It’s the first Palm Sunday, and here comes Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. The crowds begin to shout “Hosanna! Hosanna!” The old donkey pricks up his ears. Some in the crowd throw their coats in the road; others spread out palm branches.
“Well!” says the donkey, switching a fly off a mange patch. “I had no idea they really appreciated me like this! Listen to those hosannas, would you. I must really be something!”
Friends, if anybody comes around after the service saying, “Wow! That was terrific!”—they’re not actually saying hosanna to you.
All you did was bring Jesus to them.
—A. W. Tozer (cited by Anne Ortlund, Up with Worship, 169-70)
It is very tempting to conceive of a worship leader as the spiritual engine that drives the worship train, or the highly-charged sideline coach who needs to keep her team fired up.
This puts all the focus on our agency, a vision that doesn’t square with the New Testament. In the New Testament, our agency as worshipers and leaders is intimately linked with what Jesus is doing as we worship and with what the Holy Spirit is doing as we worship.
Our congregation’s worship is not ultimately mediated by your level of or capacity for emotional engagement but by the perfect mediating work of Jesus, effected through the Holy Spirit. Praise God! This can free you—and all of us—to engage emotionally, but without a sense of burden that it all depends on us.
—John Witvliet, Reformed Worship 116, 45-46
The Christology of Hebrews also undoes forever any notion of mystical communion with God. By this, I mean that communion which bypasses Christ to have a direct experience of divine enlightenment, or some numinous spiritual feeling. This is important when we see many contemporary worship songs, activities and approaches which emphasis the inner psychological/emotional state of the worshipper and use it as the criterion to decide if worship has been effective or not. Hebrews will not let us replace the mediation of Christ with the mediation of the worship leader who is able to engender an effective response, which is then interpreted as direct communion with God.
—Noel Due, Created For Worship: From Genesis to Revelation to You, 181
As liturgical architects, when we invite people to worship through this [gospel] story, we aren’t merely asking them to observe the gospel structure we’ve built. We’re inviting them to inhabit it.
—Zac Hicks, The Worship Pastor: A Call to Ministry for Worship Leaders and Teams, 159
Q. If you could name one theological theme that worship committees could well spend time reflecting on, what would it be?
A. Christ’s ascension.
As our ascended Lord, Jesus not only receives our worship but also perfects our prayers. In fact, Jesus “always lives to intercede for us” (Heb. 7:25). Jesus (and not any other human worship leader) is the true lead worshiper. As we worship it is fitting to think of Jesus as active: praying for us, perfecting our prayers, giving us full access to God. This is pastorally significant because it welcomes us to offer worship even in weakness (Heb. 4:14-16).
Importantly, when we imagine what our ascended Lord is like, we need a balanced view, remembering the one who appears like both a Lion and Lamb (cf. Rev. 5), the one who is both cosmic Lord (Col. 1) but also “who has been tempted in every way, just like us” (Heb. 4:15).
As you study this theme, ask yourselves how well your congregation’s musical diet conveys these themes. Ask worshipers how they imagine what Jesus is doing today (we often fail to realize how active in prayer Jesus is today). Finally, ask whether and how your congregation celebrates Ascension Day. Most of us can do better at giving attention to this remarkable event.
And when we do celebrate Ascension, we need to do a better job of keeping in mind not only Christ’s ongoing role as King, but also his role as Priest (and Prophet). For more insights and practical suggestions on this theme, see Gerrit Scott Dawson’s Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation (Presbyterian and Reformed), and the fine article by Laura Smit in Reformed Worship 79.
—John D. Witvliet, Reformed Worship Issue #80 (June 2006)
One of the more humbling times in worship leading is finding out that all of the thematic thoughts I had while planning the service didn’t really get communicated to the people I’m serving in our gathering. My careful song placement or artfully placed thematic items didn’t even get noticed.
What I have grown to realize is that plain explanations and clear leadership are a much greater blessing to the congregation than veiled themes. When it comes to worship gatherings, we shouldn’t think that our artistic or thematic nuances will have the same impact as will clear explanation of why we’re doing what we’re doing.
—Daniel Renstrom, “Stop Saying the Same Old Thing”
It’s important for those who will prompt the congregation to know the whys of the service plan. So tell them—there is no substitute for straightforward communication. It’s a truncated and trivial preparation for worship when the band merely runs through the chord changes on a “set” of songs without a thought to the broader purposes of that particular service.
Debra and Ron Rienstra, Words, 258-9