Format: Sound Plus Doctrine PodcastDownload Session
What does it mean to pursue a “worship experience?” How do we balance the tension between being biblically faithful and expecting God to meet with us in power? In this episode David and Bob seek to provide a biblical framework for how we’re to think about experiences with God as the church gathers on Sundays.
5:48 “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1.8–9, ESV)
12:41 “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3.18, ESV)
17:06 “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” (Psalm 63.1, ESV)
17:16 “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?” (Psalm 42.1–2, ESV)
19:30 There can be no substitute for that manifested presence of God which is always a biblical possibility for the people of God. When it is not being experienced they should humbly seek him for it, not neglecting their ongoing duties, nor denying their present blessings, but recognizing that there is always infinitely more with their God and Father who desires fellowship with those redeemed by the blood of his Son and regenerated by the work of his Spirit. – (Graham Harrison, Worship and the Presence of God)
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David Zimmer: Welcome in to the Sound Plus Doctrine podcast. We are so happy if this is your first time, or if you listened to our other podcasts. I’m David Zimmer.
Bob Kauflin: And I’m Bob Kauflin.
DZ: And yeah, this is an opportunity to talk about things pertaining to worship gatherings, leadership training, musicianship, and all of the above.
BK: All that stuff and maybe culture, sometimes.
DZ: And maybe culture, we’ll get into that. What are we talking about today?
BK: Well, today we’re gonna talk about God encounters, which is of the third kind. No. Just kidding. Just the role of experience in corporate worship. I think that this is something that I was talking with one of my sons about recently, experience is like this buzzword in some circles, and it’s gotten so far that… I was listening to a podcast sometime in the last year, and well-known worship leader, a part of the church they call their meeting The Experience. There’s a conference in Florida that’s called The Experience Conference. There’s a church that’s called The Experience Church and…
DZ: Wow! Yeah.
BK: So obviously, we are excited about experiences, but it raises the question: How do we think about them? Are they good? Are they bad? What should they be like? All that kind of stuff. So I thought maybe we should talk about that.
DZ: Yeah. Yeah, I think when I think about experiences in the worship culture, it seems like when people are going to church, I don’t even know if they’re expecting anything to be happening.
BK: There are? Yeah, a number of Christians like that?
DZ: It’s almost like, I go to church, it’s either my duty or it’s the community that I’m a part of. I go to church, I stand up and worship, and then I sit down and I listen to the sermon, and then I go and I leave and go on with my life.” I feel like this is a very pertinent conversation to be having, especially because you look at Instagram and Facebook and YouTube, and you see these “experiences” happening on big scales, on a large scale, on a small scale.
BK: And it does become about “the experience”.
BK: And you see it and you think, “Oh, that’s what I want my church to be like!”
BK: And some people, as you’re saying, react to that and go, “Well, no, we’re not gonna do the experience thing at all, we’re just here to preach the word. We’re here to sing.”
DZ: Yes. You have those both extremes or whatever. Yeah, whatever that is. So I guess my first question would be, should we even be expecting an experience when we gather in a corporate setting?
BK: Well, feel free to answer this yourself. I have thoughts as I always do. Always have thoughts. Well, in the word of God, we have people who God reveals Himself to, and they have experiences with God; some of them are very dramatic. Moses in Exodus 34, when God passes before him. Isaiah 6, Isaiah sees the Lord seated on the throne, His train filling the temple and he’s awestruck. That is an experience! You have in Nehemiah 8, when they’re reading the law, they’re just reading the word of God, and people are being affected, they’re lifting their hands, they’re kneeling, they’re weeping. It’s this experience!
BK: In the New Testament, the Corinthians were obviously having experiences, which Paul was addressing in different ways, but he wasn’t saying “Don’t have experiences.” There was spontaneity going on; they were being emotionally affected. You look at Revelation where you see loud singing, loud shouting, thunder; John is affected by all this. And so, yeah, God seems to be for us experiencing him. He doesn’t just want us to know him academically. I love the way John Piper says it; John Piper, pastor theologian par excellence. Only the Lord knows how many lives have been affected, that God has used him to affect. His motto is: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” Well, that satisfaction speaks of an experiential satisfaction. When I’m satisfied with something, I am really satisfied with it. Julie has made this chocolate cake twice this week, once for my granddaughter’s birthday Ruby, and then I had it again last night. And I tell you when I eat that cake I am satisfied! I have an experience! And that’s because it’s so good. Well, we’re talking about the Lord!
