In The Dangerous Act of Worship, Mark Labberton states: “Everything. That’s what’s at stake in worship. The urgent, indeed troubling, message of Scripture is that everything that matters is at stake in worship. Worship names what matters most: the way human beings are created to reflect God’s glory by embodying God’s character in lives that seek righteousness and do justice. Such comprehensive worship redefines all we call ordinary. Worship turns out to be the dangerous act of waking up to God and to the purposes of God in the world, and then living lives that actually show it.”1
Immediately after completing the act of creation, God crowned what was considered “good” with shavath—a Sabbath day set apart as holy. Before sin entered our world, while perfection still reigned, God desired time with His creation for rest, community, and worship. God created male and female in His image with that same need, that same desire, for this sacred time. Humanity was made to worship.
Though our world has drifted far from the perfection of Eden, this one thing has not changed. Whether human beings acknowledge the Creator God or not, each human being has a void that needs to be filled with worship. Men and women seek to fill that void in many ways. Christians understand that “genuine worship is a quest for God not out of obligation or duty but freely and earnestly in gratitude for his goodness (Ps. 27:4, 8-9; 63:1-4).”2
Deciding what is essential in biblical Christian worship requires an understanding of the question being asked. In order for worship to be biblical, it needs to be scripturally driven. In order for worship to be Christian, it needs to be Christ-centered. In order for worship to be worship, it needs to be a culturally relevant participatory offering.
In order for worship to be biblical, the Bible should be at the core of worship. The Bible must be read fairly, respecting the text of the entire metanarrative without additions or subtractions based on any preconceived bias. Taking the entire biblical story into consideration, we must try to understand who God is, why He calls His people to worship, and how He desires this worship to happen.
Scripture is fairly silent when it comes to instruction on how to worship. Many churches fight “worship wars” based on opinions and preferences completely unsupported by Scripture. Though styles of worship may differ from one congregation to the other, Scripture offers great latitude in the areas of music, liturgy, and congregational engagement.
The Florida Hospital Seventh-day Adventist Church offers convergence worship—exploring and utilizing elements from ancient to modern sources. Senior pastor Andy McDonald suggests, “There are two schools of thought about how to relate to the Bible, and I think we can extend them to worship practices: One group says, ‘We only do in worship what is prescribed in Scripture.’ The other group says, ‘We do in worship any carefully thought through element not prohibited in Scripture.’ By our very practice, we go beyond Scripture’s prescription in our practices and, therefore, are much closer aligned with practicing anything not prohibited specifically, or in principle, in Scripture.”3
Primary to scriptural understanding is the concept of a Trinitarian God, a God who is community, realizing that “how we worship God must reflect who God is—the triune God of grace—and what He has done and is doing for us in Christ and by the Holy Spirit.”4
Our relationship with the Trinity is how we engage in biblical worship. We enjoy communion with the Father through the priesthood of the Son by the ministry of the Spirit. Clarifying this interaction in every aspect of worship—music, word, Scripture, prayer, etc.—gives a greater understanding of God, thereby inviting authenticity and the potential for spiritual growth.
Through Scripture we also discover that it is God who initiates the act of worship. Even the words used to explain worship in Scripture “indicate the Lord is indeed an approachable God. He not only invites His people to draw near to Him so that they might live, but He also draws near to all those who call on His name.”5
We live in a consumer-driven culture, and we need constant reminders redirecting our understanding of whom we gather to worship. Prayers, calls to worship, or welcoming remarks that suggest we have invited God to the gathering only serve to confirm this false thinking, putting us in charge of what is clearly and critically a celebration of community initiated by our Creator. Intentionally utilizing words and phrasing that thank God for an invitation that we, as worshipers, come together to accept—with full expectation of engaged participation—helps to shift this paradigm of consumeristic worship.
