Understanding Worship

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(Originally posted on Jan 18, 2007 at randehle.com) Why has worship been at the core of so many divisions both within and between churches for the better part of four decades (if not longer)? Perhaps a significant reason is that we do not have a clearly-defined understanding of what worship is. In Worship by the Book, D.A. Carson accurately presents worship as far broader than either music or corporate worship.

He begins by noting the difficulty we will have in constructing a theology of worship. Indeed, he takes a full eight pages out of his 52-page first chapter just to explain why an agreeable definition of worship is difficult to come by. And when he does present his definition, he takes 16 lines to do it! Here is the first sentence Carson offers, which I believe is an accurate summary of biblical worship: Worship is the proper response of all moral, sentient beings to God, ascribing all honor and worth to their Creator-God precisely because he is worthy, delightfully so.” (The balance of his paragraph adds a number of nuances to this summary.)

If it is so hard to come to a definition of worship, and harder still to develop a solid theology of worship, it should be no wonder that so much division has arisen over this one topic. So what are we to do? As church leaders, a big part of our task is to educate the church body (cf Ro 12:7, 1 Co 12:28, Ep 4:11, Co 1:28, 3:16). If worship is to be a significant focus of our corporate gatherings, should we not teach about worship?

Here are some points Carson makes:

  • If worship is a “proper response” to God, then we need to consider how God wants his people to responds to him. We need only look at Cain and Abel to recognize that God may actually have his own worship preferences – and that ours may not line up with his.
  • Worship involves (though not exclusively) remembering and retelling. This is at the heart of the Lord’s Supper, and is a theme prevalent throughout the Old Testament, as well.
  • “Worship is no longer primarily focused in [religious action and ritual] shaped by a liturgical calendar, but it is something in which we are continuously engaged.” (p. 38) In other words, we don’t go to church to worship; rather, when we go to church, we continue to worship, now as a body.
  • Worship is both adoration and action. That is, we delight in God (adoration), but we also serve his people (action). These are not sequential or mutually exclusive, but rather concurrent. We are to do everything to the glory of God, as Paul admonished. In our actions, God may be adored. In our adoration of God, we may also serve others.
  • Worship is both individual and corporate.
  • While a thorough study of scripture will show us many elements of worship, “there is no explicit mandate or model of a particular order or arrangement of these elements.” (p. 51) Let us not be too eager, then, to over-promote our own preferences or denigrate another’s.

Carson also states that “it is folly to think that only part of the ‘service’ is worship” and continues by saying that “the notion of a ‘worship leader’ who leads the ‘worship’ part of the service before the sermon (which, then, is no part of worship!) is so bizarre, from a New Testament perspective, as to be embarrassing.” (p. 47) In a footnote on the same page, he comments about “the fact that many contemporary ‘worship leaders’ have training in music but none in Bible, theology, history, or the like.”

Carson concludes his chapter with this wise counsel: “Somewhere along the line it is important not only to explain that genuine worship is nothing more than loving God with heart and soul and mind and strength and loving our neighbors as ourselves, but also to show what a statement like that means in the concrete decisions of life.” (p. 63)

Do you have a clear definition of worship? Do the people in your church know that definition? When was the last time you spent significant time teaching and/or preaching about worship (i.e., a series of messages)? Worship leaders: In what ways might your leadership be enhanced by pursuing more theological training? Senior/lead pastors: Do you need to encourage and enable your worship leader to deepen their theological training?

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