There’s a part of me that enjoys when plans don’t come together as expected. Although it can be stressful, it can also be an exhilarating and significant learning experience. When our best-laid plans crumble in an instant, it’s a great reminder that our sense of control is actually a fragile illusion. Our faults and humanity can be exposed as well as our strengths and weaknesses. When our plans fall through the cracks, our intentions behind them are often separated from all the insignificant noise we’ve unintentionally and unnecessarily added.
If you happened to have attended the 10:15 service at The Fellowship Hutto campus on Sunday the 22nd, you experienced one of these moments first hand. In between the first and second services, our building lost power. This means no lights, no sound, no coffee, no easy listening music as you walked into the room. Our nice building, brimming with light and music and coffee only a few moments before, was now only a structure, almost a cave. We were all just… there. In that moment, I think most people were wondering what we were supposed to do. Frankly, when all the lights and music and comfort were stripped away, it seemed strange we were all gathered there. It was interesting how many cell phones lit up—not only for the flashlight, but for something comforting in the uncomfortable situation of waiting to be led in some way. It was in that moment that we were forced to realize why we were all actually there. Our plans had crumbled, our control was taken away, and our intentions were exposed.
There’s quite a bit of planning that goes into a Sunday morning service at both The Fellowship and at churches around the world. Sermons are studied. Set lists are made, bands are rehearsed, bulletins stacked; transitions are planned, coffee is brewed, lights flipped on, sound is checked, Sunday school lessons are set—the list goes on and on. These things are not bad. Rather, they are enormous blessings and great tools for us to use to lift up Jesus in our cities, to outreach, and to help believers grow. Having a great Sunday morning service, a great band, and a great speaker in a great building with great coffee are all great things (especially the coffee!). But I also believe that as a church—congregation and leaders alike—if we begin to depend on these things, we’ve missed the point. Sometimes having control and comfort stripped away from us can be a blessing in that we are reminded of God’s sovereignty, wisdom, and goodness. We can respond to Him in a new, simplified way that can sometimes be more meaningful.
I want to share a few of my insights from these sorts of experiences I’ve had as a worship pastor. I hope to change the way we’re led into worship and to remind us of our real reason behind Sunday morning gatherings; I hope to remind us who is truly in control, and I hope to remind us that it’s a really good thing it’s not us.
What Happens When We Take Control
Exodus is one of my favorite books in the Bible. That may seem like an odd choice, but God has taught me much about trust in its scriptures. Moses had to trust God would use him despite his own insecurities as a leader, which I can certainly relate to. Moses continued to trust God when he was placed in so many strange circumstances that didn’t make much sense. The Israelites also had to trust God to bring them out of Egypt and continue to trust while they wondered in the wilderness. They often had moments where that trust was lost, which I can also relate to.
Every Sunday before the services start, the band, tech team, other leaders, and myself take time to pray over the morning. We don’t do this only because it seems like a good idea, but because we know we need God to be a part of the service and do things we are unable to do. Our Sunday mornings would be literally pointless without God’s involvement and control. We need God to draw hearts, to heal, to speak, and He doesn’t do that simply because we made an order of service with some worship songs and a message. We know we need Him, that He is in control, and He often uses us despite of us, not because of us.
There’s a great example of this in Exodus 32. Moses was up on the mountain with God, and when Moses was gone, Aaron was in charge. Throughout Exodus we can see a clear pattern with Moses: every time the Israelites complained or there was a problem, Moses went to the Lord before acting and trusted God would work in Moses’s obedience. While Moses was on the mountain in chapter 32, the people began complaining again. This time, Aaron was in charge, and he missed a vital step.
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. -v. 1-3
When Aaron was confronted with this problem, the first thing he did was rely on himself—his own ideas and experience—instead of relying upon and trusting in God. Without hesitation, he began to give instructions to the people. Hence, we have the story of the golden calf. In an instant, the Israelites turned from the Lord and instead began worshipping this calf made of gold from their own jewelry, giving it credit for their freedom.
And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden[a] calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” -v. 4
Often times, when we have a great Sunday morning experience where the band sounded great, the coffee was delicious, and all went well, we add value to those things and give them credit for doing the work only God can do. In a very real sense, these things can become idols to us. My desire for Sunday morning is for everything to go smoothly, but not at the expense of confusing those things for being the reasons God works. Rather, they should highlight who God is and what He’s doing and has done. They should enhance, not distract. They should constantly point to God’s work, and point to it with excellence, so as not to take away and blur the focal point. When I, as a leader, put my trust in my own abilities and talents, I’ve failed. When we all look to something else like good music to lead us in worship and give that the credit for a successful Sunday, we’ve failed. When Moses comes down from the mountain, the Israelites are having a huge worship service to the golden calf:
There is a noise of war in the camp.” But he said, “It is not the sound of shouting for victory, or the sound of the cry of defeat, but the sound of singing that I hear.
