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How God Evaluates Worship

To please God, worship must do these four things.
How God Evaluates Worship
Image: Greg Rakozy

In my experience, theological discussions about worship tend to focus on the cerebral, not the visceral—on the mind, not the heart. "True" worship, we are often taught, is more about the mind thinking right about God (using theologically correct language and liturgy), rather than the heart's hunger for him.

But the words of our Savior resound the undeniable call to worship that transcends the intellect: "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:24).

We've been inclined to conclude that mind is the proper synonym for spirit here, but the Bible shows that heart is a better candidate. "In truth" certainly suggests participation of the intellect in worship, but it is inescapably second—and dependent upon the heart's fullest release first.

This priority is usually held suspect. The heart is said to be governed by affections and thus is more vulnerable to deception than is the intellect. But to base worship on the intellect is to entertain a dual delusion: first, that the mind is less subject to deception than is the heart; second, that the mind is the main means to "contact" God in worship (note verses like Job 11:7: "Can you fathom the mysteries of God?").

Yes, human intelligence contributes to worship, but God's Word indicates he is not looking for something brilliant but something broken: "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart—these, O God, You will not despise" (Psalm 51:17).

The exercises of our enlightened minds may deduce God, but only our ignited hearts can delight him—and in turn experience his desire to delight us!

To be more specific, I believe that to please God, worship must do four things.

1. True worship treasures God's presence. God welcomes those into his presence who want him. The quest may be one of desperation or of delight, of frantic need or of a loving hunger for fellowship, but the motivation is clear—and so is his pleasure with it.

In Exodus 33 and 34, a tender and powerful exchange takes place between God and Moses, spanning the range from an intimate face-to-face encounter to a dramatic declaration by the Almighty. Central is the cry of Moses: "Now therefore, I pray, if I have found grace in your sight, show me now your way, that I may know you and that I may find grace in your sight."

To which God replies, "My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest" (Ex. 33:13-15). Shortly following this, God displays his glory to Moses—as sure a sign of his pleasure and presence as he ever gives (Ex. 40:33-38; 1 Kings 1:8-11).

I had been in pastoral leadership for nearly 15 years when my thinking about corporate worship was transformed. Rather than tightly regimented gatherings, concerned over aesthetics, mechanics, and academic theology, we began to provide an unpressured portion of the service for free-flowing songs of praise and adoration. Within two years, our church began to experience God's glory and grace in new and more profound ways, an experience that continues still.

We've been vigilant in seeking constant renewal of the practice because we know that even the finest spiritual habits are vulnerable to the arthritis of ritualism—when form loses its focus. But with gentleness, the Holy Spirit has a way of drawing us back to our "first love"—to a renewed hunger and thirst for the Living God.

Few things challenge our pride more
than the simplest summons to expressiveness.

Such worship encourages people to "fall in love" with God. If the phrase fall in love offends anyone (as it once did me—it wasn't sufficiently "objective") perhaps we might learn to be equally offended by "reason" that distances the heart from a passion to simply know and love God.

2. True worship humbles the heart. In Isaiah 6:1-8, the abject cry of a sinful man, "Woe is me, for I am undone," was not an achievement of intellectual analysis, but of self-discovery made upon entering God's presence.

Isaiah says "I saw the Lord" with neither apology nor arrogance; it was a breakthrough of grace that produced a breakup of pride. Isaiah, a member of the cultural, educated elite of Judah, demonstrates a childlike humility and teachability. His cry, without a vestige of style-consciousness, reveals an unreserved availability to God.

This is the very thing to which Jesus calls us all: "Assuredly I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. … Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven" (Mt. 18:3, 10).

Because of the importance of humility, years ago I began encouraging people to become more expressive, both vocally and physically, in worship. Few things challenge our pride more than the simplest summons to expressiveness. I carry no brief for orchestrated calisthenics in church, as though a set of exercises made for superior liturgy. But I have learned that careful teaching and modeling can help people move beyond self-consciousness (and challenge the adult preoccupation with self-importance) so that they can experience a childlike liberty in expressing themselves in worship.

One of our members, with the best of motives, once suggested, "Pastor, if you didn't teach and invite people to lift their hands in worship, I think our church would grow faster," and then added, "I think you might injure some people's pride."

"Injure pride?" I said gently. "Why, I was hoping to kill it altogether."

I want to respect human dignity, but there is a disposition, ensconced in the church as surely as in the world, that equates dignity and pride—and it's a false equation. It is because I value each individual in my congregation that I teach and model a way for us to "come as children before the Father." Because pride tends to insist on finding a way to justify and preserve itself (even in church), I try to help people learn the humility of Isaiah. Only this will help them view God afresh and pave the way to deeply felt confession and purification.

3. True worship sacrifices and then expects something from God. Hebrews 11:6 puts it clearly: "He that comes to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of those who humbly seek him." The text presupposes that worship always brings a sacrifice to God, that "he that comes," whether with praise, an offering, or by "laying down" something instructed by the Holy Spirit, is presenting something of himself to God.

Simultaneously we are told that the worshiper is to believe something will be given in return by God himself—something rewarding, benevolent, and good.

Some try to defend God against human selfishness and refuse all talk of "reward." But the truth is, God freely offers the reward of his blessing—and delights to do so. He doesn't grouse, "Don't you dare give me something and suppose you're manipulating me to give back!" Instead, his Word simply says, in effect, "Since you come to me, I would expect you to believe I will reward your quest."

Of course, tithes or offerings (which are, indeed, appropriate and biblical "sacrifices") aren't to be a tit-for-tat bargain with God! But God's call to worship is attended by his own commitment to bless us. The promise of God in Malachi 3:10 ("Try me now in this … if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it") reveals a largess in the heart of God toward human giving—and the justice of our expecting a blessing in return.

Worship is God's gift to us, intended for our blessing and benefit. He doesn't need it, we do.

4. True worship extends God's love. If God-pleasing worship addresses human need, it also will extend God's love to others. It is, thus, unsurprising that the "greatest commandment" issues into "the second, which is like (in importance) unto it." The vertical mandate, to love and worship God, is also horizontal, to love the neighbor. This means such things as:

  • Forgiving others, seeking peace and reconciliation day-by-day.
  • Gracious, lifestyle evangelism in both conduct and communication, living out a believable, winsome witness.
  • Unselfish, servant-minded attitude in assisting others in need, including a heart to care for victims of neglect and injustice.

This need for us to reach out drives the "prayer circles" we have in nearly every worship service at our church. "Ministrytime," the formal name, lasts about 10 minutes as we prepare then direct people to form small groups, to share needs, then pray. This is essential to our effectiveness as a congregation.

"Ministrytime" accomplishes four things: (1) it is a pragmatic way to express God's love evoked during worship, (2) it helps people use their ministry gifts in the assembly, (3) it allows people to express themselves personally and to care and pray for one another, and (4) it lays the foundation for the invitation—it is infinitely easier to invite people to receive the love of God in Jesus Christ after they have had a personal encounter with some people who have shown it!

What is birthed in the heart, then, finds expression in the hands—hands that rise in humble praise, give in simple expectancy, and serve with gentle grace.

With such sacrifices, God seems to be well pleased.

Jack Hayford is the pastor of Church on the Way
14300 Sherman Way
Van Nuys CA

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