“What type of worship honors God?” or, to look at the question another way, “Theologically speaking, what is it that actually makes worship worshipful to God?”
Even though I have practiced, led, studied and preached about worshipping God for over five decades as a Christian leader, I still refuse to suggest I have any expertise on the subject. A lifetime of entering and experiencing His presence has a way of keeping me mindful of how little I know, and how dependent I am on Him for guidance in leadership—not my personal experience.
I open with that context for what follows—my offered answer to the above pair of questions presented to me, with the request: “Set forth the theological basis for our thematic study of worship.” At first a certain hesitation tempted me to conform to what I supposed was expected—a dissertation on the glory of God, and the propriety of humankind bringing worthy expressions of worship before His Throne. Instead, I felt the need to get to “the heart” of worship. So I have chosen to press an issue—not less theologically correct, but one that might seem unacceptable for failing to recite the usual themes and statements when a “theology of worship” is proposed.
To my perception, most theological presuppositions about worship focus on the analytical, not the intuitive, in other words on the mind, not the heart. In most western Christian tradition, a virtual scorning of either the subjective experience or the mystical nature of encountering God finds common approval. A usual theology of worship centers on an objective analysis of God’s revealed person, nature and attributes, with the accompanying presupposition that worthy worship is essentially constituted of our reciting this information back to him. This focus is on the mind’s ideas about God, rather than the heart’s hunger for Him, and overlooks the truth that worship is actually a gift from God to us more than one from us to Him. Our Western, evangelical tradition often portrays worship as an intellectual exercise. But the words of our Savior still resound the undeniable call to worship that transcends the intellect: “God is a spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).
We have been inclined to conclude “mind” and “spirit” are synonyms, when the Bible shows the “heart” is a more likely candidate to answer to the meaning of “worshipping in spirit. That “in truth” is a companion phrase indicating the active participation of the intellect, as well. But it is inescapably second and dependent upon the heart’s fullest release in worship first. This priority is usually held suspect, if not outright resisted, because our intellectualized value system minimizes the worth of emotions. Our hearts, as the emotional center of our human response sources, can be deemed “less worthy” because it is governed more by affections than by reason. The heart can also be seen as more vulnerable to deception than the intellect because of the heart’s emotional bent. To turn on these terms, from “heart-begotten” (i.e. “spiritual”) worship to an intellectually based approach is to entertain a two-part delusion: first, that the mind is less subject to deception than the heart (an unsupportable concept—2 Corinthians 4:4); and second, that the mind is ever the means by which God is “contacted” in worship (which is denied in the Bible—Job 11:7).
This is not to dilute the priceless value of God’s gift of human intellect, nor to deny that human intelligence is contributive to worship. But our quest is for an answer to, “What kind of worship God prefers from us.” In the last analysis, God’s Word indicates that 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).
It is not that our minds are unworthy vehicles to receive divine revelation, but they are too limited to respond to the divine invitation. The intellect may discover truth about God’s worthiness of worship and may choose to do so. To fully enter into our Creator-Redeemer’s presence—to open to the intimacy to which He invites us, only the spiritual capacities of the worshipping heart will suffice. Only our ignited hearts can delight Him and experience His desire to delight us!
That is His desire, without question. His invitation to eternal life and eternal joy is an expression of God’s preoccupying concern from the inception of His ideas about and creation of humankind. Our fathers have taught us this: “The chief end of man is to love God and to enjoy Him forever.” This anticipated joy is not reserved solely for the future life, for Peter says of our present worship of Christ, “Whom having not seen you love, though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end of your faith…” (1 Peter 1:18).
I would contend that what is on God’s mind when we worship Him is not how many grandiose thoughts we have about Him, but how passionately our hearts desire Him. What He most wants to achieve in the interactions of our spirits with His is a transmission of His love, life and joy. I tread the risky territory of seeming to minimize “worship” by not focusing first on “God’s holiness and our unworthiness.” By proposing that, from God’s viewpoint, worship is a means designed to unlock the human heart that God may answer human needs and serve His own heartfelt interest in the well-being of His most beloved creatures. Of course, I also hasten to emphasize that God’s excellent glory and man’s sin and need are not in question or subject to debate here. He is holy and we are unworthy. But once the redemption provided through Jesus’ Cross has been received by faith, I want to assert, the worship God most welcomes is neither essentially or primarily intellectual (though it is certainly not unintelligent). Also, God’s primary focus in giving us access to worship Him is to provide an exposure and experience intended for our benefit, not His, though it is unquestionable He delights in our coming to Him.
