Can Spirit-led worship be structured?

What is the relationship between duty and joy—discipline and desire? Is it possible to have formal, liturgical, structured worship services in which there is also freedom and space for distinctive ministries of the Holy Spirit? Are formal liturgies themselves ‘gifts’ of the Spirit to the church for enabling our worship? Is Holy Communion ‘like the lights being turned on at the end of the party,’ as Martyn Layzell evocatively described it, or is the Eucharist the great song of thanksgiving to our God of grace? If we tread tentatively towards what is sometimes described as ‘freedom within a framework,’ then what kind of freedom and what kind of framework?

So begins Graham Hunter’s excellent Grove booklet W233, the latest in the Worship series, on Discipline and Desire: embracing charismatic liturgical worshipGraham recounts how he is accused by some of his contemporaries for ‘going up the candle’ when, as a committed ‘charismatic’, he emphasises the importance and centrality of Holy Communion within worship. But this is far from the case.

I believe passionately that our worship services may be Spirit-led in the careful work of planning, structuring and leading worship services, as well as being spaces in which the Spirit may inhabit the praises of God’s people, and in which those gathered in acts of worship may truly experience the transforming power of the Spirit of God through their participation in worship.

To make sense of this, we need to explore both what it means to be ‘charismatic’ in the proper sense of being led by the Spirit, with all of the implications of that, and what worship is about. Graham begins by exploring the meaning of ‘charismatic’ and how it has been interpreted.

What do we mean by the term ‘charismatic’? The term has become a little slippery, and can be used by different groups to describe various patterns of church practice. A few initial usages are worth spelling out, before moving on to examining what we mean in terms of the worshipping life of our churches.

First, the term charismatic has strong biblical foundations. The Greek root of the term is charis—meaning grace or kindness given. It carries the sense in the New Testament of all that is given to us by God. Although the term is most commonly translated as grace—as in, ‘He gives us more grace (charis)’ (Jas 4.6) and ‘All are justified freely by his grace (chariti) through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus’ (Rom 3.24)—it is also the word used to describe gifts of healing (charismata) in 1 Corinthians 12. Indeed, it is undoubtedly the sense of the spiritual gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12 that are most closely associated with the charismatic movement—speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues, words of knowledge, discernment, faith, healing, prophecy.

If we were to apply the term charismatic in ways consistent with its New Testament usage, then all Christians would be charismatic—as all Christians are those who have received the gift of God’s grace and kindness. However, because the term is associated with some particular practices of worship within our churches, many Christians would not easily self-identify as charismatic. I am reminded that George Bush Snr apparently once quipped at a White House prayer breakfast that he was the only person in the room who was just born once! Of course, humour aside, it is oxymoronic—as there can be no such thing as a ‘born once’ Christian. The New Testament language of baptism is quite clear that a death and rebirth takes place as we are incorporated into Jesus in the mystical union of baptism.

Graham then goes on to map how the term has been used in relation to public worship, and the relation between being charismatic and the use of a particular style of worship song. This mapping will be of interest both to those within this movement, and those who have looked on at it from the outside. Graham concludes:

I am in favour of a definition of charismatic that embraces passionate spirituality—the confidence that God may move and act in our lives and in our world—and is willing to watch, to pray and to make space for the signs of his grace among us.

In then exploring the relationship between the spontaneity of response to the presence of the Spirit of God, and structures that create the space for this to happen, Graham draws on two images.

I love jazz music. In particular, I love the jazz music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and other pioneers of what is sometimes described as the free jazz movement of the 1950s and 1960s. This form of music is characterized by amazing improvisation by musicians, and by adaptations of the rhythmic and tonal conventions of the bebop era of the 1940s. As someone who has attempted over the years to play jazz music, I have come to realize that the inspiring improvisations of performers are only possible when as musicians they have developed a deep understanding of the musical forms. Only when the deep rules of melody, harmony and rhythm have been learned and practised is it possible to break out of these forms and enjoy the freedom and creativity of improvisation. The best jazz musicians will know their scales, chords and music theory inside out, and can then move freely within and beyond their accustomed musical conventions.

Let me switch analogy for a moment. On my honeymoon, my wife and I stayed on a vineyard in South Africa. The vineyard was relatively newly planted, and as well as the vines themselves, I was able to see the long runs of trellis wires that had been laid out to support the future growth of the vine. Without the trellis, the new shoots of the vine would wither; they would not be able to support the weight of their own growth, and would most likely find their growth and development stunted unnecessarily.

