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Glenn Packiam: Cheerleading vs. Worship Leading

“Jesus rose from the grave, and you, you can’t even get out of bed!”

It’s been a few decades since Keith Green sang those words, but the sentiment is alive in worship leaders all over the world. Every Sunday, when our eyes happen to catch the lazy stares of hollow faces with folded arms, we feel a not-so-holy anger rise up. As much as we try to resist it, some version of the “I can’t believe you’re not more into it” speech comes out. Blank looks turn into offended smirks, and the worship moment is effectively lost.

Even when we don’t give in to the urge to smack people around for not being more fervent in their worship, there is still this underlying belief that we owe God something in response to His extravagant love. Call it a gratitude ethic. Put it on a bumper sticker as the catchy “Live for the One Who died for you” phrase. It’s the same core belief: God has done much for me, now I’ve got to do much for Him. Because of this theology of a God who acts and then awaits our action, pastors often berate sinners and lecture the lazy.

Much has been made of how worship is a response to what Christ has done for us. Certainly, there is truth in that. It is “in view of God’s mercy” that we offer our “bodies as living sacrifices,” our “spiritual act of worship.” Worship is a response. But it is more than our response.

Offered in the One

In the Old Testament, there were three primary pieces of Jewish worship: Temple, Priest, and Sacrifice. All the way up until the Exilic Period, the way God had instructed Israel to encounter Him was through priest and sacrifice and in a temple or tabernacle. In the New Testament, the book of Hebrews serves as our chief expositor of Old Testament worship and how it is fulfilled in Christ. Hebrews argues that Christ is now our great High Priest who offered up His life before heaven’s mercy seat as a perfect sacrifice once for all (Heb. 7:27). Jesus, speaking of His body, talked about the temple being destroyed and then rebuilt in three days (John 2:19-21). So Jesus is Temple, Priest, and Sacrifice.

But there’s more. Paul calls us “God’s temple” (1 Cor. 3:16), Peter calls us a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9), and Paul urges us, as mentioned earlier, to offer our “bodies as living sacrifices.” (Rom. 12:1) But we are not these things on our own; Jesus is at the heart of it. Because Jesus is the Temple, we are a temple. Because Jesus is the Great High Priest, we are priests. Because Jesus is the perfect sacrifice, our sacrifice is acceptable. Because Jesus is and because we are in Jesus, we are.

It Goes Both Ways

Christ does more than mediate God to us; He mediates us to God. God demonstrated His love for us in Christ, by paying for our sins and making us new, alive to God. But it’s not as if we say, “Thanks, I’ll take it from here.” We demonstrate our love for God as we offer our lives in Christ.

So how does this change the way we think and talk about worship? How does it change the way we lead worship? Here are a few thoughts:

1. Speak of Christ’s work in more than the past tense.
The mediation of Christ is not merely something we look back to as a past event. The Living Christ is in our midst. In worship, we are not simply responding to Christ’s work on the cross; we are responding to Christ’s work in us presently.

2. Remind people that even our response is hidden in Jesus.

We do not stand on our feet before Christ. We are not temple, priest, or sacrifice on our own merit. We are those things because we are in Christ. Our songs, our prayers, our lives become acceptable and pleasing to God because they are being offered up to God in Jesus.

3. Focus on calling attention to Christ (not on how people are responding).
First of all, you congregation’s response is not your main concern. As worship leaders, our role is to call attention to Christ-His work in the past, His work at the present, and His work that will culminate in time to come. How people are or are not responding is not our concern. Anything we do to elicit response usually ends up leaving people trying to muster up something on their own, ratcheting up emotion, or white knuckling their guilt-driven devotion to God.

So the next time our congregations seems bored and aloof, perhaps instead of cheerleading them into giving their all, maybe we can find ways to call their attention to the Living Christ, present in our midst, ready to take our broken lives and turn them into beautiful offerings to God.