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An Empowering Presence

Pursuing real worship
This sermon is part of the sermon series "Church As It Was Meant to Be". See series.


Some years ago I had a conversation with a guest after one of our services. It was her first or second time at our church, and she offered some very direct feedback. She looked me in the eye and said, "It was a very nice service this morning. The message was fine. I agree with everything that was said. The music was beautiful and inspiring. It's obvious that everyone is happy to be here. But I want you to know that what goes on here has nothing to do with the real world." She went on to tell me a bit about her world—financial pressures that could cause her to lose her home, a painful relationship, a serious health problem, years of loneliness and disappointment with God. "That's the world I live in," she said, "and this has nothing to do with that." "Thanks for sharing …," I said, and then thought about her comments for a long time. She raised an important question. What does This have to do with That? What's the connection between what goes on in here on Sunday, and what goes on out there in the world all week long?

Some people would say there's no connection, and there's not supposed to be. For them, worship is an escape from the real world. Beautiful music, friendly people, awe-inspiring moments: they don't find much of these things in their everyday lives. That's why they come to church.

But for a lot of other people, the lack of connection is why they don't come to church. Church is irrelevant. In the words of a 30-something church drop-out named Vince, "After 20, 25 minutes, I'm so bored with the people and the presentation that I want outta there! I've got better things to do, like sleep or read the Sunday paper. And I gotta tell you: church wasn't good enough to get me away from my Sunday paper."

This and That

So what does This have to do with That? What will it take to get Vince away from his paper? So far in this series we've learned that the Church was meant to be a life-changing community that helps people grow in their faith, and a mission-driven community that reaches out to people who are far from God. We've learned that a healthy, balanced church grows deeper through discipleship and wider through outreach. But where does worship fit in? We've seen that worship was one of the primary activities of the New Testament church, and it's one of our core values here. But why?

We're going to talk about worship this morning. We're not going to discuss worship styles. We're not going to try to define worship. We're simply going to focus on the role of worship in the life of a vibrant, balanced, growing church. So let's continue our reading of the early chapters of Acts.

Let's go to church!

When we left the early church last week, Peter and John had been thrown into jail for healing a beggar and preaching the good news of God. The authorities decided not to punish them, but sent them away with a stern warning to stop preaching in Jesus' name. Verse 21 tells us what happens next:

On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. "Sovereign Lord," they said, "you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: 'Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand, and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.'
"Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant, Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus." After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.

Now notice, the first thing Peter and John do after being released from jail is go to church! "On their release, immediately they went back to their own people." Now, where would you go first after spending a night in jail, unjustly? Home, to see your family? To a law office to file a complaint? To the local tavern for a couple of drinks? The first place Peter and John went after a night in jail was to church. It couldn't have been the entire Church, which was more than 10,000 strong at that point. So it must have been their community group, or whatever they called their subsets of the larger group. Chances are their family members were there as well, praying for their release.

And when they got to their own people, what did the group do? Stop praying and throw a party? No, they continued in prayer. They raised their voices in praise. They turned to Scripture for wisdom. They asked God for courage and strength, and they experienced the presence of God. In other words, they worshiped. Their instinctive response to their real-world trial was to gather with God's people and worship. Apparently, there was no disconnect for them between worship and the real world.

Speaking of the Sunday paper, there was a biting editorial in the NY Times recently entitled, "Between God and a Hard Place." James Wood is a Harvard professor and avowed agnostic, and he was writing in response to the earthquake in Haiti. He's puzzled—angered—by the way people seem compelled to "drag God into it," attributing it to God as an act of judgment, or thanking God for those who were spared, or beseeching God for help and comfort. To him it's a waste of time and energy that could be devoted to more useful activities like picking up the pieces and rebuilding that nation.

What he fails to understand is that for those who believe in God, our first and instinctive response to a tragedy like this is to go to God with it—to bring him our grief, our questions, and our needs. What does this mean, Lord? What does it teach us about the world we live in, about our human condition, and about you? How should we respond, and where will we find wisdom, courage, and strength to carry on?

The moment news of the earthquake broke on that Tuesday, emails from you all began pouring in to the church office: "Will we talk about this on Sunday?" "Have we heard from our ministry partners there?" "Why did this happen?" "Can we take an offering?" That next Sunday we aside several other things we were going to do so we would have time to think and pray and respond to what happened. Following our sharing and prayer, we sang songs that reminded us of God's faithfulness and encouraged us to trust him, even "when the mountains fall, and the waves come crashing through." We needed to do that.

We don't come to church to escape the world but to encounter God—to turn to him and hear from him and be shaped by him in light of what happens in this life. When we do that, God meets us and fills us with whatever we need to face our realities. That's our big idea for this morning: The Church was meant to be a Spirit-filled community, empowered by real worship to engage the real world.

Real worship

As I looked over this passage in Acts, I observed three qualities of real worship. Interestingly, they were consistent with some of the things we heard from many of you when we asked you what you were looking for from your church.

First, real worship is God-centered. Notice that the people raised their voices in prayer "to God." They didn't try to figure things out on their own. They didn't ask each other, "What does this mean to you?" They turned to God. The Greek word for God in verse 24 is Despotes, from which we get the word "despot." This word describes someone with absolute and final authority. They went on to say, "You made the heaven and the earth and the sea …. You spoke by the Holy Spirit …. You decided beforehand what should happen." They were reminding themselves that the chief priests and elders were not calling the shots. The Romans were not ruling the day. God, and God alone, was in charge. Their lives and families and church were in God's hands, and he could be trusted. They needed to know that, and God-centered worship reminded them.

