Worship and the Roar of Church Mice
Many years ago, I took a year off between my sophomore and junior year of college to adventure to Birmingham, England. I went to help a ministry called “Betel” get a branch started in the UK. Betel is a ministry to drug addicts that takes a discipleship-centered approach. Imagine planting a church where your leadership pool is drug addicts that don’t know Jesus...yet. They are profoundly reliant on the gospel to do its work, and it does work.
I spent a year just doing what I was told, trying to be helpful in some eternal way. I think I was, but I’m positive the experience impacted me more than I impacted them. Lately, one particular experience has been coming back to me more vividly than ever.
Every morning, we had a devotional which consisted of a time of worship followed by a short teaching from one of the leaders. It was at my first such meeting that I realized, despite growing up in a church that highly valued worship, I didn’t really understand what worship is. Not really.
It was quite early in the morning for me. I’m of the opinion that any interpersonal communication which requires more than two words spoken in succession, or any thought beyond the base needs for food and coffee, should be reserved for 10 AM or later. And that assumes, of course, that the alarm went off and the coffee is good.
Bearing this in mind, it’s not hard to imagine that I was not in a “worship with the brethren” kind of mood that day. I entered the meeting space, which was the size of a large living room. It was brightly lit with flickering fluorescent ceiling lights, the kind that give you a headache the longer you sit under them. The room was filled with metal folding chairs, awkwardly arranged in something like rows. Men were shuffling into the room, most of them still strangers to me.
Each of them seemed to be in varying states of personal collapse. Most of these men had been taking large amounts of hard drugs and/or alcohol for many years. Some had been living on the street for that long, too, up until the day they entered Betel. Betel didn’t do a medicated withdrawal program. It was cold turkey or nothing. So many of the men coming into worship were feverish, pale, and sickly. Heroin withdrawal feels like your bones and tendons are being slowly stretched apart to their limits. Fever, vomiting, and loss of bowel control are common. It was like watching a slow-moving caravan exit the Sahara on foot.
The mix of people in the room was disorienting to me. It shouldn’t have been, but it was. I was used to being able to tell the spiritual state of a person by how they looked. But in this room, nothing was obvious. None of the physical signs pointed to where I thought they should.
The pastor of the ministry entered the room, handed out hugs indiscriminately, grabbed his acoustic guitar, and welcomed everyone. The overhead projector fired up (remember those?), a ten year old worship song was displayed, and the first chord was played.
What I heard next, better yet, what I felt next was what I now consider to be the truest worship I have ever heard.
A room full of broken men, with crackling voices and worn out bodies, singing desperate songs to a God many of them had only just met. Some of the new guys didn’t stand, either because they were too sick or too confused. Most stood to their feet, clapping off beat. Penitent hands raised. Some bowed their heads, thumbs in pockets, mouthing the words in a whisper. There was no choir, no band, no backbeat, and no mood lighting. There was no way to prop up the worship with fakery or pretense. It was exposed worship. It was worship that had to stand on its own two feet or fall flat on its face.
I don’t remember if I even sang that morning. I was disoriented, I think.
As the months went on, worshiping like this every morning, I began to understand what Paul meant in 2 Corinthians 10 when he said, “when I am weak, then I am strong.” The weakest worship I had ever heard was the strongest I had ever heard.
Many of these men were imprisoned in a pit of their own making. Many had just begun to crawl out, and a few were standing at the surface cheering them on. But all of them knew the pit well. It was never far away. Their worship was full of godly weakness. As they grew in their faith, their worship grew louder. Ever see a broken man fall to his knees in repentance as he sings? I have, a few times, and I miss it dearly.
Sometimes as I pastor my church, I worry that we are too tempted to judge worship according to worldly criteria. We tend to judge a thing’s value based on how competently it is executed. We often act as if polished worship, done by strong people, is what will please God the most (whatever your definition of “polished worship” might be). Yet in the Kingdom of God, the meek inherit the earth, the poor are blessed, and the last are first. Jesus is strong in our weakness.
And yet, we don’t meet God halfway in our worship. We don’t meet God halfway on anything. He comes to us, all the way to us, to make a way for us. Heaven doesn’t open when our voices sing loud and our hands raise high. Heaven was opened by Jesus, and is held open by the strength of his mighty hand for all who will come. At the cross, the proud are brought low and the lowly are exalted.
On Sunday mornings, I often strain my ears to hear the quietest voice I can. It’s a habit I formed back in those days at Betel. I want to hear the church mouse sing, because in heaven, that voice resounds like a roaring lion. I want to hear what God hears. I want to train my spiritual ears to ignore the clanging cymbals in deference to the desperate songs of worshipers from the pit.
My encouragement to you today is simply that you would not despise your weakest worship. That you would hear the way God hears, and perhaps re-evaluate the relative “strength” of your own worship. Learn to listen for the church mice, and delight in their broken sound.