(Disclaimer: There are a great many wonderful worship songs that are loaded with powerful truths about God. Indeed, Sovereign Grace Music, Townsend, the Getty’s, Shane and Shane, Matt Boswell, Matt Papa, and many more are writing wonderful music that exalts God and leads the church into authentic worship. This is not intended to be a critique of modern church music, but an exhortation towards authentic, Scriptural worship.)
One of the great joys of planting a church is that you get to wear many hats. In my particular church, I am the teaching pastor and the worship leader. This is partly out of necessity, but it is also due to the gifting that my wife and I have. My wife is a classical pianist by trade and I am a decent worship leader. My weaknesses tend to be in the area of administration, but that is for another time. Week in and week out I labor to find songs that glorify God and inspire the congregation to praise God. Sometimes I fail at this, sometimes I succeed, always I delight in the process of praise.
Reading through the Psalms is a beautiful way to learn to lead worship. Today, I’d like to look at Psalm 96. Below are 6 observations about worship that we can see in the Psalm, then 3 exhortations to congregants as a result, and then three encouragements to worship leaders.
So, let’s see what we might learn from Psalm 96 about worship.
In Psalm 96 we are admonished to “sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD all the earth!”
What does this exhortation teach us about praise and singing?
- The motivation for our praise is not circumstantial. This exhortation does not come with qualifying remarks such as, ‘if you feel like it’ or ‘if God has met your every desire.’ Instead, this particular psalm says “Sing to the LORD…For great is the LORD and greatly to be praised!” The motivation for singing is centralized on the character and nature of God. We sing because we see Him! We sing because He is God! Indeed, the Psalm begins by declaring God’s greatness and concludes by awaiting His judgment on the earth.
- The timing and conditions of praise are God’s to decide. Too often we seem content to praise the LORD on our own terms. We come to a gathering and sing, if we feel like it or if the music is good. But we fail to ask what His terms are. As a result, we rob ourselves of the powerful experience of worshiping through adversity. Perhaps God wants us to sing when we do not feel like it. Perhaps God wants to see us push past our own hearts and struggle to see His. After all, God did name His chosen people, “Israel” meaning “One who wrestles with God.” Seems like God likes to wrestle with us.
- Praise is a corporate reality! We praise well when we sing together. In this Psalm, we are admonished to bring our families along in worship and “ascribe to Him Glory and strength” in verse seven. We are called to come into the court with praise and praise Him among the nations. Singing is a corporate responsibility for the people of God. This Psalm admonishes us to join with the corporate body and even the entire earth in singing praise to God (c.f. v.11 and 12).
- Praise requires sacrifice. We are encouraged to bring an offering before the LORD when we come to join in praise. Worshiping the Lord in song requires a sacrifice of self just like every other act of worship. Did you know that the first time worship is mentioned in the Bible is when Abraham is going to sacrifice Isaac? The first mention of the word worship is tied to a tremendous act of sacrifice. Worship is sacrifice. We must bring before the LORD offerings of our lives, comfort, and even simple petty possessive pleasures; only then will worship begin to flow out of us in spirit and in truth through song.
- God is to be worshiped “in the splendor of holiness” with trembling (v.9). Consider for a moment what that means. It means that you are going to delight in worship only when God is supremely lifted up as glorious above all others. It also means that you are going to recognize the severity of what you are doing when you sing praise to the Almighty. When you join in singing during corporate worship, is God’s glory truly what you are recognizing? Are you seeking to raise Him up? If not, then we fail to worship. Further, the psalmist gives us a powerful reminder that the LORD is going to judge the earth, yet, there is no fear in the psalmist’s tone. He is not afraid, because he knows the Judge. Likewise, we sing with severity, but also with joy. We recognize the judgment of the Lord is coming and will land on the earth. But we know the judge and He is just and merciful! So with severe joy, we worship the Lord in song.
- Worship is not about us. It is about the One being worshiped. In this psalm, God is the focus of singing praise. Indeed, in every song of praise, it is God who is the focus. He is the motive, He is the subject, and He is the one about whom we sing.
Three Encouragements for Congregations
- Strive to worship regardless of the song. It is easy to be critical of the songs we sing at church. It is easy to dissect lyrics and judge a song as errant. However, if you are in a healthy church and the leaders are striving to maintain truth, then give them the benefit of the doubt and strive to worship. Try to see past particular wordings and focus on truths you can see about God. If you cannot, in good conscience sing a particular song, then strive to pray during that song instead.
- Bring words of encouragement to your leaders with every critique. Worship leaders get critique all the time. As a result, it is sometimes exhausting to hear people talk about worship music. You will guide your own heart into worship if you begin by thinking about what is good rather than what you want to critique. Further, the Psalms seem to indicate that singing is a corporate reality. So, recognize that you have as much to do with worshiping as the leader. Strive to lead from your seat. Sing loud! Then when a song does not land well with you, go to the person who selects the songs and then talk to them about that song. Tell them what is good in the song first, then discuss what is difficult for you. In this way, you will engage in corporate worship even when having difficulties.
- Sing! There is no greater encouragement to a worship leader than the voices of the congregation. Sing, and sing loud. We know you are thinking deeply. We know that sometimes you don’t feel like singing. We know that the music is not always your style. We know because we feel the same way. Worship leaders don’t always want to sing either. Sing anyway. Remember the Psalmist’s example – singing is not about your feelings or circumstances. It is about the character of God. Prepare for worship ahead of time by reading your Bible and praying. Get a picture of God before you enter into worship. Lay your sacrifice before the Lord and SING!
Three Encouragements for Worship Leaders
- Choose songs that are about God, not us. So many of the songs in our churches are narcissistic in nature. American churches often sing songs about the way we feel and call it praise. But songs about us do not praise! We exalt our own experience above the truth by proclaiming our own experiences in place of the deep truths of God’s character. Don’t misunderstand, there are numerous examples of Psalmists citing their feelings or experience towards God, but the praise always results from a recognition of God’s character. Indeed, when we lead others in singing, we ought to strive to display the character and nature of God so thoroughly in our music that people cannot help but praise.
- Sing songs that are easy to sing. This is more a simple practical thing. Your song selection may be beautiful and loaded with great content. However beautiful the song may be, if people cannot sing it, then you are not leading worship. Some easy ways to teach a song are 1. Repeat verses so people can get the melody, 2. Repeat new songs for two weeks then skip one week and do it again the next week, 3. Make your worship list available online for people to listen to the week of service, 4. Talk about the meaning of the songs you sing with members of the congregation.
- Worship in transparency. We don’t always feel like worshiping. Sometimes, as leaders, we would rather not lay our hearts bare before the Lord… but worship is not about our feelings or our circumstance. Worship is about God! Be honest with your brothers and sisters and tell the people when you are struggling. Let them see you push through to worship the Lord in tears or difficulty. Lead people to think deeply and engage with God in transparency. Let people know what is going on inside you and worship with a little transparency.