I propose such a “theology of worship” based on worship we find offered to Him in His Word, as well as in direct statements He has made, revealing the worship which God welcomes and honors is:
1. Worship that treasures His presence
Foremost, God welcomes those into His presence who want Him. Their quest may be one of desperation or of delight, of frantic need or a loving hunger for fellowship, but the motivation is clearly focused—and so is His pleasure with it.
In Exodus 33 and 34, a tender and powerful exchange take place between God and Moses, spanning the range of actions from an intimate face-to-face encounter to a dramatic declaration by the Almighty at the time the second set of tablets containing the Law are given to Moses. Central to this scene is the heart-cry Moses utters,
“‘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…And He said, ‘My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.’ The he said to Him, ‘If your Presence does not go with us, do not bring us up from here.’” (Exodus 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 (Exodus 40:33-38; 1 Kings 1:8-11).
It was not until I had been in pastoral leadership for nearly 15 years that a transformation took place in my thinking about our corporate worship services. More than regimented gatherings, concerned over the mechanics and academics of our time together, we began to prioritize providing a portion of the service for free-flowing songs of praise and adoration, often, songs directly expressive of the scriptures.
Within two years of an earnest quest for God’s manifest presence among us—a season of time rich with its own fulfillment and never void of a sense of His nearness, our church was visited with a display of His glory and grace that continues still. This continuance has not been without our periodic need for renewal in our own passion for Him. We are blatantly aware even the finest spiritual habits are vulnerable to the arthritis of ritualism. With gentleness, the Holy Spirit has a way of drawing us back to “first love”—to regularly prompting renewed hunger and thirst for the Living God.
Such worship will be awed by His Presence and “fall in love” with His Person.
2. Worship that humbles the heart
Perhaps the most memorable encounter between God and man is the occasion of Isaiah’s call (Isaiah 6:1-8). The cry of a sinful man, “Woe is me, for I am undone,” was not an achievement of intellectual analysis, but of a self-discovery faced upon entering God’s presence with unabashed passion and with childlike openness. “I saw the Lord…,” he says with neither apology or arrogance, as a breakthrough of grace produces a breakup of pride, a viewpoint even more deeply affirmed later in the same book (Isaiah 57:15).
The starting place for confronting pride is in how we approach worship. Isaiah, who is known to be from the cultural, educated elite of Judah during His time, describes a childlike humility and teachability, which can only attend an unpretentious entry into God’s presence. His cry revealed an unreserved availability to God’s revelation of Himself and 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” (Matthew 18:3, 10).
It is this heartfelt conviction of the essential need for childlikeness (not childishness) in worship that caused me to begin to understand why Scripture calls us to expressive worship—both vocally and physically expressed. Few things challenge our pride more than the simplest summons to expressiveness (even to “sing a bit louder on the next verse”). I carry no instructions for orchestrated excerises in church, as though such actions would bring about a superior ceremony in God’s eyes. I have learned that careful teaching and pastoral modeling can help a congregation past self-consciousness and release a childlike liberty in expression, which challenges our adult preoccupation with our own self-importance.
I think the motive was sincere, but it was misguided when one of our members suggested I temper my pastoral practice in leading worship. “Pastor, if you didn’t teach and invite people to lift their hands in worship, I think our church would grow faster;” adding, “I think you might injure some people’s pride.” Without previous thought, my candid answer cut to the point as I see it: “Injure pride?” I said gently. “Why, I was hoping to kill it altogether.”
I hold no disdain for the propriety of respecting human dignity. But there is a disposition, in the Church as surely as in the world, that equates dignity and pride. It’s a false equation. The worth of each individual in my congregation requires that I teach, help and model a pathway for all of us to “come as children before the Father.” The deceptiveness of pride, and its insistence on finding a way to justify its preservation, even in Church, calls me to find a means to help hearts toward a humility like Isaiah’s. That will give place to a fresh view of God and pave the way to deeply felt confession and purification in His presence.
