Power and Freedom by the Spirit
Paul Clarke, Bishop's Stortford, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
If you were asked to describe the character and atmosphere of the meetings of believers where you fellowship, I wonder what words you would use?
In 1 Corinthians 12-14, the apostle says that such times should be marked by the authority of the word of God, aspirations for spiritual excellence and a dynamic awareness of the presence of God. There will be worship and participation that builds up fellow-believers, and attitudes that reflect love, godly submission and humility. All these characteristics are, in the words of Paul, ‘manifestations of the Spirit’, for where the Spirit of God has freedom to make His presence and power known, our attitudes and actions will be Spirit-produced.
One important aspect of church life is corporate prayer and worship. These activities, including the breaking of bread, should, by their very nature, know a special sense of the presence of God and be empowered by the Spirit of God. The focus of this keynote article is to look at the character of such times, hindrances to prayer and worship, corporate participation whether oral or silent, and some considered advice on meaningful participation.
What do we mean by worship?
Wayne Gruden describes worship as ‘the activity of glorifying God in His presence with our hearts and voices’ and is an essential activity of any believing community. Edmund Clowney comments that, ‘reverent corporate worship . . . brings to expression the very being of any local church’.
True worship is something that God seeks and, as a spiritual activity, must be empowered by the Spirit of God working in us, and among the company with whom we meet.
How is it then that, as we meet for prayer and worship, sometimes there is little participation and the occasion lacks vibrancy, freedom and freshness? The time seems to drag and, often, we leave unmoved, unchallenged and without an increasing hunger for God and His word?
God looks for character rather than format
Although our traditional background provides a tremendous heritage, and our preferences may help us individually, we must be careful that we are not captives to our heritage or fervent adherents to our preferences. Care must be taken before God to ensure that we do not accord scriptural authority to form and preferred practice, however personally helpful we find them. To insist that others follow them will lead to legalism, which in any form robs believers and companies of joy, vitality and power.
Scripture provides little guidance as to the format of prayer or worship times, including the breaking of bread, but clearly emphasizes how such times should be characterized. This would include:
- Unity – both in relationships between believers and in expressions of worship and praise as a body
- An awareness of God’s presence – to the extent that unbelievers are forced to admit this fact
- A desire that all participation should build up other believers
- Harmony between the heart (emotions) and the mind (intellect)
- Godly order
Regular exercise by elders and every believer in respect of these issues will create a spiritual awareness and sensitivity that cannot fail to impact the whole company.
What are the hindrances to power and liberty in worship and praise?
We may want to experience the freedom and power of the Spirit of God, but know that all too often the opposite is true. Formality, staleness and self-centred contribution, or even barren silence, rob us of these desired aspirations. We must be aware that there are many hindrances to the freedom and power of the Spirit of God when a local church meets together. These include:
- Personal sin
- Coldness of heart
- Discord/strife in the church
- Broken relationships, within the church and within marriages
- Resentment/anger against another believer
- Lack of personal preparation
- Undisciplined thoughts
- Long and wandering prayers
- Inappropriate contributions
- Excessive and contrived emotion
- Lack of concentration
Where we wish to know the freedom and power of the Spirit in greater ways among us, then these matters need to be addressed in our personal and corporate lives.
There needs to be preparation, but note the common misunderstanding
Sometimes the Spirit of God comes upon people in special ways for special purposes, but generally our participation is a personal response to our own waiting upon God. We must be careful then that we do not attribute participation in open worship and prayer times to a mysterious impulse to participate that either comes upon a person or does not. How many times have we heard, ‘I didn’t feel led to pray / take part’, or ‘nothing came into my mind to pray or say’, as though participation depends primarily upon a sudden impulse or inner compulsion.
