no joy while we are doing the work. Yes, we are capable of training our congregations in the art of work, but are we leading them in the art of worship? True, there is a great work to do; but there is also a great God to be worshiped. It is altogether possible that the work of the Lord may be keeping us from the Lord of the work.
At the very heart of God's last message is a call to worship (Rev. 14:7). Whether our emphasis be on doctrine, precept, prophecy, or promotion, every feature of our message should lead our members to "worship him that made heaven, and earth." James Moffatt states a challenging truth when he says:
No feature of a Church is more characteristic than its worship. As men and women worship together, the ethos of their religious fellowship finds special expression. It is in their common praise and prayer, in the actions and the words of their church services, that the living convictions of their faith come out, even more distinctively than in their creeds. As a matter of fact, their forms and methods of worship, so far as they are adequate, express the spirit of their creed; the vital characteristics of what they believe to be their relationship to God are not so vividly exhibited in any formula, needful though that may be, as in the various services of worship which they offer to Him through rites and even the simplest ceremonies. What they do or what they leave undone in worship, private and public, is invariably significant. As a religious movement gathers impetus in history, the very hymns and prayers in which the adherents join hands and lift their hearts, form a lyrical, authentic confession of their distinctive faith in the God with whom they have to do.—Christian Worship, p. 119.
Making Worship Service Meaningful
True Christians will always worship; but how can we make the most of our worship services? What can we do to make them more meaningful? Many features enter into a regular service of worship, such as hymns, prayers, preaching, Scripture reading, responses, et cetera. But other things are also important. What about silence and meditation? To help a congregation to be still and know that God is God is perhaps the greatest experience of all.
If some have to wait a few minutes before the meeting begins, let them maintain a true spirit of devotion by silent meditation, keeping the heart uplifted to God in prayer that the service may be of special benefit to their own hearts and lead to the conviction and conversion of other souls. They should remember that heavenly messengers are in the house. We all lose much sweet communion with God by our restlessness, by not encouraging moments of reflection and prayer. . . . If when the people come into the house of worship, they have genuine reverence for the Lord and bear in mind that they are in His presence, there will be a sweet eloquence in silence.—Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 492.
As reverence is manifested in attitude and demeanor, the feeling that inspires it will be deepened.—Prophets and Kings, pp. 48, 49.
No one thing in a worship service is unimportant. Nothing that might be classified as unimportant should ever be permitted to intrude itself into the worship hour. Although we have enumerated features that rightly have a place in worship, yet in themselves they are not necessarily worship. Any of them, or all of them together, if carried out in the wrong way, could actually destroy the spirit of worship.
A service of worship should be planned, coordinated, progressive, and climactic. Nothing haphazard should be there. Moreover, every feature must be related to the whole; it must move toward an objective, and must culminate in congregational reaction and response. And toward this end the music also is important. Particular care must be exercised in the choice of hymns, for in our Adventist services this is practically the only opportunity for congregational response. How tragic, then, to have stanzas omitted!
One who recognizes his responsibility as a leader of worship will organize the service in such a way that every item will be a progressive step toward rededication of life on the part of each member of the congregation. This impressive word picture sets before us the real purpose of worship:
God calls upon His people to arise and come out of the chilling, frosty atmosphere in which they have been living, to shake off the impressions and ideas that have frozen up the impulses of love and held them in selfish inactivity. He bids them come up from their low, earthly level arid breathe in the clear, sunny atmosphere of heaven.—Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 607.
Selfishness freezes up life's impulses and holds us in self-centered inactivity. But if the worship service is what it should be and can be, then the worshipers can ascend the slopes of the mount of blessing, emerging into the sunny atmosphere of heaven. The icicles of indifference will melt in the sunlight of reality. The following counsel from Ellen G. White might profitably be heeded:
Is it not your duty to put some skill and study and planning into the matter of conducting religious meetings—how they shall be conducted so as to do the greatest amount of good, and leave the very best impression upon all [Adventists and non-Adventists] who attend?—Review and Herald, April 14, 1885.
