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Worship is the Opportunity to Express Gratitude to God

Dr. Otto René Azurdia, originally from Guatemala, is the pastor of one of the largest Latino congregations in the United States.

This conversation was conducted by Jaime Lázaro in Spanish and translated to English. Read it in Spanish here.

Dr. Otto René Azurdia has been pastoring the Final Call Ministry in Downey, CA, for 27 years. 

He accepted God as his Savior at the tender age of five, but it wasn’t until he was 17 that he had a personal encounter with God and started developing his purpose.

Towards the end of 1987, he immigrated to the United States and began leading a church that had 80 members. Today, this congregation has over three thousand members.

The ministry of Pastor Otto René Azurdia is well known locally and worldwide as one of progress and projection, leaving a precedent of prosperity and faith in God.

Here are a few highlights from our conversation with the pastor:

• Pastor Azurdia considers worship to be an opportunity to express gratitude to God. Is gratitude a basic element that allows us to access his throne of grace?

• Some years ago, the group Inspiration, which is composed of musicians from his church, recorded their songs live. This recording included yells, groans, sighs, and all kinds of expressions that occur during times of worship in the church. They were sold by the millions, and impacted Latinos all over the world. Do we need more simple and natural rather than elaborate recordings in order to bring people to the Lord?

• Dr. Azurdia remembers how we were previously taught that God lived in the temples and that hymns served their purpose. Now, the enlightenment of teachers has pushed the church to see a God that is closer and more relatable. “When we advance in our knowledge of God, we realize that the Lord has a new song, new inspiration,” he tells us. I ask: Is the contemporary music that we hear today and reject the music that will touch the next generation?

Here is the interview:

I know that worship is a strong pillar in your ministry. What is worship to you?
From my point of view, worship is the opportunity that God gives us to offer him something that he seeks. The Word says he “is seeking followers.” It is the opportunity to express our souls and spirits to God as a response to his blessing, grace, and kindness. It basically comes from a grateful heart that knows God’s mercy.

Can a person naturally begin to worship?
From a biblical standpoint, worship is a response to the actions of God. God acts, and then comes gratitude, worship, and human responses to God’s goodness. That has been our experience. The praise and worship that we offer is a response to God having touched us. We respond to this in praise and worship.

Can worship touch a nonbeliever?
From a biblical point of view, I don’t think so, because worship is a response to the actions of God. People can experience this in a moment of longing for God, because worship is a sublime offering of gratitude for God’s actions. We approach God as humans in need, but that is not worship.

Are our feelings involved in worship?
Yes, worship involves our soul, spirit, and body. 

What role do our feelings have?
Our soul is really the placeholder of our feelings. In Psalm 103, David tells his soul to praise God. He is reminding his soul of all the gifts from God. So, our feelings and soul must always be involved with one another. Our spirit must motivate our soul to be grateful.

Does the time of worship serve to reach nonbelievers?
Yes. What we have learned from the Word of God is that worship generates a very spiritual atmosphere where the Spirit moves and God works. Job pointed out that the stars worshiped God as he formed creation. It is in that atmosphere where we see the Holy Spirit touch people’s hearts, liberate, heal, and call them to conversion.

Where is God when God is being worshiped?
The Word of God says that he is present the moment two or three people gather in his name. His presence is activated in the middle of worship when we allow the Holy Spirit to move. Some ministries or congregations view worship as an offering to God by means of limited hymns and songs. God has taught us the importance of not limiting our offering of worship. This is a little uncommon, but the experience has been enriching. During this time, the Holy Spirit begins to move in an incredible way that has even led us to six hours of continual worship. This is because we have learned that God moves in these special moments, and takes the time to work on people. We try not to limit this time.

Does God flood the whole place?
His presence comes, it floods, and supernatural things appear.

Is God in the environment?

Is God in the voice of the worship leader?
Yes, he is in the voice of the priest.

Is God in the voice of those that are singing?
He is in the hands of those that minister with instruments. That is, the entire atmosphere is saturated with God’s presence.

Does the presence of God descend or is it always enveloping us?
We would say that we give the Lord the opportunity, and God’s movement is activated. He is everywhere, but he is not always asked to work. It is about presenting yourself to the Lord and giving him the chance to spiritually manifest Himself.

Has there been a specific event or situation that occurred during worship that you always recall?
During the beginning of my Christian life, I was the director of worship and worked as a president for the youth in the church. I remember I had a unique experience one Friday night when it was my turn to lead. While I was leading, I clearly saw the Lord take a bottle of oil and pour it over my head. That meeting was so phenomenal. It was fantastic. I felt like I had reached a new dimension. Ever since then, I have been more inclined to dedicate time for praise and worship.