The muscles, veins and tissue of our bodies need a skeleton to give them support; the organic life of a vine needs a trellis to enable its growth; the jazz improviser needs their skills finely honed and practised to find true freedom and creativity in their music. Drummers need their rudiments—paradiddles and flams; trumpeters need to know their modes and their keys; guitarists their chord shapes, blues scales and Nashville numbering.

So too as Christians, if we are to experience freedom and creativity in our gathered worship we must understand the historic forms, practices and functions of our liturgy.

Graham then turns to explore what constitutes worship—and (though he does not draw this out) offers some very good reasons to call the person leading a service overall the ‘worship leader’ rather than the person who is leading the sung aspect of that!

Encountering the presence of God is the chief end of our worship services. But how is God’s presence encountered?

1 The presence of God is encountered as we meet with one another in fellowship. We are made in the image of God, and each one of us reflects his glory. In fellowship with one another we encounter something of the divine image—it may only be a partial, broken and fragmented reflection, but it is still something of God that we encounter. In fact, one of the reasons why The Peace is such an important part of the Eucharist is that it gives us a moment to acknowledge the presence of God in one another…

2 The presence of God is encountered as we draw near to him through acts of worship. God promises that when we draw near to him he will draw near to us (Jas 4.8). The means by which we draw near to God is in praise and thanksgiving. Psalm 100 invites us to ‘enter his gates with thanksgiving; his courts with praise.’ Our expressions of praise and thanksgiving—be they with words of acclamation, songs of adoration, or gestures and signs of awe—every moment of speech (or non-verbal communication) directed towards God is a form of prayer—a drawing near to him in the hope and expectation that he will draw near to us…

3 The presence of God is encountered as we attend to God speaking to us through Scripture and sermon. This is described in Anglican worship as the Liturgy of the Word. We read the Bible together in our worship services because it is one of the principal ways that God reveals himself to us. Scripture is for Calvin a ‘means of grace’—a way in which God gives us knowledge of himself. Karl Barth wrote of the threefold form of the word of God: the word incarnate (God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ); the word in Scripture (the prophetic and apostolic witness to Jesus); and the word in preaching (the fresh proclamation of the gospel of Jesus in every time and every place)…

Colin Gunton used to say that whatever else we do in your worship services, we should always make sure that all the set Bible readings are read weekly in the presence of the congregation—Old Testament, New Testament, Psalm and Gospel—even if it takes up 15 or 20 minutes of your service. Why read all these passages? Because it is the only part of your service in which you can be absolutely sure that God is speaking! We might not be so extreme, but actually it is a matter of faith and trust to believe that when the Bible is read in our midst, God can actually be revealing himself afresh to us. Reading Scripture, and reflecting on it together through the sermon (which involves the active work of both the preacher and the congregation), can enable us to encounter God’s presence afresh.

4 The presence of God is encountered as we pray for the world and one another. What we pray for shapes the very content of our faith. Lex orandi lex credendi is the old Latin term to claim that the rule of prayer is the rule of faith. In other words, what we pray for actually forms the very content of our faith—for good or for ill. If our prayer is centred on ourselves, seeking our own personal blessing and well-being, then our disposition in the world will become self-centred and less generous. This will not reflect the heart of God, the rule of his kingdom, or the mission of the church. This form of prayer will lead us away from the true faith. On the other hand, corporate prayers of intercession, prepared and led well, can enable us to enter fully into prayer for the world that God loves. Prayer can shape our faith, our doctrine and, of course, our lives.

5 The presence of God is encountered as he gives himself to us by the Holy Spirit in sacrament and with spiritual gifts. The words of institution given by Jesus at the supper the night before his crucifixion (1 Cor 11.23–26) have been taken seriously by the church through the centuries. Christians believe (with some variation over the specifics of exactly what happens) that God gives himself to us in Holy Communion. In the same way, we believe that God really gives himself to us in spiritual gifts. These practices are not inwardly generated—they come to us as gifts from beyond our own capacities. Though we might not feel any substantial effect of God’s presence in our mind, body or spirit, we can be confident that we have received the substantial presence of God’s grace in our lives. For God’s truth is not proved true by our emotions or by our response to grace, but rather is true in the nature of God’s character and action towards us. There might well be evidences of the grace of God among us for which we will be thankful, but these are not necessary in and of themselves to validate God’s grace given us (Acts 11.23).

Graham’s final chapter then explores the myriad of ways that the structures of our worship can create space for the Spirit to encounter us—including the shape of the year, the shape of our services, the shape of our praying and the different ways that Communion has been understood.

