Worship is an integral part of our Christian lives and therefore not optional. God created us for the purpose of worshiping Him. In simple terms, worship is meeting with God. Worship serves as a beautiful demonstration of our love relationship with God in Jesus Christ. In worship we give God our best and we also receive from Him the grace and strength to live a dynamic Christian life. The subject of worship is popular today in churches all around the world. In the last decade or so, evangelical churches have given increased importance to Praise and Worship. We are inundated in the market with Worship albums and concerts by popular artists. Modern musical instruments play an important role in many of our worship services. Churches are busy organizing worship seminars and we have an array of books on this subject. With all of the emphasis on worship today, there is still a great need for a biblical theology of worship that is grounded in the Bible and relevant to the context. Mere emotionalism cannot be substituted for authentic worship and yet many people fall into this trap. On the other extreme is dead orthodoxy that fails to give any room for the move of the Spirit. It is therefore essential to take a fresh look at the meaning and expression of Christian Worship.
Worship is a broad subject and we can explore it from different angles. It is important to keep in mind that worship is not just an individual pursuit of God but we worship in community. As a result worship is always rooted in a context. In this short series of articles we will explore the biblical understanding of worship, the important elements of worship, and keys to authentic worship.
Biblical Understanding of Christian Worship
The Bible has much to say about worship. The book of Genesis portrays the fall of man as a failure to worship God. Paul captures the thought well when he says that humans are fully aware of God’s attributes but we suppress the evidence and substitute the worship of the true God with created things (Rom 1:21-23). The mission of the church is to bring back a disengaged humanity to the worship of the living God. John Piper puts is very well when he says, “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Mission exists because worship doesn’t.” The very purpose of our existence is to worship God and the church’s role is to lead people in worship of the triune God.
Worship is all about bringing glory to God. The Westminster Catechism rightly says the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. God does all things for His glory. The overarching theme of all biblical theology is the glory of God. The entire purpose of God in sending Jesus Christ is to redeem sinful humanity and this demonstration of God’s grace glorifies His name through all eternity (Eph 2:7). While we human beings failed to offer worship, Jesus Christ as our high priest and representative offered the one true worship of God by living a life of perfect obedience. He continues to mediate on behalf of us and intercedes for us (Heb 4:15). True Christian worship is our participation through the Spirit in the Son’s communion with the Father. Jesus Christ is the leader of our worship and we are all participants (Heb 8:2). The Bible is clear that we cannot worship God today apart from Jesus Christ.
Worship is an expression of our love for God and a hunger for His presence. It is a legitimate expression of gratitude on our part for what God has done for us. Psa 27:4 presents the attitude of a worshipper’s heart when it says, “One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.” There needs to be a yearning within us to commune with God and walk intimately with him. Our expression of worship is both individual and corporate. While on the one hand we worship God personally, we also worship corporately when together as saints we seek to understand the love of Christ (Eph 3:18).
While worship in the OT revolved around the physical temple, the New Testament brings a shift from the temple to the person of Christ. Worship in the New Testament realizes that God’s dwelling place is not in the holy of holies but in the hearts of the people. This is a radical truth and it completely changes our perspective of worship. A physical place or time is no longer given prominence. Jesus told the Samaritan woman that we need to worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). We also worship God with our lives as we offer ourselves as living sacrifices (Rom 12:1,2). These are some biblical insights on Christian worship and they provide the guidelines for us to understand this vast subject.
Elements of Christian Worship
We can see from the early church that their worship services involved various elements like preaching, Scripture reading, house meetings, confessions, fellowship, prayer, breaking of bread, singing and the Lord’s Supper (c.f Acts 2:42, 20:7, Col 3:16, 1 Tim 2:1-2, 4:11-16, Heb 13:15, James 5:16). Christ is central to the Christian worship service. We proclaim Christ in our public worship primarily through the preaching of the Word and administering of the sacrament. Because, these two are vital elements of Christian worship we will focus on them.
a. The service of the Word
The Bible is the manual for Christian worship. In the words of John Stott, the reading and preaching of the word are not an intrusion to worship but an indispensable part of it. He goes on to say our worship is poor because our knowledge of God is poor and our knowledge of God is poor because our preaching is poor. When God’s word is taught in our worship services, it enhances our worship. While our culture today gives priority to music, some of them make the mistake of neglecting the Scripture. The preaching of God’s word should profoundly impact our understanding of God and His nature. As we grow in our awe of God and realize His splendour, worship will be a natural outflow. We have to remember our primary source of knowing God is his revelation of Himself through the Bible. Therefore nothing can take the place of God’s word in our personal and corporate worship.
