Breaking Out of the Worship Formula

Can you make authentic worship?

Growing up in a small Baptist church helped me learn something at an early age: Our gatherings as the Church tend toward formula. There are lots of reasons for it. It’s easier. It’s comfortable. It’s predictable. It fits inside of our “boxes.” It’s replicable. It allows us to attempt to recapture meaningful moments of the past.

But—like in all relationships—our encounters with God are meant to be progressive, not repetitive. That’s why I think I was so excited about the movement of a fresh approach to worship that was coming out of people like Martin Smith and Matt Redman in England in the early '90s and things like the Passion Movement here in the U.S. It wasn’t simply a stylistic change. It was something fresh in the expectation of the movement of God.

But now, 15 years and thousands of songs later, there seems to be a new homogeny throughout our churches and our worship gatherings. We’ve gotten to the point where we have made what was fresh into a formula once again. 

A familiar formula

Tell me if this sounds familiar for a worship song as played by the band at your church:

Loud intro

Come down for verse one

Hit it hard for the chorus

Keep it going hard up til the bridge

Drop out for the bridge

Build back into a loud bridge section

Come down for an ending chorus

Vamp low on the end (with some occasional builds)

This type of song formula takes people dynamically up for two minutes, down for one minute, back up, back down. It’s a constant roller coaster for the duration of the set.

There’s nothing wrong with this song structure, but it might point to a greater issue: Perhaps we’re relying on musical dynamics to elicit an emotional response more than we are pleading for the Holy Spirit to engage us in the spiritual realm.

Obviously, the solution to what seems to be our new habitual formula is not another formula. But we should be aware of how songs really do affect us emotionally and how we can engage with God in different ways through a range of dynamics. It might help to think through what we think of as a time of “worship.” Are there times of celebration with the Lord as well as times of rest? Do we dwell on the joy of celebration and the peace of rest, or are those moments fleeting?

Who is worship for?

Ultimately, worship leaders are there to help foster moments where individuals can connect with God. And our goal as worshipers is to use that time to connect with God.

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Sometimes, I think we get into the mindset that the worship is for the band—that we are present to allow the band to do what it wants or to help us hit an emotional high. There’s a time for high notes and guitar prowess, but it’s a matter of the chicken and the egg. Because those moments aren't all the time. It’s a continual balance of asking, “What is this moment calling for, and what will take us deeper?”

Music seems to be this strange thing that serves as a bridge between the natural and the supernatural. Because of that, our conversations about how to do what we do best involves both the earthly and the spiritual. It means not getting stale in what we think of as “worship.” But it also means fighting the temptation to judge whether or not the worship was “good” by criteria like, “They sang well” or, “That band was awesome.”

But the most important thing about worship is that it allows us to engage with God. It matters a lot less if everyone hits the right note, or if the band hits the right solo at exactly the right time or even if the particular song is the one you want to sing. What matters is if worship is providing you a space to connect with God—it’s not a formula or a series of easy answers. It’s letting God work through each of us to connect with Him both as individuals and as the Church.

Cole NeSmith is a pastor at Status in Orlando and creator of Uncover The Color. This article is adapted from an article that originally appeared on his blog.



Josh commented…

I feel I should flesh out my Job reference: he was in a terrible situation, was not happy, was not excited; he wasdevastatedand extremely sad. Yet he stillworshipedGod. This worship was not enhanced by music (as many have pointed out, no, worship and music are not synonymous), by happiness, or through a communal gathering at all. In the context of the deepest depression in his life, he still gave glory and worship to God.

Bearing the story of Job in mind, I scoff at people who have shut themselves against the idea of worship in the context of "contemporary" music, or those who say they can't worship liturgically, and then claiming anything that isn't theirpreferredmusic or context as not being "authentic." This is why I say worship, in the sense of music and the generally held idea of a "worship service," is something man has created solely for himself: it is more traditional than Biblical. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, it is just important to realize that in light of this, singing songs (or more specifically, the emotional high one experiences) should not be the end, but a means to an end. An end which can also be attained by other means: loving on other people, altruistic actions, reading your Bible... These things, which are forms of worship (that probably do not elicit an emotional response and therefore are not asmarketable or readily accepted by people, leaving them largely ignored), are what bring glory to God, not music. And if there's anything we need right now in this world, it is more love, not more noise (I Corinthians 13).


Kade Young commented…

Formulas and structure have their place, but you are right - sometimes you just need to break out of them. I am thankful for Jesus Culture because their songs show that you don't have to follow the same road map every single time!


Guest commented…

All to many worship directors intend to facilitate a deeper worship experience only to take you over to the side of manipulative worship. How off putting it is!


Priscilla A Mclain commented…

I think that it's right to have a plan musically. You can call it a formula if you want but that implies that without that formula it doesn't work. The only thing that makes worship worship is God Himself, His presence with us. When you have a roadmap of sorts musically I believe it gives you room to not focus so much on the worship music but who you are worshipping and also gives room to be sensitive to where the Holy Spirit is moving. The reason we worship is to acknowledge God's place as our sovereignLord. To give Him what is due Him. We areprivileged to, in the process, experience His presence, be refreshed, and gain a new perspective. I believe that if we are truly after praising Him and not the emotions that we feel from the way a song flows, God meets us. He wants us to experience Him even more that we want to experience Him and there is no formula for that. When our hearts are willing to be humble before Him, He is so faithful to show up.

Paul C


Paul C commented…

I prefer traditional hymns or the old choruses from the 80s and 90s. Many of the modern rock style songs are nice to listen too but I can't worship with these songs because most of them are too high to sing or have too complicated of a rhythm. Also, unfortunately many of the modern songs are self focused (like “Oh I feel like dancing. It’s foolishness, I know.”) and don't even mention Jesus! I am not an old fogie in case you are wondering lol.. Sometimes I think the worship leaders just want me to stand there and look pretty.

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