To this day, one of the most profound worship experiences I have ever had was in 2007 when I was 19 years old, about five years into my life as a believer. A 30-hour journey into the Amazon Jungle and away from “modern civilization”, I found myself alongside 12 other brave young adults on a three-month-long mission trip.
Inspired by Jim Elliot and the four other men who heroically gave their lives for the Gospel, I was ready—exhilarated—to do the most radical thing I had ever done in my life for Jesus.
Picture this: no electricity, a hole dug in the ground for a bathroom, sleeping in hammocks, being eaten alive day and night by mosquitos that were impossible to escape, bucket bathing with river water, dodging tarantulas and vipers...for three months. While these experiences felt almost unbearable on multiple occasions, something about the trip felt holy—sacred, even. It was purposeful in reorienting my entire understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, and more specifically, what it means to be an authentic worshipper of Jesus. I met followers of Christ who didn’t own much more than the clothes on their backs yet seemed to be the most radiant and joy-filled people I had ever met. They were perfectly content just to know God and be known by Him. Jesus really seemed to be enough for them, and we didn't just hear that from their words; we witnessed it in their lives.
Every evening after a full day of ministry alongside local believers, we would gather as a team for a time of worship and prayer. One night in particular is etched in my heart and mind in very vivid detail. Overwhelmed and encouraged by the day’s work, we found ourselves on our knees and our faces inside a church building with only four walls, a few rows of wooden benches, and a dirt floor. With the majesty of God on display in the open sky, the only light keeping us from complete darkness was the moon, the stars, and a few candles.
After sitting in silence for a few minutes, one person began singing a hymn. One by one, everyone joined in. It went on like that for an hour or so: song after song, unaccompanied by instruments, amplification, or lights. All we had were our voices and our hearts. I journaled about that night in detail, so I remember the exact songs we sang:
“Jesus paid it all; all to Him I owe. Sin had left a crimson stain; He washed it white as snow.”
“I’m coming back to the heart of worship, where it’s all about You–it’s all about You Jesus. I’m sorry Lord for the thing I’ve made it, when it’s all about You–it’s all about You Jesus.”
Now 15 years removed from this life-changing experience and having led worship in more environments than I can remember, I find myself desperately longing for moments like these. In the Western Church today, where there has never been more to be distracted by, I crave that simplicity—the purity of heart that seeks to worship God in Spirit and in truth, “when the music fades and all is stripped away,” where it is truly all about Jesus.
While I am grateful for the many good gifts that God has given us to stir our affection and encourage us to worship Him deeply, I also recognize that those very gifts can themselves become distractions, depending on the posture of our hearts and the object of our attention. We can very easily muddy the waters and distort our perspective on what God really wants from us. All God wants—all He has ever wanted—are hearts and lives that seek, love, honor, obey, and serve Him above all else. Hearts that treasure Him rightly and respond to Him in worship accordingly.
Jesus said to the Samaritan woman in John 4:24, “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and truth.” Here you have a woman who almost missed the One standing right in front of her because she thought that for worship to be authentic, it had to be in a particular place, with a particular setting, and a particular set of formalities. Jesus debunked that whole idea by describing Himself as the Living Water —the singular Source that satisfies every longing of the human heart.
The essence of worship is not the many good externals: excellent musicians, talented vocalists, gifted and compelling leaders, catchy melodies, inspiring production, and creative elements. These are all good things that are often really helpful in corporate worship gatherings, but when they become our focus, we lose the heart of worship.
As a worship community, we have to fight to get back to the heart of worship—back to a simplicity of devotion where the first things are first, and we care about the purity of our hearts poured out and connecting with a holy God more than anything else. We have to do whatever it takes and strip away whatever needs to be stripped away in order to re-center and reorient our hearts around the object of our worship. So that whether we are on a stage in a fully equipped facility with all the luxuries of the 2022 Western Church experience or on a dirt floor in the middle of South America, or in our rooms in secret where no one sees, it is truly all about Jesus.