Why You Probably Don’t Understand Worship

  • Nathan Schneider
Woman holding her arms up in praise during worship

Books on worship are in sharp surplus these days. Just do a search of Google or Amazon and see how many books and articles come up regarding Christian worship and you’ll see how vast is the ocean of thought on the subject of worship. (And, ironically, you can add this blog post to the list!) Sadly, a large percentage of this literature is not very helpful for believers, predominantly because these discussions don’t approach worship from a biblical perspective. Many of them carry an air of spirituality; some may incorporate biblical references; but here’s the thing: without a true biblical theology of worship, it’s hard to do more than proof-text for a position. In other words, you have to have a biblical starting point for talking about worship, otherwise you end up using the same terminology as everyone but you’re talking about very different things.

The most profound book I’ve ever come across on worship is a 1992 work written by David Peterson called Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship. Now, this isn’t a simple read. It’s a work of theology, and as such it’s geared toward pastors, theologians, and seminary students. It interacts with the biblical languages, uses theological rhetoric, and unfolds its argumentation in an academic manner. But I am of the opinion that any lay person with the tenacity to push through mundane academic content (which may be over his or her head) will be richly blessed by a book such as this. There’s so much gold in this book, and Peterson zeroes in right to the heart of the problem in contemporary church worship, and then provides the antidote for it: a biblical theology of worship. (See the note at the end of this blog for an important clarification on the phrase “biblical theology.”)

Why is worship so problematic? Well, there’s a few reasons why, and they all relate to each other in very organic ways.

Worship is often divisive

This one is quite obvious. The reason there’s so many books on worship is because it’s a perennial hot topic in the church. When ever two or more gather, there will be arguments over worship. Peter comments on this division when he says,

Sadly, worship is an issue that continues to divide us, both across denominations and within particular congregations. Even those who desire to bring their theology and practice under the criticism and control of biblical revelation can find themselves in serious conflict with one another. (15)

What’s compelling, scary, and sad about Peterson’s words is that it’s true: even people who desire to align their worship practices with the Bible can end up divided on the conclusions they draw. How can this be? Shouldn’t what the Bible says about worship be the end-all clarifying agent for worship in the church? You’d think, but as Peterson points out, it’s more complicated than that, and it leads to another reason for why worship can be so problematic.

Worship is often governed by custom, tradition, and preference

The reason why we divide on worship is because we are “conditioned,” as Peterson says, by the customs, traditions, and personal preferences we associate with it…so much so that even when we attempt to submit these under the authority of Scripture, we have trouble letting go of these ‘sacred cows.’ Peterson writes,

Despite the so-called ‘experiments in worship’ that are widespread today, church-goers regularly express dissatisfaction and confess that they are still uncertain about the meaning and purpose of what is commonly called worship. Many are defensive about their traditions because they cannot see the need for significant change. Some wander from church to church, looking for the particular pattern of ministry that appeals to them. (15-16)

Now, we may chalk a lot of this up to man-centeredness, and in many cases a ‘worship war’ in a church is nothing more than various groups of people battling to control the style of the music, the instruments involved, or how much liturgy is used. These issues have to do with preference and a lack of willingness on everyone’s part to defer in love to the whole for the sake of unity.

But a more insidious issue lurks beneath these waters, hiding a third reason for why worship is so problematic.

Worship is often ill-defined

Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter. Why do we wrangle with each other over worship? It’s because we’ve failed to define worship at the most basic of levels. The preference issues referenced above stem from our propensity to associate worship with certain public religious activities. Here’s Peterson on the subject:

In everyday speech, Christian worship is usually identified with certain public religious activities, such as going to church or more particularly as singing hymns, saying prayers, listening to sermons or participating in the Lord’s Supper. Yet few would want to deny that private devotions are an important aspect of worship. (16)

Thus, as Peterson points out, what we often chalk up to man-centeredness…a desire for personal fulfillment in church services, to be stirred,  challenged, comforted, and consoled as individuals…these are actually indicative of the reality that genuine worship has both a public and a private dimension.

In reality, what these desires point to is an underlying misunderstanding of the very nature of worship itself:

Is worship, then, essentially an experience or feeling? Is it to be identified with a special sense of the presence of God, or with some kind of religious ecstasy or with expressions of deep humiliation before God? Are there special moments in a Christian meeting when we are truly ‘worshipping’ God? Are church services to be measured by the extent to which they enable the participants to enter into such experiences? Such a subjective approach is often reflected in the comments people make about Christian gatherings, but it has little to do with biblical teaching on the matter. (16)

I think Peterson sums up the issue well when he writes,

Worship must involve certain identifiable attitudes, but something is seriously wrong when people equate spiritual self-gratification with worship!

The issue, Peterson notes, is that we’re all using the same word: “worship”. But as the venerable Inigo Montoya said in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

You see, too often, we take a word like worship and we form a definition based on the origins of the word itself. Since the English word ‘worship’ derives from the idea of ‘attributing worth,’ Christians have traditionally defined worship as that act of rendering to God all the glory and praise that is due him based on how worthy he is of it. This concept even finds support from passages such as Psalm 96:7-8 and Revelation 5:12.