BK: And we’re meeting with him corporately. So Peter says, 1 Peter 1:8-9, “Though you have not seen him, you love him; though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.” And so, the question we should be asking ourselves is, when we gather with God’s people, where he reveals himself to us and we respond, because of our union with Christ, what does a joy inexpressible filled with glory feel like? It should feel like something.
DZ: Yeah, I feel like it’s so disconnected from… That emotional response is so disconnected when we’re in a corporate setting, or it can feel that way. It can feel that you’re in a service, and then you go and you have more of an experience at a football game or at a concert than you do, like you’re saying, “This is the way I feel about chocolate cake, but why am I not feeling this about the Lord?”
BK: About Jesus.
DZ: Yeah, yeah.
BK: He actually saved me from my sins, he rescued me from hell, eternal damnation, why am I not excited about that?
BK: Yeah, and on the other hand, you have churches that see that, that inconsistency and make it all about the experience. So maybe it’s good to talk about what kind of experiences we should expect.
DZ: Yeah, yeah.
BK: Is that okay to go there? ‘Cause I think there are three kind of parameters we need to put on the kinds of experiences we’re looking for. So the Spirit is the one who manifests God’s presence to us in this age, He is the way we know, we feel, we experience that God exists, that Jesus is the savior. He was sent by the Father and the Son to reveal Jesus, to magnify Him. So the first kind of experiences we should be looking for, expecting, are experiences that magnify Jesus, that exalt Him, that make much of Him. The Holy Spirit wasn’t sent just so he could do strange things and somehow that’s how we think about it. “Oh, I’m gonna experience something. It’s gonna be some emotional, like just the high. I’m just gonna always remember.” Or something that is strange, something’s different. The stranger it is, the more chance it’s the Holy Spirit.
BK: No, that’s not why the Holy Spirit has come, he’s come to exalt Christ, we should expect that, that the Spirit would give us experiences that help us see how glorious Jesus is, who He is, how holy He is, how merciful, how kind, what He’s done in living a perfect life for us that we could never live, dying a substitutionary death that we deserve to die, rising from the dead so that we could look forward to the hope of the resurrection, those are all the things that exalt Christ. Yes, that’s an experience we should be looking forward to every time we gather.
DZ: I feel like that’s so clarifying to the point of how do you define what the experience is?
BK: Well, yeah, it’s not random.
DZ: You mean that clarity. Yeah. It’s not random strange activity, it’s clarity into what the Holy Spirit is doing through his word.
BK: Yeah, I’ve lived through two of what we would call or what people have called outpourings of the Holy Spirit. God is always pouring out his Spirit, but there are certain times where you think, Wow, something’s really happening. That would be the ’70s and the ’90s, the Toronto Blessing, that whole thing, lived through both of those. And I think during both of those times, there emerged two kinds of people: One, those who would see this as God’s drawing us to himself, he’s magnifying Christ in our lives, he’s drawing us nearer to himself, he’s making us aware that he’s with us and they dig more into the word as a result. And actually that’s another parameter for the experiences we should seek. They should be defined by and rooted in and evaluated by the word of God.
BK: Yeah, tested by the word of God. And fueled by the word of God. But then there would be another group of people who pursue the experiences and weren’t as committed to going back to, Well, why did we experience this in the first place? It was because we were dependent and needy and crying out to God and looking to Jesus and looking to his word, and yet God met us, but then something happened, whether it was shaking or it was falling down or whatever it was, some experience that that became the pursuit. And God doesn’t want us pursuing experiences, he wants us pursuing Him, and He wants us pursuing Jesus, and He’s told us how to do that in his word. There’s a story in the gospels that just brought this. I was listening to a sermon by CJ Mahaney, he’s my senior pastor, it was on Jesus on the road to Emmaus with the two disciples, Luke 24, and Jesus had just risen from the dead, and the disciples didn’t recognize Him.
