Worship & other “short” stories

Having been given the task of speaking on the subject of Worship at church, I’ve spent the last few months thinking about the whole subject – what it is, what the Bible says about it, what the church thinks it is and what it means for us.

There is a lot that is said about the subject of Worship – some helpful, some not. And as I’ve looked more at what the Bible says about the topic. the more convinced I am that a lot of our use of the term “worship” is not only unhelpful but seriously wrong, contrary to the Bible’s teaching and very dangerous.

First of all, the term “Worship”. This is often used to describe a time of singing in church (“We’re going to have a time of worship”)- or even church itself (“Worship Service”) I understand the Hebrew and Greek words usually translated as “Worship” are best described as the action of bowing down, or prostrating yourself before God. So, on the surface “Worship” seems like an explicit action of honouring God for who he is – an obvious act that clearly proclaims God’s greatness and that he is deserving of worship. However, all the way through the Old Testament God makes it clear that occasional explicit actions of worship are not enough. In the 10 Commandments (Exodus 20) Israel are called on to worship no one but the Lord God. later in the Law the extent of this worship is clear – it is to be with everything. As the Bible story progresses through Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings, it becomes clear that the people of God are not giving God the worship he deserves. In the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and many of the other prophets we see the people of Israel actively involved in idol worship and yet maintaining the pretense of worshipping the Lord God. (See Isaiah 44 & 46) In Isaiah 29:13, God levels the charge that his people worship him with their lips and yet their hearts are a very long way off!

In Romans 12:1-2, Paul calls on the Roman church to give God the worship he deserves – by giving themselves as a living sacrifice – this is their spiritual worship. it’s clear that like for the people of Israel, that worship is supposed to be a whole of life thing – not something we just do in church. In fact, what we do in church when we sing & meet together should be the outpouring, the symptom of what is going on the rest of the time – a life that glorifies and honours God as he deserves – all the time. Not just a token couple of hours on a Sunday morning or evening.

And so I find the phrase “A time of worship” is extremely unhelpful because there shouldn’t be a time when we don’t worship. Using worship just to describe our singing is to capture what is actually just a very small part of our worship. But even more than that, I can’t help thinking that by using the term “worship” in such a limited way to mean just our singing or our church meeting, aren’t we in danger of our words starting to reflect the reality? Will our worship become just our time of singing and the rest of the week we just fit in with the world around us? Will we fall into the same trap as Israel in Isaiah’s time where our lips give praise to God and yet our hearts are somewhere else completely different?

Secondly the term “Worship Leader”. This is often used to describe the person who leads a band in church, who usually leads the singing of praises to God in a church meeting and will often link songs together with prayers, thoughts, reading from Scripture. This is a valuable role and if done well and sensitively, it can be a great use of music and reflection to help people worship God through those songs. However, it seems to be a common belief that the role of the “Worship leader” or the “Worship band” is to create an atmosphere where people can draw close to God and worship him. In fact the very term “Worship Leader” carries the assumption that it is their job to lead people to worship God – or even to make Worship of God possible.

Aside from the problems of the assumption that Worship=Music and that someone claiming to be a Worship Leader should really be someone who leads people to worship God all the time – not just for half an hour on a Sunday. The problem is that no human being can make it possible for others to worship God. Of course we can all be encouraging one another to worship God in our day-to-day lives – but there is only one person who makes worship of God possible, who can draw us into God’s presence to worship him. And that is the Lord Jesus Christ. In Romans 1:18-25, Paul describes the heart of sin as a failure to worship God as he deserves and worshipping idols instead. As a result we face his wrath and judgement, we are cut off from God, in Ephesians 2 we are dead, enslaved to sin and so completely unable to worship God. Throughout the book of Hebrews, the writer is at pains to explain how Jesus fulfils the Old Testament – the role of prophet, of priest, of King and of the ultimate perfect sacrifice. In particular Hebrews 9 & 10 makes it clear that Jesus in his role as perfect Great High Priest and perfect once-for-all sacrifice is the one who draws people into God’s presence. Before this, our sinfulness, our uncleanness cuts us off from God – it means we cannot worship God. Christ, by paying the price for our sin, removes this barrier and enables us to come into God’s presence and worship him. Without the death of Jesus we cannot worship God. Jesus (and Jesus alone ) is the one who makes worship possible – he is the one true “Worship Leader.”

When the language of “Worship Leader” is used or the idea of being drawn into God’s presence by our worship or by the music – that is effectively saying that we can do the job that the Bible says only Jesus can do. Which is a pretty outrageous thing to claim … We are not drawn into God’s presence by our worship, we are drawn into God’s presence through Christ. We are drawn into God’s presence through Christ so that we can worship God as he deserves. I think the trouble is that the tremendous feeling – the buzz that we can get from great live music, that can be confused for thinking “I am close to God now.” We are close to God already if we are trusting in God through Christ. And that same buzz can equally be felt when at a concert by a band singing about how they hate the whole idea of God (as I experienced while watching Muse live in concert!) Hardly the most worshipful thing ever …

Having said this, music does have tremendous emotional power and so a good song with words focussed on who God is and what he has done, when it is played well, that can help to bring my feelings in line with the truth of the gospel, of who God is and what he has done. It would be a shame to be singing “Amazing Grace”, “In Christ alone”, “Blessed be your name” etc in a completely emotionless state. Often the problem with our worship is that we forget what good news it is to be a Child of God, what a joyful thing to be saved by Christ and able to call the Lord God our Creator “Father!”. We need to be reminded, when we’re down, when we’re feeling a bit depressed or things aren’t going right, that God is still worthy of our praise and worship … and music can help to lift us emotionally, to reflect the truth of the words of the song and others around us singing these great truths can encourage us that God is great and worthy of everything.

