How to Worship When You Don’t Feel Like It

Have you ever felt like staying in bed on Sunday morning? Do you wonder if God would be mad if you admitted that you don’t feel like worshipping Him?

It sounds sacrilegious for a devoted Christian to say this, but the reality is all Christians face days, weeks, months and sometimes years where we don’t feel like worshipping. It could be a result of health issues, emotional traumas, life circumstances or any number of factors. And you should know these feelings can be legitimate.

Worshiping in the midst of suffering

I recently suffered a hernia that required surgery. For four weeks I have been unable to sing or play saxophone, and couldn’t even join in corporate worship due to high levels of pain. This has forced me to reconsider the core nature of worship. Can I worship God when I literally am unable to make music?

I have faced many seasons where worship seemed like my lowest priority due to busyness, misaligned passions, heartache or other reasons. My response was something like this weak counsel, “Just buck up, Phil. God commanded you to worship. It doesn’t matter how you feel.”

Granted there is something right about that counsel: we can’t let feelings govern our faith. If I let my emotions rule I would never get out of bed to workout, go to work or even work on my marriage (note all the applications of work). Feelings follow fact and faith and not the other way around. But feelings are a legitimate part of a Christians experience of God and relationship with Him. 

I’m reminded of the mother who went to awaken her grown son. She gently nudged him and told him it was time to get up and get ready for church. He grunted and rolled over. Ten minutes later she returned and more loudly told him it was time to wake up. He again ignored her. She came back a third time with a bell and some cold water and threatened to pour it on him if he didn’t get up. He retorted, “Give me three good reasons why I should get up and go to church.”

“That’s easy,” she said. “First, you’re my son and as long as you’re in my house you’re going to church. Second, God commanded us to worship him and honor the Sabbath. But third, you’re the pastor.”

Laugh

Yes, even pastors don’t feel like going to church to worship some weeks. It might be fear of the scrutinizing elder, the nagging seniors, the screaming children or the reckless youth. Perhaps its the constant need for faith, compassion and trust. Sometimes a pastor can feel overwhelmed and wonder if it matters. I’ve been there…

…until God shows up. When God meets us in times of private or public worship everything is different. That happened for me yesterday during the singing of Laura Story’s song, “Blessings.”

Five Things to Remember When It Hurts to Worship

My recent experience of physical pain has reminded me of five things that encourage me as I go through seasons of hurt and missing the delight in worshiping God through music.

1. Worship does not equal music. I have taught this axiom for decades, but when music was taken away for a month I realize I have equated music with worship. God deserves praise whether I’m ever able to play or sing another note again.

Psalm 48:1 says, “Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise in the city of our God, his holy mountain.” God doesn’t need music or people to establish his worth or greatness. Instead our worship elevates him in our eyes and for others to see He really is great. This happens through songs, words, stories, actions and attitudes.

Jesus said in John 8:28: “So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me.”  While this passage refers to the way Jesus would die on the cross, there is also a corollary that when we lift up Jesus in our words, actions and lives others will be able to see Him more clearly. Our worship brings greater focus.

I’ve written about this before, but Matt Redman’s song “The Heart of Worship” came out of a place where he and fellow believers had equated music with worship. Jesus and the Gospel are the only remedy for our misplaced heart affections.

2. Worship really is all inclusive. Jesus commanded us to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds and strength. There really is nothing that gets held back. Being a musician and worship leader has led to a subtle deception that I’m only really worshipping God when I sing or play songs. If that were true, then I would be completely unable to worship for the last four weeks.

If worship and music are so closely aligned I need to rethink the worship algorithm. When I was a full-time worship pastor I was able to spend up to 15-20 hours a week making music and worshipping God in public and private. But now that this is not my primary vocation, I’m fortunate to spend 5 hours a week in musical forms of worship. Sometimes it’s more, but let’s go with 5 hours as that’s probably normal for many other musical Christians.

Worship Algorithm (1)Here’s the worship algorithm: we have 168 hours every week and if we sleep 7.5 hours per night, that leaves 115 hours. But if we assume we spend 2-3 hours a day eating and taking care of basic needs we are left with 94 hours. The average non-musician spends at least 40-50 hours at work and in commuting it can approach 60 hours. We now have 34 hours remaining.

Do you spend 34 hours worshiping God? Asked differently, if I spend 5 hours a week worshiping God through music, is it impossible to worship God the other 163 hours? The psalmist calls us to pray through the watches of the night, even in our bed, but surely I’m not supposed to sing while I sleep (oh, well I’ve actually done that–sleep singing, that is–but I’ll have to write a post on how to sing in your sleep!!)?

