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Re-wilding Worship

Re-wilding Worship

Tim Hughes
  • It was in this prison in Texas that I understood afresh the power of worship. The reality that an encounter with God and a living relationship with him can transform the darkest of places.
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Standing in a run-down gymnasium, I led a large group of men in worship. Here in front of me were five hundred men, all dressed in white, serving time in a maximum security prison in the heart of Texas.

Passing through various security checkpoints as we entered the prison, the mood amongst the band was becoming increasingly uncertain. We were all apprehensive as to what we should expect. How would we be treated? How would these men respond to us leading them in worship? As the gym filled up and people took their seats my mind began to wander. The men before me had caused utter devastation and pain to thousands of people.

Murderers, rapists, pedophiles, armed robbers, deceivers … a horrific catalog of crime and depravity. I was struggling to see how this room, full of people who had experienced and engaged in such evil, could become a holy sanctuary of worship. But what happened next marked me forever. As we began to sing the room erupted in joyful singing. There was such passion, love, and hope; a tangible sense of God’s Spirit with us. As we sang the hymn “Amazing Grace,” with hands held high, many faces were wet with tears as the immortal lines were sung,

Amazing Grace how sweet the sound.

To save a wretch like me.

I once was lost but now I’m found,

Was blind but now I see.

Many of these men had encountered and been changed by the love and mercy of God whilst serving time in prison. Whilst in the physical they were locked up and incarcerated,  many never to be released for a lifetime, these men were free. They were forgiven and liberated by the atoning blood of Jesus. And because of this glorious truth they were overflowing with hope and joy. It was in this prison in Texas that I understood afresh the power of worship. The reality that an encounter with God and a living relationship with him can transform the darkest of places. It’s in worship we step into a new reality that shifts our perspective to understand that there is no human being beyond redemption and no situation too bleak for Christ to shine.

The Book of Revelation

At the start of 2020 most of the globe was hit by the grim reality of COVID-19. It had an extraordinary impact wreaking havoc with our hospitals, health care, economy, places of work, mental health and everyday freedoms. During those first few weeks of lockdown, being forced to stay home, whilst finding new ways of working by zoom and juggling the home schooling of kids, I started studying the book of Revelation. Here we see the Apostle John, by now physically frail, in his mid-80’s, exiled on the Island of Patmos. Legend had it that he had been boiled in oil before being left alone and deserted on this island to die. Perhaps though John’s greatest suffering was the knowledge that the church and the people he so dearly loved were being tortured and persecuted on account of their faith. Many were being martyred, fed to lions and burnt alive. As many as 40,000 Christians were thought to have been killed by Domitian, the Emperor of Rome. So here’s John, in his own form of torment and lockdown, physically in pain, emotionally grief stricken, feeling helpless. And what does he do? He worships.

“On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit.” (Revelation 1:10) On the day where the early church would gather in prayer and worship, John joins with them, albeit alone. And it’s here, in the most unlikely of places where God reveals himself in a way that would transform John, but would more profoundly transform the world.

John throughout his years would have experienced the love and mercy of Jesus. Watching him up close heal the sick, embrace the outsider and ultimately laying down his life on a cross. He witnessed the resection and ascension of Jesus, but here in Patmos John’s eyes are opened to see Christ in all his glory. The view before him was so overwhelming that human language became woefully insufficient. Hair white ‘like’ wool … eyes ‘like’ a blazing fire … feet ‘like’ bronze glowing in a furnace … his voice ‘like’ the sound of rushing waters … his face ‘like’ the sun shining in all its brilliance. (Revelation 1:14-16)

John Falls at Jesus’ Feet

Overwhelmed and undone John falls at Jesus’ feet as though dead. Years earlier John had been so comfortable in Jesus’ presence that he reclined closely next to him (John 13:23 “One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved [John], was reclining next to him.”) But here the sight of Christ in all his majesty was just too much for John to deal with. He hits the deck and now the creator of the heavens and the earth, perfect and holy, the one who was and is and is to come, reaches out and intimately places his hand on John and utters the stunning words,

Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! (Revelation 1:17-18)

In the bleakest of moments, John encounters Jesus in all his brilliance, splendor and glory and realizes Christ has overcome. The power of death, the problem of sin, dealt with. Life in all its fullness and abundance can now be ours for eternity. And this truth wasn’t just a private moment for John, the Book of Revelation has inspired the church for over two thousand years with hope and confidence for what is to come. The Lamb is victorious. All things will be made new and restored. Everything will be put right and one day soon we will stand before the Lord and forever and a day all suffering, pain and grief will cease.