There’s been a lot in this post (and believe me, I could have said a lot more!!!). I’d be interested to get people’s comments on what I’ve said and maybe to think through some of the implications for our churches, for our music and for our worship all the time …

Let me have your comments!


14 Responses to “Worship & other “short” stories”

  1. 1 Phill January 25, 2007 at 11:30 pm

    I’ve been doing a course called the Moore Course (done by the Moore Theological Course in Sydney, Australia… it’s a correspondence course). I’m currently doing the first unit (“Introduction to the Bible”), and I’ve found it quite interesting to see the relationship between God’s grace and the Law. I’d always seen the law as something which God kind of gave the Israelites in order to keep them in check. Well, actually I’m not really sure, but not really a positive thing at any rate.

    But it’s interesting to note that God’s grace actually came before the law. The law, in fact, was given quite a while after God’s grace to the Israelites. The law was given so people might know better how to worship God, which was (as you say) a whole hearted act of devotion.

    I think you’re absolutely right, Joe, and anything which we call “worship” needs to reflect that. Um, anyway, I’ll leave the space for people who actually know what they’re talking about!

  2. 2 joebyrne January 26, 2007 at 10:19 am

    Thanks for your thoughts, Phill. It’s a common misconception that “salvation by grace” is just a New Testament teaching. (Some even go so far as suggesting it was a doctrine that came out of the Reformation rather than a Biblical teaching that was re-discovered at the Reformation!)

    But, as you say, it’s there in the Old Testament. God shows Noah favour before we know anything about the kind of man he is (Gen 6). Abram is plucked from obscurity and pagan idol worship to be the great forefather of Israel. Moses is a murderer and coward who had never really suffered the slavery of Egypt when God chose him to lead Israel out. The Exodus is probably the clearest example of grace in the Old Testament – God rescues his people and then gives them the Law. It’s not, “Obey the laws and then you can be my people!” It’s rather “You are my people and here is how I want you to live.”

    On the Law, I think we have to be careful not to dismiss it – Jesus says that the Law will not pass away and the apostle Paul in Romans says that the Law in itself is good. The trouble is, our sinfulness sees the Law as a kind of “Keep off the grass” sign and immediately we want to go and play on the grass. We break the Law and so the Law stands to condemn us. If we are trusting in our Law-keeping to save us, we have no hope as we always stand condemned by it. But as well as being a good guide to how God wants his people to live, the Law also should lead us to realise that as sinful people we cannot keep it and so we need to keep relying on the grace and mercy of God through all our lives and to trust in Christ, the perfect law-keeper.

    In the same way, the constant need to repeat the animal sacrifices, the ritual washing it was a good thing to do but ultimately it also pointed to the ultimate sacrifice that would not need repeating – the death of Jesus. It was to always remind the people of God that for them to know God, to relate to him and worship him, something or someone must take the punishment they deserve in their place.

    Sounds like the Moore Course is covering some really good stuff (like the Bible!!!)

  3. 3 Erjan February 3, 2007 at 2:08 pm

    I am too on the way to revalue the Law. I have allways wondered Psalm 119. How in the world can this man sing so long about the Law of the Lord? His secret is – I think – that the Law reminds him of the Lord. And what God says is firm and fixed. It is not today so and tomorrow onthers.
    I live in the Netherlands (Rotterdam) and I was interested in what you told about Worship & other short stories. Do you, Joe, sometimes come in Rotterdam? I am leading a church in this city and we are going through a proces of renewing our services, revitalisation of our belief in Jesus Christ, worship as a lifestyle. So you could help us with some good stories!

  4. 4 MQ February 14, 2007 at 9:19 am

    While I agree with quite a lot of what you say, there is one logical jump you make that I can’t follow. Before I get to that, though: you are of course completely right to say that worship is something we should be doing all of the time. Yet in your argument and the verses you quote it is clear that what we might do in church is not excluded from being worship too. While “a time of worship” is therefore misleading, it’s therefore not completely false.

    Silly example: Right now, I am having a time of breathing, don’t you know! More over, having mentioned it, I am now almost unavoidably having a time of much more deliberate and conscious breathing. I can feel every breath going in and going out.

    What we do in church could still usefully be called maybe an “act of worship”, because it’s a corporate thing, and clearly the primary goal of our meeting together is to glorify God and worship Him – admittedly during our time together and as a result in the rest of our lives.

