The Flows of Worship

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Currents in the River of Life

The River of Life
I have found seven biblical models for worship. Of these, the most helpful in understanding the flows of worship is the River of Life. The image is powerful—water headed toward the sea. A mighty river has more than one current. Out in the deep channel it flows with great strength. Nearer the shore the currents are slower and the water not as deep. There is even back-water where the current flows in the opposite direction.

According to Ezekiel, the River of Life is an ever-deepening flow: ankle deep, to knee deep, to waist deep to waters-over-the-head. If we think of it as a description of worship, we see in the main currents of worship, an ever-unfolding manifestation of the Presence of Jesus. For me the four levels of the River refer to four levels of praise and worship:

  • Ankle deep water is Thanksgiving—the refreshing starting point.(Psalm 100:4)
  • Knee deep water is the Proclamation of Praise—declaring the Lord’s excellence.(I Peter 2:9
  • Waist deep water is Adoration—we move from praise to worship, from talking about God to talking to Him.(Psalm 99:5)
  • Over-the-head water is Communion—times we are lost in the presence of the Lord; unaware of things around us.(2 Corinthians 2:12:1-6)

This is an order of worship—Thanksgiving – Proclamation – Adoration – Communion. Change and deeper revelation come when we move from praise (thanksgiving and proclamation) to worship (adoration and communion). Healing is found in the deep water, not in the shallow places.(Ezekiel 47:11)

Ezekiel’s river flows inexorably to the Dead Sea. This illustrates the result of true worship—the flow of God’s Spirit to the needs of a hurting humanity. The test of our worship is people finding Jesus—the presence of a healed humanity.

“…where the river flows everything will live.”(Ezekiel 47:10 NIV)

Two Currents
Jesus said the River of Life has two main currents: Spirit and Truth.(John 4:24) For me “spirit” relates to the musical elements of worship (key, style, melody, harmony, tempo) and “truth” corresponds with the textual elements (theme, language, direction, mood). For worship to flow these currents must move in complimentary ways. When two currents in a river collide they form a whirlpool. When spirit and truth fight each other, the whirlpool can draw a worship plan under in a hurry. I have seen some worship plans actually back up and flow away from the River’s destination. As Spirit and Truth flow together whirlpools and backwater eddies are avoided.

The Flow of Truth
At the heart of the flow of worship is thematic planning. In every service, there is a truth the Spirit wants emphasized. The knowledge of the theme comes through prayer and sensitivity to the Holy Spirit. However, I may not see the theme until after I have started stringing songs together. Some recent themes I have used are: “Jesus Is the Cornerstone” “World Missions” “The Holy Presence” “Give Thanks” and “In Spirit and Truth”.

With a theme, we have a basis for selecting from the elements of expression: traditional and contemporary songs, scriptures and prayers. How wonderful to read the scriptures together as a congregation! How powerful it is to hear the people recite the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostle’s Creed! While songs remain our chief liturgy, scriptures and prayers can help transition between sections of worship. Whatever you choose, make sure one thought flows to the next.

The Flow of Spirit.
This is no less important, nor less spiritual, than the flow of Truth. Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit moves in fitting and orderly ways.  As He leads our preparation and presentation of worship, the Holy Spirit seeks those orderly, appropriate ways.  A service of worship should flow in an unbroken stream from beginning to the middle to the conclusion.  Leaders do not intrude with their personalities or gifts.  Events in the service are on point with the theme of the service and in the right place in the sequence.  In fact each service should have a theme, a central emphasis on some aspect of the Jesus Story and its application to life.  I call this “the Truth the Spirit wants” for that service.  Events and songs are chosen to support this central truth.

The Flow of Music
Music is the principle art of public worship. God made music to flows in certain ways. One is the flow of key relationships I call “musical gravity”—the circle of fourths/fifths.(This is the natural flow of key relationships: C-F-Bb-Eb-Ab-Db-Gb(F#)-B-E-A-D-G-C.) This tonal flow is the musical expression of “decently and in order”. If your songs jump from key to key without good key relationships, your worship will flow in fits and starts.

Let me apply the “musical gravity” idea:

  • We don’t have to make water flow downhill.
  • To get it to flow uphill, we have to pump it.
  • I don’t like to pump my song sets—I like for them to flow as naturally as water to the sea.

There are other elements of Spirit as well.

