9.5 Theses on Worship
For the past 30 yearsas a parishioner, pastor, songwriter, musician, and now seminary professorI have witnessed what some have called the "worship wars" raging in our churches. Many churches continue to be torn asunder because of questions like these: Shall we sing "traditional" hymns or "contemporary" choruses, or both? Shall we accompany our singing with organ and piano only, or with guitars and, gasp, even drums? As we sing, shall we lift our hands or only our voices? Shall we read our lyrics by looking into a hymnal or by looking up at text projected on a screen?
We desperately need theological discussions of worship in general. But what many congregants want is something more practical and immediatea coherent and biblical understanding regarding the songs we sing and the instruments we use in worship.
Our heavenly Father wills that the whole
life of believers should be worship.
Jesus made clear, in John 4, that worship is not an activity limited to certain places or times. Rather, worship is the 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, vocation of all believers. God is Spirit-unbounded by constraints of time or spaceand thus his worshipers must worship him everywhere and at all times (John 4:23-24).
Furthermore, that which God requires he powerfully provides for. For with his reference to an hour that is at once both "coming" and "now here" (v. 23, ESV), Jesus presents a theme central to John's Gospel: The Holy Spirit would soon be poured upon all believers, and would permanently indwell us (see John 7:39 and 14:16-17), making us living temples of the living God.
Any discussion of worship, then, must begin with the biblical concern for worship as lifestyle, not merely as a formal gathering that features specifically "religious" actions. This is a theme consistently affirmed, in most forceful language, throughout the Bible. In passages such as Isaiah 1:10-17 and Amos 5:21-24, God actually rejects the very worship practices that he had himself commanded of his peopleassemblies, sacrifices, Sabbath observances, prayers, and the likebecause these actions had been severed from a more fundamental commitment to lives of justice, mercy, and humility (Mic. 6:8). Religious actions at religious gatherings of the community were not intended to be substitutes for a life devoted to the true worship of God but, rather, were to be its celebratory overflow.
The word worship, when applied to
public gatherings of the saints,
must not be reduced to a synonym
for singing praises to God.
For many today, especially in evangelical churches, worship is only that portion of the service that we devote to singing praises. This represents a significant and recent shift in our worship vocabulary.
In 1985, I attended an evening service of a large church. The service began with about 20 minutes of chorus singing, accompanied by guitars, with lyrics projected on a screen. After the guitars were put down and the projector switched off, a pastor came to the podium and announced to the assembly, "Now we will begin our worship." Naturally, I wondered what we had been doing for the past 20 minutes. But I came to understand that in this church, at that time, worship was what happened after the guitars were put down and the projector turned off.
Fifteen years later, I returned to the same church to speak in an evening service, with many of the same people present. The opening of the service was familiarsingers, guitars, projector, choruses of praise. But this time, when that singing had ended, a pastor stood before us and said, "That was a wonderful time of worship. And now " The "And now " was pregnant with meaning. It was clear that the definition of worship had changed.