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!