  • Styles and meters should not change on every song; they should flow together in logical ways.
  •  Group songs of unusual styles or meters together (Latin, 6/8, swing, etc.) The same can be said for tempo.
  • Direction (singing about God or to God) should not change on every song.
  • “Flex Points” are places in the worship plan where we wait for the Holy Spirit to lead us into the unexpected.
  • When He does, this is not a failure in our planning, but a completion of His plan! We prepare in order to be flexible.

As the song says, “Let the River flow!” (Daryl Evans © 1995 Mercy/Vineyard Music) Poor leadership can divert its flow, create whirlpools where thoughts, images and ideas get all mixed up, or even stagnate it or make it flow backwards, far from the healing force of the Spirit of God. Skillful and anointed leadership can see a hurting humanity find healing at the Throne of God.

Leading Altar Music
Flowing with the Holy Spirit to Change Lives

The Altar Service
The altar service is one of the most crucial times in the worship service. Everything that has happened before it, the worship, the special music, the message, makes a difference in the lives of the people when there is an effective altar service. The altar service is all about following the leadership of the Holy Spirit, leading smooth transitions from one moment to the next. We should avoid sudden changes in key or tempo or theme. Unnatural key changes, especially, should be avoided. This is functional music that must support the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the people without drawing attention to the singers and instrumentalists making it.

The Flow of Authority
At altar time, the worship leader is under the authority of the Pastor / Preacher who is leading the altar service and is an expression of the relationship between these two leaders. Each must be seeking the leadership of the Holy Spirit. The Pastor is in charge And the Worship Leader must be one song ahead, listening to the Pastor and the Holy Spirit. The Worship Leaders must work out a set of signals so that the Pastor’s wishes can be followed with minimal distraction. A good relationship will be largely unnoticed by the congregation; a bad one will be a distraction in every service.

The Flow of Sensitivity to the Holy Spirit
The Worship Leader must learn the ways of the Holy Spirit. He/she must know the Scriptures on the goals and purposes of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has three goals each time we meet for public worship.

  1. He exalts Jesus.
  2. He moves decently and in order.
  3. He seeks to edify the church.

Both the Pastor and the Worship Leader must be sensitive to “what the Spirit is saying” to the church in the service, gently seizing each moment of ministry. Sensitivity to the Holy Spirit begins in your heart, continues in your life style and culminates on the platform.

The Flow of Music, Prayer, and Worship
These three elements, music, prayer and worship, must flow together for an effective altar service. An altar service flows in three movements:

Part One—The Beginning

  • It is connected to the message; the worship leader should find a song that matches the end of the Pastor’s message.
  • Many times an altar service begins with an invitation to the lost and transitions to an appeal to the church, usually solemn in nature.
  • The music should match the appeal and be quiet and unobtrusive.

Part Two—The Church at Prayer

  • This is a season of individual prayer at the altar.
  • The music should be quiet (perhaps instrumental) and supportive of prayer

Part Three—The Celebration At some point, the altar service will change.

  • The theme will change from seeking God to celebrating the victory God wants us to have.
  • The emphasis will shift from personal prayer to corporate praise and worship.
  • The music must affect this transition. Gently, gradually, but definitely. Words need to be provided for worshipers. People are generally standing in the altar area.

To help music flow the way God intended, Use the natural flow of music in worship and prayer. Music flows naturally from chord to chord, key to key. This flow is called the circle of fourths/fifths: C goes to F F goes to Bb Bb goes to Eb.
Eb goes to Ab. Ab goes to Db. Db goes to Gb (F#). F#(Gb) goes to B(Cb) B goes to E. E goes to A. A goes to D. D goes to G. G goes to C.

I organize my songs by these keys (major and minor): C / Db / D / Eb / G /Ab / A /Bb. During the altar service, starting from the invitation song, I look over my list for that key until I feel directed to the next song. If I do not find the next song in that key, I proceed to the next key in the circle of fifths and look for the next song. This is because the change to that key is the most natural and unobtrusive one I can make.

These are the principles I work by:

  1. There are many songs that follow the theme of the Holy Spirit.
  2. By using the songs found in the next key that follow the theme, the church can experience the convergence of the God-created flow of music with the current flow of the Holy Spirit in that service.

Like Worship Music, Altar Music Changes Peoples’ Lives!

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer

The Flows of Worship

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