Since I have been tasked with leading worship at my church, I have given significant time to think about the topic of worship. During this time, I have found the biggest issue I find being discussed (in one way or another) that most churches face in the area of worship can be boiled down to one issue: We have allowed the congregation to become the audience rather than the performers of worship. Whether intentionally or not this has been the trend. And it is a trend that must be changed.
Most of the people who attend worship services have become consumers of worship rather than the producers of it within the local church. We come to worship God, not to be entertained by those on stage or to watch others worship. The notion that I can worship by watching worship or being present when worship is happening is ridiculous. Worship is what the heart, the total being of a person produces when they consider the work of God in their own lives.
Let me try and describe what I mean in another way. Worship is what I produce because I am the worshipper! That is who I am. Not merely what I do when I go to a service. And the reason I am worshipping is I want to acknowledge and give honor God for being who he is. God is worthy of worship without qualification. He exceeds all superlatives for every good and perfect gift proceeds from him. He is the embodiment of everything that is excellent. To worship God for any other reason is to not worship at all for it would diminish God’s inherent beauty and splendor.
We have to be careful when we worship because of what God does. God does not always do what we want. So, if our worship is tied to when God does something, especially for us, we risk falling into the trap of trying to manipulate God with our worship. Another problem is that when we move away from worshipping God for being God we fall prey to the temptation of trying to impress God or appeal to his vanity, of which he has none. I never thought this was a possible hazard or even a potential problem, but I am starting to believe that it is a real and growing dilemma when we talk about and engage in worship.
I have read articles and heard worship leaders and pastors talk about worship and the focus tends to be on those attending the service. “How do we get more people to attend?” “What kind of music is appealing to this generation?” These questions are not evil or inherently bad. I will even concede that we should ask these questions. The problem is that they should serve a greater purpose. The answer to these questions must not supersede the reason for gathering in the first place. We need to foster an environment where the people who attend our churches and services are actually worshipping. If we get all the right answers and do not actually worship, what good is it?
Sometimes I get the feeling that we do not understand how worship is supposed to work. It’s as if we do not fully recognize that worship is the result of our encounter with God and not the cause of our encounter with God. God shows up and worship is the result. I don’t want to be misunderstood here. I know that when we worship God promises to show up. But, that does not mean that it’s the act of worship that “summons” God. Our worship is a byproduct of our transformation. We have become worshippers by virtue of our new relationship with God. We worship because we remember that God is worthy of the worship we offer.
Throughout the Scriptures, we see examples of what happens when God shows up. Yes, there are rituals that God calls for his people to perform, but these rituals were intended to help us focus our attention on God. And yes, these are also called worship, but we have to understand these activities in light of everything we know. God’s very presence is what induces worship. But we don’t seem to think about worship like this anymore.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus has an encounter with a woman. A woman who had a history that placed her on the outskirts of society. During the course of the exchange, the conversation turned to worship. Jesus said that those who worship God must worship him “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). This is an interesting phrase for two primary reasons.
The first reason it is interesting is it identifies the source of worship. The source of worship is the Spirit of God. He is the one who awakens the human spirit to worship God who is a spirit. Regardless of whether we understand any or all of this it is vital for us to see that there is a personal dynamic at work. Worship springs from within us because our hearts have been changed from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh by God. Worship is not something that can be forced upon a person or pulled out of them either.
The second reason this phrase is interesting is it provides the boundaries for worship. Worship must be done according to Truth. All you have to do is read through the book of Exodus to see that God knows how he wants to be worshipped. We don’t have to follow the sacrificial system today, but that does not mean that we can worship God any way we want. Our task is straight forward, even if it is not simple. God desires for us to approach him in a way that upholds the majestic nature of his name. merely what I believe is true, but what God has revealed to be true in his word.
When we do not understand these two realities we place ourselves at risk. At risk to false expressions of worship. At risk of being emotionally manipulated. At risk of trying to satiate God rather than dwell with him in his presence. Worship is the result of our salvation, not the cause of it.