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Are we missing something in worship?

By Kenneth D. Barney

Pentecostal worship has always been characterized by spontaneity and delightful unpredictability. Regrettably, these beautiful qualities are being replaced in some places by manipulated worship–worship directed by people designated worship leaders and worship teams who do not exhibit a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit’s direction. They follow their own format.

This trend in worship is as spontaneous as the ritual of liturgical churches–you know what will happen in a service before you go. It is unlikely the hymnbook will be opened–only choruses ad infinitum. Some will be scriptural and edifying. Others will have catchy tunes with little spiritual content.

One thing is certain: This part of the service will be long, and most choruses will be repeated endlessly. You can also depend on the congregation’s being asked to stand and stand and stand.

The rationale for such interminable standing is something I have never heard explained. Worship leaders seem insensitive to the weariness and physical discomfort that standing creates, to say nothing of the irritation it provokes. This is hardly a way to encourage worship.

Telling people they can choose whether to stand or sit is unfair. No one wants to be conspicuous, so most people make an effort to stand in the beginning, even though many will finally have to sit down. This scripted, programmed worship goes on and on, even if there is little time left for effective preaching. It must proceed whether the people have any energy left for the altar service or whether their legs, feet, and bodies are exhausted from standing. In a series of meetings the same scenario is repeated without variation in every service.

Worship led by the Holy Spirit builds as the service moves along. It cannot be pulled out of a congregation by nonstop singing and mechanical repetition of trite expressions, such as "Let’s worship Him. Everybody praise Him. Let’s exalt the Lord." Leaders will certainly fail if they make worship a test of physical endurance.

This is a deep concern, not a personal prejudice, about a trend I see cheapening the meaning of worship by promoting a light, frothy substitute. Many ministers and laypeople share these convictions. The latter are frustrated and at times almost angry over a practice they feel is riding roughshod over them.

Are such negative reactions simply resistance to change or reluctance to let go of the past? Absolutely not. Those who are distressed by this takeover of their church services believe it is carrying our Movement in the wrong direction, influencing us to drift farther and farther from Spirit-directed worship. People who have experienced reality are anguished by what they consider an imitation.

No one wishes to quench the Spirit or put a clamp on the power of God. This is a humanly energized activity that has nothing to do with the Spirit or the power of God.

Music has always made a tremendous contribution to Christian worship. Pentecost has been a singing Movement from the beginning, but when singing takes over every service by its inordinate length, things are out of balance. Some have become adept at using music to control the flow of a service and direct it as they want it to go. This is a flagrant misuse of the ministry of music.

I think often of a church which is one of the most well-balanced I have preached in. Singing began with the hymnal. The song leader (not called a worship leader) was very sensitive to the Holy Spirit. The musicians, including a fine orchestra, were clearly intent on ministering rather than just performing.

At one point a screen was lowered over the platform, and choruses were displayed on it by an overhead projector. The lively chorus singing lasted for a period that was just right not too short and not too long. The congregation stood for the last few choruses just before prayer.

Since the service was not crammed with preliminaries, there was adequate time for preaching. Singing had prepared the people for the message instead of wearing them out. The atmosphere crackled with spiritual electricity as they waited eagerly for me to open my Bible. This is a church to which visitors with spiritual hunger are drawn back, evidenced by steady growth.

I also recall a series of meetings elsewhere when the artificial and genuine were seen in stark contrast. One night a worship leader labored futilely for a long time to pry response from a weary congregation. Many had sat down before the debacle finally concluded.

In the next service a group was singing some old revival songs when worship and praise suddenly broke out all over the congregation. No leader had been badgering them to "worship, worship, worship." It was totally spontaneous–and refreshing beyond words. The Holy Spirit had visited us in beautiful ministry.

Today’s musical liturgy impairs people’s taste for anything beyond the superficial. You do not have to be around this kind of worship long before you detect far more flesh than the Spirit. Even much of the hand-raising, hand-clapping, swaying, waving, and other physical movements appear more from habit than the Spirit’s anointing. Such activities seem to commence on cue with the first note of singing, not from the Spirit’s moving.

Tragically, people who are exposed to this aberration long enough have difficulty distinguishing between it and what is real. I am troubled about the future of a generation that is fed a diet of simulated worship. How is it equipping them to become tomorrow’s Pentecostal leaders? How will it prepare them individually for the fierce spiritual warfare of the end times, for hours of personal crisis when they will need a firm, solid foundation?

God help us to recover the centrality of the Word, to sweep aside manipulated worship ritual, and to return to worship where the Holy Spirit is the leader. Then music will again fulfill its God-ordained place of ministry instead of usurping the dominant role.