Course: Essentials of Worship
Lecture: Preliminary Concerns
This is Gary Parrett and we’re going to be discussing together the ministry of worship in the local church context, looking at critical issues about the biblical understanding of worship, and also its practice in the contemporary Christian context. Before we get into our subject manner, let’s just ask the Lord’s blessing upon this.
Father, we thank You for the gift of being able to worship you in Spirit and in truth. We pray, God, that, as we consider some of the issues about worship together, that You would put your blessing upon us. Open our minds; open our hearts to understand Your ways, and help us Lord to walk in them by the grace of Jesus. For we pray it in His name, Amen.
I. Worship is controversial (“Worship Wars”)
Worship, of course, is a very critical issue and a very important issue in the life of a church. It is also a very controversial issue. Before we get into looking at some biblical principles and implications of those principles for practice, I think it is helpful just to set aside time for a couple of preliminary concerns.
First, just to make the point of just how controversial worship can be, I remember one of my very first experiences as a young Christian marked me forever in my thinking about worship and my thinking about Christianity in general. I was in a church as a sixteen-year-old new convert to Christianity, raised in a relatively irreligious home, and then born again by the grace of Jesus. I went to a church that was pastored by a graduate of Bob Jones University and Dallas Theological Seminary who became a charismatic. Now these things are not supposed to happen, but it did. When the pastor became charismatic, some of that new influence began to show up in our corporate worship as a church. We were an independent Bible church, and in my first year there I remember our worship really was focused on hymn singing and solid preaching. It was a wonderful experience for me as a young Christian being formed by this in the mid-1970’s.
I remember the day when, for the very first time, a guitar was present when we gathered for worship on the Lord’s Day and, when stacked nicely behind the hymnals in the back of the pews, were these little folders full of songs we called choruses. I noticed, for the very first time, people around me beginning to lift their hands as they sang. I remember when, for the first time, we had an official song leader who was hired to do just that in the life of the church. I remember when, in the midst of leading us one time, he became very emotional and wept a little bit as he spoke to us.
All of these things were big events in the life of our church. But most folks like me, younger members of the church who were a part of this new growing body; we were growing so rapidly that we were literally knocking down walls in the church. Most of us, I think, really genuinely appreciated the balance that was in our church between old and young, the people that were worshiping each Lord’s Day, and old and new, the styles of worship that we were bringing together. We never let go of our hymns, never stopped playing the organ. But, in addition to those, we were having time to sing with the guitar and sing praise songs. I thought, and many of my friends thought, that this was a wonderful balance that we had found.
Well, while the vast majority of us in the church were feeling that way, behind the scenes there were people on either side of a continuum who were literally intent on ripping the church apart. And, in fact, that finally happened when some felt the church was moving in the wrong direction with these new worship innovations and complained about it and others felt like the church was holding on to the old ways too tightly and they complained about that. The pastor finally, after failing to see these sides reconciled, resigned and the church split.
In the mid 1970’s this scene was repeated all over the country. Churches splitting over, to some extent, issues about the Holy Spirit, but to another extent, issues about worship. And from that time forward there has been this little phrase very commonly used in the North American Christian experience, “Worship Wars.” One of the more common manifestations of this today is to see churches simply saying, we will do two worship services; we will have a contemporary service at such and such an hour and a traditional service at a different hour.
Also, many are exploring liturgical services again. So, we have this wonder of worship, which I think in many respects is God’s gift to us, to focus our attention on Him and also bind us together as the Body of Christ. Yet, ironically, and in many senses, I believe, tragically, worship actually, as it is worked out in our life as a church, has sometimes served to divide us.
II. Misconceptions about Worship
Some of the reasons that worship has proven to be so controversial, difficult and even divisive in some of our experience, I think, is that there are many misconceptions about what worship really is and these misconceptions are troubling us deeply in the church today. I would like to briefly address a couple of those misconceptions before then turning to turn to what I understand to be biblical conceptions about the ministry of worship and their implications for ministry today. I will not go into all the misconceptions that we might think of, but I will identify two quickly off the top here.
