‘Worship’ is always associated with some object of serious adoration. That’s why its origins lie in religious practices. Like a lot of terms in our vocabulary it has developed a wide range of meanings, some of which have nothing to do with religion, at least, as we know it.
While honour, admiration and profound respect play a part in worship, for Christians it must mean more than that. Worship has to do with the quality of our response to God for all He has done for us. Within any Christian community this understanding will vary widely. So, what needs to be done to deepen people’s understanding of worship? Is the concept of worship any less important than any other issue in the life of the individual believer, or, in the life of the community of God’s people — the Church?
Like our understanding of any other biblical truths, there has to be an educational process. We don’t presume that everyone who comes to Church on Sunday to have a thorough understanding of how to live the Christian life in a variety of situations. That’s why we see the need of ongoing, faithful preaching and teaching of the Bible to lead to clearer understanding and greater absorption of what God wants His people to know and practise. Why, then, does the concept of worship, a central issue in the life of individuals and Christian communities, go to the backburner when it comes to Christian education?
Is true worship some kind of esoteric, personal, or, perhaps emotional experience that some Churches encourage through their introductory musical programmes? Other Churches have reacted to that kind of ‘worship’, rejecting any emotional element in worship services and have concentrated on preaching and teaching, as if the sole purpose of coming together at a Sunday service is to hear what God has to say through His Word. While that might sound reasonable —and surely, we do want to hear what God has to say to us through the preaching of His Word — does this form of worship embrace everything we are meant to experience when we come to a Church service? For something to be true, it has to be the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Remove an important ingredient from worship and we cease to offer God what is truly His.
Biblical worship needs to affect us in three ways: the mind, the heart and the will.
1. The mind
Churches that emphasise the importance of preaching are quite correct — to a point — and only to a point. Central to God’s revelation of himself is His Word. We can’t know Him any other way. Regardless of any ‘spiritual’ experiences we may have had, we can never get away from the foundational and stabilising influence of the Scriptures. They bring us again and again to God’s revelation of himself, His will, and His purposes. The Scriptures are God’s ‘story-line’ that helps us understand why our relationship with Him through Jesus Christ is so important. It also tells us how we are to respond to Him as individuals and as God’s people in community.
Before God sent Isaiah to be His prophet to the people of Israel, Isaiah had to understand whom he was to represent. His experience of God’s glory was the prerequisite. In Isaiah 6:1-5, we read,
1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the LORD, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory." 4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook, and the temple was filled with smoke. 5 "Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty."
That glory was ultimately displayed for all God’s people in the face of Jesus Christ. (2Cor 4:6). But, how well do we appreciate it? Was the wonder of that glory diminished in any way because it appeared in human form? Paul said that Satan blinds people so that they fail to see the glory of Christ. (4:4). The closer we get to him through our obedience to Him and to His Word, the more we are struck by it. But, even then, while we are in this life, we see only darkly, says Paul, like a reflection through a poor mirror; then one day we shall see him face to face. (1Cor 13:12).
Is it possible that in some cases we have domesticated the gospel to such an extent that the wonder of God and of His Christ no longer shake us out of our self-centredness, so that we no longer stand in holy awe of Him whom we claim to worship? Do ‘we’ continue to be the main focus of what takes place? Are worship services all about ‘us’? Or, are we meant to be completely absorbed by our thoughts of Him, and of His Christ?
Of course, a great variety of people come to services on Sundays with different understanding of God and of a worshipping community. Apart from the message that day, what else is communicated about the God who is worthy of our praise and adoration? What is the quality of our response to Him in our praise and adoration; in the awe with which we approach Him; in the joy that He has generated in our lives? What difference has the Word of God under the influence of the Holy Spirit made in our lives?
Is it possible to place such an emphasis on correct belief that it lulls us into a deep self-satisfied comfortable sleep when it comes to our response to an awesome and holy God? When what is right, i.e. faithful preaching and teaching, becomes the main goal in Christian ministry, it fails to take into consideration other essential aspects in the creation of a worshipping Church.
2. The heart
When God spoke to Isaiah of the future He had in store for His people, He told him what their response needed to be.
"Give praise to the LORD, proclaim his name; make known among the nations what he has done, and proclaim that his name is exalted. 5 Sing to the LORD, for he has done glorious things; let this be known to all the world. 6 Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel among you."
Joyful response of praise and adoration has always characterised true worship when people have been made aware that the living God is in the midst. The artificial generation of emotional excitement through loud and repetitious singing is a poor substitute that doesn’t enhance genuine worship. And yet, true praise and adoration must come from the heart that has been touched by God to appreciate the wonder of His salvation. It has to have an emotional component — a genuine one. The heart is as much part of us as is the mind. The heart is the deep well from which comes our response to God.
When Paul told the Corinthians that whenever they worshipped God it had to involve the mind as well as the spirit within them. (1Cor 14:14-15). If our minds become convinced by the Holy Spirit of some truth He wants us to grasp, it can never remain a merely cerebral experience. It has to work itself out through a response of the heart, or it remains the shallowest form of knowledge.
We then have to ask ourselves are our verbal expressions of praise and honour worthy of the One we are addressing? Is the music and the quality of its presentation worthy of Him? Or, are we ‘making-do’ with untrained volunteers who have misunderstood their giftedness’? Is the selection and training of worship leaders any less important than any other aspect of preparation for Sunday services?
True worship, in spirit and in truth is missing in many Church congregations. A Church is not merely a gathering of believers needing to be taught the Word of God. It is meant to be a worshipping community; worshipping in such a way that those who come among us, have to acknowledge that God is in our midst, and we are not merely some kind of religious organisation doing our weekly ‘thing’! (1Cor 14:25).
What distinguishes a worshipping community of believers from a congregation where God has been domesticated is the way we approach worship. Where God tends to be domesticated, people tend to be lackadaisical both in the leadership of worship services and in their participation in worship.
3. The will
Worship is not a momentary emotional experience. To be confronted by an awesome God in an attitude of worship must lead to an appropriate response not just at that time, but in an ongoing way. It has to be transformative. What happened to Isaiah when God revealed himself to Him?
5 "Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty."
Isaiah’s unconditional surrender to God was the only true and proper worship (Rom 12:1).
Our response might not be as radical as that, but it must be transformative as Paul made clear when he wrote to the Church in Rome! Worship services aren’t simply events where we meet in nice, cosy environments to sing songs enjoy singing, meet with friendly fellow-believers to affirm each other in our Christian faith, and then continue the rest of the week with our lives unchanged. It’s a time when we allow God to confront us by His Spirit, in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, through His Word. It’s also a preparation for facing the coming days and weeks in obedient response to Him wherever He has placed us. Our communal response in worship is as much a communication of what we think of God, as the message from the Word of God.
Worship that is in spirit and in truth cannot leave us untouched. It can never leave us feeling satisfied with ourselves and our ‘performance’ of worship, or our self-assuring doctrinal beliefs. It must lead us away from an ‘us-centred’ focus to a God-centred focus.
If sin is understood as self-preoccupation following the rejection of God’s sovereignty, we have to be careful that vestiges of this attitude don’t creep into our Christian lives, including our worship. Worship is no longer worship when ‘we’, our efforts, and our self-absorption get in the way of our focus on God and His holiness.
In worship, the emphasis is not on us; it’s on God. It has everything to do with God’s presence in the midst of His people, no matter how thick the veil through which we apprehend Him.