Engaging Minds: What American Revolutionaries Have to Say to Modern Worship Leaders

In 1812, Dr. Benjamin Rush (a medical doctor, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and early proponent of Sunday School) wrote a letter to John Adams expressing his delight that Adams and Thomas Jefferson had repaired their long-fractured friendship. In the letter Rush wrote, “Some talked, some wrote, and some fought to promote and establish the American Revolution, but you and Mr. Jefferson thought for us all.”

Those two patriots affixed words to ideas and concepts that made the Revolution tangible. They helped people grasp concepts high on the ladder of abstraction by making those ideas alive with everyday meaning and significance…We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Jefferson and Adams gave people a vision of something worth fighting for, and for many, worth dying for. They helped shape the beliefs of a people who would forge a new nation and even govern their behavior.

When I prepare services for Sunday mornings, I would serve my congregation more effectively if I’d remember Dr. Rush’s words of encouragement to Mr. Adams: “you and Mr. Jefferson thought for us all.” Helping our congregations think rightly about God and themselves begins with what we give them to think about. Are the songs we sing, prayers we pray, transition statements we make, and sermons we preach truly helping our people think?  By sitting through our worship services, are they able to clearly connect the dots between God’s holiness, their sinfulness and the gospel of Jesus Christ as the bridge between the two? Have we helped them think and respond to the One who shed His blood for their sins in order that they may be forgiven? (Eph 1:7).

When people arrive at church each week, there’s a pretty good chance that many of them have not thought very deeply about preparing their hearts and minds for worship. Many of them have been shaped by voices and messages of the world. Many of them enter our corporate gatherings with very little thought that worshiping the God of the universe through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit can help re-form them and transform them into the image of Christ. They probably aren’t thinking through the significance and reality that they become what they worship (Psalm 115). Few have considered that corporate worship is meant for them to receive God’s revelation and, in turn, respond to Him with awe, reverence, confession, adoration, and obedience.

Instead, our people enter our worship centers burdened by cares and concerns from their own worlds. Picture those in your church on Sunday morning: the single dad who sits with his children every other week, the elderly woman who shared a pew for fifty years with a spouse who now lives in the memory unit at the local nursing home, the young couple who parked their Honda Civic in a sea of mini-vans wishing they could pull up to the nursery door, the fifteen-year-old girl who argued with her mom about the length of her skirt, the parents worried about their high school son who seems distant and aloof, and all the other stories of people who come to church wanting answers but who haven’t really spent any time thinking about the God who has answers.

In his book Think, John Piper relates the following: “Thinking is indispensable on the path to passion for God…thinking under the mighty hand of God, thinking soaked in prayer, thinking carried by the Holy Spirit, thinking tethered to the Bible, thinking in pursuit of more reasons to praise and proclaim the glories of God, thinking in the service of love – such thinking is indispensable in a life of fullest praise to God” (27).

Are we helping our people think about God effectively enough to worship Him by having them sing repetitive generalities with catchy musical hooks? Are we helping them think deeply about God when we have them sing only what they are going to do to praise God? “I’m gonna lift my voice and give my praise.” Are we helping them think by trying to “warm up” the crowd with greetings that cause them to respond to the worship leader rather than the One we’ve come to worship? “How y’all doin’? I can’t hear you! How ya’ll doin’?” Or are we pointing them to Christ through the Word? “As we’ve read the words from Ephesians 1, let’s sing them: “To the Praise of His Glory.” Are we helping them sing songs that encourage them to think deeply about, and then respond to the gospel? “Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery.”

Part of our role as worship leaders and pastors is to help our people think rightly about God and themselves. “Ponder anew what the Almighty can do.” We are charged with the stewardship of conveying truth worth thinking about to our people. So praying with the Psalmist, “Open my eyes, that I may contemplate wonderful things from Your instruction” (Psalm 119:18) is something we should pray for our people every week. Let’s not waste another Sunday trying to come up with pithy things to say to our congregations who desperately need to be guided by the Word of God to help them think and then respond to Him in worship. After all, are the declarations of truth concerning God’s eternal kingdom any less important than declarations of freedom articulated by Mr. Adams and Mr. Jefferson?

Joe Crider

Dr. Crider is the Executive Director of the Institute for Biblical Worship and a professor of Church Music and Worship in the Department of Biblical Worship at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY. He also serves as Worship Pastor at LaGrange Baptist Church in LaGrange, KY.