When I began pastoral ministry, all we needed was a one-armed person leading hymns to piano and/or organ accompaniment. This was the way most Churches were singing. And we sang the hymns of the faith. But I saw a big transition over those years and now finding an organ in a Church is rare. Is this a bad thing? Or, Is there an even bigger concern associated with the change?
While this transition had much to do with hymns vs. contemporary songs and music, “worship” was the word attached to the change. And I fear that what suffered most was our understanding of worship.
“Worship” became a buzz word among Christians over the past several decades. Churches have worship services led by worship leaders who work with worship teams. Some churches have a worship time to prepare for the sermon (evidently considered something other than worship). Some Churches have worship pastors and even offer worship opportunities. Conferences offer worship workshops and worship seminars. The experts on “worship” guide us to enhance the worship of the Church!
As the buzz word caught on, it became increasingly common to equate worship with singing. When told a church has “great” or “amazing” worship, most often it means great music. Yet, to the surprise of many, nothing is discovered about the greatness of worship by hearing people sing. Even if they sing the old hymns with emotional restraint or if they close their eyes and raise their hands to contemporary Christian music, these practices alone do not inform us about the greatness of their worship. They really tell us nothing about their worship.
“Worship,” one has written, “is not energized by artificial methods. If you feel you must have formalized ritual, or a certain kind of mood music to worship, what you do isn’t worship. Music and liturgy can assist or express a worshiping heart, but they cannot make a non-worshiping heart into a worshiping one. The danger is that they can give a non-worshiping heart the sense of having worshiped.”
Many churches debate styles of worship. “Should our worship be contemporary or traditional?” they ask. But worship style is not what matters to God. The object of our worship and the depth and sincerity of our devotion matter.
When Satan tried to entice Jesus to bow down and worship him, he was not inviting him “to change his style of ‘worship’ — to move, say, from pipe organs to guitars, from traditional to contemporary. It was private and personal; more importantly, it dealt with the fundamental question, the question of ultimate allegiance” (D.A. Carson, Worship). Jesus responded by quoting Scripture, “You shall worship the Lord your God and serve Him only” (Deuteronomy 6:13).
Worship is the undivided allegiance of our hearts to God. Worship is obedience to the command, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:36-37). Worship is inward before being outward. Hypocritical worship occurs when the inner and outer disagree. Jesus rebuked religious people saying, “You like to appear righteous in public, but God knows your hearts” (Luke 16:15).
Obviously one cannot discern the depth of a church’s devotion to God by hearing them sing. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir could sing Christian songs better than most churches, and they do not even worship the God of scripture.
Meeting with God is basic to true worship. But if you want to meet with God, He sets the terms for the meeting. “Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? And who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood, and has not sworn deceitfully” (Psalm 24:3-5). “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands you sinners and purify your hearts you double minded” (James 4:8).
Insincerity, dishonesty, and deception foreclose on true worship—no matter how well we sing songs of worship. Jesus said, “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Honesty and integrity are non-negotiable pre-requisites to great worship. Acts of worship like singing, sacrificing, or performing rituals are detestable to God when not accompanied by honesty, love and obedience (see: Amos 5:21-24; I Corinthians 13:1-8).
Some people mistakenly focus on the personal enjoyment or blessing they derive from worship. “A little over a century ago, it was not uncommon to find Christians in some traditions asking after a sermon, ‘How did you get on under the Word?’ Now we ask, “Did you enjoy the worship?” (i.e. the rest of the service apart from the sermon). Worship can be rated according to our degree of enjoyment. It is part of the genus of ‘entertainment industry’” (D.A. Carson).
We must be careful not to confuse what is central with the by-product. In his magisterial work on the existence and attributes of God, Stephen Charnock wrote, “To pretend a homage to God, and intend only the advantage of self is rather to mock Him than worship Him.”
To worship God is not to seek to be blessed but to bless him with our words and our lives. Worship is to give to God (Matthew 5:23-24). Let’s not be like those Isaiah the prophet described, “These people draw near to me with their words and honor me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from me …” (Isaiah 29:13).
“He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8).
“The crucial factor in worship in the church is not the form of worship, but the state of the hearts of the saints. If our corporate worship isn’t the expression of our individual worshiping lives, it is unacceptable. If you think you can live any way you want and then go to church on Sunday morning and turn on worship with the saints, you’re wrong” (John F. MacArthur Jr.)
Perhaps it is time to change the way we think and talk about worship. We need a larger view of worship as something that extends beyond what we sing, say, and do in church to how we conduct ourselves in our homes and workplaces. Scripture refuses to separate these parts of our lives. Let’s not try to “turn on” worship in Church when our lives contradict our songs. “The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart, And saves such as have a contrite spirit” (Psalm 34:18). “
“You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:16-17).
A song that expressed concern about worship: