Many are they who think it unnecessary to enquire as to the nature of worship. To them, it is like asking, “What is the purpose of breathing?” In the practice of worship, clarity seems rare and confusion widespread.
Some, however, are interested in reforming it according to the principles of sound theology. Matt Papa is one of them. In a blog article, posted Feb. 14, 2012, Papa, a worship leader at The Summit Church, asserts that mainstream Christian radio, which, for some listeners, shapes their understanding of church music, “is not giving people God, but a safe, condensed, and feminine view of God.” The result, he affirms, is lyrics that are theologically invalid. He concludes his post with examples of the same.
It is from scripture, not culture, modern or ancient, that we discover what worship is to be. It is an awesome encounter with holy God (Isaiah 6) that must always be offered “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23). William Temple clearly understood this. He wrote, “Worship is the submission of all of our nature to God. It is the quickening of the conscience by His holiness; the nourishment of mind with His truth; the purifying of imagination by His beauty; the opening of the heart to His love; the surrender of will to His purpose – all this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable.”
Temple’s definition is helpful precisely because it is so rich in theological essence. He asserts that God is the center of worship. It is about Him, not about the worshipper’s felt needs or desires however they may be expressed or sung. It is about God’s holiness, His beauty, His love, His purpose. Worship that is thus focused on God changes the worshipper’s life because God is magnified in his or her soul.
Jesus made it clear to the woman at the well that genuine worship happens when God shows up (John 4:23). The followers of Baal also discovered the same thing at Mount Carmel. Only the God of Elijah showed up that day (1 Kings 18:29, 38-39). This suggests that while we may sometimes be casually interested in worship, God is not at all indifferent about how we go about it. Indeed, he will accept worship from us only if it is offered in the right way. The prophet Jeremiah confirmed this. He proclaimed that God was proactive in inviting His people to “call” unto him that He might “show [them] great and mighty things” that they [did] not [and apart from Him, could not] “know” (Jeremiah 33:3). But God is not only proactive in seeking true worshippers He is also reactive in disapproving that which is wrongly offered. From this we learn that some of our expressions of worship, which we may deem appropriate, are simply not acceptable to Him. This may come as a shock to some for they write of trying new experiential ways of worship and “styles of worship” that they consider appealing to the masses. But in a worship service, who is to be served, God or the masses?
Consulting God in prayer on how to design meaningful worship services is helpful but not without following that up with a study of the many passages about worship, which are furnished by the Bible. For example, according to scripture, God is quite discerning about what we offer Him in worship. Paul concurs with this as he informs Roman believers that there is an acceptable or suitable way of worshiping God. Accordingly, worship that is shaped in conformity with worldly standards, no matter how acceptable or pleasing that may be to us, is simply not “reasonable” or “logical,” given God’s self-revelation (Romans 12:1-2).
Furthermore, the Lord’s reaction to some of the expressions or styles of worship that are offered in His name has long been known to students of the Bible. Indeed, according to Malachi, God actually despised some of the expressions of worship that were being offered in His day (1:10).
Today, there is still confusion about how to approach God in worship. While our ways of worship may have become routine, even in times of traditional expression, worship is not a performance to be followed by applause. It is and always has been, when genuine, an awesome encounter with Holy God. It is for His pleasure not for our entertainment. Consider Isaiah’s experience in this matter (6:1-13). There was not one thing in his encounter with God that was entertaining or fun for him. Instead, he thought he was undone or ruined by it (6:5). In true worship, one’s self is to recede while God himself fills the focal screen of one’s consciousness (6:1). Moreover, we discover in scripture that worship is to be interactive, that is, it is to be a reciprocal encounter with God, a divine/human “fellowship” (1 John 1:3). It is a refreshing communion between the redeemed and the Redeemer. This interactivity is both vertical and horizontal. It is vertical when the fellowship is between the Lord and us, and horizontal when between worshippers as they interact with God’s presence among them. This is perhaps best expressed through music. Thus, the songbook inspired by God, the book of Psalms, guides us. Music has always been a medium by which worshippers may fellowship with God and with one another in meaningful ways.
But the music used by the church must first pass the test of theological authenticity. It must be notes and lyrics shaped by sound doctrine, not by romanticism and touchy-feely emotions. In Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:17-18, we find admonitions from Paul on the proper use of music in worship. In both places, he encourages believers to interact with one another by the use of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,” apparently as a means of having fellowship with God by “making melody to the Lord with all [their] heart” (Ephesians 5:19). The only reference that is specific to doctrine in this passage is implied in Paul’s admonition to sing the Psalms. The Psalter is clearly theological in content. However, in the parallel passage the matter is settled with the words, “Let the word of Christ dwell in your hearts richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16). After all, “they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” Let’s do it.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Ned Mathews is emeritus professor of pastoral ministries at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and pastor emeritus of Parkwood Baptist Church in Gastonia.)