The booklet is an excellent resource which will stimulate discussion, reflection and innovation. Why not buy copies for your leadership team and discuss the ways in which you can be more open to the Spirit—and provide a better trellis structure for this to happen? The booklet is available for £3.95, post free in the UK or as a PDF e-book, from the Grove website.

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10 thoughts on “Can Spirit-led worship be structured?”

  1. Thank you… again.

    I’ve been preaching through sections of 1 Corinthinans. It strikes me that Paul would find any suggestion that order/planning/ even control ruled the Holy Spirit’s activity out as rather odd. And the framework of services can be overt or under-the-surface….but rarely is it absent. I’m not sure if complete ‘framelessness’ is actually possible. (‘What time do we start…finish?’)

    Didn’t Cramner speak of the ‘dead hand of habit ‘ that could kill worship? So think the issues are to do with the theological framework within which liturgy/not liturgy are used and the gifting of the worship leader in allowing/controlling/encouraging/denying the response of the congregation.

    Sometimes worship seems to me to be merely a hotpotch of items, a variety show performance with the minister introducing the next act. Not so much ‘listening for God’ as ‘taking part’?

    Is worship leading a gift? I tend to think it is and can be exercised in a multitude of settings. Where it’s not seen as this it shows and reduces worship to mere performance.

  2. “Encountering the presence of God is the chief end of our worship services.”

    It is interesting to consider this in the light of your own article, “Do we gather to worship or to learn?”.

  3. I have always been a card carrying charismatic through conviction and experience. I believe in the power of the Spirit, the gifts of the Spirit, the immediacy of the Spirit, the fullness of the Spirit, the liberty of the Spirit etc I have attended many charismatic events and known personally many leaders within the movement(s) over the past 3 decades. I’ve even written the ‘odd’ thing on it. However, lately I have noticed a growing weariness in my spirit for much that goes by the name charismatic – I find increasingly I want to sing songs with substance, hear a serious sermon and communion and quiet prayer…. and can take or leave much else. Is this a symptom of middle age spread or spiritual drift?

    • Simon You we so correct in what you say I long to preach again the whole truth of God’s Word -I feel I have been side tracked. I make sure I get fed daily in scripture and by reading wonderful sermons and listening to God given sermons online.
      The Lord uses me everywhere I go ….
      We are trying to encourage a young church and feel so worn out by things – God warned us that there would be a famine of His Word in the end times and I see and hear a great deal of manipulated stuff and re -cycled stuff .where is the old fashioned but very powerful word preached today.
      Contrary to popular opinion if God is in a Preacher and his/her Sermon then people know they have been in the presence of God.

  4. Like Simon, I have been a card carrying charismatic, have led worship at New Wine and many other such events. And continue to do so. And hope to do much more. But I too have become weary in my spirit at much of what is presented under the banner of ‘charismatic’. Maybe I too am showing middle age spread. But it’s partly I think it’s because ‘charismatic’ has become synonymous with ‘charismatic leader/worship leader’ – two very different things unfortunately. And I also think it’s partly because the charismatic movements have been poor at theological reflection on experiences so that effectively the experience becomes the theology.
    I am not one of those seeking a fresh move or a fresh outpouring as I think the spirit is constantly moving and will pour himself into anyone who surrenders to him. I am longing for a greater humility in the church and leaders in particular. And where I see it (like in Simon) I feel so much more confident in the future of the ‘charismatic’ church.

  5. I remember Alec Motyer preaching on Exodus at Keswick pointing out that when Moses said let my people go so that they my worship was not a conn. He then went on to point out that the detail of the tabernacle was then repeated as The Children of Israel built it as directed. He concluded that the essence of worship is obedience. To say a “worship service” is tautology!

  6. The problem is the phenomenological and pneumatological architecture and ‘scaffolding’ associated with the expression ‘liturgical structure’ – I am interested that organic forms and jazz improvisation have come into the conversation – but I am not interested in skeletal and trellis type liturgical structures – that was how they systematically collapsed the Toronto Blessing – I am much more interested in Azuza Street Style Fluid, Agile, Adaptive, Energetically Effulgent and Burning Ecclesiological Practice in how we do church – yes I believe in doing Church Inception Style.

  7. Simon

    You may not be the Simon Ponsonby I know – he has this uncontainable energetic fire and kinetic momentum in the Spirit and people burn at his touch – although you remind me of him. You are not in a state of Spiritual Drift – when you Drift it is a state of Intentional Pneumatoligical Encounter, Wayfinding, Cognitively Mapping what the Spirit is doing and stepping into the Slipstream of the John 3:8 Hurricane – it involves ever shifting heuristics and perceptual alterations – when you go Drifting – Church becomes Inception Style and everything catches fire.


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