The single greatest worship experience he ever had, Gordon MacDonald says, occurred after the benediction had been pronounced and people were actually leaving the building.

It was 1976, and MacDonald, now editor at large of Leadership Journal, had attended the InterVarsity Urbana Missionary Convention with his then 9-year-old daughter Kristy. The meeting had concluded with a Communion service, and shortly after midnight, the 17,000 participants began filing out of the arena toward the buses that would take them home.

Suddenly someone in the crowd—not a worship leader or preacher or program personality—began singing.

“Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,” the lone voice rang out.

It’s a chorus where men are supposed to sing a line and women echo. And they did. “Some 17,000 stopped in their tracks and sang! And sang, and sang, and sang,” MacDonald recalled.

Completely spontaneous, the experience had no enlisted leaders or rehearsed musicians, only a group of believers aware that they were in God’s presence. It was moving, powerful and significant.

“No one wanted to exit from holy ground, to abandon the memories of sacred hours, to step out of God’s special presence. So we just kept singing,” he said.

Kristy also realized something special was happening, MacDonald wrote. “She grabbed my hand and said softly, ‘Daddy, this is what heaven is going to be like.'”

Faith groups spend considerable time and money planning and constructing “houses of worship,” places where people can encounter God. They also engage in a good bit of debate over what constitutes worship: traditional versus contemporary, hymns versus choruses, sermons versus drama, among other things.

Is it possible that we focus so much on the place, the personalities and the packaging that we sometimes miss the true experience altogether? Are we so caught up in the physical trappings that we forget that worship is nothing if not spiritual?

Many things we experience with our senses can lead us to worship. But none is significant unless it is connected to our faithfulness and obedience to God.

Worship is essential for God’s people, and it is a mark of a faithful leader. It leads us to meet and learn more about God and understand more about who God intends that we become. God changes and challenges us through worship and equips us with what we need to handle whatever comes our way.

Worship makes us both better leaders and better followers—sometimes when we expect it, other times when we don’t, but always when it’s about God and not us.

Jan Turrentine is managing editor of Acacia Resources.

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