BK: Well, if you think, is there a time for an experience? This is it. He’d just rose from the dead. What could He do? He could do a miracle, He could levitate, He could move a mountain, all kinds of things He could do, but what He did was take them to Moses and all the prophets, and He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself. He took them to the word of God because He wanted their experience of His resurrection to be rooted in God’s eternal, infallible, inerrant word.
DZ: That’s great.
BK: That, I mean that was just… That’s just amazing. So I think how often do I look for some kind of experience when I should be just looking into God’s word and seeking to meet him there and seeking to hear from there, and allow His word to evaluate my experiences. So in Scripture, God never says, “I’m gonna manifest my presence to you by a bright light.” He might, but he doesn’t promise that. He doesn’t say, “I’m gonna give gold dust.” He doesn’t say, “I’m gonna shake you.” What He does say is that, “I will reveal myself to you through my word.” So 2 Corinthians 3:18 says, “For we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to the next. This comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” Well, in the context of that passage, Paul is talking about how the Jews and certain unbelievers that have not had the veil lifted from their eyes, so that they might understand the word. So we’ve had the veil lifted, we can behold the glory of the Lord in the word.
DZ: Our greatest need is for the veil to be lifted.
DZ: As opposed to an experience.
BK: Right. And when that veil is lifted, you will have experiences. But maybe not the kind that are really crazy, maybe they’re the kind that change your life, which leads to a third parameter and that is, we wanna seek experiences that edify the church, that build up the body. 1 Corinthians 14, Paul’s talking about the church, the meetings of the church, and five times he references building up the church, like when we gather it is really important that we build up the church. So when I’m going to a meeting in my church or any kind of gathering of the church, and I’m thinking, “Oh, I wonder what I’m gonna experience? What I’m gonna do?”
DZ: And what am I gonna get out of it?
BK: Yes. It’s the wrong focus. We should be asking, “Well, Lord, how do you wanna use me to build up those I’m gathering with?”
DZ: That’s good.
BK: And in that we, again, will have experiences that are rooted in God’s word. 1 Corinthians 14 talks about the unbeliever who comes in when the believers are prophesying, they’re speaking forth truths of God, and however you wanna understand that passage, they’re speaking something of the truth of God, He hears it and his soul is laid bare, He falls down and declares among them, declares, “God is really among you.” That’s an experience, but it’s not necessarily rooted in this ecstatic crazy time, it’s just we’re speaking forth the word of God, the truth of God, and people are affected. So, yeah, we wanna seek experiences that will build up those around us.
DZ: That’s great. You mentioned something before about two different camps, those who are wanting to stay away from those experiences and those who are seeking only the experience. And I guess I wanna ask the question of… For the person that doesn’t experience anything, what if I don’t feel like I experienced anything when I gather? How would you speak to that? How would you encourage that person?
BK: Well, there could be a number of reasons why we don’t experience the Lord, why we don’t experience His love, why we don’t experience the significance, the impact that we should be experiencing.
DZ: Yeah, where it goes to the heart and what we’re talking about.
BK: Yeah, where it goes to the heart. That’s right. We know it’s true. We’ve heard these things, and this can happen with… It should, it does, it happens with every Christian. I think one of the things can be that we’re… As a result of disobedience, we’re walking in disobedience, we’re grieving the Spirit, Ephesians 4:30; quenching the Spirit, 1 Thessalonians 5:19. And yeah, through our unrepented sin, perhaps, we’re not experiencing the Lord and he’s trying to get our attention. It could be a time of distraction, we’re just distracted by some issue we haven’t dealt with. Relational, confusion, unresolved situation, deadline that’s approaching that’s weighing on us and, we’re just distracted, so we’re not really feeding from the well of salvation, drinking from the well of salvation. Not to mix my metaphors. We’re feeding from other places, drinking from other places, other wells, and so we’re just distracted. And again, the Lord wants to get our attention.
