What is Worship?

When we talk about Worship, the above picture probably conjures something accurate.

Or perhaps this?

worship arena

Or how about this?

Many modern theological constructs of worship tend to revolve primarily around music. Visit any number church websites, click on the "worship" link, and you will inevitably be brought to a section of the site that outlines the style of worship music played at the church as well as details about what the Sunday "Worship" service looks like.

GotQuestions.org suggests several ingredients for 'truly Biblical' worship services. But to be honest, I'm not really sure what they mean by "truly Biblical". The list of ingredients includes many articles directly from the Bible about Worship, but it's as if the Bible is being used as a cosmic how-to manual. This, I fear misses the point despite the fact that the page does list some helpful pointers. It's not that the facts are bad; the frame is just wrong. The Bible is not primarily a how-to document which gives ingredients for this or that aspect of Christian life. When viewed this way, it becomes both extremely easy and even agreeable to build an internally logically consistent foundation on parts of the Bible which were never meant to be a foundation of faith or truth. This is a whole other topic which I've been working on and thinking about for a long time. But now that I've dropped that a-bomb on your mind, let's move on shall we? You can also pick up your computer/smartphone/tablet from across the room if needed.

Back to Worship.

Worship is used as a metaphor in pop culture for fandom; like super-fans of music and music icons, as well as actors and sports stars. In this sense, it includes what happens at a large passion conference, or even what happens Sunday mornings at larger churches across the country who have professional level worship musicians in their music ministries. In terms of Church music, I don't think it's wrong to have an excellent, highly produced music ministry. It's just that it isn't worship. Put bluntly, what passes for modern worship is an incomplete (and inaccurate) picture of worship, because worship is what we do day in and day out as we place our energy into things. It's not centrally about music or tithing or generosity or working or serving, although it includes those things. Worship is centrally about our hearts.

Worship is what we do. Period.  Romans 12:1 is a good place to start unpacking this idea.

Maybe I should back track a bit.

The Bible does have a lot to say about worship. The Psalms are dedicated to worshiping God, and their poetry goes into great depth in a range of experience and emotions about life with God. The Psalms show us a form of worship, however they are not worship itself nor do they give us a straightforward blueprint for worship.

To grasp a full meaning of worship, we need to first look to Jesus. When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus responds by citing three things: the shema, a summary of the first four of the 10 commandments, and a summary of the last 6 commandments. It is here that we find a surprising ground floor for a definition of worship. Jesus flipped religion on its head when he said (to paraphrase it ...) "Love God,  and love your neighbor as yourself ... the entire law and prophets hang on these". The ones who approached Jesus with the question of the greatest commandment had devised complex systems of law-keeping which were intended to help Israel be more biblical, but which wound up adding heavy burdens on people.

When I talk about worship, I am talking about what you do with all your heart, mind and strength.  I'm talking about what you spend your energy on, why you spend your energy on it, and what you hope to accomplish by it. And because I'm talking about that, the waters get muddy quickly.

Here are some things I've done with all my heart, mind and strength.

My job
Helping and Serving People
Creating and releasing Music (shameless plug ... here!)
Developing ideas
Studying philosophy and theology

The time I spent pouring into these things is time I spent worshipping. And a lot of the time, I was worshipping the things I was doing instead of worshipping the one who enables me to do all of them. This led to emptiness, every time. So ... do you read your Bible a lot? If you aren't careful, you may simply start worshipping the Bible as your source of life and thereby miss the source the Bible points us to: Jesus himself! This is a mistake I made in the past. I failed to recognize and practically work out the idea that worship is about putting my heart, mind and strength first and foremost into my relationship with Jesus. Everything else flows from the depth or lack of depth of that primary relationship. It's foundational.

Reflect on 1 Corinthians 13. "If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing."

This brings me to the next point. The object of our worship matters.

What we put our mind, soul and strength into are things we love. But according to Jesus, the only thing worth pouring into fully is God. Specifically, I think Jesus is getting at the idea that we may spend a vast amount of time getting religious for God without ever really getting to know him. We may do many things for God, but we may at the same time be treating God (and especially Jesus) as an afterthought of our ministries, churches, and even our lives.

So what does this mean? I believe it means that in order to properly worship, we first need to learn how to love God. Believe it or not, I think this vexes more people than would care to admit it. It still tends to vex me. But at the same time, I think there's a simplicity to the whole thing that's easy to miss in the banter over theology. Jesus has called us into a relationship with him and with each other through him. Black, white, rich, poor, gay, straight, we're all being called. Mysteriously, Jesus says he dwells within us (John 17). It's not a transaction based on moral performance. It's not even a transaction. It's a deeply intimate relationship based on God's desire to be close to us. So to love God means first to let him in. Your heart is a mysteriously wild place full of pain and joy, trauma and triumph; certainty and doubt. Let Jesus in and have a poke around together. Allow his voice, both in scripture and in life to speak to you.

I run the risk here of sounding like some sort of new age guru or a religious holy roller (depending on your perspective). Neither or those is my intent, but I will admit two things: this Christianity thing can get mystical quickly, and I've been so utterly changed by my own relationship with Jesus that I can't imagine a world in which it isn't there.

This relationship, as I've said, is the absolute foundation of good worship, good theology and good practise.


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