A Curmudgeon Weighs in On Evangelical Worship, Part 2

Toward Defining What We Mean by “Worship”

A substantial amount of what is said about worship by evangelicals today is folderol. That means foolishness or nonsense. I could have just used those terms, but I like the word “folderol” better. Emotional states don’t constitute worship, nor does music, nor does a particular order of service. The genuineness of worship is not determined by the building in which the church gathers, the technology we use in a service, or how trendy our clothes are. In fact, I would argue that worship in the Bible is not even primarily focused on the gathered assembly but is more often a matter of a way of life within the context of the community of faith that lives among the world in order to propose the truth of a better world. Worship is, put another way, the believer’s response in all of life to the Great Commandment (to love God) in light of the Father’s demonstration of His immense love toward sinners in Jesus Christ by His Spirit.

It is my conviction that in order to properly practice worship we need to understand what constitutes true (or “genuine”) worship. That there is worship that is false is made plain enough in the Scriptures. The Bible shows us that all forms of idolatry are false worship, and we even see that what God has prescribed as worship may be so perverted by us that it is unacceptable to Him. One need only refer to Cain’s attempt at worship (Genesis 4) or Saul’s (1 Samuel 15) to observe this. And Jesus taught the woman at the well (John 4) that there is a kind of worship – “worship in spirit and truth” – that is true and that those who worship God in this manner are the kinds of worshipers the Father seeks. That God seeks such worshipers indicates that He isn’t seeking those who worship otherwise. So, I propose that what we believe worship is matters greatly, as does the answer to the question about who we worship, not to mention how we worship. I want to address the “what” and “who” questions in this post. We’ll sort out the “how” question in subsequent posts.

I think the simplest answer to the question “What is worship” is found in the answer Jesus gave to the question: Teacher, what is the great commandment in the law? (Matt 22:36). Jesus answered that to love God completely is the great and first commandment, reminding us that the first part of the Ten Commandments given to Moses by God tells us to forsake idolatry and worship God alone. So, a relationship with God that involves total allegiance to God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the one who is the Creator of the heavens and earth, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is at the heart of genuine worship. And this answer provides the answer to our “who” question. Genuine worship is given to the one true living God, and to no other.

There is another important matter to be considered, which is to clarify that “worship” is not defined completely, or even mainly, in terms of what the gathered church does each Sunday from 11:00-Noon. Such assemblies should in fact be occasions of worship, but worship in the Bible is much broader and richer than that. The Bible communicates a doctrine of worship that is an “all of life” worship, a lifestyle of devotion to God. In Romans 12:1-3 Paul piles up liturgical language from the Greek Old Testament to describe how we devote our entire selves, including our bodies, to worship God. Paul is not describing a public worship service, he is describing the devotion of all we are, everywhere we are, and at all times. In light of the gospel (“in view of God’s mercies, as Paul puts it), this is the reasonable, logical response of humans to the glory and grace of God, to sacrifice our very beings to him.

I am grateful that we’ve had a few prominent evangelicals think well about worship in recent years, and they have produced some good definitions to help guide us to think rightly about worship. Here are a few that are anything but folderol; they are wise descriptions of worship:

  • “Worship is the work of acknowledging the greatness of our covenant Lord” (John Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth).
  • Worship is “an engagement with God on the terms that He proposes and in the way that He alone makes possible” (David Peterson, Engaging with God).
  • “Worship is the believer’s response of all that he is – mind, emotions, will, and body – to all that God is and says and does” (Warren Wiersbe, Real Worship).

Each of these definitions tells us something about worship. Worship is work, acknowledgement, engagement, and response. No one of them tells us everything, but that is not surprising given the reality that worship is defined in terms of God himself. He is inexhaustible, so I doubt that our description of what it is to worship Him can be summed up easily. I have for some time used this as a “working definition” of worship with our students:

Worship is the human response to the self-revelation of the triune God, which includes:

  • (1) divine initiation in which God graciously reveals Himself, His purposes, and His will;
  • (2) a spiritual and personal relationship with the Father through Jesus Christ enabled by the ministry of the Holy Spirit;
  • (3) a response by the worshiper of joyful adoration, reverence, humility, submission, and obedience.

Again, we could say more than this, and it could be put differently. But observe that the “who” question is answered – the triune God alone is to be worshiped – and the “what” question is answered – worship is the believer’s response, offered, as Peterson aptly states it, on God’s terms and in the way He alone makes possible. So, the next time someone suggests that “worship” is “music” or some such nonsense, you can say, “Hey, enough with the folderol,” and you can, instead, pursue the reasonable response to God’s glory and grace – the true worship of God.

A Curmudgeon Weighs in On Evangelical Worship

A Curmudgeon Weighs in On Evangelical Worship

We do all manner of things, including very important things, because we think they are a “good idea.” The worship of God is, indeed, a good idea. It is especially so because it is God’s idea. To think of worship simply or even primarily in terms of a human act is deficient, because the Scriptures teach us that the worship of God is a matter of divine initiation. This is plainly seen in Exo 25:8 where God speaks to Moses: “Let them [the people] construct a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” Moses did not come up with the idea; it was God’s idea for the people to worship him, and to do so in the way He prescribed.

God’s liturgical initiative begins with the act of creation itself. God made a world in which man, male and female, could dwell in the good land formed for them. This land, the garden of Eden, a place of delight, was the place in which Adam and Eve and their offspring could enjoy God’s blessing and presence. Even after their sinful rebellion, God made it possible for humans to worship him. In Genesis 4, after Moses narrates the first murder in human history (done in the context of worship, I must add) we see God’s unfolding grace as humans are, even in their fallen state, able to “call upon the name of the Lord” (Gen 4:26).

The Grand Biblical Narrative is truly God’s story of redemption through His promised Son. It is, equally, God’s story of His glory and His invitation to His image bearers to worship Him, and Him alone. The Scriptures can be read as an ongoing drama of God’s gracious pursuit of idolaters, as He calls them to worship Him in spirit and truth. None of us deserve this, of course, any more than we deserve God’s lavish grace to us in Christ. But God has in Christ made a way for us to approach Him (Heb 10:19ff), as David Peterson puts it, “on His terms and in the way He alone makes possible.”

This series of blogs will lay out a basic doctrine of worship along with some commentary on current issues that I feel need urgent consideration in our churches. I’ll say up front that I’m likely to offend virtually everyone in the series, so if you get your feelings hurt easily, let me apologize now. I won’t do it (apologize) again. And, yes, as Bruce Ashford likes to say, I’ll be a curmudgeon at times about some of this. Frankly, I’m fed up with much that goes on in evangelical circles that masquerades as worship, so I intend to let off some steam. But I do promise to be charitable (mostly), even when I disagree sharply with some people.

So you’ll have some idea of what to expect, the next few posts will provide a definition of worship and some key biblical-theological ideas that are fundamental to a healthy worship life in the congregation. As well, I’ll have some posts that take up certain contemporary issues, including my complaints about what I call “DisneyWorld Worship” and answers to questions like “What should we do when we fight about the volume of the music?” Yes, I have opinions on all this and more, and I’ll be blogging about it over the next several weeks.