In this light, we must realize biblical worship is not about us, but about the only One who genuinely deserves our worship—God. Though blessings and healing may be a result of our time in worship, they should never be the motivation. It would be like being invited to a wedding celebration and arriving with the expectation of receiving the attention and gifts due to the bride and groom.
Finally, scripturally driven worship continuously tells the great narrative of God’s act of creation, humanity’s fall, God’s offer of redemption, humanity’s salvation accomplished through Christ, God’s mission for His people, and the anticipated return of our Savior. This is an inclusive story that acknowledges community and meaning equally for the entirety of God’s creation.
Culturally relevant worship
“Throughout history, most worship services have been ‘multicultural’ to some degree in that they contain elements from diverse cultures, including roots in Jewish worship.”6 Many times, those who find it difficult to include in worship a variety of cultural elements maintain that the style or content of worship with which they are comfortable should be the only acceptable way to worship. This mind-set completely disconnects from the reality that worship through the ages has spanned geography and generation.
Culture shapes worship. If Christians are blind to the culture that surrounds them and refuse to engage and/or accept people across all cultural boundaries, churches are in danger of becoming worthless buildings filled with ineffectual people. The belief that Christians should not be a part of their culture, accepting an “us” and “them” mentality, rejects the understanding of God as the God of all people—regardless of ethnicity, gender, orientation, denomination, and/or socioeconomic position. Grasping this understanding and creating worship opportunities that reflect the inclusion of culture are essential. This naturally leads to worship that demands an awareness of multiculturalism. If worship is to honor God, cultural diversity must be embraced and celebrated.
Christ-centered worship “Worship of other deities abounds in our diverse world, and rituals can appear similar in many instances. But the role of Jesus Christ distinguishes Christian worship. Where else could we begin a discussion of worship than with Jesus Christ, the one whom God has exalted and the one to whom all creation will someday kneel?”7
We need to know who Jesus is before we can worship Him correctly. What separates Christianity from all other world religions is Jesus Christ. Genuine Christian worship must understand Jesus’ place in the Godhead.
Authentic Christian worship demands that the worshiper believes and accepts that Jesus Christ died and rose again for his or her sins. Without this core belief in Christ’s death and resurrection as the sole means of salvation, Christian worship has neither beginning nor meaning. “ ‘There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved’ ” (Acts 4:12, NLT).
Also central to Christian worship is the role of Jesus Christ—as co-Creator, Savior, and Mediator. We have already established that Jesus created in community with the Father and the Spirit. True Christian worship also acknowledges that our salvation, redemption, and reconnection to community with God are solely made possible by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. “Jesus is the embodiment of God’s forgoing wrath for the sake of communion. Jesus comes to us in love to renew the friendship/communion that we rejected. Jesus comes to us with the offer of friendship with God.”8
Lest we conclude that Jesus’ role was completed in the past, the Bible clearly affirms that Jesus is even now petitioning God on our behalf. “For there is one God and one Mediator who can reconcile God and humanity—the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5, NLT). Biblical Christian worship acknowledges that worship should not, and truly cannot, take place without Jesus’ ministry in heaven. “Our high priest has passed into the heavens, not to leave us outside like the people in the Old Testament—Israel on the Day of Atonement—but to take us with Himself into the Holy of Holies.”9
God set up a structure for worship that reveals His deep love and unsurpassed mercy for His children. He is a personal God, a God who invites us to worship and provides a way for our worship to enter His courts with meaning and beauty. With our Savior rendering our worship, we can come before our Maker with full acknowledgement of our sinfulness and failings, confident that we are treasured, accepted, and adored.
Sadly, whether due to the intention of setting oneself apart from others or the sincere belief that these things are salvific, many churches set their worship focus primarily on doctrine and orthodoxy. Though doctrine and orthodoxy are not bad in themselves as identifiers of a church or an individual, it is dangerous to let these replace Christ as the central focus of faith and worship.