Heavens Reality Becomes Our Reality

In worship heavens reality becomes our reality. You see worship is not about escaping the real world. No, in worship we introduce the real world. We all face mountains – mountains of despair, sickness, relational breakdown, financial strain and loss. In worship we don’t deny the existence of these mountains, rather we acknowledge a greater existence. A God who rules and reigns, who stands with us at all times, one who will never leave our side. We might face great loss during the years we live here on earth, but ultimately nothing can separate us from the love of God.


Re-wilding Worship Reference | A Book By Tim Hughes

I’ve had the great joy of leading worship for nearly 25 years; during which time I’ve served in three local churches. I’ve been blessed beyond measure to travel extensively, lead at huge conferences and globally known churches within multiple different contexts and denominations. As I reflect on years gone by and look to what is to come, I believe we need to raise the level of expectation for what we hope to see in our gathered worship. What God reveals to John on the Island of Patmos was wild; and we worship the same God. I believe though that in order to see the more of God, we need to create more space and freedom for the work of the Holy Spirit in our times of worship.

Let The Land Run Wild

Knepp is a 3,500 acre estate in West Sussex, in the UK. In 2001 after years of the land being intensively farmed, a decision was made to let the land run wild in a pioneering project known as rewilding. Here the driving principle was to establish a thriving ecosystem where nature was given as much freedom as possible. A natural process was encouraged rather than the historic obsessing over goals  and outcomes. Using grazing animals as the drivers to create new habitats, alongside the restoration of dynamic natural water courses, the project has seen remarkable increases in wildlife. Extremely rare species such as nightingales, peregrine falcons and purple emperor butterflies can now be found, whilst the population of more common species are exploding in numbers. The land has become brimming with life and consequently many other areas have engaged in the rewilding of their land.

Let The Worship Rewild

I believe there is a rewilding process that needs to take place in our churches. At times our worship services have become so carefully organized and curated, much like the intensively farmed land of the Knepp Estate, that we’ve lost any sense of being surprise by God’s Spirit. We’ve held control tightly with every minute of a Sunday service being accounted for. And of course we need order and structure in our worship, as the Apostle Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 14. And yes I passionately believe the Spirit breathes on and works through our prayerful preparation. But I am convinced the great need for the church today is to see the Spirit of the Living God being given freedom to lead and move. We need more disruption. More honest and passionate expressions of our love and devotion. More mess. More risk.

I read the Acts of the Apostles and when the early church gathered in worship remarkable things would happen. The room would shake as the Spirit was poured out, the sick were healed and people were emboldened to carry the gospel all over the world. I’ve seen glimpses of this today but surely there has to be more! Don’t you long for the highlight of a Sunday gathering not simply to be a great new song, or a brilliant preach, but rather the demonstration of God’s power and love through people finding faith, being healed and set free.

Anna’s Epilepsy

In January 2009, during the night, a beautiful little girl called Anna aged 8, went running into her parents room. Her face distorting, her speech slurred, she began to shake uncontrollably as an epileptic fit seized her body. Her parents terrified, rushed her to the nearest hospital were after days of intrusive tests they received the horrendous news that their precious daughter had severe epilepsy. With large doses of medication she was able to return to school, but life was far from normal, many fits and seizures would see Anna frequently rushed to hospital. Constant fear stalked the family as they tried to adjust with the pain of this new reality.

It was November 2010 when Anna and her mother attended a Worship Central event we ran in Bristol. During the worship we felt the Spirit lead us to pray for healing and so invited people forward for prayer. Without hesitation Anna made a bolt to the front. One of our team asked how they could pray for her, to which Anna replied, “I’ve got epilepsy and I don’t want it anymore!’ The team prayed for her and that was it. Or so we thought.

A few years later Anna’s mother emailed me to share what had happened since. “I’m not sure quite what happened, but all I know is she hasn’t had a seizure since that night.” She continues, “Of course, no big signpost arrives in the sky announcing ‘don’t panic: that was the last one’ – it’s a slow day-by-day hoping and praying and watching and fearing and hoping again. Every single day is a little miracle that gets ticked off. One year, two years got ticked off. Last Christmas Anna began being weaned off her medication; this September she was officially signed off by the pediatric consultant. And this week, we celebrate three full clear years.”

I have no idea what songs we sang that night or who preached, but I’ll never forget this stunning story of God’s kindness and power to heal his precious daughter. What would happen if we would let go of the reigns? Prepare diligently, but hold all these plans lightly allowing space for the Spirit’s leading. What devotion and love would rise up if we would not just rely on a scripted response in worship, but allowed the raw mess of who we are encounter the glorious nature of who God is? I believe there is so much for the church to encounter in worship. It’s time to re-wild!

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