Psalm 63:6-8
6 On my bed I remember you;
I think of you through the watches of the night.
7 Because you are my help,
I sing in the shadow of your wings.
8 I cling to you;
your right hand upholds me.

3. Worship cannot and will not include music for some Christians

Whenever I lead worship I always notice that a certain percent of the congregation doesn’t sing. Even in churches that love to sing, there are always 10-30% of the people who just stand with no movement or expression. That used to bother me, but I’ve learned there are many reasons for this and I can’t judge. I do pay attention to know if even the faithful singers have stopped singing to be sure it’s not a musical issue like the pitch is too high or low. Otherwise, I assume one of the following are true:

  • Some believers are unable to participate for health reasons
  • Other believers don’t sing well and don’t want to assault those around them
  • Seekers and skeptics won’t sing something they don’t yet believe
  • Some people just don’t like music – I lived with a family once who didn’t own a stereo or any music.

I’m reminded of Jerram Baars, professor of art, culture and worship at Covenant Theological Seminary. His wife is a gifted musician, but he cannot tolerate listening to her and not it’s not why you suspect. He has a hearing impairment that it makes it excruciatingly painful to listen to music. In fact, he has to leave the sanctuary during the musical portions of a service. Because of his wife and his deep love for culture, this is particularly painful for Jerram to not be physically present. Living with this condition enables him to speak more directly to the nature of true worship without getting lost in the debates over musical style.

I remember helping Dr. Robert Webber lead one of his worship seminars. I was frankly shocked to learn he was not a musician and relied on others to lead the music during his worship events. Here is a theologian and pastor who understood that worship is much more than music and his whole doctoral program in worship teaches this from a biblical and historical perspective.

4. Worship embraces all learning styles and forms of communication

A good teacher understands that in her classroom there are visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners and she needs to play to the strengths and overcome the weaknesses of each style. If she doesn’t some students will excel while others start to believe they are stupid.

It is similar for pastors and worship leaders. Many American churches have relegated worship to preaching and music. This has led many Christians to share the sentiment expressed by Donald Miller in this controversial post:

Donald Miller articulates what I've heard from many Christians about why they stop going to church

Donald Miller articulates what I’ve heard from many Christians about why they stop going to church

He also wrote this followup post based on all the negative feedback he received.

I have not desire to enter the fray of that conversation, but only to point out that churches need to consider that every Sunday there are many types of people who attend and a well-planned service (and sermon) should affirm these learning styles–not just the preference of the pastor and worship leader. Easy to say, hard to do.

5. The Gospel is the fuel and focus of our worship

If you’ve been around church worship for very long you know how easy it is for us to get sidetracked in various worship wars and diversion. We can fight over styles, instruments, lyrics, worship evangelism, cultural relevance and many other issues that prevent us from embracing our primary purpose: to love God and make Him known.

Over the last fifteen years I’ve become immersed in communities who call themselves gospel-centered. The Gospel Coalition exists to sustain this movement and it has produced great fruit.

The aspect of this movement that helps me in worship is a focus on rehearsing the drama and truth of the Gospel in weekly worship. Instead of relegating the gospel message to evangelistic services, this movement has helped restore the primacy of the radical good news that we are saved and sanctified by grace alone–we bring absolutely nothing to this except what God gives us.

chapellBryan Chapell wrote Christ-Centered Worship to help churches plan services around the story of redemption.

When our personal and corporate times of worship help us to see our need for Jesus and rejoice in our salvation we find grace for the daily grind. That is good news.

Question: How do you worship without music?

As you ponder that question, enjoy this song from Sovereign Grace Music about the hope we share in the midst of suffering:

About Phil Mershon

Phil is an ordained Presbyterian pastor, experienced worship leader, former missionary, and director of events for Social Media Examiner (see LinkedIn profile). He holds degrees in theology, counseling, music and economics. His passion is helping the church follow her calling in worship that is thoughtful, passionate and excellent, and leading churches toward cultural engagement. Follow his tweets: @called_2worship and @phil_mershon
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One Response to How to Worship When You Don’t Feel Like It

  1. Quentin Genke says:

    Enjoyed your post. Some food for thought–The early Reformers and most sacramental churches today look(ed) at worship as not only a response to the grace of God but also as a place to receive His continued gifts of forgiveness and strengthening of faith. The more churches move away from these sacramental gifts of the Church the more people will wrestle with ‘not feeling like it’ which shouldn’t surprise us. God doesn’t need our worship but we desperately need the gifts He gives in worship. When worship is seen as a gift-receiving (God’s gifts) event and the worship leaders see themselves as the dispensers of those gifts then the people of God will hopefully be enclined to regularly gather to receive those gifts and respond forth with joyful praise.

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