Uncovering what makes a "great worship experience."
Year after year, semester after semester, I have asked students the same thing: Tell me about the greatest worship experience of your life.
Sometimes, understandably, they are not sure exactly what I’m asking. Greatest because it was incredibly joyful? Or, because it was incredibly life-changing? Or, memorable? I keep that ball in their court. Greatest in whatever sense seems best for you.
And, if the idea of picking that one absolute greatest worship experience ever is too hard to figure out, just tell me about any one of the several greatest. Whatever comes to mind is fine.
Curious? I certainly was (and still remain).
Remember, we’re talking about over the time span of a quarter of a century and we’re talking about people of different ages (although most are 19-21 years old). People from different backgrounds.
There is no one response. No one kind of story. No surprise here. People have talked about everything from worshiping in a village church in Haiti, worshiping with multiple thousands of men back in the hay-day of Promise Keepers rallies, worshiping at church camps and worshiping with a handful of friends in a college dorm room. There is no predictable magic formula as to place or size.
But, students are always able to give some kind of response. This is only noteworthy to point out that no one insists that every worship time, for them, is equally wonderful. I assume some are dismal. A handful are extraordinary. Most are somewhere in between.
The overwhelming majority (at least 9 out of 10) make no mention of the person leading the worship music or the band or the speaker or some well-delivered powerful message. In some stories, such an experience in a dorm room, those things aren’t even present. In many others, although they may be present, they don’t come up in their story. Often, if I ask, a student is not able to remember clearly who any of these people were. Of course, this indicates that a handful of people do talk about the direct impact of a praise band or preacher.
So, among the accounts for this greatest worship experience ever, the most common settings (where did it occur, who was there, and what was happening) for that experience are:
1. A worship time at a church camp, usually during their high school years. Of course, most of my survey group are college age men and women. Still, this was surprising to me. I hear many say that the broad effectiveness of the church camp has declined over the past fifty years. I’m no longer sure that is the case.
2. A worship time in a cross cultural setting. This is usually in another country (and often in a language other than English). Nearly all of these involve worship among people who are considerably poorer than most Americans.
3. A worship time in a large-group setting geared toward teens and young adults. The most common of these would be worship at a Christ In Youth summer conference. This para-church organization, ironically based only a few hundred yards from the college where I teach in Joplin, Missouri, operates dozens of week-long gatherings for youth each summer. These are large gatherings (usually involving more than a thousand teens), using rented college campus facilities, and involve worship music led by highly skilled praise bands, employ cutting edge technology, and make use of top tier speakers. Although the organization continues to explore a variety of approaches to reach youth and young adults, these large-group summer conferences have remained a central feature for more than forty years.
4. A worship time in a small-group setting. By this, I mean a dormitory or a Bible study group or a group of friends that just happen to be together and happen to involve themselves in some kind of shared worship experience. Since these involve only a few people, no stage, no technology, no speaker, and no praise band, no preacher, they would seem, at first impression, to be the opposite of the large-group setting above.
5. A few, but still enough to warrant notice, mentioned what might be called an experience in a regular worship setting. That is, at the Sunday worship of a church or at the weekly chapel service of their Christian college. While most seemed to think back to an experience in worship that was not part of their regular weekly lives, for others something at one of these made it, for them, the greatest worship ever.
6. Lastly, there are a number of descriptions that don’t fall into any of the above. To use one example out of many, a student (typical American evangelical Protestant) starting talking about going into St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and being incredibly moved by the grandeur and other-worldliness of the massive interior, and by the scattering of people all over the sanctuary kneeling in private prayers (typical of many Roman Catholic churches). So, they went over, knelt, and poured out their heart in worship as they had never done before. Another college junior talked about climbing to the top of a challenging mountain in the Colorado Rockies last summer with some college friends. When they arrived at the summit, they stood looking in silence for a long time. Then, one by one, they spontaneously offered up prayers of praise. Those are only two of many that were powerful and deeply moving, but don’t fit into any easily defined category.
The Common Themes
God’s Working within Their Own Heart
One common thread does run through the stories. The thing that made it the greatest worship experience ever was inside them. Often it was also what that worship experience did in relation to their own faith-journey. In listening to these stories, the people planning or leading the worship experience take a real back seat to the work of the Holy Spirit. What God was doing within that person’s own story. Often, as they describe it, it did not happen to others around them. I cannot think of a single story where a student said that everyone present with them had the same level of experience as he or she did.
