thoughts on worship

I’ve been meaning to write something on worship for a while now, but haven’t really found the time till now. Moreover, much ink has been spilt on the topic – need I really add my own voice to the chorus of others?

For those of you who thought I was going to answer ‘no’ to the above question, I’m sorry to disappoint you. But hopefully, my thoughts on worship will have a slightly more contextualised flavour – from a Singaporean who attends a “charismatic Presbyterian church” back home, but a more conservative Baptist church in Cambridge, England, where he spends more than half a year. (And who also is an occasional worship leader and musician, but is not very good at either.)

These thoughts are not really directed at anyone in particular… but if you’re serving in the worship / music ministry, I hope they come in useful as you re-evaluate your ministry and seek to glorify Him. So here goes.

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“Worship is a lifestyle.” I have heard this uttered innumerable times, mostly during worship ‘seminars’ or ‘workshops’, and usually just before the speaker launches into a discussion of worship in the context of a worship service only. Well, I agree with this statement. All that we do in this life is a form of worship. This quote by David Foster Wallace, a secular writer, is illuminating:

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things – if they are where you tap real meaning in life – then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already – it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

However, let me clarify (just like the typical speaker at a worship seminar) that the rest of the discussion below concerns worship in the narrower context of what Paul describes in Eph 5:19-20:

Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Worship is not about the music. Yet another truism, but one we too often forget. It’s sad and unfortunate, but so many Christians – myself included – fall into this trap. In fact, I find that music, more often than not, detracts from the true worship rather than adds to it. There is nothing more distracting in a service than an excessively loud drummer (I’m a drummer myself), or a self-indulgent lead guitarist, or worse, a self-indulgent worship leader! Which brings me to my next point.

Worship is not about the ‘form’ of worship. This is related to the previous point, just on a more general level. The forms of worship are immaterial – hymns, or praise choruses; full orchestras or just a guitar; a SATB choir or just a lone voice; etc. All these don’t really matter! In the classic account of true worship in John 4, Jesus speaks with the Samaritan woman at the well. Recall the exchange between them:

19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

True worshipers worship God “in Spirit and in truth”. What does that mean? Well, there are countless resources, sermons, commentaries, on what this means. I will therefore deign to elaborate on that. But let me finish this point with an important clarification.

Forms of worship are irrelevant. But they are only irrelevant insofar as they affect the substance of the worship. Let me give a simple (and exaggerated) example to illustrate this point. If a church decides that child sacrifice is a form of worship which they deem acceptable, this clearly affects the ‘substance’ of the worship. Clearly the members of this church are compromising on the truth element of true worship – the form of worship they have chosen clearly infringes God’s word.

What then is worship about? I came across this very helpful passage which, in my opinion, summarises beautifully what worship is about.

When we worship God we’re reminding ourselves that God is bigger and better than anything sin offers. Worship isn’t just an affirmation that God is good. It’s an affirmation that God is better. In worship we don’t just call on one another to worship God. We also call one another away from the worship of other gods. We remind our hearts of God’s goodness, majesty, love, grace, holiness and power. This isn’t just an intellectual recall. God has given us music to touch our emotions. We sing the truth so that it moves, inspires, stirs, encourages and so transforms us.

Have you ever got the tune of a mindless song stuck in your head? You find yourself humming a song you don’t even like. The world around us sings a song and that song often gets stuck in our heads. We find ourselves joining in. What the world thinks and desires becomes what he think and desire. To worship God is to retune our hearts.

– Tim Chester, You Can Change at 157

Wow. Now read that again. Tim Chester adroitly identifies the heart of worship (and therefore saves me the trouble of having to say it myself, heh).

“We remind our hearts of God’s goodness, majesty, love, grace, holiness and power. This isn’t just an intellectual recall. God has given us music to touch our emotions. We sing the truth so that it moves, inspires, stirs, encourages and so transforms us.”

The importance of truth in worship. As already mentioned above, Jesus says that true worshippers worship in truth. Now, if worship is about singing the truths about God, we have to ask ourselves the question – are the songs we sing in church really filled with the truths about God? Or are we singing songs which speak more of ourselves than about Him? In this regard, singing a (fictional) song which repeats the line “Lord I worship you” 16 times is less helpful than a song which reminds us of the glorious work Christ has done on the cross to rescue us from death to life.

The response of our hearts. Do our worship services leave us in awe of who He is and what He has done? Or just impressed at the technical abilities of the band on stage? Or simply indifferent – with no net change before and after the service? However, beware of empty emotionalism! Our response is not merely an emotional one, but a deeper, more spiritual response, of which emotions are a mere component.

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In conclusion, these are just some thoughts I have on worship and thanks for reading. I pray that these reflections will lead you back to the true heart of worship.

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