For the past 10+ years I have been trying to figure out what worship is. I’ve come to conclude with certainty that it is not limited to singing and praying, though it feels like that in some churches. Here, instead, is my working definition:
Worship is a response to an encounter with God.
Let me elaborate a bit. First, how do we encounter God? I think that happens in a wide variety of ways. We can encounter him in relationships, in circumstances, in nature, certainly in his word…. We can encounter him in his different roles or personalities; Isaiah calls God “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace, Everlasting Father.” My own standing before God also impacts how I encounter him: as a sinner in need of grace and forgiveness, as a sick man needing healing, as a wanderer needing direction….
These different ways we encounter God elicit in us different reactions. The book of Psalms is a wonderful anthology of a man who met God in all these ways. For David, an artist and musician, poetry and music became the way he worshipped. But Balaam also encountered God, and in a very different way – in the form of a talking donkey. No, God did not become a donkey! But he used a donkey to stop Balaam dead in his tracks – before an angel just stopped him dead! Balaam’s response was to fall face down in worship and fear. (See Numbers 22)
Worship is a Choice
Sometimes how we respond to an encounter with God is secondary to that we respond. I have three young children, and sometimes they just ignore me. It’s very aggravating! But sometimes I just ignore God, too, and how that must hurt him. How many times have I walked out of church and said something like, “the worship just wasn’t very good today”? I’m blaming the people up front when the reality is, I just didn’t worship. Most often, I have to choose to worship. (Sometimes, though, I think it’s a gut-level reaction, and that is usually when I encounter God’s magnificence, his almighty greatness.)
The Job of a Worship Leader
So what’s a worship leader to do? What is his task? First and foremost, the worship leader must be a worshipper. He must encounter God and worship him.
Second, the worship leader is responsible for leading the congregation into an encounter with God so that they can worship as well. I kind of think of this role as the butler at a fancy home – he greets you at the door and ushers you into the presence of the host. Or maybe she’s the tour guide who is sharing with you the wonderful and amazing truths she has found.
I recognize that my definition has its limitations, but I think it’s also pretty broad. And it takes worship away from the confines of a Church Sanctuary and brings it into everyday life. In a majestic cathedral I may encounter God as the infinite, Almighty God and recognize my terrible finiteness. In the privacy of my bedroom I may encounter him as Everlasting Father or even as Abba, Daddy, and I’ll crawl up into his lap and find rest in his loving arms. In a service of celebration and praise, I may encounter him as the conquering hero, and I’ll dance and sing and shout for joy. The important thing is not so much how I worship, but it’s that I worship – and that I meet God in a personal way.