It’s often amazing—the things that separate Christians.
Many North American churches are divided in the so-called worship wars. Worship happens to be the most important thing Christians do, and it’s one thing that the devil and his emissaries hate more than anything else. Worship continues as an important event because God demands it of His people and because worship brings purpose and meaning to our lives. Worship reminds us of our human limitations and of our Maker’s limitless greatness. Worship brings salvation and assurance to believers and instructs us how to live and set our life’s priorities. Worship exists as one of God’s primary ways of infusing us with the abundant life that Jesus promises in John 10:10. Worship is practical; it fills us with a desire to serve God and others and remains as the one thing we carry from this life into the life to come.
Yet great confusion over worship continues in the church today. Tragically, when the church battles over worship (or anything else), truth becomes the first casualty and the devil prevails as the final victor.
Worship is not about you or about me or about what we like; and worship is certainly not about entertaining us. Worship is about God alone. Until we understand this point, we will be like spiritual cave dwellers. Our attempts at worship will be boring, meaningless, and futile. So, let us begin thinking about worship by looking at the most basic question.
What is worship?
The Bible, as God’s basic handbook on life, becomes our most important worship source book. Scripture has more to say about worship than one short article can cover, but we need to start somewhere. Let’s, then, start with Jesus. When Jesus met the woman at the well, He told her, “ ‘A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth’ ” (John 4:23, 24, NIV).
This is our beginning point. The Scriptures teach that worship gives us an appreciation of God—for who He is, what He has done, and what He is doing:
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever . . .
Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter and give thanks to the Lord . . .
I will give you thanks, for you answered me; you have become my salvation . . .
You are my God, and I will give You thanks; you are my God, and I will exalt you.
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever (Ps. 118:1, 19, 21, 28, 29, NIV).
Contemporary versus traditional
What comes to mind when you think about worship? Do you think about attending church services? Or about the whole content of your life as a Christian? Is your mind picture of worship a coming together in a former warehouse with a praise band? Or a fine gothic building complete with stained glass, well-ordered liturgy, and a grand pipe organ? When you hear that the music in such-and-such a place is worshipful, do you envision new Christian songs and choruses? Stately old hymns? Toe-tapping Southern gospel melodies? Let us set straight a couple of terms about worship that have crept into our modern vernacular and that have helped fan the flames of controversy. These flames, first kindled in the late 1960s, are now spreading like wildfire.
We hear about “contemporary” and “traditional” worship. Interestingly enough, these words are never applied in the Bible either to worship or to anything else. Why? Authentic worship is contemporary—or of-this-moment—and at the same time traditional or established. This explains the meaning behind Jesus’ words that worship must be “ ‘in spirit and in truth.’ ”
To define some worship as contemporary implies that other worship has passed its “sell by date.” That can never be true. What makes worship “contemporary” is not a music style or a way of dress, but the presence of the Lord God in the midst of His people when they praise Him. What makes worship traditional is that it follows a timeless form that God Himself prescribes in Holy Scripture.
In short, if God is not present in our worship, then it is not worship at all, regardless of how new the music. Furthermore, if worship does not follow the Bible’s pattern for praising God, then it cannot be worship at all, no matter how old its form or how many times we have done it that way.
The worship Jesus speaks about to the Samaritan woman at the well includes the abandonment of ourselves— including all our pet bywords—to the Lord God Almighty. “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you” (James 4:7, 8). Worship—whether led by a one hundred-voice, well-trained choir and orchestra followed by a robe-adorned preacher, or by a guitar-strumming, drum-beating music group that plays before someone preaches with his shirt tail hanging out—can never be called a spectator sport. The success of worship cannot be measured by the number of people who come because it is offered for an audience of One—and that One is the triune God.
Worship becomes far more than a 60-minute morning vaudevillian event, for true worship consists of a life dedicated to serving the living God. Until we understand this point, we will never be “true worshipers,” regardless of our worship style.