The skilled leader will study not only his program but those to whom he ministers, and then plan everything in order to meet the need of the group. Not only must the program be planned, but the appearance of the house of worship itself is important. There must be nothing to distract the worshipers. James says, "Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you" (4:8). How can our people draw nigh to God when so many disturbing things are permitted to destroy the atmosphere of worship? "Atmosphere" is not easy to define, for it embraces a number of factors. Physical organisms are dependent upon atmosphere. Without atmosphere they would die. Atmosphere is invisible, intangible, yet absolutely essential. The air we breathe is indeed the breath of life, more vital even than our food. We are unconscious of it, except when it becomes either rarefied or heavy.
The Prevailing Atmosphere of Heaven
In applying the term to our spiritual life, Ellen G. White says that our meetings "should be pervaded with the very atmosphere of heaven" (Review and Herald, Nov. 30, 1886). Let us think of this "atmosphere of heaven" in which our spiritual nature is nourished and enriched. We may be unconscious of it, but we might well be alarmed if that spiritual atmosphere is lacking, or when it is "unwholesomely over-weighted."
True worship is a moving experience and progresses best in an atmosphere of perfect order. Correlation of the component parts is essential if the worship hour is to be more than just another meeting. Our Sabbath morning services consist of two main divisions—the congregational part, which is largely praise and prayer, and the minister's part, which is the sermon of instruction or inspiration.
It would be difficult to determine which of these is the more important. Opinions differ on this. Some hold that the sermon is the main thing, whereas others, especially those who use a liturgy, urge the importance of the congregational responses. They claim that participation is , more vital to Christian growth than mere edification. And that can be well sustained.
While urging the importance of features other than the preaching, we would not want to minimize the role of the preacher or to suggest that the sermon is secondary. If anything is to suffer, it certainly should not be the quality of the spoken message.
The Protestant Reformation came into existence largely through the power of preaching. But worship is not necessarily preaching, and certain types of preaching are anything but worshipful. True worship is weakened when the members become mere spectators rather than participants. Years ago the messenger of the Lord said:
Much of the public worship of God consists of praise and prayer, and every follower of Christ should engage in this worship. There is also the preaching service, conducted by those whose work it is to instruct the congregation in the word of God.—ELLEN G. WHITE in The Signs of the Times, June 24, 1886. (Italics supplied.)
Notice how these two features of worship are contrasted: "Every follower of Christ should engage in this worship," that is, praise and prayer. Too often the members lack the urge to enter into this part of the service. Instead, they sit reading our church papers! But praise and prayer, participation in the acts of worship, is something all "should engage in." If our members have to miss any part of the service it should not be what is sometimes wrongly called "preliminaries." Now note the clear counsel in the next few sentences:
Although all are not called to minister in word and doctrine; they need not be cold and response-less listeners. When the word of God was spoken to the Hebrews anciently, the Lord said to Moses, "And let all the people say, Amen." This response, in the fervor of their souls, was required as evidence that they understood the word spoken and were interested in it.—Ibid.
When the congregation has entered into the real experience of worship through the medium of praise and prayer, and hymns and responses have warmed their hearts, then it is easier for the preacher to inspire them to reconsecration and loyal service. Having been made aware of their individual needs and their spiritual hunger, when the feast is spread they will more eagerly partake of the bread of life.
To rediscover the true purpose and power of worship—to know how to "bring the people to the altars of the Eternal for inspiration and then set their feet free in the highways of service to their fellow men"—this is the outstanding need of our ministry in this crisis hour of human history.
When the worship service is both challenging and healing it will not lack interest. We read concerning the ancient Temple that "the glory of the Lord . . . filled the house of God." This will always be the case when our congregations meet in the real spirit of worship, and when the service has been properly and prayerfully planned. And true worship carries over in life. When Isaiah saw the Lord, he also saw his people in their need and went forth to witness. When our members truly see the Lord, high and lifted up; when they leave the house of worship having really communed with Him, life itself is different. Mothers are more patient in the home; fathers are more devoted to their families; workmen are more faithful to their employers; children are more kind on the playground; teachers are more understanding in the classroom. "Real worship is God reseen, and man remade.”