But is that an all-encompassing definition of worship? What’s more, is it possible based on this definition of worship that a person can come to his or her own subjective assessment of God’s worth and the proper response to it which may or may not have anything to do with biblical revelation? Is it possible that a person can offer worship which they consider adequate but which God will not accept? Consider Peterson’s words carefully:

The fact that some worship in the Old Testament was regarded as unacceptable to God (e.g. Gn. 4:3-7; Ex. 32; Is. 1), is a reminder that what is impressive or seems appropriate to us may be offensive to him. When New Testament writers talk about acceptable worship, they similarly imply that there are attitudes and activities that are definitely not pleasing to God (e.g. Rom. 12:1-2; 14:17-18; Heb. 12:28-29; 13:16). (17)

What’s the point? Simply this: the English word for ‘worship’ should probably not be the sole basis for defining worship.

This leads us to another reason for why worship is so problematic in the church.

Worship is all-encompassing

You see, we’ve tried to define worship as a very narrow subset of activities and attitudes related to the Christian life. But that’s not the biblical portrait of worship at all. Instead, worship is seen as the entire point of everything. Likewise, it incorporates every topic and every theological emphasis, because at its core it has to do with “the fundamental question of how we can be in a right relationship with God and please him in all that we do.” (17-18). Here’s Peterson’s assertion:

Although there is a preoccupation with what may be termed specifically ‘religious’ activities in various Old Testament contexts, ritual provisions are set within the broader framework of teaching about life under the rule of God. In fact, worship theology expresses the dimensions of a life orientation or total relationship with the true and living God. This becomes even more obvious when the theme of worship in the New Testament is examined. Contemporary Christians obscure the breadth and depth of the Bible’s teaching on this subject when they persist in using the word ‘worship’ in the usual, limited fashion, applying it mainly to what goes on in Sunday services. (18)

I cannot emphasize how profoundly important that statement is. Worship is life-encompassing, and we can’t afford to restrict its definition down to a few means of expression during a corporate event. Just consider Romans 12:1 and its command to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” as the true expression of ‘spiritual worship’ for the believer.

But that leads to one final reason for why worship is problematic, and its a deeply spiritual and theological one.

Worship is a two-way street

Now, don’t misunderstand me. In no way does the Bible ever speak of man as the object of worship and God as a the subject doing the worshipping. What I mean is simply this: defining worship as solely our response to God leaves out half the equation.

You see, there’s some unarticulated concepts inherent in this the idea of worship as our “response” to God. For one, it assumes certain things that we’re responding to. What are these? Second, it begs to be asked if God has a role in our worship, and whether he has specified what he finds acceptable or unacceptable in terms of worship.

Approaching a biblical definition of worship, Peterson has this to say:

More fundamentally, the Bible tells us that God must draw us into relationship with himself before we can respond to him acceptably. The worship provisions of the Old Testament are presented as an expression of the covenant relationship established by God between himself and Israel. Similarly, in the New Testament, worship theology is intimately connected with the establishment and outworking of the new covenant. Acceptable worship under both covenants is a matter of responding to God’s initiative in salvation and revelation, and doing so in a way that he requires. (19)

Peterson goes on to emphasize the fact that left to ourselves, we are simply unable to present any kind of worship that God finds acceptable. In order to worship him in a manner he will be pleased with, God himself must make it possible for us to do it.

So what is it!!??

In the final analysis, all these issues raise some important questions for us. We don’t want to be divided over worship. We don’t want to be swayed by preference or tradition. We don’t want to over-simplify or narrowly define worship. And we certainly don’t want to ignore the part that God plays in it. All this leads to some questions we face:

How can God be known and approached? What must God do to enable his people to meet with him? What difference has the coming of Jesus made to biblical perspectives on this subject? What is the relationship between the activities of the Christian meeting and what we may call the worship of everyday life? (20)

Ultimately, Peterson addresses all of these questions as he begins to prove out his definition of worship throughout the book. So what’s the definition? I’ll put it in exactly his words:

“Worship with the living and true God is essentially an engagement with him on the terms that he proposes and in the way that he alone makes possible.

I have yet to come across a better definition of worship that the one proposed by Peterson because in that very simple definition lies the whole of the gospel. There is no true worship without the gospel. Believers who don’t realize this…or acknowledge it in a passing, flippant, superficial way…are in grave danger of engaging in unacceptable worship.

I’ll explore all of this more in the coming weeks.

APPENDIX: Biblical Theology Defined

At first blush, it’s tempting to understand the phrase “biblical theology” as “theology that’s biblical.” That’s understandable. It’s taking the adjective “biblical” and making it attributive. But that’s not what theologians mean when they refer to “biblical theology.” Here’s a proper definition of biblical theology as taken from Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Biblical Truth:

The organization of Scripture thematically by biblical chronology or by biblical author with respect to the progressive revelation of the Bible (35)

Biblical theology is a subset of a larger discipline called Systematic Theology. The only difference between the two is that while systematic theology deals with the whole of the Bible in a systematic sense, biblical theology is an approach which takes into account the timeline of how biblical revelation has been unveiled throughout the centuries of biblical history, or how one particular biblical author approached a given theological subject. Thus, while “Salvation” can be studied through both biblical and systematic theology, the latter will deal with all of Scripture to provide a comprehensive understanding of the biblical doctrine of salvation, while the former will approach it from how the doctrine developed from the Old Testament to the New Testament, or how a particular writer like Moses, Isaiah, or the apostle Paul developed that particular doctrine, or how it was addressed and developed in a part of the Bible, such as the prophets, the Gospels, or the Old Testament Wisdom literature.