Excerpted From ‘Transforming Worship’ (IVP)
By Rory Noland
For the last 15 years I’ve had the privilege of leading worship for the Transforming Center, a retreat ministry that specializes in spiritual formation for leaders. Participants gather quarterly to experience substantive teaching on themes and practices related to spiritual formation. The Transforming Center represents a growing movement of pastors and leaders who are realigning their church’s priorities around discipleship.
Scripture emphasizes that spiritual formation is the foundational task of the church. Jesus charged his followers to make disciples, baptize them and teach them to live in obedience to his commands (Matt. 28:19–20). The Great Commission is fundamentally a call to produce disciples—obedient followers—of Jesus Christ who in turn make other disciples. In John 17, on the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus prays what many believe to be the deepest desires of his heart, including an urgent prayer that his followers be sanctified (John 17:17).
New Testament church leaders had no confusion about their overarching mission. Paul was adamant that God wants every believer to be sanctified (1 Thess. 4:3), so he aspired to bring his people to full maturity in Christ (Col. 1:28). His goal was not merely to win a lot of people to Christ but to help them mature spiritually and to equip them for ministry in the community at large (Eph. 4:12). Paul took his calling to make disciples so seriously that he agonized over the spiritual well-being of his people; he longed for them to experience genuine transformation and for Christ to be truly formed in them (Gal. 4:19). The apostle and his colleagues in Colossae prayed fervently that their flock would be filled with knowledge, wisdom, and understanding to live worthy of and pleasing to the Lord (Col. 1:9–10). Paul was constantly on his knees praying that his people would reap all the spiritual benefits of knowing Christ (Eph. 1:17–19), that they would be sanctified “through and through” (1 Thess. 5:23). The writer of Hebrews beseeched the Lord to work in the lives of his people to equip them to do God’s will (Heb. 13:21).
Scripture indicates that the church’s main agenda is to train believers to walk, empowered by grace, in the freedom of Christ. Making disciples is not a sidebar activity relegated to a specialized sub-ministry of the church; it is not the pet project of the church’s education department or the latest trend the church rallies around for a few months but abandons when the next popular craze comes along. Spiritual formation is not an optional pursuit but the very reason the church exists in the first place.
For that reason church leaders are responsible for providing their flocks with resources and opportunities to help them grow spiritually. Transforming worship views Sunday morning as a golden opportunity to nurture the spiritual lives of God’s people.
Defining Transforming Worship
I define transforming worship as “a communal experience that combines classic spiritual practices with a formative encounter with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit.” Notice, first, that it’s communal; it is something we do in the company of others, in partnership with God’s people. It is also experiential; the bulk of the activities are not designed for people to sit back and watch but to join in and participate. Transforming worship draws from traditional Christian disciplines such as prayer, Scripture reading, confession, the Lord’s Supper and baptism, all of which the church has been practicing since its inception. The assumption here is that every major part of the service, not just the sermon, can be spiritually formative. At the heart of this entire experience is an encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ. Transforming worship does not seek to evoke a feeling or deliver teaching, but to encounter a person. The ultimate goal is for worshipers to encounter the life-altering, character-shaping presence of God.
I am well aware that any talk about making adjustments to Sunday services makes church leaders nervous. One pastor told me that he was willing to hire a different worship leader and raise thousands of dollars for a new sound system but that he wouldn’t dream of introducing changes to the actual service. “Mess with Sunday morning at your own risk!” he sternly warned, as if brandishing an eleventh commandment. His foreboding admonishment was gleaned from painful experience. I completely understand such apprehension. I’ve seen enough worship wars during my lifetime to heighten my trepidation about tampering with the service. My fears are allayed, however, by the fact that transforming worship has nothing to do with a certain style of music or method of worship. Nor am I promoting a particular genre of musical praise. I’m not saying that music and methodology are not important, but those are peripheral, ephemeral issues, not substantive ones. Worship styles change, music evolves, but biblical precepts regarding worship do not change with the times. I’m appealing to the modern church to return to a biblical vision of gathered worship as a formative spiritual practice.
There is an urgent need today for church services that are more spiritually substantive. In recent decades the church has failed to make spiritual formation a priority, and the results have been devastating. The church is to be commended for making outreach and evangelism high priorities, but we have done a poor job of discipling and assimilating new believers into the life of the church. Gregory Jones laments that today’s church leaders and their congregations have been so inadequately formed in their faith that they cannot live the Christian life in all its fullness. Jones further observes that those who join mainline Protestant churches these days are not required to make any changes to the way they live; neither are they given the resources to implement such changes. The church’s inattentiveness to spiritual formation has too often resulted in nominal Christians who experienced a spiritual awakening when they came to the Lord (and perhaps a certain degree of life change), but they are no longer on the journey toward radical transformation in Christ.
I believe that transforming worship can play a pivotal role in stemming the tide of nominal Christianity. The urgency of the situation demands that our church services take on a more spiritually formative role. In other words it’s time to mess with the service to bring it in line with its original design as a spiritually formative practice.
Excerpted from Transforming Worship by Rory Noland. Copyright (c) 2021 by Rory Noland. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. IVPress.com