The Heart and Life of Worship

Worship is a word that we use often in our Christian vernacular, but everyone seems to have a different opinion on its meaning and purpose.  With so many questions and differences in ideology surrounding the topic, I often wonder if it’s a word we as a church body give much credence, or if it’s simply used as a buzz word in today’s church culture.  Worship is certainly an important aspect of our spiritual walk with God, but can we even define it if asked by another person?  Do we really know what it means to worship?

Growing up in a small country church in New Albany, worship to me was the sound of a slightly out of tune piano being accompanied by an organ that mostly played in the right key.  The congregation of around 100 would sing with confidence as they were led by the music minister, and the mighty choir of fifteen or so people would also aid in leading the charge.  While some may picture this scene as simple or “old-fashioned,” there is a mystifying beauty around how that congregation of untrained musicians could sing all the different voice parts because they’ve sung those timeless hymns so many times.  Surely this is worship, right?

As I moved from my home and began to find my own church family in Oxford while I was in college, I was drawn into a church a little different from my own.  This was church on a grander scale: the piano and organ were still there, but the piano was in tune and the organ had pipes!  For the first time in my own personal church experience, I was a part of a service where there were guitars, a drum set, various other percussion instruments, wind instruments, electronic keyboards, and a choir that on its fullest Sundays would easily outnumber the congregation of the church of my childhood during the summer months.  During that time, I would sometimes catch myself wondering if I had missed out on worship growing up—if somehow my worship experience had been incomplete through a lack of instrumentation, lighting, and repertoire.

As I look back at that time, I can’t help but laugh at myself for having such thoughts.  Of course I experienced worship at both churches!  A small-town country church can have genuine, heartfelt worship just as easily as a larger church in a thriving college town and vice versa.  In truth, I was mesmerized by the atmosphere of the worship service more than the worship experience, itself.

But what exactly is a “worship experience”? Is it just the first twenty minutes of a “worship service” where Tom is in front of us leading with his army of musicians, or could it be more?  Does a sermon always have to follow a time of worship?  Do we even need to be in a church building to have worship?

Famed author and theologian C.S. Lewis would argue that the building, lights, and music are all unnecessary to worship.  In fact, he believes that “the perfect church service would be the one we were almost unaware of”  because “our attention would have been on God.”  If, then, the goal is to be consciously removed from the service and be brought into the presence of God, is the worship service even a necessity?  From the position of needing to be a part of a spiritual body in order to grow as a believer, absolutely (see 1 Corinthians 12).  But do we need the presence of a sanctuary, a worship leader, or a sermon to experience God in worship?  Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is no.

Claiming to need a church building or fog machines in order to worship is a gross over-complication of one of the greatest gifts we as believers have been given.  Worship is not about the songs we sing or the music that we play or the number of people we’re with.  The first account of worship in the Bible was Adam and Eve walking with the presence of God in the Garden of Eden, and there are numerous acts of worship throughout the Scriptures that are completely absent of mortar and song:  David fearlessly stood up to Goliath proclaiming that God would deliver the Philistines into Israel’s hands (1 Samuel 17:47).  Through increasing torment, loss, and sorrow, Job refused to curse God and remained faithful to him.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego defied a king and braved a fiery furnace, confident that God would be with them even if they were to be swallowed up in flame (Daniel 3:16-18).  A young virgin rejoiced and submitted to God when told that she would give birth to a Son who was to be Savior of the world—an announcement that would make her an outcast to society (Luke 1:38).  Stephen proclaimed Jesus’ Lordship as he was being stoned to death (Acts 7:56).

These are acts of worship, and countless more can be found throughout the entirety of the Bible.  Not worship experiences.  Not worship services.  Acts of worship.  Our true expression of worship is revealed in how we allow God to intersect our lives on a moment-by-moment basis.  There is no set time or place to worship.  As Christians, every moment of our existence is an opportunity to worship.  How we respond to harsh words, how we care for the helpless, how we handle crises, how we speak to our parents, spouse, children, coworkers, siblings, friends—the list of opportunities for worship is endless. Tim Hughes puts it simply: “Songs of worship arise from a life of worship.”  Our life’s song will only be as musical as our commitment to walking hand-in-hand with God allows it to be.

So the next time we find ourselves lost in the grandeur of a worship service or questioning the simplicity of an ageless hymn, it is in that moment that we should reflect inwardly and see how our lives are expressing God’s glory and goodness to those around us.  It is in that moment that we should seek out God to give Him thanks for who He is and what He has done.  After all, “the chief purpose of life, for any of us,” says J.R.R. Tolkien, “is to increase according to our capacity the knowledge of God by all means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks.”