The Concept of Worship

Nowhere in Scripture is worship actually defined. Prayer, praise, confession, sacrifice, faith, obedience, and many other terms describe different aspects of worship. But when three key word groups are examined in different contexts, it is clear that homage, reverence and service to God are central to the concept of worship.

—David G. Peterson, Encountering God Together, 29

Leaving Changed?

We leave our places of worship and no deep and inexpressible wonder sits on our faces. We can sing these lilting melodies; and when we get out into the streets our faces are one with the faces of those who have left the theatres and music halls. There is nothing about us to suggest that we’ve been looking at anything stupendous and overwhelming. Far back in my boyhood I remember an old saint telling me that after some services he liked to make his way home alone by quiet bypaths, so that the hush of the Almighty might remain on his awed and prostrated soul. That is the element we are missing.

—J. H. Jowett (1863-1923)

Celestial Committee Meeting or Divine Audience?

We must be prepared to admit that our tradition of worship has tended to a cold intellectualism.  . . . . There is lacking today the profound sense of the mystery of the Almighty that possessed the Reformers, and our services undoubtedly suffer from an oppressive intellectual familiarity, as if worship consisted in the interchange of certain religious ideas. The most deplorable aspect of most of our . . . worship today is the lack of a spirit of reverence and adoration. It is difficult to believe that people who chatter up to the opening words of a service, and reach for their hats the moment the Benediction is pronounced, and in between are comfortably seated throughout prayers in an attitude of polite inattention, are really seized with the idea of the presence of the glory of the Eternal.  In particular our . . . intellectualism has fostered, when the vivid awareness of the divine sovereignty has grown dim, a type of service more like a kind of celestial committee-meeting than the worship of Almighty God.

–The Rev. D.H.C. Read, “The Reformation of Worship. Part III: The Direction of Contemporary Worship,” Scottish Journal of Theology 8:3 (Sept. 1955), 280.

An Audience of One

Søren Kierkegaard originated the idea that in worship, the congregation is not the audience; they are the performers. The worship team members are not the performers; they are the promoters. God is the ultimate audience. . . . When we purchase a ticket to a concert we have the right to base our choice of performer and music on our personal tastes and preferences, whether that be Renaissance motets or acid rock. We have the right to criticize the performance, and evaluate whether we got our money’s worth. We have the right to sit passively and expect to be entertained. Depending on our mood and personality, we have the right to have our expectations realized, whether that involves being intellectually challenged by a complex work brilliantly performed, or experiencing emotional catharsis brought on by a deeply moving and evocative work. We even have the right to leave at the intermission if we are disappointed. If Kierkegaard is right, however, this all changes when it comes to worship.

If Yahweh, the true and living God, the King of kings and Lord of lords, is the audience, and we are the performers, then we must approach worship with infinitely more humility and reverence. God initiates the conversation in this encounter. If he makes us aware of our sinfulness, we should lament, and if he reveals to us his majesty and goodness, we should offer praise and thanksgiving. If he speaks to us and says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4), we have no right to sulk or sigh if we prefer contemporary songs and other believers like traditional hymns. If we are told, “Sing
to the LORD, you saints of his; praise his holy name” (Ps 30:4), we have no right to sit and expect others to entertain us or make us “feel good.” If we are to tell of his greatness to unbelievers, then we must welcome outsiders into the context of our praise, and speak the truth to them in love.

–Mary L. Conway, “Worship Music: Maintaining Dynamic Tension,” McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry 7 (2006): 156  www.mcmaster.ca/mjtm/pdfs/vol7/MJTM_7-7_Conway.pdf