3. Worship that sacrifices and 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 is based on the proposition that worship always bring a sacrifice to God—that “he that comes,” whether with praise, an offering, or in laying down something, is presenting something of themselves to God. Simultaneously, we are told that the worshipper is with equal faith to believe something will be given in return by God Himself—something rewarding, enriching, benevolent and good.
The tension between these two—bringing a sacrifice and expecting a reward—provides a venue to common argument today. Some feel obligated to “defend God” against human selfishness and refuse the balance in proposition the text declares. But the truth is, God does freely offer the rewards of His blessing—and delights to do so. He doesn’t bother to argue: “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 believe in and 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. That’s why I unhesitatingly teach the promises of God regarding His desire to bless us with physical and material provisions.
Whatever interpretive view a leader takes toward Malachi 3:10-12, whether it is viewed as a contemporary covenant or not, it still reveals a generosity in the heart of God toward human obedience in giving, and the justice of human expectancy of blessing in conjunction with that obedient worship.
“Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house, and try Me now in this,” Says the Lord of hosts, “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. And I will rebuke the devourer for your sakes, so that he will not destroy the fruit of your ground, nor shall the vine fail to bear fruit for you in the field,” says the Lord of hosts; “and all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a delightful land,” says the Lord of hosts. – Malachi 3:10-12
It is not unspiritual to rehearse again the timeless fact: worship is God’s gift to us for our blessing and benefit. He doesn’t need it. We do. As we learn to enter with full and open heart, we will find humbled and cleansed hearts, and ultimately come with full and opened hands that give…and receive His promise to refill them, over and over!
Those hands will learn one more thing.
4. Worship that extends God’s love by every means
If God-pleasing worship addresses human need more than it supplies a divine one, if, there is such a thing as a need on God’s part, it is to be expected that worship which honors the desires of the Almighty will bring about reaching hands. It is unsurprising that our Savior’s summary definition of the “greatest commandment,” issues into “the second, which is like (in importance) unto it.” The vertical mandate, which focuses on our worshipping God (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength”), issues in the horizontal (“…and your neighbor as yourself”). Basically, the only true divine approval our worship will find is when it results in our hearts being focused on such things as:
Forgiveness toward others, with peacemaking and reconciling efforts evident in our day-to-day agenda for living.
Gracious, life-style evangelism characterizing our conduct and communication, so that the glory of His presence is manifest in our lives shedding a warm, attractive light as believable, engaging witnesses.
Unselfish, servant-minded availability to assist in human need, which is seen in believers having a heart of care for victims of neglect and injustice.
It is this conviction that drives an inclusion of “prayer circles” in nearly every worship at our church. “Ministry time” is the formal name we use for an approximately ten-minute segment of small group interaction and prayer, usually following an extended time of sensitive, intimate and praiseful worship to God. The habit was formed decades ago at the same time my thinking about worship was being revolutionized. The four to five minutes of that time, during which three to six people share their personal need or concern and then pray for one another, is an estimable key to our effectiveness as a congregation.
Notwithstanding the doubts of those who wonder if such a practice might violate a “seeker-sensitive” style, we have found that “Ministry Time” (a) applies in pragmatic ways the sense of God’s love evoked during worship’s intimacy, (b) realizes the release of the ministry gifts of the Holy Spirit in the assembly, (c) opens the doorway to personal expression, mutual concern and the power of pointed, heartfelt prayers with their consequent answers and (d) lays the foundation for the invitation at the end of the message (because it is infinitely easier to invite people to receive the love of God in Jesus Christ after they have had a personal encounter with people who have shown it!).
Over the years, the bottom line of worship seems to have been and continues to be served as we pursue these values on the basis of the theological viewpoint I have presented. We have never lost sight of Him as First and Foremost, but we have not based our approach on anything more than the splendor of His love shown to us in Jesus, and that love-gift ignites our worship. What begins in treasuring Him proceeds to humble our hearts, awaken our sacrifice and release our service. What is birthed in the heart 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.