As a young boy I remember several men standing up and singing. Though they were off-key, I enjoyed listening anyway. Perhaps the fact that my father was one of the singers predisposed me to enjoy their singing— no matter how they sounded.
It is too long ago for me to remember all the words of their song, but I do remember two: “Galilee” and “Jesus.” That’s my earliest recollection of singing in a worship service, and the words Galilee and Jesus are still a part of my Christian life today.
Something was missing
The song was not a grand church hymn sung by a large congregation. There was no organ or any other musical instrument. In fact, there was no church, that is, no church building.They were singing in a home, which was the place of that worship service, attended by about 20 individuals. It was some years later—when I was almost 13 years old—that I first worshiped inside a church building, heard an organ and piano, and listened to musical groups who knew how to sing.
Since then I have worshiped and preached in many churches—small and large—in many countries. I have appreciated solos, small groups, and choirs, and have been blessed by the beautiful sounds from individual instruments and orchestras. All of this music has enhanced my worship experience.
During my ministry I have heard and participated in discussions about worship and music. You know how those discussions go: “What makes a good sermon?” ”What makes a great preacher?” And if you want the discussion to hit a high note, bring up the subject of music. “What instruments should be used?” “What kind of music should be sung?” It doesn’t take long for “experts” to make their pronouncements.
But something is often missing. In our discussions, we tend to focus on our personal likes and dislikes, and our opinions take on the role of authority. As important as these discussions may be, we tend to move away from the basic question of worship—who and what does worship involve? I can’t adequately address theology and the practice of worship in one editorial, but I would like to identify several important features.
First, we must acknowledge that a focus upon God is fundamental to worship. The psalmist invites us to
Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker (Ps. 95:6, NIV).
Jesus discussed worship with the Samaritan woman and reminded her that “ ‘God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth’ ” (John 4:24, NIV). His final words to her proclaimed Him to be the promised Messiah.
All discussions of worship and all worship itself must then focus upon God; if we focus on anyone or anything else, we practice idolatry.
Second, worship involves people. Psalm 95:6 invites us to bow down and worship God. Whenever God’s people worship their God—Creator, Savior, Lord—they join a family composed of individuals who were once strangers. Though testifying of His creative power, trees and flowers cannot choose to worship God. People, though, can and do.
Third, we focus on the place of worship. As I pointed out, in order for worship to take place, God and His people are needed. But what kind of place is needed? I have been to famous places of worship and have marveled at their architectural beauty. Certainly well-known places can be places of worship but, as the lead article by Kwabena Donkor shows, worship can also take place in humble homes. Long before the first cathedral was ever built, before the first harpsichord was heard, before organ music filled a church, before the first guitar was strummed, before the first contemporary song was sung, God and His people gathered for worship.
Discussions about worship can easily escalate into arguments. All too often such discussions focus on self—my worship style, my music preference, my kind of sermon. Instead of allowing a discussion about worship to become controversial, let the focus be on the fundamental elements of worship—God and His people. The place is where God and His people come together for worship. Worship is not about me, it’s about us—God and His people.