Sometimes it’s hard to understand, but it’s always there, a constant reality. It can be meaningful and heartfelt, or it could be neglected, though hopefully not out of spite. It can be low-key, offered by a single person in a decidedly non-grandiose way, or it could be joined in with thousands of people in such a way that even a non-believer might be convinced of the presence of God. For the Church, worship is that constant reality. Of course, if you attempt to define worship, one runs the risk of painting either too broad, or too narrow a stroke. Either technique might result in a piece of art, but might not offer a fair representation of the subject. Such it is with worship. One could offer an overly broad interpretation of what worship is, or alternatively, an overly narrow one, and though both might be accurate, neither one would do the subject justice. Whether one defines worship as the singing of songs or a lifetime of service to God, the idea and definition of worship deserves justice, because without worship, the Church would wither like an unproductive fig tree, and deservedly so. I think we should take a few moments to reflect on worship is and how the Church, comprised of both individual Christians and the Universal Church as a whole, thrives as a result of that constant reality that should define the life and purpose of each and every Christian.
I know this is a tall order, but how does one define something so dynamic that it could be both large and small? And how could one define something so comprehensive that it would be presumptuous to shoehorn it into a tidy, little box. I suppose that if you define worship in a broad way, that all the bases should be hit, leaving its interpretation subjective. I suppose the “reading is fundamental” way of defining worship means a trip to the old standard, the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. It defines worship is as “reverence offered to a divine being or supernatural power,” and “an act of expressing such reverence.” Fair enough. This is the core of what worship is, namely as an act of expression to God, recognizing who He is, and why we love Him. Jesus Christ, the physical presence of God on Earth in human form, summarized the greatest commandments thusly, that we are “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind,” and that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. The difficulty is application.
How does one love God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind? While Mark Labberton, author of The Dangerous Act of Worship, argues that “Scripture indicates that worship is meant to be the tangible embodiment of God’s hope in the world,” one believes its purpose goes beyond being a placard for hope. Labberton’s assessment of worship in this instance is correct in answering the second greatest commandment, the common colloquial definition of which is often to simply “love people.” Because loving people means both offering them hope, and the practical application of the love of Jesus Christ, meeting their physical needs in the same way He did during His ministry here on Earth. Labberton’s full definition is more comprehensive, as he declares that “True worship includes the glory and honor due God – Father, Son, and Spirit,” and that “it also includes the enactment of God’s love and justice, mercy and kindness in the world.” Between Labberton and Merriam-Webster, one can come up with a working definition of worship that can offer practical application for the two greatest commandments, as defined by Jesus: Loving God is the reverent expression of glory and honor due God, and loving people includes the enactment of God’s love, justice, mercy, and kindness in the world. However, glory and honor, and love, justice, mercy, and kindness, can be manifest in a variety of ways.
Worship in Scripture is both internal and external. It is an obedient expression of love to an almighty God. One such way that expression is present in the Church is through artistic expression. Christian worship through such means can include music, art, drama, dance, literature, creativity, leisure, imagination, etc. God’s people offering worship through artistic expression is nothing new, and is well documented throughout the Old Testament. In 1 Chronicles 25, King David, both a musician and a song/psalm writer, set aside specific families to prophesy with lyres, harps, and cymbals, “for the service of the house of God.” This was not to be a task undertaken haphazardly. Instead, these were two hundred eighty-eight skilled musicians, chosen under the order of King David, to direct music in the house of the Lord, offering praise both vocally and through instruments. In Psalm 95, King David once again equates worship with music, calling for us to “come let us sing to the Lord,” and that we are to “worship and bow down.” However, worship cannot be pigeonholed into the pages in a hymnal.
Predating David, Abraham reverently offered the ultimate act of worship in Genesis 22, through the attempted physical sacrifice of Abraham’s son. This was not something as sometimes enjoyable as music or dance. Instead, this was to be a violent act usually reserved for cattle or other prescribed livestock. Through reverent obedience, Abraham and his son climbed a mountain in preparation to worship God through sacrifice. It was only when Abraham gripped the knife tightly and plunged it towards his bound son did Heaven intervene, sparing Isaac. In this moment, Abraham communicated that he believed God is worthy of our worship, so worthy that he is willing to obediently sacrifice his son to do so. At the same time, God communicated that He is nothing like the gods of the pagan religions who demand human sacrifices. And while he demands our obedience, he is merciful, two facts most evident with the grace we receive through Jesus Christ.
If we can establish that worship happens with the reverent expression of glory and honor due God, and through the enactment of God’s love, justice, mercy, and kindness throughout the world, then what can one say is worship’s purpose in the church? That purpose, like the two greatest commandments, has two parts, namely, our relationship with God within the confines of corporate worship, and how we relate to other people outside of church, in our everyday lives. These are two very distinct acts or series of acts. Though completely different, both serve as valid forms of worship; neither is more important, and both are necessary in order to maintain a fulfilling, God-honoring life.
Andrew Hill, author of Enter His Courts With Praise reminds us that formal worship has existed since The Garden, and to the ancient Hebrews, “their . . . understanding of the nature and constitution of the human being demanded that the whole person respond to Yahweh in worship, not just the spirit and soul.” The same rings true today. “’Worship is not an isolated aspect of the Christian life, but the center from which all life is understood and experienced.’ Worship is life and life is worship in the Old Testament; the same is no less true today for the New Testament church.” For the church, worship, from both our definition and from that which the ancient Hebrews understood worship to be, is everything we do as individuals and the local Body of Christ, whether it is through song or work. To separate ourselves from worship is to either fall into a life of unproductive apathy, or to completely abandon any notion of adoration towards God. Both are counterproductive and arguably sinful, since both options are evidence of a lack of obedience.
We can participate in worship throughout our daily lives, and in a variety of ways. The worship we formally and corporately express on Sunday is no more or less important than that which we perform on Monday. Significance does not lie in its formality, but in the worshipper’s intent to offer a reverent expression of glory and honor due God, or by acting as instruments of God’s grace, showing the love of Jesus Christ in practical ways. However, to the casual observer, what we would consider to be informal worship may be considered to be nothing more than a series of good deeds or works, either born out of guilt, sincerity, or empathy. Our understanding of the nature of worship and its purpose in the church will define our motivations. If we understand our actions as an act of loving submission, then we will act with unashamed selflessness.