What is True Worship?
Few of us have the luxury of escaping the controversial “worship wars.” While quibbling over form and style, we have increasingly become distracted from the essence of worship and overlooked what the New Testament emphasizes. While not completely ignoring form and style, refocusing our energies on the biblical priority of worship will move us in the right direction–our priority for existing to glorify God. If the church succeeds in cultivating an atmosphere of true worship, we will most likely survive the wars and lead ourselves to a more peaceful and fruitful experience that glorifies the Lord Jesus Christ.
What does the New Testament say about worship?
The New Testament was written with a stunning silence about the outward form of corporate worship. Instead it focuses on a radical internalization as an inner, God-centered experience of the heart. It is interesting to note the corporate gathering of the New Testament church is never identified by the word “worship.” The main Old Testament word for worship [proskuneo] translated into the Greek New Testament is virtually absent from the New Testament letters. Its usage is found only in the Gospels (26 times) and in the Book of Revelation (21 times). However, in the epistles of Paul it occurs only once, namely, in 1 Corinthians 14:25 NASB (New American Standard Bible) where it refers to an unbeliever visiting the church and falling down at the power of prophecy and confessing God in the assembly. Other than that example, it never appears in the other letters of Peter, James, or John.
Why was this? It was because Jesus was still on earth in His visible, incarnate form. He was visible in His earthly body both in the gospels and in Revelation where the saints, angels, and elders are before Christ in His visible, resurrection body. But in the church age, between the ascension and the second coming of Christ, He is not visible to worship. Therefore, worship is not defined in a formal or ritualistic sense, but is both internalized and delocalized.
This is affirmed by the Lord Himself in John 4:21-23 NASB where He instructs the Samaritan woman about the radical change of worship. She believed that worship needed to occur on the mountain and according to prescribed formulas. Jesus pointed out that inner spiritual reality replaced geographic locality. “Neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” (v. 21) is replaced by “in spirit and truth.” In other words, true worship is an inner experience grounded in and compelled by Scripture. Jesus reiterates this principle in Matthew 15:8-9 NASB when He says, “These people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me, in vain do they worship me.” Worship that does not manifest itself from the heart nourished by truth is vain, empty, and inauthentic worship.
To further confirm the innerness of worship, Paul uses the word “latreauo” over 90 times which is usually translated “to serve.” Paul uses this term to reinforce the principle that worship is not found in form or style but in obedience and service. For example, in Romans 1:9 NASB he said, “I serve (or worship) (God) with my spirit in the gospel of his son.” And in Philippians 3:3 NASB, Paul said that true Christians worship God in the Spirit of God . . . and “put no confidence in the flesh.” Also in Romans 12:1 NASB, Paul encouraged Christians, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Paul considered his own ministry an acceptable offering in worship to God (Rom. 15:16; Phil. 2:17 NASB). Paul even calls giving, the money given to him by the churches, “a fragrant aroma and acceptable sacrifice to God in worship.
So even when Paul uses an Old Testament word for worship, he goes to great lengths to avoid using it as a localized formal event but an internal, spiritual reality. Worship in the New Testament, therefore, is not institutionalized, not localized, not externalized, nor is it formalized. In other words, there is a radical change from ceremony, seasons, forms, and locations to an experience in the heart. This goes far beyond the Sunday morning worship time but includes every moment of our lives. The Old Testament was primarily a “come and see” formula. The New Testament protocol is a “go and tell” formula. While the focus was on the people of Israel in one place, worship could be structured in fixed and formal ways. But once Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations,” it changed. The New Testament silence on form and style is deliberate, allowing for numerous forms and styles that would adapt themselves to all cultures around the world. So the startling scarcity of how to worship is missing in order that worship can have infinite expression in numerous and unrestricted ways.
The central New Testament act of worship is defined in a life that reflects the glory of God. This is what it means in Scriptures as 1 Corinthians 10:31 NASB; “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” and Colossians 3:17 NASB; “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.” So worship is not an external, localized act, but an inner, Godward experience that demonstrates itself not in form or style in church services but in a life that expresses an allegiance to God.
What is the appropriate inner experience that glorifies God in worship?
We find the answer in Paul’s mission of life in Philippians 1:20-21 NASB when he said, “According to my earnest expectation and hope, that I shall not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ shall even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Notice that Paul’s passion is what he does in his body (his life). To worship is to magnify Christ whether living or dying. He sees worship as showing Christ as magnificent, exalting Him in every facet of life. That takes us way beyond the twenty-minute worship time in a church service. We can say with Paul that the essence of worship is an inner cherishing of Christ. This means that true worship is valuing Christ above all of life including: family, career, retirement, fame, food, health, and friends. The essence of worship is far and above form, it is prizing Christ above life.
