When Worship Can’t Be Strummed

After a five-hour drive, I found myself in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin under a makeshift canopy. My shirt doubled as a ShamWow as the thick, 100-degree Midwest heat clung to my back like a wet blanket. Two of my grads had recently decided to invest their summer discipling younger students through an international missions organization. Each team spent the front end of their summer in an intensive training program being prepped for their global ministry setting, which concluded with an open house for family and friends the day before they were to deploy. 

To say these training grounds were unimpressive would be an understatement. Rows of corn gave way to rows of Porta Potties and shabby tents. Cliff Bars and Camelbaks decorated the open fields. Aside from the high-dollar splurge on a few Spikeball sets, the rec options were nonexistent. 

As I sat there, dwelling on the heat and baffled by the clear lack of creative stewardship put forth in laying out these grounds, the director took the mic. After detailing the ministry’s history and vision, he made a simple statement that suddenly turned the unadorned fields into acres of untamed beauty. 

“Our students are going to be in situations this summer where worship can’t be strummed up. Since our aim is to equip them to worship wherever God places them, we strip things back. We simply want to elevate the Word and Spirit as their foundation for worship.”

Suddenly I understood. The fields weren’t designed to be an open house for spectators but a training ground for soldiers. Beneath the simplicity was a depth of intentionality that I had completely overlooked.

When Worship can’t be Strummed

What happens when our students and families find themselves in seasons of life when worship can’t be strummed up? What do you tell the kid who just got his girlfriend pregnant, or the uninsured mother of eight who lost everything when the tornado hit, or the freshman whose dad decided he needed some spice in his life and walked out on the family, or the senior whose best friend just hung himself?

Scripture never blushes at the difficult realities of life in a fallen world. It doesn’t sheepishly stand at the door and keep us at arm’s length, ashamed at the mess that lay within its walls. It rolls out the welcome mat and draws us into those spaces. 

It invites us to step into the living room of Job, the “blameless and upright” God-fearer who receives news of unimaginable horror: his servants had been murdered, his property raided, his possessions plundered, his livelihood incinerated, and his seven sons and three daughters claimed by “natural” disaster (1:13-19).

What happens if we resist familiarity with the story to pause and pull up a chair? What if we sit with Job in his living room when that bombshell drops? We’d see a man utterly undone. We’d hear the uncontrollable sobs of the one who was once the personification of prosperity (Job 1:3). Can you fathom the helplessness of that news? The sheer agony that would fill that room? 

When we saturate ourselves in Job’s world for a moment, something incredible happens. We get a glimpse into one of the most profound expressions of humility in Scripture: “Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped” (1:20). In the face of unparalleled affliction, Job wept… and he worshiped. Where do students who have been stripped of everything find strength to worship the One who gives and takes away?

Scripture invites us to sit amongst the rubble of exile, where the author laments the ramifications of Judah’s rebellion: “… my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, ‘my endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord’” (Lamentations 3:17-18). 

That’s a brutally honest statement. God’s Word has a way of continually moving us beyond religious platitudes and fake-it-til-you-make-it sentimentality. What we see is the raw reality of sin and its consequences colliding with the unshakeable hope of a covenant-keeping God who pursues his wayward bride. This unrelenting pursuit is what enables those suffering in exile to declare, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:21-23).

Every ministry context imaginable houses students who can resonate deeply with the words: “I have forgotten what happiness is” (3:17). Where do these students find new morning mercies to worship when their sin has distanced them from God and made life feel like the smoking ruins of exile?

Scripture moves us beyond exile to the filthy prison floors of first century Macedonia. It invites us to sit among the rats and roaches, directing our gaze to the singing silhouettes of two crazed men, contorted by the stocks that held them yet liberated by the Spirit within them (Acts 16:19-25). It beckons us to ask the obvious: where do those who have been savagely stripped, gang beaten, publicly shamed, imprisoned and shackled find the audacity to sing gospel light into impenetrable darkness?

The Reservoir of the Gospel

This may be my Iowa-ish bias, but cornfields can be brilliant classrooms of divine discipleship. They can prompt big-picture questions like: how are we, by God’s grace, equipping students to worship wherever God places them? Are there aspects of our ministries we need to strip back to more fully rest in the sufficiency and the power of the cross? What lesser things are we subtly elevating as our students’ foundation for worship? Do our ministries function more like open houses to entertain spiritual spectators or training grounds to shepherd soldiers in the discipline of grace?

Beloved, the good news for fellow parents and pastors is that true, life-giving, Christ-exalting worship can never be strummed up. True worship always arises out of the deep reservoirs of the gospel of God’s grace. Week in and week out, we have the joy of taking students deeper than applauding the resilience of Job, or the audacity of Paul and Silas, or the glimmering hope of the exiled, to seeing and savoring our crucified and risen King in every text of Scripture and every facet of life. This soul-reviving grace, finally and fully embodied in the person and work of Jesus Christ, is what ultimately transforms weeping to worship, exile to exaltation, prison to praise.

Scott Byers is a husband, dad, and pastor of student ministries at Grace Church in Marshalltown, Iowa. He graduated from Moody Bible Institute in 2014 with a B.A. in Youth Ministry & Biblical Studies, and is currently pursuing his Master's from Southern Seminary. He loves reading, writing, coffee, cheering on the Hawkeyes (most days), and seeing students live in response to the gospel. His wife and best friend, Nora, welcomed their firstborn, Judah, in 2017.

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