When God’s word dominates our life then our worship will conform to the divine standard. Good biblical preaching also causes us to search and study the Scriptures more deeply for personal growth. Preaching should serve as a means to lead people to a closer walk with God and to a deeper experience of worship. But unfortunately, some segments of evangelical Christianity are sometimes guilty of idolizing preaching. When preaching becomes an end in itself instead of being the means we are confronted with idolatry. It is important we realize that our singing, offering of prayers, and different other elements of the worship service are not preliminary events that prepare us for listening to the preaching. We need to see all the elements of the service as worship and the preacher continues the worship of God when he ministers the Word. Nevertheless, the proclamation of God’s word does have a central place in our worship services but it cannot be divorced from other elements of the service.
b. The Service of the Sacraments
Sacrament is a means through which Jesus Christ in his life, death, and resurrection becomes manifest to his people. When we see the sacraments through the lens of faith then we encounter the Lord Jesus Christ. St. Augustine called the sacraments as visible preaching. The two sacraments observed by our Protestant churches are Baptism and the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. Baptism serves as a rite of initiation into discipleship. It is a powerful depiction of our old life being crucified with Christ and just as Jesus rose from the dead we also enter into the newness of life. The important thing in baptism is not the sign but the reality signified. It points to the work of the triune God in our salvation and God’s work of grace and that is why we baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Through the sign of baptism, we are symbolically incorporated into the body of Christ. Baptism thereby visibly captures the reality of our spiritual experience and is an expression of worship.
The Eucharist or Lord’s Supper is another solemn act of worship. It is not just a symbolic event that serves as a memorial of the death of Jesus. We participate afresh in the sufferings of Christ through the Spirit when we partake of the table. We can say that Jesus Christ brings His passion to our remembrance through the Spirit whenever we celebrate the Lord’s Supper and thereby we encounter Him in a real way. Participation in the Lord’s Table is a powerful expression of worship as we come in touch with the reality of Christ’s presence expressed by the elements. As we partake of the bread and the wine we are renewed on the inside and receive God’s strength and grace. It also reminds us that we are all part of the body of Christ and we worship as a community without any hierarchical differences. It comes as a firm reminder in our individualistic society that as Christians we are part of a loving fellowship. The Lord’s Supper serves as a public demonstration to the principalities and powers of the victory of the cross and the universal authority of Christ.
Both the ministry of the word and the sacraments are important elements in Christian worship which help us to experience the reality of Christ’s presence in our midst today. The Holy Spirit uses the spoken word and the sacraments to draw us to an intimate walk with God. Our heart overflows with worship as we experience the divine presence both in our personal lives and worship in the church.
Vital Ingredients of Authentic Worship
In order for our worship to be authentic we need to have a clear understanding of its significance and meaning. Often worship is merely equated with music and singing. The church needs to understand that worship encompasses a far wider meaning. In order for our worship to be authentic we need a commitment from our heart. God repeatedly accused the people in the Old Testament for worshipping him with their lips but their hearts were far from Him (Isa 29:13). Worship can just become a routine devoid of love and devotion. Such worship is just meaningless and God despises it. There will also be a major disconnect when worship doesn’t flow from an authentic life. Worship involves all of our life and being. True worship is the sum total of our life lived for God. Therefore, it becomes a lifestyle or a way of life. We cannot isolate worship to a place or time or segment of our life. Our acts or expressions of worship flow from a worshipping life.
True worship touches every area of life and therefore as Christians we cannot make a distinction between the sacred and the secular. Everything that we do is sacred because worship encompasses our whole life. The Sunday morning worship becomes powerful when as believers we have learnt to see worship as an ongoing activity. That is why when worship is not accompanied by holiness it is just counterfeit and unacceptable. Worship is also tied to issues of social justice because worship is not just a passive activity that just happens in a church building. True worshippers are also ambassadors of Jesus Christ and they have to make their presence known by being the salt and light of the world. One of the main themes of the Book of Amos is God’s concern for justice. In this small book in the section of the Minor Prophets we can feel God’s heart for the poor and his concern for those who are being mistreated unfairly in the world. Amos amazingly connects worship with social justice. The empty worship of the Israelites were despised by the LORD and He refused to accept their burnt offerings and grain offerings (5:22). God considered their songs and use of musical instruments as ‘noise’. The crux of Amos’ message on social justice can be seen in these words, “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream! (Amos 5:23)” This connection of justice with worship gives it an altogether new meaning. Worship cannot be merely expressed with our lips but it comes from a sincerity of heart that understands the heart of God. As a result true worship cannot remain silent in the face of injustice because we are God’s agents in the world today! Worship is subversion and it overthrows the existing order of things and declares the glory of the one true government of God.
By Ashwin Ramani, Canada.