By Karen Wingate
The Melk Abbey, a 15th century monastery nestled in Austria’s Danube River Valley, is the most beautiful church building I have ever seen. As I toured its interior, I was astonished to see marble, gold, inlaid wood, frescos, and carvings splashed across the inside of the church as if money were no object. A sign posted in an alcove explained the opulence: “Nothing is too wonderful to give praise to God.”
One week later, I worshipped in a basement classroom of TCM International’s Bible training center near Vienna, Austria with students from Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The students prayed and sang in languages I did not know. An interpreter translated each sentence of the sermon, breaking the flow and making it twice as long. During the previous week I had heard many stories behind the faces—stories of hardship, poverty, and even persecution.
Yet the joy radiating from the faces around me came from something far deeper than a plastered smile. The worship of these students sprang from a faith that God was God, and no matter how volatile and uncertain their lives, he remained the same.
Today, many American churchgoers grade worship by the quality of music and caliber of the sermon. Like worshippers in the 15th century, we are led to believe that the better the externals, the greater our praise. We hope to leave inspired by the best communication technology has to offer. Upon departing church after a particularly well executed music service, I heard a woman exclaim, “Wow, we certainly worshipped today.”
Throughout my Christian life, I’ve attended services ranging from the loud music and flashing lights of national conventions to bilingual and non-instrumental services that in comparison seemed lackluster. The simple worship that day in Austria taught me that corporate worship is more about what is in my heart when I join the gathering than how I feel after the worship experience.
God of All Nations
I zoned out the first time I attended a bilingual service. How could I worship God when I didn’t understand the language? Yet Scripture shows that God’s plans and purposes span the nations. Revelation 15:4 says, “All nations will come and worship before you.” If God’s plan is for all people, then I need to feel comfortable worshipping with those from backgrounds different from my own.
Our worship leader reminded us that we were not Americans, Ukrainians, or Bulgarians. We were simply Christians, all longing to build the kingdom of Christ. Laying aside my own ethnic identity helped me share the worship experience with fellow believers and rejoice that God’s people come from all corners of the earth.
In her book, His Story, Our Response (College Press, 2009), Dinelle Frankland describes worship as “a response in one way or another to the basic story of what God has done and who God is.” My new friends had experienced God’s power, protection, and provision in ways I couldn’t begin to imagine. Their stories helped me respond with renewed reverence for a God who is big enough to hold all of us in his mighty hand.
Music is a cornerstone of corporate worship in the states. Yet, in some central Asian countries, songs and prayers must be whispered for fear the authorities might overhear. TCMI workers told of one student who wept while he prayed during a worship session because he had never heard himself pray aloud.
During the lunch hour at a recent women’s conference, my daughter texted me with distressing news. As the afternoon session began, I didn’t feel like singing. How could I praise God when my heart was so heavy? I caught myself. No matter what was happening in my personal life or in the world at large, God was still God and worthy of praise. In fact, my choice to join the singing proclaimed my faith in a God who cared enough and was powerful enough to guide my family through this unexpected dark valley.
True worship lets nothing hinder a celebration of our faith in Christ. Too poor to buy property and erect buildings, churches in many countries hold worship services in their homes. I’m ashamed to relate the times I or a group I was with felt we could not worship God adequately because we lacked certain things: a competent pianist, a charismatic song leader, an overhead projector, or efficient air conditioning. Worship is taking the best of what you have—not what someone else has—and offering it to God. As Frankland notes, “Every body of believers finds itself in its own unique story.”
Eastern European believers displayed gratitude born out of their poverty. God’s blessings stood in stark relief to what they did not have. It seemed almost counterintuitive—the less they had , the better they were able to praise God. They lived the words of Psalm 40:5: “Many, O Lord my God, are the wonders you have done. The things you have planned for us, no one can recount to you; were I to speak and tell of them, they would be too many to declare” (New International Version 1984).
There is a church in Ethiopia with a dirt floor. During the rainy season, the dirt floor turns to mud. When the mud dries, ruts remain where worshippers have knelt for long hours in prayer. Nothing stops these believers from praising their God— not even a mud-strewn floor!
A slogan printed in my home church’s bulletin each week read, “Enter to worship, depart to serve.” While it may sound cliché, the converse is true too. After we spend our week serving our Lord and watching him work through our lives and in the world, we gather with our kin in Christ, eager to proclaim what God has done (Psalm 105:1). We enter eager to worship because, in our service, we have witnessed God’s faithfulness.
When worship focuses on who God is and what he has done, then the externals drop away, no longer so important. Does that mean I should dispose of all worship aids?
Not necessarily, but we need to hold those props loosely. When we plan corporate worship, we need to ask: can we still worship God if our technology fails, the sound system breaks, or the preacher has laryngitis? The absence or failure of worship props shouldn’t slow us down, for worship is not about making me feel good, but about giving believers the opportunity to praise God’s goodness. The act of meeting together proclaims our belief in Christ and his importance to us.
I’ve heard it said that if the music doesn’t appeal to you, it may bless the person next to you. Instead of fretting that you don’t care for the music, pray that God will draw that person closer to himself. That advice has helped me survive several rocky worship experiences. Yet, consider the flip side.
If I realize that what I like is actually prohibiting others from worship, I need to humble myself and give up my personal tastes for the greater goal of total participation. People with hearing loss are sensitive to loud noises, so if the volume of the music causes them pain, leaders need to tone it down. Church staff need to provide the visually impaired with large print copies of PowerPoint slides. As a worship leader, I might think a new song is awesome; but if my audience doesn’t know it and can’t hear the words, I need to take time to teach the song and emphasize the words so everyone can join the singing.
If we are still dissatisfied after we’ve examined our hearts and focused on God rather than ourselves, we need to remember that the most exhilarating program can still fail to express an adequate response to God’s greatness. No wonder Isaiah reacted to God’s glory with, “I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). He realized how small and sinful he was compared to a holy God. Yet, like a mother’s smile at a withered bouquet of dandelions clutched in her child’s sticky fingers, our God accepts our attempts at worship, caring only that our efforts come from a sincere and contrite heart.
That makes me want to worship him!
Karen Wingate is a freelance writer in Roseville, Illinois.
Study Worship Around the World
2. “Worship Around the World” by Emily Brink
3. Read missionaries’ blogs or biographies.
4. Listen to worship music in another language.
5. Try your hand at expressing scriptural truth through an art form common in another part of the world.