Worship as participatory offering
According to Robert Webber, “worship is an active, not passive, experience.”10
Each word translated “worship” in the Bible is a verb—an action word. Worship should not be considered as something we merely attend; worship is a call to action.
In a Barna survey conducted several years ago, 727 regular attendees of Protestant churches were asked to identify the most important personal outcome of worship. “Only 8 percent . . . cited outcomes directed to God as most important. Outcomes that benefit the worshipper were cited by 47 percent.”11
Given this mind-set, worship planners find it challenging to design an experience that instructs and leads worship with the intention to give rather than to get. That kind of planning requires much effort to incorporate elements that are clearly introduced as an action toward God and allow for congregational participation.
My personal engagement with worship leaders from various denominations in both educational as well as networking opportunities has led me to conclude that there exists a widespread, sincere desire among most of them to learn from biblical examples of participatory worship. When worship moves away from being a corporate, spectator event to become interactive and inclusive so as to embrace the rich worship practices of various cultures, the experience turns congregations into dynamic and life-transforming centers of worship, witness, fellowship, and spiritual power.
Such congregations will incorporate in their life and worship patterns the following traditional as well as modern artistic expressions:
• Biblical narratives in dramatic readings and skits
• Psalms in interactive prayer, praise, and petition
• Physical and verbal engagement and response
• Scriptural calls for justice in community and world involvement Far beyond a ritual or doctrine, God desires His people to “act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with [their] God” (Micah 6:8, NIV). Thus the biblical call for worship extends beyond the walls of the church and tells us that worship participation is a life commandment. As David Peterson notes, the biblical Christian worship is something greater than a weekly event. “It is clear that acceptable worship involves effective ministry to one another within the body of Christ, maintaining love and forgiveness towards those outside the Christian community, expressing right relationships with ruling authorities, living expectantly in the light of Christ’s imminent return, and demonstrating love especially towards those with different opinions within the congregation of Christ’s people.”12
“Our understanding of Christian worship starts with our understanding of God.”13 The biblical story—the metanarrative of God’s interaction with humanity—clearly reveals to us a God whose intention from the beginning was for a creation that lived in harmonious community. Sin caused separation between a holy God and fallen humanity. Worship provides an opportunity for the redeemed of God to reconnect with Him as our Maker and Redeemer, living lives with the assurance of salvation and a mission to share this good news with our world. “Salvation is contained not in Christianity as a religion (i.e., as a system, as an institution or even as a civilization), but in the story that Christians tell—in bearing witness to the biblical God and what God has done in history for our salvation.”14
Biblical Christian worship offers us an active role in this amazing story.
1 Mark Labberton, The Dangerous Act of Worship (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 13.
2 Andrew E. Hill, Enter His Courts With Praise! Old Testament Worship for the New Testament Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 2.
3 Andy McDonald, “The Shared Table,” Florida Hospital Seventh-day Adventist Church, September 20, 2014.
4 James B. Torrance, Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 10.
5 Hill, Enter His Courts With Praise!, 9.
6 Kathy Black, Culturally-Conscious Worship, (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2000), 2.
7 Constance M. Cherry, The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 21.
8 Daniel M. Bell Jr., “God Does Not Demand Blood,” in God Does Not . . . Entertain, Play “Matchmaker,” Hurry, Demand Blood, Cure Every Illness, ed. D. Brent Laytham (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009), 57.
9 Torrance, Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace, 119.
10 Robert E. Webber, Worship Old and New (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982),11.
11 Greg Warner, “The Sound of Music Shouldn’t Take Lead in ‘Worship Wars,’ Barna says,” Baptist Standard, November 4, 2002, http://assets .baptiststandard.com/archived/2002/11_4/pages /waco_barna.html.
12 David Peterson, Engaging With God: A Biblical Theology of Worship (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 178.
13 Cherry, The Worship Architect, 5.
14 Christopher J. H. Wright, Salvation Belongs to Our God: Celebrating the Bible’s Central Story (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 110.