The Time of Some Famous Worshipers Has Come to an End
Now there is a challenge for the church, says pastor René Molina
This conversation was conducted by Jaime Lázaro in Spanish and translated to English. Read it in Spanish.
It was the 1st of December in 1986, when pastor René Molina took leadership of a small thirty-person group that had been left without a pastor. It was character, born in El Salvador, that began what would one day become the Church Restoration of Los Angeles, a numerous congregation that currently brings together three thousand people every Sunday.
Due to rapid growth, they would have to move to larger meeting spaces, until finally finding their current building, an abandoned theater on the corner of Adams and Crenshaw in Los Angeles.
René Molina has not only worked to consolidate his congregation, but has also been active in opening joint churches in the San Fernando Valley, El Monte, Oceanside, South Bay, Santa Ana, Bakersfield, and South Pasadena, all of these in the state of California. But he has also begun churches in Michigan, Oregon, Chicago, Texas and Australia.
This conversation, which took place in the heart of Los Angeles near a Staples and Convention Center, flowed in a special way. During the dialogue, some statements drew my attention and are listed below:
• Pastor René Molina highlights the role of emotions in worship. “You cannot separate emotions from what is spiritual, because people sometimes tend to criticize emotional expressions as being baseless,” he adds. Does the act of avoiding emotions during worship deprive us of having deeper experiences?
• During the interview, Molina said that we should use other expressions of worship such as drawing, painting, dance, theatre, television, and cinema. “I don’t think that worship is only music in a place with four walls where I raise my hands.” Is the Latino community ready to express worship in different ways?
• Our interviewee thinks that some famous worshipers have reached the end of their time; they contributed greatly to the understanding of worship, but now it is time for the Church to take on this challenge. Should the Church pay more attention to local talent and be blessed by their music rather than seeking “famous” talent?
The complete interview:
Why should we emphasize worship in the life of the Church?
I think that among the priorities of the Church, worship is an essential one, because it expresses your love for the being that you worship, and that same being is simultaneously seeking to be praised. I think worship is fundamental.
How do you think Latinos visualize God during the time of worship?
They first visualize him as an eternal being, the way we are taught as children. Then comes the moment they have an experience with him, and through that experience they feel the desire to express emotions towards him. Obviously your culture, faith experiences, and desire to seek new ways of worship influence this.
Is it that God manifests himself to people in different ways?
Yes, in many different ways, depending on faith experience, cultural experience, and the desire for fresh experiences with God regardless of the spiritual level you are on.
What role do emotions play during the time of worship?
I think they are key. You cannot separate emotions from what is spiritual, because people tend to criticize emotional expressions as being baseless.
In your case specifically, how have you managed worship in a way that emotions, such as spirituality, generate an awakening in people?
I think we have done this by teaching people how to express what is in their heart. You cannot only appeal to what is spiritual, but rather you must combine it with emotions. We teach people to be natural in their expressions of worship to God, because worship cannot be classified. The moment it is classified, it is no longer genuine. It becomes photocopied worship. If we say, “Sing like this,” or “Do it like that,” it is not natural. Our desire is to teach people to be natural.
I understand that the desire of every pastor is for people to offer their lives in worship to the Lord, and they teach this in their time of worship. How do you teach your congregation that this attitude should be constant in their lives?
We do it by defining worship. It is a lifestyle. Worship isn’t what is commonly defined in Christian terminology: three fast songs, one slow song. That is nothing more than religious jargon, because worship is a lifestyle. It is to honor God with your flaws and virtues on your daily walk of life. It is about dedicating a moment to him amidst your busy life, whether it’s in the park, at a coffee shop, with a group of people, and with or without music. And in those times, express what is in your heart.
Do you think we have failed as a Church by teaching that worship occurs where there is music?
I think so, because there are many things that we need to fix in the work of the church through the years. I am not saying that the past has been good, but I do want to recognize that some things were good. And what you have mentioned is fundamental, because humans have the tendency of taking on the role of gods. That is not worship; that is manipulation. We have made many mistakes, but it is important to be humble and recognize that we must fix them and try to understand what God wants from us.
Do you think there are expressions of worship other than music?
