What is Worship?

fall-in-catskill-mountains-1410051-640x480“Worship is not prayer for one’s needs or praise for one’s blessings, but the overflow of the soul in adoration to God for what He is in Himself, as revealed by the Lord Jesus Christ.  Prayer is the occupation of the heart with its needs; praise, the occupation of the heart with its blessing; but worship is the occupation of the heart with God Himself.” (A.P. Gibbs, Scriptural Principles of Gathering)

Over the years various circumstances and moves have made it necessary for me to change churches several times.  In all these churches there have been wonderful, faithful Christians whose hearts were overwhelmed by the love and grace and mercy of our God as shown through Jesus Christ.  And yet, in every one of these churches there have been widely differing understandings of the nature of worship.

I think it is important for us to understand clearly what it is we are doing when we gather together for a time on Sunday morning.  We are not there to be entertained and just have a good time in the Lord.  We are not there to have our intellects stimulated by some obscure discussion of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin or by the political views of the pastor.  We are not even there primarily to have an instructive explanation of critical Bible passages and encouragement in our faith.  We are there above all to worship.  These other things may be good and necessary things ~ but when we gather to worship, the underlying focus should be Him, not us.

Worship is not merely a noun describing a period of time set aside for music, prayers and a sermon.  It is primarily a verb describing the action of a loving heart focused on God, in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Whatever liturgies we use in our specific churches should be designed to release the worship which is already in our hearts.  We pray and we praise through music and we read the Word of God.  These are all good things and should lead us to seeing Him in our midst.  We need to be instructed, of course, and good teaching can both educate us and lead us to worship.  However we should note that the direction of teaching comes down from the Father through the teacher to the congregation.  In contrast, the direction of worship should flow up from the congregation to God.  The act of worship brings us to our knees in reverence and awe as our hearts reflect on God’s Person and His mercy, grace, and love toward us.

We don’t have to have professionally trained preachers schooled in homiletics in order to lead us to worship.  Simple messages can be mightily used by the Spirit.  I remember one elderly, itinerant preacher whom I heard several times as a young person.  He spoke at Christian Conferences and was invited to guest speak at various churches.  He was tall and stooped, with the look of someone who spends a lot of time peering into books.  His somewhat shabby appearance reflected the fact that itinerant preachers don’t earn much.  He stood awkwardly behind the pulpit, constantly and nervously twisting the broad rubber band which had held his well-worn Bible together.  His voice was high and squeaky and this made a few rude young people snicker.

However, as he continued his message, we began to sit up straighter and listen more closely.  Soon we didn’t notice the voice or the stoop or the mannerisms or the clothes; we were carried away with the message of a Christ with Whom this man was obviously intimately acquainted.  He addressed the passage that was being studied with conviction and knowledge, and spoke with such love and clarity that the hair on the back of my neck stood up.  He presented such a loving picture of our Savior and His grace and mercy that I truly worshipped.  He spoke simply about the Lord Whom he loved, and although it is now 65 years later, I have never forgotten him.  It is the heart which speaks to heart; the externals are irrelevant.  That is the kind of preaching I would love to experience again.  That is the kind of attitude and humility and love for Christ for which I long.

Although I usually tend to be a little selective about the kind of music I prefer in church,
I have also learned that it is not always necessary to have professionally trained musicians in order to worship, no matter what the style.  If our hearts are open, the Holy Spirit can speak to us through the simplest of music.  I remember an elderly couple at one church.  They were an odd looking pair; he was a tall, thin string bean and she was a short, plump dumpling.  They loved to sing and they loved simple gospel songs ~ but their voices were not trained and not always exactly melodious.  They sometimes sounded together like an old squeaky gate. Artistically, it was a disaster.  Spiritually, it was a blessing.  They sang with such joy and such obvious love of the Lord that whenever they sang people smiled in appreciation. The Lord was so dear to them that His love simply shone out of their faces like the sun.  That was worship.

I guess I am trying to say that we need to be clear about the nature of worship.  I have one friend who freely admits that she goes to church because she enjoys the worship team; she isn’t much interested in learning about the Bible.  She goes to be swept up in the energetic emotionalism of the music, and assumes that this is worship.  I have another friend on the other end of the spectrum who admires the intellectualism of her pastor, but worshiping God doesn’t really come into it.  She just enjoys coming away from church feeling that she has demonstrated her own intellectualism by “enjoying” the erudite sermon.  She likes seeing her friends, and occasionally participating in some good work.  She believes this demonstrates being a Christian.  I have other deeply Christian friends who mistake praise for worship ~ their worship consists of their testimony as to how much the Lord has blessed them, how they feel good because of their blessings, how much they love the Lord because of what He has done for them.  They don’t understand the subtle difference between praise for their blessings (one good thing), and worship of the Lord for the sake of Who He is in Himself (another good thing entirely).

Although praise and worship are closely intertwined, we need to understand in our hearts that there is a difference.  Often both come together in a single service.  Yet, we need to be aware which is which.  If we assume that praise and worship are exactly the same, we may spend all our time on praise and somehow never get to the place where we worship.  We may never realize that God is to be worshiped not only because of the blessings we have received in Christ, but for Who He is in Himself, and the glory of His nature.

As an example of the differences between worship and praise ~ Isaiah 53 is pure worship.  It is all about Him; all about His sorrow, about His suffering.  Psalm 57 is mostly praise; it is about the writer and his heart’s grateful response to the mercy and blessing of God.  I am not saying that both are not good.  I am merely pointing out that there is a difference, and that it has been my observation that in today’s world we are more likely to be focused on ourselves than on the Lord, even in church.

My heart’s desire is that all of us who know and love the Lord will come to the place in our spiritual lives when “He” becomes more important to us than “me”.  Because the Father is so far out of our human frame of reference that we cannot begin to imagine the true scope of His glory, we tend to try to bring Him down to our level; to shrink Him to the place where we feel more in control.  He understands this and it is one of the reasons why He sent His Son.  In Jesus, we can find the nature and character of God in a form to which we can relate.  In Jesus He demonstrates those parts of His nature which He particularly wants us to understand: that He is Love, that He is Light, and that He is Life.  Let us praise Him for all He has given us, but let us also fall on our faces before Him for His infinite power and majesty as Creator and Lord of all, and for the depth of His beauty and holiness.  He is God!  Amen and amen.

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