A Philosophy of Worship
Worship: our response as the created, to the self-revelation of the Sovereign Creator. Worship means literally “to declare worth.” In the Bible there are multiple words in the Greek and Hebrew to describe worship. The words can be grouped into two main categories: service or sacrifice, and submission, respect, or compliance. The words that translate to signify submission usually connote a physical posture of submission, as well as a choice to become second to others or God. The first grouping is symbolic of action and obedience, and the latter carries meaning of reverence and willingness.
The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard saw worship as a drama in which the leaders are the prompters, those in the congregation are the actors and God is the audience of one. More precisely, a relational audience of three in one. This audience is also participatory. It is only through the Holy Spirit’s indwelling in us that we can worship “in spirit and in truth.”1 If worship is defined as a response to God, then it is much broader and generous in definition than what most churches interpret worship to be. The days of “Praise and Worship” need to end. Worship is much more wholehearted and profound than a show put on for the Lord by the worship leaders and enjoyed by the congregation. Throughout this essay I will examine the true definition of worship, paying specific attention to worship through music.
Christian worldview and life is holistic. God is the God of the physical and the spiritual and He cares for both, so as such our worship should also be holistic. The more aspects of our humanity that are engaged in worship, the more full and engaging the worship will be to the worshiper. Many liturgical churches do a good job of incorporating more than the eyes and the ears into worship practices. The use of incense associates certain smells with worship. The act of breaking bread in fellowship or for the Eucharist involves the sense of taste. The Catholic practice of cleansing oneself with holy water in the aspersorium before entering the sanctuary implements the sense of touch. These acts of worship ensure the worshiper that worship does not just involve a spiritual or mental response, but also a physical one.
While most liturgical churches do a good job of incorporating the physical aspect of worship, some can become almost too structured. There are many different ways of organizing worship in a church. Church worship ranges from no structure at all to an entirely organized system of traditions and procedures. The problem with completely unstructured worship has to do with a low quality and lack of attention given to the arts presented to the Lord. This issue will be addressed more thoroughly later on. The danger that some liturgical churches run into in creating too many ritualistic worship traditions is that people can start to worship like the Pharisees. "These people worship me in vain; they honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me." (Matt.15:8). The external motions and words do not matter to the Lord if the heart of the worshiper is not right.
"The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?' says the Lord. 'I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.”
Of course, people will always create some sort of customs for their worship. It is not wrong, but focus should be on sincere praise of God and not too much on the external appearance or practices. Also, too many rigid worship rituals do not leave much room for worshiping the Lord creatively as an individual. Ultimately, rituals are helpful and healthy as long as emphasis is placed on their symbolism and on individual sincerity in worship.
There are many different focuses of worship. The different kinds of worship are most evident through the Psalms. These are important to know so as to observe which are focused on and which are disregarded in the church. There are typically seven different types of worship observed in the Psalms: praise, lament, thanksgiving, confidence or trust in the Lord, remembrance of God’s good actions, wisdom or teaching, and kingship. The Kingship Psalms were often applicable only specifically for David or kings, but many focus on the Lord’s kingship over the Earth. Many of these genres of worship are focused on in church, such as thanksgiving or praise, but some are forgotten, and others even seem to be purposely ignored. Lament is one of these.
Lament is a confession or an expression of pain, anger, or confusion. The church promotes the belief that “lament is unnecessary if one trusts, loves and obeys God.”2 This is a silly belief and causes alienation to occur in communities because of the inability to express pain. While many churches sit deep in their triumphalism, they simultaneously and repetitively tell their congregations to “surrender to God.” But it is inconceivable to surrender to God unless there is a prior offense against Him. Christians often think that their conflict with God ended at conversion. Yes, conversion is the victory, but it is not the last fight. Lament uses the language of pain, anger and confusion of sin and moves towards God. God responds by comforting the mourning and the brokenhearted.3 Christians tend to fear the somber, partly because they do not know how to react to it. The church has lost the practice of “rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep.”4 In corporate worship we have neglected lamenting “because we don’t want to let God be God. We want to control the darkness ourselves.”5
Unfortunately, because the church often ignores the darkness of life, when a church member falls into sin or experiences a rough time, they often leave the church. There is no need to forsake worship; like Job, we should worship in the midst of our struggles. Marva Dawn writes in her book, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, “To praise God in the midst of suffering or confusion is to declare... the ultimate ‘Nevertheless!’ it is to cling to faith in a God of grace despite apparent evidence to the contrary.” C.S. Lewis also recognized the reality of darkness and pain and the strength that comes from calling out to God through it. In his book, The Screwtape Letters, Lewis writes from the perspective of a demon talking about a human, “Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” When a person protests and even accuses God of something while asking why, it is far from denying the existence of God. Lament provides the language to express the hopeless depth of our sin. It is through lament that we see our true identity before God. As I develop the concept of worship, it seems to become less and less elementary and nebulous, and more and more real, passionate and powerful.
