By Doug Little

In our desire for a genuine encounter with God in our church services, we are apt to search first for new methods, tools, styles and formats. If church has become dull, some blame the familiar routines and grate against traditions. Others view any change in the traditional worship service as an assault on what to them is holy ground. Nothing defines the identity of a local church more than its style of worship. Therefore, the issue of keeping worship services vibrant touches one of the most sensitive areas of feelings in any church.

My contention is, however, that vibrant worship in the church is more a matter of heart than art. Styles and formats for worship may vary from place to place, just as methods of preaching and soul-winning do.

But I have observed several essential elements common to churches whose worship services are Bible-based, soul-stirring, Christ-exalting and evangelistic.  l call them the keys to vibrant worship. They are true regardless of the style of music, the format of the service or the preferred expressions of worship in any church.

Key #1: Prayer

Years ago I learned that where prayer focuses, power falls. Every instance in scripture of the power of God moving among His people gathered in worship is precipitated by prayer.

When Solomon prayed at the dedication of the Temple, the fire of God consumed the sacrifice and the glory of God so filled the House that the priests could not enter. When Elijah prayed on Mt. Carmel, God proved Himself to be the true God and revival turned the people around.

When the disciples prayed in response to the threats of the authorities, the house shook with the power of God and they were filled with boldness to win souls. When Peter was imprisoned, the church prayed and God sent an angel to deliver him.

These and other examples from God’s Word should convince us that apart from prayer we will not experience the power of God in our churches. Prayerlessness is the strongest evidence of a lack of dependence on God. Churches who crave the moving of the Holy Spirit in their midst will make prayer the top priority in their preparation for worship.

Those who lead worship must learn to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit first in their prayer closet if they hope to discern His leading on the platform during a worship service. Pastors must be men of prayer if preaching is to be anointed.

Musicians must bathe their selections and preparation in prayer to such an extent that their music is set ablaze with love for God that will spread from heart to heart during the service.

Can laypeople not see the need to intercede for their pastor? Like Aaron and Hur who held up Moses’ arms so that Israel would prevail in battle, godly men and women in the pews ought to pray daily for their pastors and their church, lifting up a constant cry to God to pour out His Spirit.

Churches where lay people are committed to that kind of intercession are seeing unusual movings of the Lord. Where prayer focuses, power falls.

Key #2: Praise

By definition, worship is the act of giving honor and glory to someone of worth. Christians gather to worship God, to ascribe to Him the honor and glory of which He alone is worthy. Except that in many churches the focus of the worship service is man, not God.

The value of many worship services is measured by what those in attendance get out of the service—encouragement, practical help, a “blessing,” fellowship. Biblical worship always focuses on what we give to God, not what we get from Him.

Praise is a key to vibrant worship. I’m not referring to a type of music. I’m speaking of the foundation upon which everything in a worship service is built: giving honor and glory to God. The distinction can be very subtle, for we cannot come before God disconnected from our needs.

When we truly give God the worship He deserves, we will come away with a great degree of fulfillment. But when getting a blessing from God becomes more important than being a blessing to God, our worship will be flesh-inspired rather than Spirit-filled.

Key #3: Participation

Worship services recorded in the Bible present an inescapable mandate that God’s people be participants rather than observers in worship. Our generation struggles with “spectator-itis” in church.

The rise of performance-oriented special music, the decline of the practice of verbal responses such as, “Amen!” from the congregation, the fear of the charismatic influence in. expressiveness in worship, and the shift of our culture away from dialogue (due to the television habit) have conditioned people to come to church expecting to sit and watch worship being done on the platform. Nothing could be farther from the biblical models.

Pastors and churches who want worship to be vibrant must teach and train their people to be actively involved in all that transpires during the service. This, too, is a sensitive issue that should be approached with careful consideration of the cultural needs and heritage. Change in an inappropriate direction, or even an appropriate change pushed too quickly, can cause great harm.

Worship leaders who want their congregations to participate actively in church services consider carefully styles of music, prayer, preaching, giving and expression that have touched hearts consistently in that particular church. The preferences of the congregation reveal the heart of their expressions of worship.

Wise leaders of established churches protect the “heart language” of their church, then supplement the services with new expressions that will enhance, rather than replace, what the church has been accustomed to.

If a radical change is desired, leaders might do well to start a new, separate worship service to incorporate the new format. The traditional service is then maintained without disrupting the sense of security of the established members.

God seeks those who will worship Him in spirit and in truth, and the heart that responds to God’s call longs to express its love for Him in heart-felt ways. Vibrant worship touches the heart, prompting an active response from the worshiper.

Churches that promote the active participation of their people in worship and provide means through which members can express their heart-felt love for God will experience consistent outpouring of the Holy Spirit on their services.

Key #4 Planning

In the most explicit instruction given in scripture regarding the conducting of public worship, the apostle Paul says that all things should be done decently and in order (1 Corinthians 14:40).

Planning the flow of a worship service and making selections in advance need not stifle the freedom of the Holy Spirit to move as He wills during a worship service. Planning enables the service to direct worshipers in a logical sequence of participation that promotes receptivity to the work of the Holy Spirit.

There is, of course, the need to be flexible. The Holy Spirit’s fire must not be quenched in the midst of a service so that the planned order will not be disrupted. But as a rule, there is nothing unspiritual about asking the Lord’s guidance in planning the basics of a worship service in advance.

Planning promotes preparation. Few things dampen a church service quicker than ushers scrambling to get in place or a singer struggling to get through a song that hasn’t been practiced. The manner in which a worship service is conducted should reflect our concern that the message of the Gospel and the moving of the Spirit not be hindered by unnecessary distractions.

Free Will Baptist churches need not lose their moorings in their desire to offer worship services that are relevant to the needs of their local communities and the changes of our culture. Each congregation must be true to the scripture and then true to its own heart.  If these four keys to vibrant worship are used as a guide, any church can use whatever style of worship that suits it and still experience the power of God in their services.

Article adapted from Contact magazine, March 1996.