There should be private, personal preparation before coming to prayer and worship times, for a lack of preparation will lead to:
- No participation – silence, both audibly and inaudibly Sterile participation – a constant repetition of the same hymns, prayers and readings. This may be particularly noticeable in the breaking of bread, when because of a lack of prior preparation, the same themes are followed, the same hymns are sung and the same readings are read. Without personal preparation it is unlikely that the Spirit of God will bring to one’s mind anything other than what is already firmly entrenched there through repetition and previous practice
- Vain repetition – the singing of hymns without entering into the spirit of them, the praying of prayers without commitment and feeling
- Lack of spiritual sensitivity to the overall direction and purpose of the occasion
Private prayer is a basic feature of the Christian life and a key aspect of preparation for public ministry and corporate worship. The Methodist preacher E. M. Bounds once wrote, ‘Some Methodist preachers pray too short in private and too long in public. As a rule, private prayers ought to be long and public ones short’. Such a charge is not restricted to Methodist preachers!
In thinking about personal exercise and preparation, it is difficult to imagine how contribution to corporate meeting times can rise above the quality and character of our own personal prayer and worship devotions. We now need to address this serious imbalance and find again the power and freshness that come only from time spent alone with Him.
Everyone must participate
It is important that, when thinking of participation, we understand that participation is both audible, through a brother leading the worship or prayer, and also inaudible, for the remaining company, whether male or female.
Audible Participation – the brother leading the company in prayer, praise or worship must appreciate that it is not a ‘solo’ exercise. The audible presentation of worship is offered on behalf of the whole company and those who listen must be able to follow what is said and should be moved to say, ‘Amen’.
Public contributions should therefore be brief – the average ability to concentrate is far less than we sometimes take for granted. Those who pray should express the desire and worship of all the company and must therefore avoid the temptation to sermonize, pass on notices or even tell people off in their prayer or thanksgiving. Prayers addressed to fellow believers (horizontal prayers) have no place where the freedom and power of the Spirit are known.
Inaudible Participation – as only one person can lead at a time, everyone else falls into this category. But those who are silent must not consider themselves to be ‘sleeping partners’. Worship or prayer is an activity in which all who are present should be participators. Every effort must be made to concentrate during the audible presentation so as to say ‘Amen’ at the end. During times of silence, every opportunity should be taken to add individual silent offerings of praise, worship and intercession, which in turn will enhance the character and power of the occasion for all. This is essential to a deepening reality of corporate worship.
Making worship and prayer more effective
Grudem helpfully identifies a number of areas that may make worship more effective:
- Prayer in preparation for worship by the church and especially the elders
- Teaching about the spiritual nature of worship
- Believers encouraged to make right any broken interpersonal relationships – between believers and/or between husbands and wives
- Believers to strive for personal holiness
- Encourage the use of hymns that help believers to express worship/praise/ prayer
Other actions that may be helpful include:
- The preparation of ourselves in advance of the meeting. The most significant aspect of this is to ensure that our private devotions are effective. Regular reading and meditation on scripture, with a consistent prayer life, are essential components of a vigorous personal relationship with God. Recent surveys and personal experience suggest that private Bible reading is not a consistent practice among many Christians and we should not be surprised then if corporate worship is affected adversely as a result
- Making every effort to concentrate on the contribution being made. Our minds – none excluded – wander all too easily
- Brothers leading the company in worship, praise or prayer should be brief and generally focus on one or two matters. It would be a worthwhile exercise to study the prayers of scripture in this regard. There is no hindrance to brothers taking part several times in prayer
- Look to combine activities, e.g,. read scripture without comment and then pray.
Meeting for remembrance, worship and praise is a tremendous privilege, which should revive, refresh and stimulate the company as God is glorified. To play our part in this – whether silently or orally – we should all strive to deepen our own experience of God and make every effort to ensure that our participation is meaningful and edifying. Spiritual power and a refreshing sense of the presence of the Lord in the company will then become a reality.
AUTHOR PROFILE: Paul Clarke Following senior executive roles within the Lloyds TSB Group, Paul took early retairement in 1998 to devote more time to teaching and pastoral responsibilies within his local church. He has been an Editor of Service since 1998.