The Heart of Worship

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Cross still standing in Notre Dame Cathedral after April, 2019 fire.

Twenty years ago, I had an experience that forever changed my understanding and approach to worship. In the fall of 1999, the Passion Conference was just getting off the ground. It would be another ten years before Passion City Church would launch at the The Tabernacle in Atlanta. Louie Giglio, Chris Tomlin, and Matt Redman were not yet household names.

A student at the University of Southern Mississippi, I listened intently as a group of friends recounted their experiences at Passion the year before. They excitedly described plans for “One Day” – a gathering for students of my generation to come together from all over the country, worship, and pray for revival and spiritual awakening. In the run up to the big day, organizers were hosting regional events throughout the southeast. Memphis would play host to the main event and was the closest to our school, so we packed into a few cars and hit the road. 

Since Memphis was my hometown, I talked my mom into hosting this ragged group of college students who threw down sleeping bags on the floor throughout her modest house. A day later, we road with electric anticipation to the Ag Center at Shelby Farms, just outside of town. It was hard to ignore the storm that was clearly brewing on the horizon. The wind began to blow and we witnessed the first flashes of lightning as we entered the arena and took our seats.

In no time at all, the storm on the horizon became the storm right on top of us. Rain pounded the metal roof over our heads, thunder clapped all around, and we wondered how we would ever hear the praise band in the midst of such chaos. Then . . . it happened. All of the electricity in the building went out. I don’t know if lightning hit a transformer or just knocked a tree limb down on one of the power lines, but the whole arena was pitch black.

These were the days before everyone had a cell phone, so we sat there . . . disappointment building by the minute. How was the band going to play? How would we hear the speaker? Had we driven all this way for nothing? Was this an attack of the Enemy? We sat there in darkness for what seemed like an eternity.

Eventually, the event organizers opened the back door of the Ag Center and pulled around as many trucks as they could find, lining them up in the opening. With headlights backlighting the scene, I clearly remember Charlie Hall stepping to the front of the stage with a bullhorn. He said, “We are here to worship. We aren’t going to let a storm keep us from doing that.” So, we started singing. We all knew the words of the song, so it crescendoed to a climax on the chorus:

“I’m coming back to the heart of worship / And it’s all about you; all about you, Jesus. / I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it / when it’s all about you; all about you, Jesus.”

All of a sudden, the electricity came back on . . . but not in all the arena. In that holy moment, as we reminded ourselves through song what was really important, the only lights that came on in the Ag Center were four spotlights illuminating a cross in the middle of the arena. Still shrouded in darkness, we had a beacon leading us to the throne . . . leading us to the cross. We were reminded that worship wasn’t about the band . . . or the music . . . or the emotional high . . . or the lights . . . or the production. Worship is about the cross. About the Savior. About the Good News, proclaimed and embodied by the people of God in the world.

Too often, I’m afraid we’ve failed to learn that lesson as a church. Too often, we’ve made worship about music styles and instrumentation. We’ve made it about choirs or praise bands. We’ve made it about whether the pastor wears a coat and tie, a formal robe, or jeans and flip flops. We’ve made it about singing words off a wall or out of a hymnal. We’ve made it about beautiful buildings and well-planned orders of worship. 

I long for the day when God’s people recognize that the shape of our worship is far less important than the content of our worship. I long for the day when God’s people will recognize that the things that divide us as Christians – styles, preferences, politics, traditions, age, socio-economic status, etc. – pale in comparison to the one thing that unites us – the cross of Jesus Christ. I long for the day when God’s people might raise a chorus once again and with one voice sing:

“I’m coming back to the heart of worship / And it’s all about you; all about you, Jesus. / I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it / when it’s all about you; all about you, Jesus.”