I believe this with all my heart. We should use music, but just to name a few, we should also use drawing, painting, dance, new songs and rhythms, various music genres, theatre, television, cinema, etc. I don’t think that worship is only music in a place with four walls where I raise my hands.
Do you think that music is a good channel for Latinos to open up their hearts to God?
I think this is the case in all cultures, but we Latinos are special because we are very emotional. I am not trying to be mean, but this is the way we are. Humans are musical beings; even children follow rhythms at very early ages. As Latinos, we are very expressive and are not prone to listen to classical music, because we are culturally different.
Do Latinos think that God descends from the heavens when we worship, or that he has been here all along?
I think there are different kinds of people. It all depends on their spiritual development, Christian and religious influence, and their theological background, because many people come to sing only because everyone else is singing. There are people that come to sing because it is in that moment that they find God, and songs can say a lot for them. There are people that feel as though worship takes them to another level of communion with God.
Considering the fact that people are motivated to worship for different reasons, I ask: what percentages of people come to receive and to give?
It has a lot to do with where you are, because most Christians always carry the idea that they will seek God because he has something to give them. This is the way we are.
Or they’ll say, “I come to feel the presence of God…”
Exactly. But there are people who, as they walk, realize that they can also give their heart, song, worship, emotions and spirit. It all depends on that person’s understanding of worship, but also on what we teach in the temple.
Is the time of worship an amalgam of our emotions and our spirituality?
I think that if we try our best to understand the meaning of worship, we will find this amalgam traced back to biblical times. For example, David, when the ark came to Jerusalem, felt an amalgam of a spiritual desire and an emotional expression. The Bible says he began to spin violently; he experienced an amalgam of feelings. Paul and Silas singing in the prison makes no sense, but I think there is a combination of spirituality and emotions in this moment. I think that has always existed and people need to understand that nothing has changed since the beginning; we just need to learn how to express it. I am not in favor of people who attack emotions; not being an emotionally expressive person doesn’t mean that those who are expressive are wrong. I think God accepts your silence and introverted parts, just as he accepts other expressions.
Should the people chosen to serve the church have worshiper spirits?
Honestly, I have never seen a distinctive element that qualifies people to serve. We almost always look for people who have converted, have good testimonies, love the Lord, love their work, and are committed. We assume that being a worshiper is part of the package.
Do you think immigration status has to do with a better connection during worship?
I think it has to be a process, because if we are newly arrived immigrants, we bring along our musical customs. You will obviously look for things that seem familiar, but two things will happen. You will either spend the rest of your life listening to the same rhythm of music, or you will want to experience something fresh which, you will one day realize, is also worship. These two situations exist.
Is sexism an obstacle for Latinos when it comes to softening their hearts?
I think so. I have seen it happen for a long time. It can take a long time to see men experience brokenness. But when the Holy Spirit manages to access a sexist man and break him, there is an obvious, visible change.
Do you think that some churches teach sexism from the pulpit?
Definitely, and I am one hundred percent sure of this. Sexism is not pleasant and it is not good for anyone. I am not questioning the authority that God gives men to be the head of things; that is another topic. But I do think that when this occurs, it is worrisome.
Do you refer to the Holy Spirit as masculine or feminine?
I understand biblical terminology, especially the Hebrew term, and I know that it is of neutral gender. But personally, I act as though it is masculine. On the other hand, the Holy Spirit is firm, but also gentle. This is the norm; since the father is masculine, then the Spirit should also be masculine. However, I do understand that the original term is gender neutral, even though we don’t emphasize that detail.
What do you think of the people who come to worship and experience brokenness, but generate no change in their lives?
I think those are personal decisions, because God cannot force you to do anything you don’t want to do. With each person, God has a completely different process.
Do the worship leader and pastor affect this, or is it solely dependent on the person?
It rests on the person. The church and the person leading are important, but you could be praising God with a group of angels, yet if your heart is not willing to be touched, nothing will happen.
Thirty or forty years ago, the Church used different songs than what it uses now. The lyrics and rhythms have also changed. Do you think these lyrics showed a different God compared to contemporary lyrics?
I don’t think so. I think that it has to do with one’s heart, because I have experienced musical transformations since 1979, when I converted. This was back when young musical bands were blasphemy. I have continued to see changes in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s. I think it has more to do with a person’s heart.
