A number of years ago, I had the privilege of studying worship with Bruce Leafblad. He offered the following working definition of worship, and since that time it has been foundational to both my theology and practice:
Worship is communion with God in which believers, by grace, center their minds’ attention and hearts’ affection on the Lord, humbly glorifying God in response to his greatness and his word.
In particular, the phrase “center their minds’ attention and hearts’ affection on the Lord” has influenced my thinking around both corporate worship and worship as all of life.
When I became a pastor in Minnesota over a decade ago, it was the first time I heard this phrase used since my time with Leafblad. I discovered Leafblad had been an influence on the senior pastor’s thinking on worship during his time in seminary decades before, and also that Leafblad had been at the church as an interim worship pastor during a transitional time in the life of the church. All that to say, this phrase had become part of the fabric of the church and was often included in the prayers of the people. It was a sweet reminder of my time learning from Leafblad and a constant reminder of our need to focus both our “minds’ attention and hearts’ affection on the Lord.”
Praying for Focus
Almost everything in our society works against focus. We are inundated with a constant stream of distractions vying for our minds’ attention and hearts’ affections. The idea of centering or focusing our mind and heart on anything for more than a few minutes is an ongoing challenge for most of us in our diversion-oriented society.
As worshipers, we increasingly need to develop spiritual disciplines to prepare ourselves to focus, disciplines to be attentive with our mind, and disciplines to awaken the affections of our hearts and have them focused on God. We need a form of aggressive resolve to set aside every distraction, and set our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).
Oh, how we need God’s help to do this. We would love to do this on our own, to just sit down and focus, but the reality is, we need God’s help. And to do this focusing, we must begin with prayer — asking for God’s help. But such prayer doesn’t begin when we enter into the corporate gathering for worship; it is an overflow of the prayers we have been praying throughout the week. In fact, corporate worship is an overflow of our worship as all of life (Romans 12:1–2). Yet we need to stop and recognize that corporate worship is bound by time and place, so the gathered people need to focus together, to pray together, to sing together, to listen to God’s voice together in his word, and to respond together.
If you are a worship leader, I would encourage you to gather every member participating at any level in leading or supporting corporate worship — from the musicians to the sound technician, to those taking the offering, to the one reading Scripture and the one preaching the word — and call out to God for the people of God to “center their minds’ attention and hearts’ affection on the Lord.”
This is not a team huddle and perfunctory prayer before the corporate worship gathering; it is the fuel and oxygen that ignites the fire and passions of God’s people in worship.
Head and Heart, Attention and Affection
The beauty of this phrase “minds’ attention and hearts’ affection” is that it clearly articulates that right worship is not an either-or proposition of a cognitive experience or an emotive experience; it is a both-and experience.
One of the ways we articulated this at our church was through a commitment of ways or marks of “what unites us in worship.” The section regarding head and heart read like this:
The elements of our worship service should aim at kindling and carrying deep, strong, real emotions toward God, especially joy, but should not manipulate people’s emotions by failing to appeal to clear thinking about spiritual things based on shareable evidences outside ourselves.
So while right thinking about who God is and who we are is imperative, right worship is also about right feeling and right emotions and right delighting in God. We are called to worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:23–24), and our right worship must include both head and heart.
John Piper expresses it this way in God’s Passion for His Glory: “Mind corresponds to the understanding of the truth of God’s perfections. Love corresponds to the delight in the worth and beauty of those perfections. God is glorified both by being understood and being delighted in.”
So as you gather together in corporate worship this weekend, and as you prepare your head and your heart for worship, begin now by praying that God would center your “minds’ attention and hearts’ affection on the Lord” — for his glory and your exceeding joy.