Worship is not about you or me or us. Worship is about God. We worship because he's worth it. That's what the word "worship" means—worth-ship. In our consumer-driven society, it's easy to forget that. We each have styles of music and forms of worship that are meaningful to us. We each bring personal needs and questions and desires into this space on Sundays. That's all okay; we need to bring our true selves to worship. But ultimately, worship is about God and what he wants to reveal or accomplish each time we come together.

Several years ago, William Hendricks wrote a book entitled Exit Interviews, in which he spoke with people who had walked away from the Church. He says, "The most common complaint was that worship services … did little to help people meet God. It's a serious matter," he says, "because the question, 'Where is God?' lies at the heart of why people come to church. They expect to find God there."

This is an important reminder for those of us who plan worship: worship needs to point people to God. He is the One who can save, heal, help, or comfort—not a song, not a drama, not even a sermon—only God.

For those of us who participate in worship: instead of focusing on whether you "like" a particular song or drama or video, try focusing on what it's saying about God, or what God might be saying to you through it. If a particular element of the service isn't working for you, maybe it wasn't for you. Maybe it was for someone else who needed it, or maybe it was just for God.

Secondly, real worship is biblically grounded. Notice how quickly the group in Acts went to the Scriptures. They needed help in understanding what was happening, so they went to a passage that spoke truth into their real-world circumstances: "Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?" (Psalm 2). Those words, given to David centuries earlier, reminded them that what was happening was nothing new or unusual—that, in fact, they should expect hostility and persecution. But it also reminded them that God was ultimately in charge, and that his purposes would prevail.

Notice, also, that this group of people didn't just read the Scripture. Someone stood up and explained it to them, applying it to the realities of their situation. Once again, we discover that what we need in church is more reading of and reflection on God's Word.

Third, real worship is heart felt. Worship isn't just going through the motions (standing, sitting, singing, giving), and it isn't just a cerebral exercise (talking and listening). Real worship engages us in the deep place where repentance, belief, and commitment take place. And that place is the heart. The Bible talks about the heart as the control center of person's life—where the mind, emotions, and will intersect, and decisions are made.

Notice how fully engaged these people were in worship. Their emotions were engaged: verse 24 says, "They raised their voices together." This sounds passionate. I picture them with their hands in the air or their faces on the floor. Their minds were engaged: they didn't just read the Scripture; they wrestled with its meaning. Their wills were engaged: they didn't pray, "Lord, get us out of this mess," or, "Lord, remove these people from power," but they surrendered themselves to God's purposes. Verse 29 says they prayed, "Lord … enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness." Then the ground shook beneath them, and they were filled with the empowering Presence of God.

Real worship happens in the heart, but the heart isn't easy to get to. That's why we turn to the arts—music, drama, painting. Many people come to church with their defense mechanisms up. We all have reasons why we can't or won't do what God is asking. But the arts have a way of slipping past those defenses and touching us in the deep places where decisions are made. Our imaginations have been shaped by what's happened to us over the course of our lives, and by the media that bombards our senses all day long. But the arts have a way of re-shaping our imaginations, so that we begin to see things the way God sees them.

Worship and witness

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from someone in the congregation, sharing with me what the worship services here have meant to them recently. I asked them if I could share some portions of it with you this morning.

We have been coming to Grace Chapel since 1980 and have treasured the various worship ministries. But these last 5 years of our lives, having experienced a number of life-altering and devastating experiences, we have been blessed by what we call lifeline moments in worship.
First, we come into the sanctuary like little children eager to see their family members—all cultures and types. We scan the audience to see our brothers and sisters and smile. Then we begin with powerful and relevant worship songs and prayers that make the heart of God pleased and minister to our deep heart needs, as well. We literally drink in the experience.
We are among the "oldies" in the congregation and have been used to a more traditional worship experience, but since we come to the 10:00 service, we have been stretched and enriched by the extraordinary ways the Spirit has moved among us through art and drama and preaching all wrapped around a theme that meets us at our point of need and challenges us to move closer to the Lord and outward to his world.

Did you catch that last phrase—"to move closer to the Lord and outward to his world"? It sounds like This has something to do with That! It sounds like this couple is being empowered by real worship to engage the real world. Not only are they finding strength and courage to face the challenges of their own lives, but they go on to talk about how worship has inspired them to reach out to their neighbors: "Christmas was special for us as we were able to bring our neighbors from across the street and to have them see, hear, and experience church in a very relevant way for them. They couldn't get over that we would give up 100% of our offering to the needy."

This is what we see happening in Acts 4. After meeting God in worship and being filled with his Spirit, look what happens at the end of verse: "and [they] spoke the word of God boldly." They go right back out into the world again, don't they? They didn't come to church to escape the real world; they came to engage the real world. And worship—real worship—empowered them to do that.

On a weekly basis, and sometimes on a daily basis, the early church gathered for worship and then scattered for witness. They were filled with the Spirit so they could speak the word boldly. Ever since those days, the church has maintained that same rhythm—gathering and scattering, withdrawal and involvement, empowered on Sunday, so we can be engaged on Monday. This has everything to do with That.


Sally Morgenthaler wrote a wonderful book entitled Worship Evangelism. Her premise is that a church doesn't have to water-down their worship to make it accessible to seekers and skeptics. On the contrary, she says. No one's impressed by shallow worship—or by phony worship. But real worship opens minds and hearts to the possibility that God is real—that he's present and personal and powerful.

As we look to the future, you can be sure that we are committed to the pursuit and practice of real worship—God-centered, Biblically-grounded, and heart-felt worship. The kind of worship that empowers us with God's presence to engage the real world, a world God loves.

For Your Reflection

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? ____________________________________________________

Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.

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Sermon Outline:


I. This and That

II. Let's go to church!

III. Real worship

IV. Worship and witness