What Is Worship?

“In the company of Jesus, there are no experts; only beginners”, Jason Upton sings on a live recording of ‘Between the Graveyard and the Garden’ from his new album On The Rim Of The Visible World. This attitude is one of a humble heart – a soft heart that admits that God is God, and that I do not have everything together. It is a posture of worship.

In contrast, the church finds itself pressured into ‘professionalism’ in ministry and in worship. Professionalism is not a bad trait, but in the church setting, it can spring from roots of what the Bible calls the ‘fear of man’. “In a nutshell, the fear of man can either be a fear of what others think of us or will do to us, or a craving for approval and a fear of rejection”, writes Carolyn McCulley in her articleWhom Do You Fear?

Worship is not quite understood in some common contemporary interpretations. When a congregation is rehearsed into standing to face a particular spot in their building, they can be tempted to devote their attention to practiced musicians onstage and a bright PowerPoint overhead. To an alien, might it look as though the congregation was worshipping their own church?

I had a dream recently that I was in a church and the pastor stood up and announced that it was time to worship. At that moment, the ushers flung the doors open and the congregation poured out into the streets to minister to the homeless in downtown Vancouver. That would be beautiful worship to the Lord.

What is worship? Is it even best represented by music? (I say this as a worshipping musician.) If I allow myself to cling too tightly to a closed definition of what worship is or what it is not, I run the risk of making myself an ‘expert’ on a matter that belongs to God. In fact, arguments and judgments over what ‘styles of worship’ are suitable or unsuitable can divide a church. Might I suggest that there is no particular style of worship at all? Instead, a worshipper exhibits an authentic lifestyle that seeks to please God.

The Lord says this of some: “These people come near to me with their mouths and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men” (Isaiah 29:13, NIV). What of those rules can we recognize in our own life or in our own community? The judgments we make about our worship, or worse, the worship of others, are a dangerous pitfall. That judgment could stem from different roots, but God’s response is the same: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?” (Romans 14:4, NIV).

Seemingly, God created worship with an “outside the box” approach in mind. Besides singing, dancing, or playing music to God, how else is worship expressed? Surely I worship God when I sit back and recognize his power. He longs for us to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) When I humble myself before God and recognize what little I have without him, I honour his wisdom, supremacy, provision, and power!

Worship, too, is trusting God. By trusting his word, I declare that I know him and I know who I am in his kingdom. After learning that his sons, daughters, livestock, and servants have all been brutally killed, the Old Testament prophet Job tore his robe and shaved his head, then fell to the ground in worship. After this, he declared, “naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised” (Job 1:20, NIV).

Worship is closely related to our attitude, perspective, and actions. God declares that he detests hypocritical praise, saying, “Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me! When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you. Wash your hands and stop doing wrong. Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:13-17, NIV).

Worship is in the practice of reconciliation; 2 Corinthians 5 expresses that we have been given a “ministry of reconciliation”. God loves reconciliation more than the offerings of our mouths.

Worship is a posture we assume before God. “Worship is the only possible response that we can have when we see Jesus for what he truly is,” muses Mark Watt, worship co-ordinator at Tenth Avenue Church in Kitsilano, Vancouver. “After we`ve realised the sheer vastness of everything God has done for us, and how he views us, our only response can be utter awe. After Jesus` resurrection, when he appeared in the room to visit his disciples, I`ll bet that some would have started weeping uncontrollably, and some laughing incredulously. Some were probably whimpering in utter amazement. When you are overwhelmed by Jesus, there`s just a gut response. We know they fell and clasped his feet in worship”.

Deep reflection and prayer for self-awareness may be required to overcome the “rules” we and those around us have constructed around worship. However, once we have realize that worship has little to do with form and everything to do with content (the heart), we`ll become more open to it not always looking as tidy as we once wanted and we`ll worship God the way he wants.