A. Worship is singing.
The first misconception is very common in the church today here in the early Twenty-first Century. It is especially common in the North American context but by no means limited to the North American context. This is the misconception that worship is singing, that worship and singing praises are fundamentally synonymous terms. To my mind there are very few words that we have watered down that have hurt us more than the way we have watered down worship after such a manner.
To reduce worship to singing is grossly irresponsible and it is shrinking down the huge biblical concept of worship into one part of the whole that is by no means part of the whole. But without question, in the common usage of so many people today worship equals singing praises — end of discussion. Where did this come from? All kinds of sources I am sure, but there is no doubt that it is there. As there has been an explosion of new hymnody, praise music, often this music has been labeled worship and praise.
Our churches have worship leaders, as we call them, and worship bands and worship teams. More often than not these are simply the people who lead us in our praise songs. Even though people will nod their head and say, “Oh no, we understand worship is more than just the singing,” our vocabulary and our use of vocabulary gives us away; it betrays us. The way we use the word worship most of the time in evangelical circles in North America today indeed suggests that worship equals singing. Again, this is tragic and it does great damage to the church. We will address that one more fully in just a minute.
B. Worship is something we do on occasion.
If we picked up that misconception and tried to correct it by saying, No, worship is far more than singing. When we gather together in worship, for example, preaching is also worship and the offerings are also worship. Well, we would help by doing that, but we would not go far enough, because a second misconception about worship that is equally troubling is the idea that worship is something we do on occasion. It is when we gather together on the Lord’s Day. That is our worship once a week or twice a week when we gather with other people and do these religious things together, that is worship. Well, that is a second serious misconception about worship.
We may have made the picture a little bit bigger; we have added some stuff to singing and filled out the picture a bit, but in a biblical understanding of worship, worship cannot be reduced to a time and place occasional activity. Worship, indeed, is much bigger than that, as we shall see. So, these are some of the fundamental misconceptions about worship and we will address those as we try to consider some biblical principles about worship in the next little bit here.
III. Key Biblical Terms
Before we get to those principles, just a couple of words about key Biblical terms to help us understand what worship itself really is. There are many Bible terms used in the Old and New Testaments for worship, many Hebrew terms in the Old Testament and Greek terms in the New. Often, the Greek terms are the equivalent terms of the Hebrew words. From the many, I would like to choose two sets just to get us started, the most basic terms for worship in the Old and New Testaments.
A. shachah, proskuneo – bowing down
First, the Hebrew word shachah and a New Testament equivalent verb proskuneo. Shachah and proskuneo, both basically have the sense of bowing down. To worship is to bow down, to literally to prostrate oneself and to be on one’s face before another, before royalty, or before a deity. So, in many respects, this fundamental word of worship from both testaments reminds us that worship is about bowing down, prostrating ourselves, laying ourselves low before someone mighty and awesome.
B. ‘avad, latreuo – to serve
And then, a second set of terms that are again among the most fundamental related to the issue of worship, the Hebrew ‘avad and the Greek latreuo. ’Avad and latreuo both essentially mean to serve as a slave serving a master. You can actually see that there is a relationship between shachah and ’avad; between bowing down and being a servant. If we put these terms together in our minds we can picture a servant who is bowed at the master’s feet waiting for instructions. So, bowing down, serving, two key fundamental ideas.
From these words we could think of a definition perhaps. I will actually suggest this as a definition. ’’Worship is bowing all that we are before all that God is.’’ Worship is the bowing down of our lives before the Mighty God. To fill that out, I will say worship is bowing all that we are before all that God is. We will say more about that in just a minute, but for now, I will offer this definition. Worship is the bowing down of our lives before all that God is. Again, just a definition as a starting point for our discussion. Not the definition but a definition to get us started.
V. English term – Worship = Worth-ship
One additional word for worship that we might consider is our English itself, “worship,” which comes from “worth-ship” and has the idea of assigning worth to or attributing worth to someone or something. In the etymology of our English term, what we are doing in our worship is assigning worth to God and describing His worthiness as we come before Him. I think that is a helpful idea and does reflect part of the biblical picture.