How do you select a person to work in worship?
There is a biblical preparation that we have all had, but there are also signs of God calling someone that I can perceive. It is like sniffing the bottle of anointing oil that God has placed over someone’s head. Since I experienced the same thing, I can recognize those bottles of oil flowing. So, we facilitate this flow. Many of these individuals may not be biblical scholars, but they have an anointing and we begin to teach them to attract the presence of God.  

Is that what happened with the worshipers of this congregation that excelled outside of the church?
Yes. 27 years ago, before I came to this country was, God told me, “The power that I have put in you will grow and multiply over there.” I am remembering the anointing that came over me on that Friday night. When we began our work here, God allowed it to flow and overflow. We locally identified ourselves as a church that worshiped and exalted God for a long period of time.

I remember years ago, you started recording live music during your time of worship. The music of the group Inspiration had great success in the Christian market.
We had 18 professional recordings and other live ones to share with the people of God.

The act of including the screams, groans, and expressions of your congregation along with the music touched millions of people, right?
Exactly. All of those recordings were original, single-takes in order to respect how the Spirit had flowed.

I am told that the public response shocked you.
We did not expect that kind of response. Only God could have done that. 

Do you consider the ages of your congregants when picking songs for worship?No, we believe that inspiration can come to anyone, regardless of age. The important thing is that they be connected to God, and they will find inspiration in that longing.

How do you think Latinos picture God?
We come from a religious background where we were taught of the Holy Trinity. We have this concept that God is manifested as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Simultaneously, we have the blessing which, due to the situations in our countries, pushed us to find refuge in God. We learned to invite his spiritual presence, enjoy his blessings, and believe in his Word. I think we perceive God as one who moves among us. 

Even though for some people, God is a father, a friend…
Obviously, the Bible identifies God as a father, a friend, and a consoler. But in essence, God is a spirit that wants to have a relationship with every single person.

Do your people come to the temple to give or to receive?
That is a part of the teaching. We try to teach the people that “You will harvest what you sow.” The word “sow” requires giving. I can give service, praise, worship, time, and God will respond with harvest. As the Word says, if you sow bountifully, then your harvest will be bountiful. We initially come to services to praise God, but as a result of that, God answers our prayers.

Although many people come to church solely to receive…

But you teach that you should also give…
Even if that is not specifically taught from the pulpit, we teach this by example. From the moment the service starts, the director motivates people to give worship and praise to God. That is where we are teaching them to sow worship, and God will answer.

Do you always use the same rhythms, such as slow rock?
No, it depends on the inspiration, because the Bible does not offer a hymnal that specifies rhythms. We use all kinds of rhythms, from ballads to cumbias. The important thing is for God to have inspired those lyrics and for them to touch the hearts of people.  

How do you choose which songs will be sung during the time of worship?
Back to what I said before, I sniff out the anointing oil placed on the right songs. One song that I consider to be fantastic, which you have probably heard, is Psalm 126, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed.” A Chilean servant of God wrote that song. I heard it first in Guatemala; I sniffed it out, brought it, and received great blessings from it.  It is like being a cook or wine taster—someone who knows what will stick.

Are undocumented immigrants more sensitive when they worship in comparison to established immigrants?
We don’t use the word “worship”; instead, we say, “seek God.” The needs of an immigrant that is undocumented push them to seek God. Meanwhile, a citizen or resident does not feel the same pressure. Somehow, we should not seek God out of need, but rather out of love. So, those who love God, documented or not, will seek God. Those who truly love the Lord do it constantly. 

Many people go to church to worship, as if it were the only place where it can be done. How do you deal with this
For us, the temple is a place where we have the privacy to come to the Lord. But we teach that the temple is not the only place where God is, because God is everywhere, and we can worship Him anywhere. Worship represents obedience and serving the Lord. When a father is responsible for his household or a mother loves her children, they are worshiping the Lord.

When you met the Lord all those decades ago, other songs were sung that perhaps showed a God that was farther away. Is this true?
What I can see is that the church has shined light on the teachers that guide it. In those times, the light that came to the minds of teachers of the Word was the light of God, but it carried a lot of traditional religion. One of the promises that we find in the Word of God is that He will send the early rain as He did in the beginning. But when you study the term “early rain,” you learn that it originally meant “teachers.” So, the revelation has been coming, the light has been coming and the church has been releasing religiosity to go towards a communion with God, a relationship with God.

It has been drawing it closer to God…
The light of the teachers has caused the church to stop seeing a God that is solely of the temple, and begin to see a God of relationships. We were taught to cross ourselves in front of temple, because that is where God is. But the light of the teachers has taught us that God is a God of home, work, and relationship with us. He is a God that wants to dwell among our daily lives, not just in the temple.