The High Cost
A second common thread was that the greatest worship experience ever often involved some kind of difficult and life-changing decision. “The night I decided I was going to a Muslim country as a missionary.” “The time I decided I was going to clean up my life and committed myself to an accountability group to hold me to that promise.” “The Bible study where I decided to tell everyone I was an alcoholic and start going to AA meetings.” Great worship was often costly worship.
Suffering through Worship
The final common thread is that, many times, people’s greatest ever worship experience emerged out of a time of great personal pain in their lives. In the midst of a life-shattering divorce or dealing with the death of a child or at the end of a financial free-fall.
One typical story was shared by a young student who traveled with the school’s highly competitive basketball team. The school had won that national championship for most of the previous ten years. They had once again gone to nationals, where they were highly favored. Since American’s love the underdog, nearly all of the fans present loudly cheered for the other team (and some openly booed the young man’s team). And, thrilling nearly everyone present, the favored team lost.
For the young men on the team, it did not matter that previous teams had won. They had lost. For some, it would be their last chance. They lost to the standing cheers of the fans who were glad they lost. They went back to the hotel. After awhile, they all ended up gathering in the coach’s room. Almost no one talked. Some were obviously trying very hard not to tear-up. Then, after some long moments of silence, one voice starting softly singing, “Give thanks, with a grateful heart. Give thanks, to the Holy One. For he’s given Jesus Christ, His Son.” As they sang, some stopped fighting the tears. Others got down on their knees. Some put their arms around the guys near them.
It went on for more than two hours. Sometimes a guy would share a favorite Bible passage. But, mostly, it was just singing. Except, gradually, over the course of those two hours, the tears passed and the voices got louder and what had started as singing out of suffering ended with a room full of guys not generally viewed as the spiritual giants of the student body singing praises at the top of the voices. In some circumstances, the sweetest worship grows directly out of great suffering.
So, I’ve drawn some conclusions from this long term analysis of students’ stories. If I’m right, you already will know these things. My goal would be to help you see what you already know.
First, we are not the ones who orchestrate great worship. It’s obvious that, when people tell us, “That was a great worship service,” they mean it was well done and that they had a positive experience. It doesn’t mean they will remember it six months later. And, if someone were to ask them about the greatest worship experience ever, none of us will likely get mentioned. If greatest worship ever has a designer, it is certainly the Holy Spirit, not any of us.
Second, setting is not as critical as we imagine. Regardless of age or musical tastes, greatest worship experience ever seems primarily related to what’s going on inside them and not an impressive place or because of a well planned and well carried out worship service. This does not mean setting doesn’t matter. It means, it is not what ultimately matters. But, would any of us actually want it to be? I’m not ready to take on that kind of responsibility. It’s a relief that, at times, a less-than-the-best worship time is what someone standing there will, even years later, call their greatest worship experience ever.
Finally, greatest worship experience ever is not something people actually want or could endure very often. It is usually too costly. It is often too painful. It is certainly too unpredictable. It is partly its contrast to whatever we normally experience as good worship that, ironically, makes it great worship. Whatever happened in greatest worship ever can’t be copied and done again next week.
So, where’s the, “So, what now?” It’s there. And, it’s important.
Every one of us involved in the leadership of worship gatherings needs to embrace our limits. In a very important sense, we are just speaking and playing instruments and singing. We are not actually leading worship. Only God does that. And, I think we ought to be overwhelmingly thankful for that. It’s not on our shoulders, but His. So, we absolutely need regular prayer affirming that, and seeking God’s work in the lives of these people who we actually see only in brief moments of their individual lives will be blessed, from time to time, with the greatest worship experience ever.
And, for me, the realization that when people recount those moments at some point later in their life, we will not be mentioned in their story as they recall the sweetness of that moment of worship, is somehow liberating. It isn’t about us. As Matt Redman wrote, out of a time of real reflection on the role of worship leading, a few years ago,
“I’m coming back to the heart of worship,
and it’s all about You, it’s all about You, Jesus.
I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it,
when it’s all about You.
It’s all about You, Jesus.”