Enriching praise and worship through ACTS
Alain Gerard Coralie
I love worship services that are fresh, dynamic and innovative. But I also enjoy traditional services, as they provide stability in a fast-changing world. I find no problem in singing Don Moen and Handel. I believe that I don’t need to throw away tradition to be in touch with contemporary culture, nor do I need to be stuck in the 18th century to be faithful to God. For that reason, I try to plan worship services that mix celebration and contemplation. Communion with God should pass through thoughts, emotions, and a sanctified imagination.
However, it’s easier said than done. I constantly struggle to keep things in balance. Sometimes, I tend to limit worship to notional correctness; sometimes I oversimplify it as a matter of feelings. Interestingly, the more I think about this tension, the more I realize that the tension is present in Adventist worship. Congregations often stress one facet of worship at the expense of the other. Traditionalists tend to stress the cognitive, whereas innovators emphasize the affective. How do we solve this dilemma? Let me share with you a discovery that has helped me reduce this tension.
The secret is this: worship built around the acronym ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. Some will argue that worship must not be reduced to a four-letter mnemonic. While being aware of the complexity of worship, I’m convinced that ACTS can draw us to the core of worship, both theologically and experientially.
Worship is a sacred and wonderful experience, and it deserves serious attention. God is not pleased when worship becomes superficial (see Isaiah 29:13). To be pleasing to Him and to build our souls, worship should be thoughtful and participative, intellectually engaging and emotionally fulfilling. It cannot be a relaxing period where we take an intellectual leave for an hour in order to have some spiritual entertainment. Instead, worship is a divine encounter, an attitude of the soul, an act of obedience of the heart. It is a response to God’s self-revelation. As such, it requires our best: to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:37).
While ACTS can inform and structure all aspects of worship service, in this article I want to focus on the song service. More and more contemporary Adventist worship services have a P&W (praise and worship) section where a worship team leads the congregation in a number of songs and choruses. This 10- to 20-minute song service is very popular in the life of many churches. However, if it’s done badly, worshipers might come out of it with the impression they’ve been intoning singsongs around a campfire. In worst cases, congregants might feel that they’ve been attending a concert because of the worship team’s theatrical performance or choreographed spontaneity.
Are you willing to lead P&W sessions in such a way that they reach sacred heights? Perhaps a good point to start off with is to remember that the purpose of singing hymns and choruses is to stimulate remembrance and induce an attitude. As we worship through songs, we celebrate God’s mighty acts in history by recounting His wondrous deeds. Further, as we gladly come into His presence, we elevate our entire being to that which is pure and holy. Essentially, to lead worship is to stand on holy ground in the very presence of the Lord of glory.
Let’s apply the ACTS principle to the praise and worship part of our service:
Always start a P&W session with adoration. Worship is God-centered, not people-centered. In other words, our worship should be centered on God, not on humans. Adoration, musically speaking, is that time in which the congregation acknowledges God’s majesty and acquaints itself more fully with His matchless character. The Bible presents Him as a living God who reigns in majesty, exalted over all creation. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the one in whom we have our being. He is holy, righteous, wise, true, faithful, loving, and merciful. From this perspective, good worship leaders choose songs that lavishly extol God’s attributes. They stay away from vacuous praise songs that are high in repetitiveness but low in spiritual substance.
In your P&W service, start off with songs that exalt God for who He is. Basically, songs of adoration need to induce a spirit of awe and reverence to the worshiping community. They must elevate the mind from the mundane and the transient to fix it on eternal realities. As a worship leader, draw from the rich tapestry of Christian hymnody to attain this goal. Worship is the time when we move forward to meet our God (Psalm 100); it is also the moment when God comes to visit His people in a special way. The Bible teaches that He sits in the midst of the praise of His people (Psalm 22:3). Thus in worship we have the privilege of coming in touch with the great and mighty God. Nevertheless, as we approach God in the beauty of His holiness, we also become aware of our sinfulness and unworthiness. This is why confession becomes mandatory.
Confession means acknowledging our bankruptcy. It is the realization that even our very best comes short of the glory of God. Confession of sin necessarily involves acknowledgement of God as the Lord who rules with authority and the necessity for us to align our lives to His will. As our Maker, He deserves our homage and obedience. And yet, because of our sinful nature, we constantly fail to do so. Hence, true worship demands confession. As we draw closer to the throne of grace, we need to clear away the things that stand between us and our God. This can only be done under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
As a worship leader, find appropriate songs that express confession. To make confession of sin a part of worship is extremely important. However, there is no need to make it dreary or ghoulish. To quote John Stott: “There is nothing morbid about the confession of sins, so long as we go on to give thanks for the forgiveness of sins. It is fine to look inwards, so long as it leads us immediately to look outwards and upwards again.”1 Thus, confession must lead us to thanksgiving in gratitude to what God has done to us through Jesus Christ.
In adoration, we praise God for who He is; in thanksgiving, we celebrate Him for what He has done. While adoration focuses upon God’s nature and character, thanksgiving focuses upon the manifestation of His goodness toward us. God’s Word commands, “Give thanks in all circumstances” because “this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18, NIV).
Through His life, death, and resurrection, Jesus has restored the relationship that should exist between humanity and God. Through Him alone can sinners be reconciled to God and worship Him. His love for us demands our highest gratitude. Hence, thanksgiving requires a Christ-centered focus. Ellen White comments: “Christ and Him crucified should be the theme of contemplation, of conversation, and of our most joyful emotion.… Let us with reverent joy come before our Creator.”2
In accomplishing this task, use old and modern hymns which are imaginatively rich and theologically grounded in order to draw worshipers to Christ and His matchless love. The scandal of our time is the use of songs that trivialize the Christian faith by painting it in rosy and ethereal terms and demanding from us a sappy sort of spirituality.
Pursuant to the theme of thanksgiving is our attitude to God for His loving involvement in our daily lives. The One who directs the galaxies also watches over us. As worship leaders, be alert to signs of God’s movement in the life of His people. Wherever possible, give the opportunity for individuals to testify of God’s goodness toward them. Short testimonies can play an important part in P&W.
Since God has chosen to work for and through His people, close the P&W session with supplication. Two forms of supplication – petition and intercession – are important. First, plead with God to intervene in the life of the worshiping community. There can be no teaching, no preaching, no healing of human brokenness, no genuine communion unless worshiping communities are baptized into the creative and life-giving power of the divine Spirit. Since God is eager to bless His people, use songs that invite the Holy Spirit to come and touch, restore and strengthen His people.
After petitioning God for the needs of the congregation, move to intercession. In intercession, we lift the needs of the community – family members, neighbors, leaders and those in influential positions – and we pray for global issues such as justice for the poor or relief of suffering. In a fallen world, it is important to be our brothers’ keepers. The worship service is not an oasis where we escape the world; rather, it is an opportunity to recharge our spiritual batteries to meet its needs. Intercession is one way by which a world of love and hate, of joy and sorrow, of victories and losses is presented to God in compassion and hope.
Viewed from this perspective, worship cannot be a self-serving event but must be a privileged moment for serving God by means of serving others. This essential link between fellowship and service has to be upheld if we want corporate worship to reflect true Christianity. Only then will the church be equipped to minister in the wider world as part of God’s plan of reconciliation.
To accomplish that, ACTS provides a jump start.
Alain Gerard Coralie (M.Th., Oxford University, M.Div., Andrews University), is the Executive Secretary and Education Director of the Indian Ocean Union of Seventh-day Adventists with headquarters in Madagascar. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Notes and references
1. John Stott, Christian Basics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), p.122.
2. Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1956), pp. 103, 104.