Worship is to be a sacrifice of praise. “Through him [Jesus] then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”6 When a church member leaves a worship service, they should not say to themselves, “That service blessed me.” (This is further evidence of an “audience” role as the congregation). They should ask themselves if they really put forth effort into their sacrifice of praise. This idea of worship being a giving act instead of a receiving, is one unfortunately, that is unfamiliar in most churches. Of course, in giving in worship, we receive because the Lord’s presence is to us, life and goodness.
From the same branch of thinking, that worship is a receiving act, comes the idea that worship is all about the emotion of the worshiper. As a young child I was taught that “praise” was the happy and joyful songs that made you want to dance, and then “worship” was the part when you got quiet and really came to the throne of God. After some observation I found that worship was quite emotional. This meaning of worship is extremely narrow and often lessons the significance of worship to a weekly concert aimed at creating an emotional experience. Worship is not based upon sentimentality. Yes, the Lord created emotions and they are important, but they are not the gauge which determines how one’s relationship to the Lord is faring. When worship leaders seek emotion for emotion’s sake, they use music as a manipulator. Worship leaders can use music’s power over people to convince them that they are having a spiritual experience, when really they are only experiencing the emotion of the music. There is nothing wrong in experiencing emotion in music, or even using music to aid spiritual focus, but an emotional high is not the end that worship should aim to achieve. Worship is an end; it is not a means towards a good feeling. I hope my meaning is not misconstrued to that of demeaning the value of music in any way. Music, which shall be heard and maybe even played in heaven, is a glorious gift from the Lord, as well as all art forms.
God loves art. This is apparent because God is the great artist. We see his love for beauty in His creation. God was clearly interested in beauty when He ordered specific works of art to be used in His temple in the Old Testament. He did not create a utilitarian type building that was only concerned with it’s use. He wanted the temple made beautifully. Knowing that the Lord is an artist should be enough motivation to be artists ourselves because we are created in His image. God wants us to use our gifts and to be creative in our worship. We worship God through the art that we present to Him. Because worship is a “sacrifice of praise” this art should not be thrown together last minute, or ignored completely. The art that we present to the Lord and the church should reach the Lord’s standards for art. “God’s aesthetic standards include goodness, truth, and beauty. And these standards are not relative; they are absolute”7. Yes, art has intrinsic worth, but art is primarily for God's sake. This does not mean that all art needs to be happy; but it does mean that all art for use in the church needs to point to the truth and goodness of God. Christian art should also be redemptive. Art, like the rest of the world, is fallen. We should redeem the arts and, by redeeming them, communicate the Lord’s redemptive love to the world.
So far I have been relatively general and abstract in my address of worship and specifically worship through music. I will now get down to the practical aspects of music in church. There are difficulties and complications that a worship leader must overcome when deciding how worship through music will materialize. Some of these issues are reaching a congregation of diverse individuals and aligning and uniting musical worship to the rest of the service.
A good worship leader should know his or her congregation. If the church is operating as it should, this should be natural, but unfortunately this is often not the case. The worship leader should get to know the people, their dreams and struggles, and their musical preferences. Churches can be full of diverse peoples. This is especially true in large churches or churches with mixed ethnic backgrounds. Deciding on a style or styles of music for worship can be difficult. In Greg Scheer’s book, The Art of Worship, he suggests that there are six people groups in churches when it comes to spreading a vision for music. There are the Innovators, the Early Adopters, the Middle adopters (who make up about 60% of a congregation), the Late Adopters and the Never Adopters. Scheer suggests that by winning the Middle Adopters you have won the majority and will eventually win over rest of the congregation. This strategy, coupled with enthusiastic energy by the worship leader for the music, should lead to positive acceptance for new music and soon a deep appreciation for it as it becomes familiar.
An even more important aspect of worship is aligning it to the rest of the service. Usually, the music section of a service has nothing to do with the rest of it, except to prepare the congregation to hear the sermon. This is an unfortunate lack of understanding of the importance of worship and the didactic quality of music. The lyrics of the hymns are often steeped in theology along with meditative qualities. The “theme” of the music should match the theme of the message. The overall service should be like a story that is interlocked at all points and leads to a single vision. This also would reduce the effect many worshipers perceive of worshiping and then it being cut short. The sermon is also a form of worship, and if the musical worship and the sermon are connected, those in the congregation will be able to grasp that concept more readily.
Worship, like church, should not be an event that is attended weekly for the entertainment and pleasure of the worshiper. Worship is not simply corporately singing once a week for twenty minutes. This action can certainly be done without any worship actually occurring. True worship is much more rich, valuable and crucial than that. Worshiping should point us upward towards God, as well as outward to those around us. Worship is not a medium for achieving a feeling or a more entertaining church. Responding to the Good and Almighty God is not a means, it is an end.
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