Have you ever stopped and wondered what actually happens when we engage in musical worship as a community? Musical worship can and should be more than just a nice sing-along, more than just a shot of emotional inspiration and more than just a prelude to the sermon. For the committed follower of Jesus, musical worship is an opportunity for us to grow deeper as disciples of Jesus Christ. Think of musical worship using the Discipleship Cycle as a framework.
What is a Discipleship Cycle?
A Discipleship Cycle is a pattern of spiritual growth based on the way Jesus developed his disciples through teaching them, taking them on missional experiences, andthen interpreting those experiences with them (See Luke 10:1-24 for an example of this pattern).
Every Discipleship Cycle has three steps, each of which can be thought of as an activity:
Whether you’re a worship leader, a ministry leader or someone who is passionate about worship, the Discipleship Cycle can be a critical framework to help you go deeper in your worship. As you read each section, consider where you and your community is strong and where you may need to grow.
Phase 1: Musical Worship as ‘Hear the Word’
In the “Hear the Word” phase, we study, learn, reflect on, and discuss God’s Word and Jesus’s teaching, as well as listen to the Holy Spirit. You may be used to thinking of “Hear the Word” as an hour-long manuscript Bible study or listening to a Bible exposition, but it doesn’t always have to be.
Musical worship is a unique venue where we can “hear the word” in a fresh new way. Through the beauty of music and the truth of rich lyrics, we can take Biblical truths we just heard in a Bible study or an exposition and “truly” hear them. A truth that we intellectually understood connects with our emotions. An abstract theological concept comes alive. A key personal insight emerges from the passage. If we create the space, musical worship can be the place where insights from a bible study or sermon truly “sink in”
Additionally, many of our worship songs are filled with scripture references and allusions. As we read, sing and reflect on such lyrics, we are meditating on the deep truths of God. And combined with the beauty of music, God uses musical worship to profoundly speak to us as individuals and as communities.
For example, a number of years ago, my church was celebrating its 10-year anniversary. We began singing the chorus to “Show Me Your Way”:
Show me your way, whatever it takes to change.I see what’s new, looking at how far I’ve come. Here is my life, don’t let me forget the way. Here is my life, I can’t afford to stay the same.
In addition to the powerful corporate church experience we were having, I started to feel an emotional response as well. As I repeatedly sang the line “looking at how far I’ve come...”, I started to recall my journey from the past 10-years: ups and downs, triumphs, struggles. In that moment I felt God speaking to me, saying, “I’ve been with you every step of the way.” God used the song, the music, the moment, my community to speak a word of encouragement and life. I wept and had one of the most significant worship experiences of my life. It wasn’t because I was singing a pretty song with nice lyrics, I had received a word from God as I worshipped.
When we gather to worship, are we expecting God will speak to us? Are we being attentive to the various way God might speak?
Here are a few practical ways to grow your musical worship as hear the Word:
- Arrive a few minutes early to your worship gathering and read a passage of scripture. Let the truths on those pages fuel your musical worship.
- Begin your times of musical worship by remembering what God has done in your life, in your community, in the world and in history. As you sing lyrics like “Praise the Lord,” actively remember bring to your mind things that God has done that are praise-worthy.
- Sing and listen to worship songs that emphasize the attributes and actions of God. Songs like Because of Who You Areor Holy Holy Holyor Africarrib Medley are some good examples. As you worship, reflect on how God might be revealing more of himself to you through worship.
- Keep a journal of what thoughts and emotions come up for you during musical worship. It may be God speaking to you, helping a scripture to “sink in” or giving a word for your community.
Phase 2: Musical Worship as ‘Active Response’
In the active response phase of the Discipleship cycle, we take concrete, faith- building actions in response to what we just heard from God. It’s critical that we embrace the active and responsive nature of musical worship. Otherwise, musical worship can devolve into a concert where we aren’t participants but merely spectators.
But musical worship doesn’t have to be a passive, spectator sport. Musical worship can be an active communal experience where we are challenged, encouraged and grown deeper as disciples. Here are four ways we can actively respond as musical worship:
This may seem obvious, but singing is often overlooked. Maybe you feel insecure about your voice. Maybe you just don’t like singing. Maybe you’re not particularly musical. But the Bible commands singing as a key active response.
Hebrews 13:15 says, “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name.”
Singing is not just any old worship response. It is likened to practices of sacrifice in the Old Testament. As we hear the word and experience God one of the first and best ways the Bible calls us to respond is to sing!
So whether you have a voice like Beyoncé or Oscar the Grouch, sing! if you are a worship leader, don’t make it impossible for folks to sing along with you. Choose songs that have sing-able melodies and repeat them enough so that even the least musical among you can catch the tune.
- Respond with your whole body.
In addition to singing, the bible describes a diversity of worship responses: clapping (Psalm 47:1), jumping for joy (Luke 6:23), kneeling (Psalm 95:6), lifting hands (1 Timothy 2:8), dancing (Psalm 149:3), lying prostrate (Ezekiel 9:8), to name just a few.