BK: I think sometimes we don’t experience the Lord, because he wants us to learn how to trust him and to desire him more deeply. That’s what we see in the Psalms. “My soul thirsts for you in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” Psalm 63. Psalm 42, “As the deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.” The psalmist was in the situation where he didn’t feel God, he felt far from God. That’s a good thing. What does that make us do? It makes us long for him, it makes us long for his presence, and we should be a people who long for his presence, which is different from longing for experiences. And I would say one of the things that’s been helpful to me through the years is just recognize the difference between the promised presence of God and the experienced presence of God.
DZ: Yeah, you have to define those.
BK: So the promised presence of God is recognizing that God has promised to be with us in different situations. Of course, He’s omnipresent, He’s always with us, but He’s promised to reveal himself to us uniquely when we gather, when the word of God is preached, when we share the Lord’s supper, when we sing. Ephesians 5 talks about how we’re filled with the Spirit, which leads to singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. So we know Jesus said, “Where two or three gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” We know that God has promised to be with us. So we don’t have to wonder, “Oh, I wonder if God’s gonna be here?” He is here, and we can take joy in that, we can be confident of that, we can walk into a gathering, no matter how big our church is, no matter how good or bad the musicians are, no matter how good or bad our preacher is. We can walk into the gathering of God’s people, and as the gospel’s being proclaimed, the word of God’s being preached, we can know God is here, that’s His promised presence. His experienced presence is when He chooses at His will to say, “I’m gonna make you feel this.”
BK: And the question is, should we long for that? Should we desire that? And I’m gonna share a quote, I got it here on my computer, that I found a number of years ago by Graham Harrison, he’s with the Lord now. It was on the Banner of Truth website, which is not known for its charismatic leanings, and I just found this so powerful and helpful. It’s from an article called, “Worship in the Presence of God.” He said, “So my question was, Should we long for these experiences with God?” He said, “There can be no substitute for that manifested presence of God, which is always a biblical possibility for the people of God. When it is not being experienced, they should humbly seek Him for it.” Now listen to what he says, “not neglecting their ongoing duties.” In other words, don’t stop everything ’cause we’re experiencing God. No, keep going in what the Lord’s told you to do, “nor denying their present blessings.” It’s like, say, “Lord, nothing’s happening here. I need you to do something.” No. Ask God to open your eyes to see how He’s graciously blessed you in so many ways.
BK: John Piper says, “God’s doing a thousand things, we only see a couple of them. Ask God to open your eyes.” So, “nor denying their present blessings, but recognizing that there is always infinitely more with their God and Father, who desires fellowship with those redeemed by the blood of His Son and regenerated by the work of His Spirit.” I just loved that because I want more of the presence of God in my life. I will have to speak for myself, we don’t want as Christians to merely have a mental relationship with God, an academic relationship with God, a doctrinal relationship with God. We need doctrine. Don’t ever hear that as dismissing doctrine. Doctrine defines who we are, what we believe, who God is, all those things, but it’s meant to lead to doxology.
BK: It’s meant to lead to an experience with God that says, “Jesus, you are all I need. You are more than enough. You are my greatest treasure,” ’cause that’s why we were saved. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:6, For God, who said Let light shine out of darkness has shown in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God, in the face of Jesus Christ. That’s what we were saved for, and every time we gather, we had this opportunity to dial in by the power of the Spirit, through the means God has given us into that seeing the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. I wanna expect that. I wanna pray for that. I wanna long for that knowing that one day the veil will be lifted completely, we’ll be in his presence, and we’ll be doing that for eternity, and that’ll be an experience like nothing we’ve had here.
DZ: Yes. How excellent. I wanna talk so much more about these experiences, and more pointed, I wanna talk more in a different podcast, more about the emotions that come with these experiences and how to be discerning.
BK: Yes, that’d be great.
DZ: But this has given so much clarity to what we expect, what we should expect. And it makes me excited for Sunday, because I could come expectant.
BK: Yes. Amen. Amen.
DZ: So thank you, Bob.
BK: Yeah. Thank you, Dave.
DZ: For your ministry through Sovereign Grace Churches and Sovereign Grace Music. And thank you for joining us again for this podcast. And we hope to see you again.