    Whether it is safe to use the phrase “worship” in our church without misleading people depends on how the phrase will be used and whether everything else we say and do in church implies that our whole lives matter or not.

    Now, onto the (il)logical jump. In your dislike of the phrase “worship leader” you claim that the English word “leader” implies being someone that makes something possible, and hence that people who call themselves “worship leader” are putting themselves in Jesus’ place. On a linguistic/semantic level I’m afraid I just cannot accept that. Someone who leads is involved in the doing, not the facilitating. You know the phrase “lead by example”? That’s generally accepted as being an excellent way of leading. That’s what I see the guys with the guitars doing, or at least aiming to do.

    Now, if they started calling people “worship facilitators” – then I’d get upset. Only Jesus is the true “worship facilitator”.

    But anyone who helps me, encourages me, inspires me or directs me to align my life more closely to Biblical standards is my worship leader. And, as you mention in the next post, it is right for music to be used to help align my feelings to Biblical truth as well, in order that my heart and mind become/remain worshipful. So some worship leaders do it with music. But I think you are doing a grave misservice to most (although admittedly not all) people who call themselves “worship leaders” if you accuse them of trying to usurp Christ’s position.

  5. 5 joebyrne February 14, 2007 at 6:06 pm

    Hi Martin,

    Thanks for your comments. I think my problem has more to do with the fact that this “worship leader” term only ever seems to be used for those who lead singing – those who preach the Bible are called preachers or ministers or pastors, those who lead prayers or do the Bible reading often don’t have a special title at all … And yet they are as much leading the corporate “worship” as someone who is leading the singing.

    It just seems a little odd to call one particular activity “worship” when the Bible seems to encourage us to be worshipping all the time. Yes, when we sing together of course that is worshipping God – it’s pretty pointless if it isn’t. But it’s no more “worship” then when we listen attentively to the Bible being taught, when we pray together or when we have tea or coffee afterwards (or breakfast/lunch/dinner). I think the example of breathing is a good one as we should be breathing all the time, so we should be worshipping all the time – it’s just that our worshipping will sometimes be singing, sometimes be speaking, sometmes be listening, sometimes be explaining the gospel etc, etc.

    Interestingly, in Hebrews 10:24-25 one of the primary reasons given to meet together is not the worship and glory of God (although that is certainly God’s purpose in gathering a people for himself) but the encouragement and building up of one another. Too often our churches become so focussed on what is going on between the individual and God in church meetings that we neglect the fact that we are meeting together as God’s people to encourage one another and build one another up.

    As for the understanding of the term “leader”, I realise there are more positive ways of understanding it than the one I presented, but still any “worship leader” who is only seeking to lead worship by example is going to be a pale reflection, a flawed and sinful human being who is going to get it wrong. Surely the best leading by example remains in the ultimate worship leader Jesus Christ – the one who always perfectly worshipped. And in the light of his perfect example, why do we need to look to imperfect examples as well?

    That said, a humble and gifted music leader is a valuable person to have in a church – one who can choose and play music in such a way that the truths of the words of sound Biblical teaching are brought to bear in people’s lives – their eyes are lifted from their present struggles to the awesome, faithfulness of God and the immense hope in his sure and certain promises.

    However, the reality is that in many churches the “worship leader” genuinely thinks they do exactly the job I described – of transporting people into God’s presence and making it possible for them to worship God. I’ve heard this being explicitly said and heavily implied by a number of “worship leaders”. Yes you can play semantics with a potentially ambiguous word such as “leader” and go for a leading by exmaple model, but many people do clearly understand the word “leader” as a facilitator role for their worship. I’d have to say I don’t think that’s an unreasonable understanding of the term purely based on semantics. And for that reason, I think the term “worship leader” is unhelpful and misleading because it is possible to have this connotation. I’m not saying everyone who calls themselves a “worship leader” has these delusions of grandeur, but some do.

    I still think this use of the term is highly questionable because it helps to maintain this worship equals music misunderstanding when in reality our singing is only a small part of our worship. And if we’re to meet together to encourage each other and build each other up, there is a sense we should all be “worship leaders” – spurring one another on to love and good deeds as Hebrews 10 puts it – all for the glory of God. In that sense, I wonder whether the term “worship leader”, like “priest” is redundant among Christians. We’re all to be priests, we’re all to be “worship leaders” and Christ is the ultimate High Priest and the ultimate perfect Worship leader.

    I think music leader or song leader is a much better term because the person is clearly leading the singing/music without the danger of ascribing a greater significance to what they’re doing.

    Always good to discuss these things and thanks for forcing me to think a lot more and attempt to clarify my argument … Let me know if it makes any more sense this time round!

  6. 6 MQ February 15, 2007 at 5:34 pm

    I wonder whether the term “worship leader”, like “priest” is redundant among Christians.

    I’m much, much happier with this summary of your argument! Not only have you made some valid points I hadn’t thought of yet, but by framing it in this way you avoid tarring those with the best of intentions with the same brush as those who are on an ego trip, intentional or not.

    Likewise, good to be challenged to think, so thanks Joe!

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