With or without a sound system, lights, or a great band, when we gather on Sunday mornings as a body of believers there should be the sound of shouting for victory for what God has done and the sound of the cry of defeat over our sin, which is also our victory in Christ. Otherwise, we simply have the sound of singing. Empty, misguided singing. My desire for our church is to not simply gather to sing, but to gather and respond to all that God is and what He has done for us. To shout in victory, celebrating our freedom from the grips of sin and death, with thankful hearts to God.
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual act of worship.” -Romans 12:1
Worship is not what happens for 20 minutes on a Sunday morning. It’s more than a song. It’s our response to God with everything that we are. We are to be living sacrifices, constantly responding to everything God is with everything we are. And the truth is we don’t need me, a band, a sound system, or even music to do that. But it is most certainly a way we can respond, and we are blessed when we have the ability and privilege to freely gather together and sing in response to our God as a body of believers with great music and great coffee in a great building. But those things certainly aren’t our measure of success or why God continues to move in our cities.
Our High Priest
With that in mind, we should consider the message from that Sunday out of Hebrews 2 (link here). Verse 18 says, “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every aspect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” Donnie touched on this Sunday—that Jesus was made our high priest, making a way for us to God by making propitiation for our sings. This is why we no longer have to put our sings on a lamb, a scapegoat, to settle our debt with God. Jesus died once and for all, for all mankind, as the perfect and spotless Lamb. As our high priest, he has therefore made a way for us to be in God’s presence. Before Jesus, only the priest would enter the holy of holies in the temple, where God’s presence dwelt, on our behalf. They would even tie a rope around his ankle in case he died as a result of being in the presence of a high and righteous God without the proper propitiation for sin—the sacrifice of a lamb.
We read this in Hebrews 10, verse 19:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. -Hebrews 10: 19-23
When Jesus died, the curtain to the holy place was torn, signifying the barrier was then broken. As believers in Christ, we now have direct access to God’s presence, because of “the new and living way he opened for us through the curtain.” This is huge! We now have access to God through Jesus.
Even as a worship leader, I do not lead us into God’s presence. I can’t. Nor can anyone, because Jesus already has! Worship music doesn’t do this, a talented musician doesn’t do this. Jesus already has. There’s a lot to this and you can read more about it here. For now, here’s what this means: ultimately, we don’t need a band, lights, sound, or even a great leader to be led into God’s presence. We already have access. If you walk into church and your worship experience is dependent on your being led a certain way, you’ll miss it. Your way to God’s presence is through Jesus, not a pastor or worship leader. It’s not through great music or talent. My job as a worship leader is primarily to do my best to point people to Jesus. Period. Yes, I often do that through song. Yes, my aim is for those songs to accurately and explicitly proclaim Jesus. But I am nothing special—simply a pointer, with an occasional microphone or guitar. Whether or not you want to engage with a holy God in worship and fully respond to who He is and what He has done, to offer yourself as a living sacrifice in worship, regardless of any band or lights or someone on stage, is up to you. Not even your sin is an excuse (v.22)! No matter how great the leader, they cannot force God’s presence to do anything, nor can they force you to engage or not engage. They can only set the stage for you to do so.
Why We Gather
If we keep reading in Hebrews 10, it says this:
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” -Hebrews 10: 24-25
When we gather on Sundays, whether it’s a “normal” Sunday or one where our plans fail (along with the power), our reason for being there remains the same. We are a body of believers and we gather to encourage one another, teach one another, grow in community, and worship our God. Colossians 3 says this:
Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. -Colossians 3: 12-17.
The word of Christ cannot dwell in us richly if we are not gathered to teach, be taught, love, forgive, and encourage. That’s why we sing hymns, songs, and spiritual songs together. Those are placed in the same sentence as teaching and admonishing for a reason. We are taught through worship. There’s a great amount of scripture that speaks into our gatherings and our being one body, but for now my point is that when plans fail, our reason for gathering remains the same as always. We can take confidence in the fact that we don’t need bells and whistles to remain obedient and pursue our purpose as a body of believers, though we are surely blessed when we have them. Let’s not miss the point and put our hope and confidence in our plans or in ourselves, but instead use those gifts to highlight the greatness of the God we worship—to proclaim Him and ask God to draw people to Himself in the midst of everything. Let’s make the best music, have the best coffee, have great facilities, and consider them bountiful blessings and tools for us to reach the lost and worship our God. And let’s do the exact same when we’re without them.