Worship: What Really Matters
The word that follows a transitive verb makes all the difference.
“It was OK. Seemed like Steve was a little off his game. I think I heard his voice crack on a couple notes, and he totally blanked out on the lyrics to the second song. But I really liked the new screen background behind the lyrics. And that drummer that started playing last week rocks. I hope he’s going to be a regular.”
Ever wonder what really matters when we meet together to worship God? We all seem to have an opinion about how things could be better. But are we evaluating the right things?
Worshiping God together is a lot like a wedding. Weddings come in all shapes and sizes, with an endless variety of tastes, locations and styles.
Some couples take a year to plan their wedding. Some go from “I will” to “I do” in a few weeks. Others just elope. Couples are pronounced husband and wife in living rooms, vast cathedrals and in sunlit fields. There are simple, economical weddings, and there are Memorable Epic Weddings, complete with lighting director, sound man, multiple coordinators and a 20-page gilt-edged program.
You might critique certain aspects of the ceremony or reception, but every wedding, from the invitations to the time the newlyweds drive away, focuses on one thing: two people being joined as husband and wife. Because at a wedding, what really matters is a marriage.
We know what really matters in a wedding. But what really matters in worship?
Knowing the right answer to that question is more important than most of us realize. It spells the difference between biblical worship and idolatry. So here are three elements of God-honoring worship we find in Scripture. They’re not the only elements, but hopefully they’ll provide a foundation to build on in our understanding of worship.
Biblical worship is focused on God
This is so obvious, it bears repeating frequently. Which is exactly what God does throughout Scripture. “I am the Lord Your God…. You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2-3). “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). While being tempted in the desert, Jesus told Satan, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve” (Luke 4:8). Worship means seeking to make much of God with everything we are.
Broadly speaking, worship is our response to whatever we value the most. And for worship to please God, we have to be valuing Him above everything.
When we hear the word worship, most of us think “music.” But the biblical words we translate “worship” never refer to music alone. They’re connected with things like reverence, awe, submission, bowing down and service. Worship describes the attitudes and actions that spring from a heart consumed with exalting and honoring God.
But how often do we connect “worship” with a sound, a style of music, an artist, an event or a feeling? It’s revealed in the way we use the word.
- “I was really worshiping by the third song.”
- “That song doesn’t sound like a worship song.”
- “I liked the worship much better than the message.”
- “I like worship when Chris Tomlin leads.”
- “I got there early because I wanted to worship.”
It’s easy for us to forget that worship is a transitive verb. If you didn’t pay attention in English class, a transitive verb is an action word that needs a word after it to make sense. If I say, “I’m going to throw,” you don’t know what I mean. I might be saying, “I’m going to throw a ball.” Or maybe, “I’m going to throw you outside.” Or even, “I’m going to throw up.” The word that follows a transitive verb makes all the difference.
When we say we’re going to “worship,” we need to define the object of our attention and affections. It has to be more than the sound of the band, an emotional high, being with people we enjoy or any of the other things we tend to associate with “worship.”
Focusing on God means we worship God for who He really is, not who we imagine Him to be. Scripture reveals that God is triune, that is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each person eternally, equally and fully God. Our songs and prayers should reflect an awareness of the distinct roles and relationships of each person of the Trinity, along with the fact that they make up the one true God. God is holy as well as merciful, righteous as well as kind, transcendent as well as imminent.
Focusing on God also means that we don’t allow things like music, video, lighting or other technological effects to draw attention away from the One we’re there to exalt. I’ve been at conferences where the moving background to the lyrics was so distracting that I had trouble paying attention to what we were singing.
When I focus on God as I worship Him, He always becomes bigger in my eyes. I walk away more in awe of Jesus Christ than the experience I just had or didn’t have.
Biblical worship is fueled by faith
Hebrews 11:6 says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek him.” Worshiping God without faith isn’t just unwise or unhelpful. It’s impossible. We approach God with faith, or we don’t approach Him at all. That’s why Jesus rebuked those who honored God with their lips but whose hearts were far from Him (Matthew 15:8).
