What we call something or someone matters. Calling your wife, “old lady” may not produce the same effect as “darling.” Referring to your boss as “bro” or “home-girl” may be the start of a beautiful friendship—or a new job search. Terms can change everything.
I’ll never forget the first time someone asked me to be his “girlfriend.” He was cute and played on the JV basketball team, so basically we were soul mates. We were great friends—until he asked me to be his girlfriend. Instead of my hilarious friend who teased me and threw dodge balls at me during gym, he was my boyfriend. How was I supposed to treat a boyfriend? I had no clue; neither did he. We never recovered from the awkwardness of our altered relationship, and another middle school love story ended with dramatic tears outside the girl’s locker room. All because of one little term.
As believers, examining how we’re using foundational words of our faith can remind us of important truths or perhaps even reveal misconceptions that affect our relationship with God. Just like the word “boyfriend” altered my relationship with my first crush, I submit that how we use the term “worship” has important implications for how we interact with and relate to God.
“Man, worship was great this morning.”
“I just don’t like their style of worship.”
“Let’s stand and worship together.”
“The worship at Passion was just so powerful.”
Have you ever caught yourself using the term “worship” in reference only to congregational singing or the music at a Christian conference? You’re not alone. Over time in Christian circles music and worship have become synonymous.
When pressed, though, most of us would correctly acknowledge that “worship” refers to much more than singing. Common definitions may include “worship is an attitude,” or “a surrendered posture of the heart.” Just as congregational singing begins and ends, most definitions of worship resemble an On/Off Switch that must be activated. One chooses her attitude at any given moment. When I was a kid, a whispered “You better straighten up, young lady” produced quick results on my young heart’s attitude. Knees rarely bend low of their own accord, so heart posturing also implies an intentional bowing directed by the will.
The latent danger in action-induced frameworks of worship lies in the potential to view worship as contingent upon our own performance.
Thus, reframing the term “worship” may help believers to see more clearly who we are as created beings, how to live as reclaimed worshipers for God’s glory, and how to view corporate gatherings.
Who we are as created beings
To see action-based perceptions of worship as problematic we must start with a key aspect of the human condition: we were created worshiping.
In his book Unceasing Worship, doxologist Harold Best questions the idea that humans were created to worship God in favor of the idea that we were created already worshiping God.
Triune God enjoyed perfect community before creation—“unending fellowship, ceaseless conversation and immeasurable love” (pg. 185). Believing that we were created to worship implies that created beings were designed to make up for some lack in that fellowship.
God didn’t teach Adam and Eve to worship Him. Upon their creation, the first image-bearers naturally and ceaselessly directed their affections to and enjoyed perfect fellowship with God, just as He enjoyed within Himself.
When man sinned, however, that continuous directing of his affections toward God was broken. But, the worship didn’t stop; the outpouring of love and worth did not cease. Humans simply began to aim their worship at lesser gods.
And, we still do. No matter how irreligious a person may be, she is a worshiper. No matter how adverse one may be to matters of faith, he is a worshiper.
At this very moment, and for as long as this world endures, everybody inhabiting it is bowing down and serving something or someone—an artifact, a person, an institution, an idea, a spirit, or God through Christ (Best, p. 17).
If all humans are, in fact, at all times directing their affections toward someone or something, the identity of a believer is that of a wandering worshiper reclaimed by the blood of Jesus and re-aimed at the one true God.
Living as reclaimed worshipers
Understanding that identity shapes everything from our set aside times with God to the most mundane tasks. It makes sense of verses like “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). It removes the pressure to perform.
Instead, as we daily lift up our souls to God alone, resting in the finished work of Jesus, trusting in His sustaining grace, and enjoying His blessings, the outpouring worship of our heart flows in endless streams toward Him.
Inevitably, when the Spirit reveals sin in our hearts, we recognize that even in sin, our worship doesn’t stop. It changes directions. As a result, repentance—“the turning from and (re)turning to” (Best, p. 19)—is the only option. As the waters of the rebel channel are gathered and the Spirit dams the wandering streams, we again find rest in the God whose streams of mercy flow endlessly toward us.
Viewing corporate gatherings
Finally, understanding worship as a continuous outpouring influences our corporate gatherings as well. Rather than the initiation of a worship experience, church services become a collective continuation of each believer’s intentional aiming of worship toward God.
Such a framework obliterates arguments over music styles and instrumentation because the pressure to create a “worshipful atmosphere” or use only “worshipful instruments” disappears. Because a specific atmosphere or music style is no longer needed to produce worship, the goal of corporate praise and proclamation is to help brothers and sisters aim their worship back to the God who bought their continuous worship back with His blood.
During the entirety of the corporate gathering, then, we can encourage each other in love to remember how it was that we came to be reclaimed worshipers. How God made a way for us to understand that He is the only intended recipient of our worship. And how Jesus took upon Himself all of our misplaced worship—every sin, every lesser god—that we might, again, worship in spirit and truth.