Currently, there is a God that isn’t different, but is projected in a different way…
We are getting to know him in a relationship rather than knowing him as a religion like we used to. We used to think that while in the house of God you must be silent and reverent. But the moment you left, it was a free for all. This was a poor teaching. Paul said, “We live in him, and in him we move.” This teaching limited God to exist within four walls.

What type of content do you think is important to project during the time of worship?
On a personal level, I have a special commission to be part of the Lord through a spiritual experience that was based on Joel 2:1, “Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming; it is near.” My commission is to let the world know that the day of the Lord is coming.  Obviously, by studying the Word, we have been able to understand that that day is not 24 hours, but rather a series of events. It is a call to approach God, a call to repent, and a call to revival. It is also a call to blessing, because the day of the Lord brings all of these events. In my case, I am more inclined to develop faith in the Word of God. We need to challenge ourselves to speak the language of faith and seek to have a relationship with God. When we speak of a relationship with God, we are talking about a God that is alive, which is why we challenge people to have a communion with God. Then God can talk to them, touch them, and perform miracles in their lives. We want people to understand that he is not a God that is in the heavens, but rather a God/Holy Spirit that is among us. 

So, you want the content of songs to be similar to this vision…
It is like a recipe book for making delicious food, but if I don’t add the vegetables and spices as the book tells me to, my food will be flavorless.

Do you have limitations regarding physical expressions of worship?
As a ministry, we offer complete liberty, as long as it is always done in an orderly manner that does not affect other people. But there is complete freedom. People raise their hands, cry, run, jump, and laugh in our services, but they always make sure they do not affect others. We allow this because Paul said, “If eating meat causes me to stumble, I will not eat it.” And these expressions reflect how David was expressing himself with everything he had in the tabernacle.

How important is worship in your liturgy?
Everything is consecrated; everything goes together. Even the people who will minister, lead, or play instruments take some time to pray before every activity. The idea is to prepare our hearts and become sensitive channels of blessing.

Are you limited to certain rhythms or do you use them all?
If the chorus brings an anointing, we will sing it repetitively. For example, we have rhythms of all sorts that have been a blessing. Right now we are using very catchy rhythms and they have been a blessing.  Since God has not given instruction on specific rhythms, the decision is left to the pastor and worship leaders.

Do you use old hymns?
I was a member of a congregation that sang with a hymnal. They were lovely, solemn hymns. In that time, the light had not reached us and we used to think that those were the songs of God. But, as we have advanced in our knowledge of God, we realized that God has a new song, a new inspiration. Those hymns served their function at the time, but we cannot get stuck in the past.

Having had the experience of singing hymns and seeing a transition, do you think the Hispanic community has responded well to this change?
Over the last decades, the church has moved like waves in the sea. The new wave finds resistance from the old wave. When the church began to change a little in its use of solemn, conservative, and traditional hymns, many people left, but new people also arrived. Those who left maintained this style, and those who came moved on to another dimension of worship. There will always be groups that want to stick to tradition. 

Do you think these changes in worship music have allowed the church to grow?
Yes, the church of praise and worship has become a fishing net.

Do you refer to God in a masculine way?
We refer to him as a father, like Jesus said: “Our Father in heaven…”

Do you have art during worship?
We have incorporated a bit of rehearsed dancing, like “corro.”

What is corro?
Corro is a rehearsed group dance. It has ballet influences.

There are elements that are results of worship, such as brokenness, peace, and liberation. Do you think these basic elements should be visualized?
That is where we found the secret that we uncovered. David played the harp and Saul was liberated. We have understood that music and worship function as strong weapons for brokenness of the heart that lead to liberation and healing. I have gone to some places that use music as healing therapy.

Could we consider liberation, brokenness, peace, and spirituality to be a result of an optimal time of worship?Experience has taught us that good worship brings a fantastic manifestation of sanctity, liberation, and blessing to a person.

You may not be able to answer this question, but is there some physiological explanation in saying that music is a good conductor of the spiritual message?
I think we would have to read some brain studies to explain how musical frequencies affect our beings. But it is undeniable that musical frequencies can impact our emotions. These frequencies arrive at our brain and touch neurons that provoke this.

Does it have to do with the fact that the believer has willingly separated time for only this?
Willingness is one of the most important points of all. Jesus said, “If anyone thirsts, let him come.”

Some philosophers affirm that our minds are constantly concerned with the past, present, and future. So, when we open up to worship, are we doing so in the present moment where God dwells?
That makes a lot of sense.

Why does a worshiper sometimes not become a good channel?
I am inclined to think that if a worshiper is not appropriately transmitting the message, it is because they are misplaced, because in the body of Christ, a properly placed member will bring great growth. The problem that exists—like in soccer—is that we are strikers that want to play defense. Or we are goal keepers that want to be strikers.