What is Worship?
What is worship? Why do we gather every Sunday morning at 9AM or 10AM or 11AM? What is the purpose of all the stuff on our stages? Why the piano? Or the pews? Or the pulpit? What compels us to get out of bed on a perfectly good Sunday morning, get dressed, and drive to ‘church’? What is worship all about?
Now, you may be thinking, that’s a stupid question. We worship God because he’s worthy. And you’d be right. But sometimes, we can approach things so intuitively (or thoughtlessly) that we fail to grasp the ‘why’ behind them.
Is ‘Worship’ Too Familiar?
Let me give you an example. I learned how to read when I was in elementary school. And before long, I thought I knew what it meant to read a book – you pay attention to the letters on the page, you sound them out and understand what words they make, then you take all of the words in a particular sentence and come to an understanding of what’s being said. And when you’re done, you move on to the next sentence until you finish the book. Duh. That’s easy, right?
But when I was in high school, I came across a book by Mortimer J. Adler – a philosopher and teacher – How to Read a Book. It was over 400 pages – about how to read! Now, I thought I knew what reading a book was about – I thought I understood the ins and outs of reading. But after I read How to Read a Book, I quickly realized that I did not understand reading like I thought I understood it. I mean, before that, I could sound out all of the words in a book, I could get a general idea of what was being said, but Mortimer Adler taught me that there is a depth and richness to reading that goes far beyond merely letting your eyes move across a page.
So, maybe worship is like reading. Maybe we think we understand it but we’re really only scratching the surface. So, I ask again… what is worship?
Searching for Genuine Worship
I think our knee-jerk response – whether we want to admit it or not – is that worship is the musical portion of our Sunday services. So we say things like, “We have worship and then a sermon.” Or we complain about how, “Worship wasn’t very good today.” Or we wonder why we don’t use more of this or that kind of song in our “worship.” But is that worship? Really? No, it’s an important part of worship but singing does not equal worship.
Others might envision the way people “worship” a certain person or a certain thing or idea. We’ve all heard someone say, “He worships the ground she walks on.” Or, “he practically worships the Patriots.” And when someone says this, we know that they mean this person obsesses over that thing – they eat, sleep, and breathe it. They talk about it all the time. Their lives revolve around it. And there’s definitely an element of truth about this – genuine worship does consume us. But is this what we mean when we talk about Christian worship? Is it an obsession with God – like we might be obsessed with football or a political party? And even if it is, what specific actions would it lead us to? I mean, an “obsession” is a little broad.
Defining Worship at the Extremes
As we think about what it means to truly worship God – I think we’re tempted to go to extremes. We get so specific that we make it a single act – like singing. Or, we define it so broadly that worship could be everything – and if it’s everything, then it’s not really anything.
So, we return to this question: What is worship? And is there a definition that is specific enough that we can know what it looks like in the real world while being broad enough to include everything that truly is worship?
Peter’s Thoughts on Worship
Peter, one of Jesus’ closest friends and disciples, wrote two letters addressed to the churches around the Eastern Mediterranean. And in his first letter, he reminded the Christians living there of who they were and what they ought to be about…
“And coming to Him as to a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is choice and precious in the sight of God, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For this is contained in Scripture: ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a choice stone, a precious corner stone, and he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.’
This precious value, then, is for you who believe; but for those who disbelieve, ‘The stone which the builders rejected, this became the very corner stone,” and, ‘a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense’; for they stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this doom they were also appointed. But you are a chosen race, A royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:4-10 NASB)
Our Identity Calls Us to Worship
Throughout this, Peter recognizes the same truth that we celebrate every Easter – God has done a definite and transformative work in our lives, as Christians. He has turned us from dead stones to living stones and is using us to build up a spiritual temple. And he’s made us priests with a responsibility to offer spiritual sacrifices; he has created a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to himself out of us – out of you and me. And he’s has moved us out of darkness and into his marvelous light. He has shown us mercy so that what we once were – not a people – we are no longer. For now, we are the people of God.
Now, it’s important to realize that Peter does not just inform us that we are no longer what we were. He also tells us that our actions have changed because we are made new. Think of it this way, when a person goes from being unmarried to married – things change. Before he was married, he could do whatever he wanted. He could spend his money however he wanted. He could go wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted. But after he gets married, things change. And there are things that he couldn’t do before that he now must do – if he’s going to fulfill the vows he made during the wedding ceremony.
Worship is Service
So, what does Peter tell us that we have been equipped and given the responsibility to do? In verse five, he says that we are built up into this living temple so that we will “offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” And this, naturally, leads us to ask the question, “What does he mean by ‘spiritual sacrifices’?”
Well, he may be thinking broadly – like Paul was when he wrote to the Romans and said, “present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” Interestingly, in that passage, Paul immediately goes on to describe different gifts that people have in the congregation – prophecy, exhortation, teaching, giving, showing mercy, etc. We can sum up all of these activities with a single word – service. And, in fact, the Greek word for ‘worship’ here is a word that literally meant ‘service.’