Paul helps us to understand his attitude toward worship in Philippians 3:8 NASB where he said, “I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ.” “To live as Christ” means to count everything as a hindrance in comparison to the value of gaining Christ. To put it another way, true worship is nothing short of prizing Christ above everything in life.
How does the biblical definition on worship help us navigate the “worship wars?”
What about the controversies we all face such as contemporary versus traditional, organ versus guitar, dress up versus casual, stand up versus sit down, band versus choir, amens versus clapping?
Focusing on the essence of worship gives the church an anchor on which to focus attention. Instead of arguing over style, we should strive for an awakening of genuine, heartfelt exaltation of Jesus Christ. We do this by staying riveted on the essence of worship and not the form. The real issue lies primarily in the reality of the heart, not the functional details of style. Although form and style should not be ignored completely, we should work hard at keeping them secondary.
Even though the debate today centers between traditional and contemporary, it was the inward reality of worship that gripped the Reformers Calvin, Luther, and especially the Puritans. John Calvin expressed the freedom of worship from traditional form like this: “The Master did not will in outward discipline and ceremonies to prescribe in detail what we ought to do (because he foresaw that this depended on the state of times, and he did not deem one form suitable for all ages). Because he has taught nothing specifically and because these things are not necessary to salvation, and for the upbuilding of the church out to be variously accommodated to the customs of each nation and age, it will be fitting (as the advantage of the church will require) to change and abrogate traditional practices and to establish new ones. Indeed, I admit that we ought not to charge into innovation rashly, suddenly, for insufficient cause. But love will best judge what may hurt or edify; and if we let love be our guide, all will be safe.” Martin Luther had his usual abrasive way of expressing the same thing: “The worship of God . . . should be free at table, in private rooms, downstairs, upstairs, at home, abroad, in all places, by all people, at all times. Whoever tells you anything else is lying as badly as the pope and the devil himself.”
What practical implications does biblical worship have?
The implications for corporate worship are many and significant. First, what we receive in worship is more of God, not more entertainment. We should assemble hungry for God (Ps. 42:1 NASB), not hungry to satisfy our own tastes. Second, true worship steers us away from man centeredness and redirects us towards God centeredness. This breeds a conviction that we need to passionately long for God on Sunday mornings. Singing and praying become more than orders of service, but they become a means of getting to God or God getting to us for more of His fullness. Third, it shifts us away from the form of praise to the quality of praise. We sing worthily of the Lord. Our instrumentalists play with quality fittingly as a gift to the Lord. Finally, keeping God at the center guards us from the tragedy of worshiping as a means of accomplishing something other than worship. Genuine worship becomes affection for God as an end in itself. For example, I cannot say to my wife, “I feel strong delight in you so that you will make me a steak dinner.” That is not the way worship works. It terminates and culminates in the object itself. It does not have a nice meal in view. But for many churches worship becomes a goal for other things such as: worshiping to raise money, worshiping to attract crowds, worshiping to heal human hurts and recruit workers, worshiping to give talented musicians an opportunity to fulfill their calling, worshiping to evangelize the lost among us and a host of other reasons. True worship finds its goal in God and is for no other purpose.
There are seven (7) essential principles that will unite us in true worship:
- A radical God-centeredness. A high priority on the vertical and not a horizontal focus. The ultimate aim is to experience that which brings God glory–not us.
- Expecting the powerful presence of God. We earnestly seek and strive after God, expecting to draw closer to Him as we pursue satisfaction in Him.
- Bible based and Bible saturated. The content of all we do should always be grounded in and conforming to the truth of Scripture. It should be woven through all we do.
- Both head and heart. Worship aims at kindling deep, strong, real emotions toward God but does not manipulate emotions by failing to appeal to clear thinking in God’s Word. Worship is to be real (in spirit) and fueled by Scripture (in truth).
- Authenticity. We should strive to abandon all hypocrisy and posturing to avoid artificially stimulated worship, but instead cultivate an atmosphere for a personal, authentic experience with God.
- Undistracting excellence. To perform all we do in such a way that avoids distraction from God by a shoddy performance nor by excessive finesse, elegance, for the sake of professionalism.
- The mingling of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
We should avoid falling into what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” We should be open to the diverse ways the Lord works from both old and new. “And He said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings forth out of his treasure things new and old’” (Matt. 13:52 NASB).