I am referring to specific lyrics that said, “Beyond the sun,” or “beyond the heavens.” Now we hear songs that say, “I saw you in the face of a homeless child.” Have you seen these changes?
No, I think it all depends on the phases that the Church experiences. The present can’t be worse than the past, because as the Bible says, “His mercies are new every morning.” I also think it would be a mistake to say that the past was bad. I think that the phase of the past has completed its cycle, but it is the same God. Every phase has contained his level of sincerity, and he who has shared that same sincerity has been able to enjoy each phase and move along with it. If you hold on tight to things from the past, and argue that every thing that is new is bad, then there is something wrong. If your past is better than your present, then there isn’t much to look forward to.
This renovation of musical genres in the Church gave rise to many people who recorded albums and sang in churches. Up until a few years ago, we enjoyed large events with famous people. We don’t see this as much anymore. Is it that the phase came to an end?
I’ll talk about what I have seen. I have seen musical ministries that have completed their cycle, and if they try to do things the old way, it simply will not work, especially in a city like Los Angeles. I think that cycles are completed, and that is why we see people who were singers now being pastors, because their cycles have come to an end. There are exceptions of individuals who after 20 to 25 years, have continued to impact lives regardless of whether or not they are having concerts. This has been the case in Los Angeles.
I recall that up until recently, people waited for the “worshipers” to arrive and do the work of the church. Is that correct?
Is the Church being challenged to do the work that they were doing?
I think so. They (worshipers) have contributed a lot to the Church’s understanding of worship. Those who don’t understand it will simply be left behind. It would be like using a “long play” to listen to music, when you can download ten thousand songs on your iPhone. These are changes that are hard to accept, be it because it is convenient or because you just don’t want it to end. God can’t spend his time waiting to please conveniences. There is a kingdom that continues to move forward, whether we like it or not. It is like Eli, when he would get mad because God began to talk to Samuel. His cycle had come to an end, although there were elements of neglect, etc. I am not saying that this is the case with those whose cycles are coming to an end, but I do think there is a need to understand that there are cycles and that’s the way music is.
Is it that churches are currently putting more effort into their areas of worship?
I think so. Churches are slowly focusing more on making this time a personal experience with God.
Does worship change the heart of the worshiper or God’s attitude?
God’s attitude doesn’t change, because he is always willing. If your heart is sincere, even if you can only pat God, he will receive you, even if your guitar only has 3 strings.
Does worship guarantee change?
If it is genuine, yes; if not, then no.
Who is the greatest benefiter of worship: God, or the person who is worshiping?
The person who is worshiping, not God, benefits most. He continues to be the same whether or not we worship him. I have seen people be transformed through worship. I have seen hardened hearts be softened. I have seen young people returning to God during worship. I have seen changes and transformations.
Does collective worship help?
Yes, it can help because two is better than one. It can consciously or unconsciously be a model for newcomers.
Do people visualize a God that watches his people worship him with satisfaction, or a God that is within them and among them?
I think people visualize an active God. A bunch of things can happen during a time of genuine worship: salvation, reconciliation, healing, provision, faith, strength, etc. People perceive him as someone that is within, alive, and active. He is not like a Sultan that needs to be given air. As Jesus said, he is looking for worshipers, because God wants to bless them through worship.
What is the expectation of the pastor when preparing for this time?
An encounter between people and God’s presence, liberation, a healing, a strengthener, help, an aid, a console, a pat on the head, and saying, “I am with you.” It is important to know that you have a great God by your side, and that He will hold you in good times and bad. Personally, I hope that when I am not with them, they may know that the God they worship is alive and powerful.
Why do pastors complain of the difficulties of working with musicians?
Working with people is hard in general. But sometimes musicians get snobby because they are talented. Here, a pastor comes in to teach them that they are talented, but that they will never be more talented than Jesus. Jesus was characterized by obedience, service, and humility. More than working on them musically, we must work on their tempers.
Do you think that the time of worship functions as a tool of outreach?
Yes, of course. I have seen this through the years. People love music, and the youth loves worship music; regardless of the genre, they carry the message.
How do you choose songs?
Personally, I think the key is that they must be able to minister to me first. If they minister to me, who is needy and the pastor of a church, then they will be a blessing to the people. I have experienced this for years.