Worship is Active
And that’s great because it gives a little insight into what it really means to worship. Worship isn’t just singing and it’s not just being ‘obsessed.’ It’s singing in service to God. It’s an obsession that leads us to serve Him. Worship takes all of our gifts – our abilities to teach, to sing, to encourage, to give – and it directs them Godward. And as we serve him in those gifts, we are worshiping. This is both broad enough to encompass all the things that worship includes, but narrow enough to remind us that worship is not just anything. In particular, it reminds us that worship is active, not passive.
So, if I come to church and sit in a pew and enjoy the music and appreciate the sermon – but I never act, then I haven’t truly worshiped. We don’t gather together on a Sunday morning to enjoy ourselves. We come here to worship in service. Everything that we do on a Sunday morning – from the way we greet people when we walk into the building to the songs that we sing to the prayers that we offer to the way we respond to the word of God – all of it is an opportunity for us to worship in service. But it requires us to act. To, as Peter puts it, offer up “spiritual sacrifices.”
Worship Proclaims God’s Praises
Now, this gives us a really good picture of genuine, Christian worship – but there’s one puzzle piece missing. And that’s this: What should all of this service be accomplishing? How do we judge whether we have worshiped – or served – well or not?
Peter tells us in verse nine. God has transformed us and made us into a people – a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation – “so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” Another translation has “so that you may proclaim the praises of Him…”
So, with that in mind, all of the pieces fall into place: Worship is an active service to God – using all of the gifts that he’s has given us – that proclaims his praises.
Changing the Way We See Worship
When we understand this, it should change everything about worship. It should transform the way that we approach worship, the way that we actually worship, and the way that we evaluate worship. It should be the north star that guides us as we seek to truly worship the God who has saved and transformed us.
When we understand that worship is active, we will prepare for it. Worship isn’t like a movie that you go to or a concert that you attend. It’s not a passive event. It’s not something that you can rush out the door and stumble into – you don’t just come and sit in a seat and worship. Worship calls you to actively participate and that takes preparation.
Worship Calls Us to Prepare
Think of it like this, it takes more preparation to go to work than it does to watch a movie. I don’t know about you, but before I start working, I need a cup of coffee, I need to get in a ‘productive’ mindset, I need to avoid distractions, I have to do some things to get ready. But I don’t have to do anything to watch a movie. I can sit down wearing whatever I have on and turn it on and enjoy it. That’s the difference between approaching something that’s active rather than passive. And, if worship is an active service, then it requires us to prepare.
In fact, the Bible describes some of the most fantastic scenes of worship – Isaiah 6, Ezekiel’s vision, John’s revelation – and it describes the person worshiping as being ‘in the Spirit.’ They had come prepared to serve.
So, when we got ready to worship – do we prepare? Do we get in a worshipful mindset and pray for God’s presence and direction and guidance? Or, do we warm up our vocal cords so we can sing well? Do we prepare as we come by reflecting on how God has been at work in our lives over the previous week? Do we spend any time meditating on his character and his actions?
Have we prepared to worship? The more we understand that worship is active, the more we will understand our need to truly prepare before we worship.
Worship Calls Us to Participate
As we understand worship in this way, we will also participate differently. Everything that we do on a Sunday morning – from greeting the congregation to singing songs to praying to preaching – all of it is done as an act of service to God that proclaims his praises. And each of these things gives us an opportunity to do that. But we need to see it as something that we do together because worship isn’t about all people on a stage performing things for an audience in pews.
We – all of us, including every last person in every pew – is a member of one congregation. And the audience is not out there. The audience is up there. God is our audience and we – all of us – are performing something that is directed toward him. We are proclaiming his praises. Once we see this, then we’ll be free to sing a little louder, to raise our hands a little higher, and to say, “Amen” with a little more confidence.
Our Worship is for God
We aren’t doing these things for one another – we’re doing them for him. And if you’re thinking, “But I’m not a very good singer. That’s not one of my gifts.” Let me tell you, if God has gifted you with a voice – use it. That’s the gift. So, sing because he has blessed you with the ability to, whether you think you can do it well or not. He is not judging our singing based on how well we hit a particular note. He judges it based on how sincere our hearts are. And as people lead in prayer, you pray too. Remember, worship is active, not passive. As someone reads the word of God, you read along. Think about how the Scriptures apply to your own life and heart. Reflect on ways that God’s word might change your thinking or actions or words.
Worship is active, not passive. And we don’t gather to enjoy ourselves. We don’t come to hear songs that we like or a sermon that will make us feel good – or bad. We gather together every Sunday morning so that we can serve God by proclaiming his praises.
So, what is worship? It’s an active service to God that proclaims his praises to everyone around us!
Now, let’s get worshiping!