No external form, liturgy or action ensures that genuine worship is taking place. Playing beautiful music, jumping up and down, or even being part of a church that teaches on worship, doesn’t mean we’re worshiping either. We need faith. Faith in God’s promises, faith in the finished work of Christ, and faith in the words we’re singing.
When someone says, “Susie is a real worshiper,” what they usually mean is that Susie is exuberantly expressive when she sings. But we don’t know if Susie is actually worshiping God unless we know what’s going on in her heart.
I can’t count the times I’ve looked “worshipful” from the outside — hands raised, eyes closed, singing loudly — and been thinking about what I’m going to have for lunch or how much I don’t like a new arrangement of a song. The only thing I’m worshiping at those moments is my stomach and my opinion.
Ultimately, worshiping with faith means that as I seek to exalt God, I’m not relying on my own efforts, enthusiasm, talents, intelligence, background, repentance or desire to make my worship acceptable. My confidence lies in the faithful character of God, the perfect sacrifice of Jesus on my behalf and the trustworthiness of God’s promises. That’s what breathes life into a song I’ve sung 50 times before and helps me know that God accepts my offering, even though I may not “feel” very godly at the moment.
Biblical worship is fulfilled in life
Growing up I had the impression that the time I spent in church was God’s and the rest of the week was mine. Even now I can tend to divide life into “sacred” and “secular” pursuits. Praying is sacred. Watching football is secular. Evangelizing non-Christians is sacred. Going to a movie is secular.
God doesn’t look at it that way. In both Old and New Testaments He makes it clear that all of life is to be lived for His glory, as an act of worship. The Israelites were commanded to “fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 10:12-13).
The New Testament provides even clearer indicators that God intends all of our lives to be an act of worship, designed to direct people’s attention to his glory in Jesus Christ. When the Samaritan woman asked Jesus a question about the best location for worship, He replied that the Father was seeking worshipers who worshiped Him in spirit and truth, a reference to our need for His mediating role and the Holy Spirit’s empowering. Paul tells us that we are to eat, drink and do everything for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
It’s especially revealing that the New Testament writers took Old Testament concepts like altar, sacrifice, priest and temple, and applied them to life in general. Paul spoke of how he served (worshiped) God “with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son” (Romans 1:9). The writer of Hebrews told us to do good and share with others, “for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (Hebrews 13:16).
Romans 12:1 is probably the most familiar passage that connects worship to all of life: “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” The sacrifices that please God are no longer bulls, rams and sheep, but our very lives, indicated by Paul’s intentional use of the word bodies.
So what does it look like to worship God all the time?
While it includes the things we do on Sunday morning, it doesn’t end there. It’s doing everything to draw attention to God’s greatness and goodness. It’s obeying God and avoiding the things He’s forbidden, with a desire to please and reflect the Savior whose sacrifice rescued us from eternal damnation. It’s serving others joyfully, spending our money wisely, helping the poor, driving our car responsibly, studying diligently and working in ways that show we’re sinners who have been saved by a great Savior.
Biblically speaking, there’s no sacred/secular distinction in our lives. Every moment is an opportunity to worship God. Church buildings aren’t sacred, and family rooms aren’t secular; both are places where God can be worshiped in spirit and truth.
Have you ever thought heaven would be one worship meeting after another for all eternity? I have. But the Bible suggests that heaven will be life lived at a new level, where every thought, emotion, word and action is a grateful response of praise to the true God, our Creator/Redeemer, the one from whom, through whom and to whom are all things.
May God give us grace to worship Him that way now.
Copyright 2007 Bob Kauflin. All rights reserved. Interna
About the Author
Bob Kauflin is the director of worship development for Sovereign Grace Ministries, a family of 70-plus churches led by C.J. Mahaney. His responsibilities include equipping pastors and musicians in the theology and practice of congregational worship, and contributing to Sovereign Grace CDs. He was a writer and arranger for the group GLAD from 1976-2006 and is one of the worship leaders at Covenant Life Church, in Gaithersburg, Md., led by Josh Harris. He is the author of Worship Matters: Leading Others to Encounter the Greatness of God. He hosts the bi-annual WorshipGod conference. He and his wife, Julie, have six children and five grandchildren.