As a pastor, I don’t often have time to reflect deeply on worship as I’m focused on what I need to do next during the service. But from time to time, I have the opportunity to sit in on a worship service led by someone else.

Recently I was able to participate in two different worship services that were as far apart as possible.

The first worship service was at a large church in the city that I live in. It is an extremely large church with multiple services and a building project underway. By every outward measure, this is a successful church.

The worship was led by a talented band. They were obviously gifted and were the kinds of musicians that any church would want. The lights in the sanctuary were dimmed and a professional light show was taking place on the stage. When you add in the smoke machine that was present, they were able to match the concert experience that many are seeking.

Worshiping God at the 2017 Christian Horizons Family Retreat at Elim Lodge

The second worship service took place at the Christian Horizons Family Retreat at Elim Lodge. The worship was led by a pastor from Christian Horizons. The “band” was comprised of whoever wanted to get up on stage and join in. This included a number of children and adults with autism, Down Syndrome and a variety of other developmental and physical disabilities.

I noticed two things when I compared these two worship experiences.

The first was in the level of participation. At the church with the professional worship band, most of the congregation was not singing. It was more of a passive experience as we enjoyed the talents of those on the stage. At the Family Retreat, not only were people invited to join the worship leader on the stage, but many of the people in the seats were singing along loudly.

The second observation is more subjective. I felt the presence of God so much more at the Family Retreat than I had anywhere else in recent years. Seeing so many people of all abilities joining together to make a joyful noise was a powerful experience. The love for God in that room was so strong that it was almost overwhelming. It felt like a preview of heaven.

This is not meant to be a criticism of successful churches that value excellence in worship. They are an important part of God’s kingdom and they are serving in their way.

But it also made me reflect on what true excellence in worship is. Excellence can be more than just musical skill. Diversity and participation have a role to play in excellent worship as well.

I know that I will never forget meeting God at Elim Lodge with my brothers and sisters in Christ.