As individuals and as a community, learn to worship with your whole body! This may come more naturally to some cultures than others. I did not grow up in an ethnic or church culture that valued dancing, but over the years I’ve grown in responding through dance, even if it looks like rhythmically waddling to others.
Individually, you can start small by kneeling or dancing in the privacy of your own room. As a community, you can pick a Biblical worship response and practice it all together.
- Respond by declaring truths of the lyrics over yourself, over others and over situations in faith.
Musical worship is all about God, but in the Bible, it’s not always directed at God alone. Notice in Ephesians 5:18-19thecommandment for musical worship are not just directed to the Lord, but to one another as well:
“And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart…”
Furthermore, in Psalm 103:1-2, notice that David’s command to “praise the Lord” is addressed not just to God, or to others, but rather to himself:
“Praise the Lord, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits.”
Part of David’s worship is literally commanding to his own soul to praise the Lord. Worship isn’t just about us singing songs to God, but it can also be an active response to declare and exhort one another and sometimes even ourselves.
Musical worship isn’t just about ignoring the problems in our lives and our world but facing them head on. When we sing a song like, “How Great is Our God,”we are declaring that God is great, even if our world doesn’t always look great. Even if we might struggle to believe it. And in the singing of the song, we are actively reminding others and even ourselves that God really is great and worthy of praise.
- As you sing, pay attention to how God might call you to respond after the music ends.
We’ve heard that worship is much more than music. And that’s the truth. Romans 12:1says that our whole selves are living sacrifices to be offered to God.
But that doesn’t mean musical worship is irrelevant to “real life.” Offering our worship with music (a sacrifice of praise) can be an important preparation and precursor to offering worship with our whole lives (a living sacrifice).
As we respond to God by singing lyrics like “I give myself away so you can use me”or “Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders,”God can be preparing us emotionally and spiritually to actually live out the truths of what we are singing: Perhaps giving ourselves away might mean to reconcile with a friend. Perhaps the Spirit leading us where our trust is without borders means to share the Gospel with a classmate.
Sometimes God might even want to call us to stop the music and worship God with other active responses. In Amos 5:23-24, God through the prophet Amos, commands them to stop singing and instead to seek justice and righteousness: “Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
Every time we gather in musical worship, it’s taking a first step in responding to God that starts through singing but might end in a radical act of faith outside of the walls of our worship space. Are we ready to respond?
Phase 3: Musical Worship as ‘Debrief and Interpret’
In the discipleship cycle, the Debrief and Interpret phase is the time where we regather with God and others to discuss and reflect on what just happened, which can lead to greater understanding and transformation. It is often the most neglected part of the discipleship cycle, but can be the place where a lot of the key learning and transformation from the previous phases can be crystalized.
Debrief and interpret is a critical part of musical worship as well. Musical worship is not just a space to hear from the Lord and not just a space to respond actively to him, but to also listen, reflect, learn and apply.
Musical worship can be a space where we can stop and, through the beauty and space that music and the arts provide, reflect on what God is doing in our lives and in our community. Sometimes God might even be working in the midst of the musical worship and unless we stop, debrief and interpret we might miss out on spiritual gold nuggets.
When we don’t create spaces to debrief and interpret during our musical worship, it can become increasingly disconnected from the rest of our ministry and our day-to-day lives. Or it can become just a frenzy of activity that can become burden. Worse still, un-debriefed worship experiences can lead to divisions in the community because groups will respond differently to the musical worship based on their stylistic and cultural preferences.
Here are some ways you can grow in Debrief and Interpret in our musical worship:
- During the music, pay attention to what your experiencing. Are you stuck? Are you afraid? Are you excited? Are you feeling dissonance? Is there a lyric or phrase that is standing out to you? What might your emotions be saying about what God is doing in you and your community?
- Make space for silence and reflection in worship. You don’t always have to sing or move or pray, sometimes you can be still and reflect. You can journal. You can doodle. Whatever can help you to debrief and interpret what God is doing.
- Give space/make space to debrief together: Share what you are experiencing with others. If others are experiencing similar things, perhaps God might be speaking to your entire community?
- Humbly offer interpretation: As you are listening to others and to the Spirit, perhaps God may give you a word or insight to share with the group. Share this word with a posture of humility, submission and faith.
- Don’t just critique the worship, but learn from others. Most of the time, musical worship isn’t “good” or “bad” but rather experienced vastly different for each person based on their culture, background and life circumstance. Critique can be helpful, but it can also close you off from learning from new perspectives. Make sure you listen well, especially to those who are different from you!
What would happen if every time we entered into a time of musical worship we were growing deeper as worshippers and disciples? How might that transform our ministries? How might that revolutionize our communities?
Next time you engage in musical worship, think about the discipleship cycle:
- Hear the Word: let the words of God fuel your worship times!
- Respond actively: let your musical worship be risky, faith-filled offerings of singing, your whole body and your whole lives.
- Debrief and interpret: don’t miss out on the spiritual gold nuggets that God might be sending your way in and through musical worship.