Editor's note: Travis Cottrell is a Christian musician and worship leader. This commentary was abridged from his new book, Surprised by Worship (Zondervan).

How old do you have to be to become a Pharisee? Or a legalist? Or an outright religious hypocrite? I think I might have been one of those when I was a kid. Okay, I was one of those when I was a kid.

I was born into a family of Christians who went to church every time the doors opened. I knew Jesus at an early age. So I must have subconsciously taken that as a sign that I could wear the "Christian" badge.

Travis Cottrell

Travis Cottrell

Many of my beliefs were mere opinions at first, but sincere enough to harden into convictions—sincerely legalistic convictions, that is. And they naturally flowed into my music life.

One day when I was a young teenager—a church-music nerd teenager—our church's choir director tried something different. And it caught me off guard. I was sitting on the front row, waiting for church to start, expecting things to proceed as they should: call to worship, hymn of praise, welcome and announcements, children's sermon, offertory hymn, offering, choir special, message, hymn of invitation, benediction, lunch. The bulletin confirmed my expectations: the congregation would sing at three points, all straight from the hymnal.

The choir came in as usual and began to sing the simple strains of the then-new worship song "I Love You, Lord." I liked it. Then the director turned to the congregation and said, "Let's all sing that together."

What? I thought. It's not in the hymnal! It's not in the bulletin! How can we do this? This feels weird.

The congregation began singing; the piano and organ eventually dropped out, leaving just the sound of those voices ringing off the white walls and stained glass of that small Baptist church sanctuary.

It was beautiful.

I eventually found myself singing along, and my soul—the soul of an obnoxious, opinionated teenager—was quieted in the presence of the Lord like never before. I was caught off guard, not only by the change in the worship, but even more by my own response. Worship could be different and still be worship.

A turning point

That morning's worship surprise was a turning point for me—the catalyst for a paradigm shift in my understanding of the meaning of true corporate worship. And the change it began in me was so monumental that it carries my calling to this day.

I now wonder how I could have been so caught up in the form and order of things that I would overlook the movement of the Spirit, a movement that can come when we open our hearts to the unexpected. How often do our confining perceptions of corporate worship hold us back from truly communing with God through music? How often do those same constrictions bleed into other areas of our beliefs—and our lives?

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It often happens without our even noticing. What we learn as children can lock itself into our brains as the true template—when in reality, we may simply be inheriting a manmade tradition of "the way things always ought to be." When the Spirit moves in a different way, some of us dig in our heels, refusing to believe that what we learned first might not be the whole picture.

Or, our resistance may be more a matter of personal preference than early imprinting. A music style might not be to our taste. We may take issue with the pastor's sermons because of mannerisms, rather than the content. We may resist a biblical principle because of the way it's presented rather than its actual truth.

When truth emerges in unfamiliar packages, we are prone to close ourselves off to what God might be doing. Remember how Jesus was rejected when he first preached in Nazareth? "Where did this man get these things?" his neighbors asked. "'What's this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles! Isn't this the carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren't his sisters here with us?' And they took offense at him" (Mark 6:2-3).

They took offense because the message came in an unexpected way, from an unexpected person.

Getting back to worship

Worship happens when we connect with the heart of God; worship entails all of who we are. While we can't separate our worship from our character, we can choose to rectify any convictions we've wrongly held. But are we willing?

Our judgments, opinions, and even religious beliefs could be the very things blocking true worship. We need to test our thinking, particularly when we're feeling offended at the packaging or the delivery style. Maybe we've bumped up against a truth we need to acknowledge?

We need to dig up our entrenched expectations that are so quickly offended and test them with the Word, asking the Holy Spirit to reveal the truth. If we dropped our defenses before God's throne, perhaps our offenses would go away.

How can we help the gospel to grow more fully alive in us, regardless of our personal preferences? We can be a people who stand strong on the Word of God while refusing to take offense when others lose their footing—as in Paul's definition of worship: "I urge you, therefore, by the mercies of God, to present yourselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God" (Romans 12:1).

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When we become living sacrifices, no stone is unturnable in our lives. Everything must die so that Christ may live in us. Worship in its truest form is exemplified when we bear the fruit of a life yielded to him.

Facing a choice

John the Baptist asked, "Are you the one, or should we look for another?" How often do we ask the same question? It just sounds a little different: Is my church going to agree with me, or will they insist on being wrong and "force" me to go elsewhere? Is the worship you lead going to sound like I think it should, or does one of us need to leave? God, are you going to change my circumstances, or do I have to turn away from you for not fixing this?

When we face the things in us that need change, we have a choice: stomp off in anger and build a wall that lets in only those who agree with us; or humbly take those things to the Word and seek direction—and perhaps be willing to admit, "I was wrong." Then we can repent and move forward. Forward is good.

John the Baptist's story gives me hope. Like many worship leaders, I have this artsy, ego-stimulating, moody side to deal with, but it's no excuse to extend my quills like a porcupine. It's no excuse for letting my expectations dictate my responses. If anything, this artsy nature should open a multitude of opportunities for God to grow us worship leaders in this area. How amazing that would be—a sweet, sweet sound in God's ear.

Abridged from Surprised by Worship by Travis Cottrell. Copyright © 2010. Used by permission of Zondervan.