What makes worship “worship”?

If there’s one thing that the church gets excited and confused about all at the same time, it’s worship. It seems that everyone in the pew has an opinion about what makes the time we spend gathered together in the name of Jesus right or wrong, right or wrong.

My life has probably not been that different from many seasoned Christians in that it has been a journey through various styles and forms of worship on a hunt for “real worship.” From the traditional liturgical worship from my childhood to the megachurch contemporary worship, and now to where I am today, it’s been quite the journey.

What is Worship?

“Worship” seems like a simple concept to define, but it’s often hard to nail down precisely what then fits in that definition. Let me offer a few defining characteristics and a definition.

Worship is not music. It bugs me when I hear churches refer to the “worship time” and then the “teaching time,” as if the sermon they’re hearing isn’t worship.

Worship is not a style. We don’t need to go back to the worship wars of the 90s and early 2000s with different camps asserting that their style is the right style and all others are somehow wrong.

Often you’ll hear something to the effect of, “worship is a way of life.” While that’s certainly not wrong and the way you live your life 24/7 should be an act of worship, it doesn’t help us define that time we spend together as the church of Jesus, gathered in His name on Sunday (or some other time throughout the week).

Worship, as the activity of the gathered church, is primarily receiving and responding. In worship, God gives and we receive. He gives to us through His Word and Sacraments. We respond through prayer and praise. Ultimately, this receiving and responding is what marks the whole life of a Christian. It’s where the “worship is a way of life” comes in. But it’s most clearly experienced when the church gathers for worship.

The challenge is that we’re human and we want to put the emphasis on our response in worship instead of what God is giving. It’s natural, in that it comes from our sinful nature. But the greater, more important action is what God gives, not how we respond.

Because worship is focused primarily on what God gives and secondarily on our response to His gift, worship is Christ-centered. There are lots of Christian songs – hymns, modern worship songs, and plain ol’ “Christian songs” – that put all of their emphasis on our response. They focus entirely on what we, usually as individuals, do for God. These songs would be fine in the right setting, but they often leave out any sense of why we’re doing these things in the first place! (Hint: the answer should have something to do what “because of what God in Christ did for us!)

The definition that I use, when referring to the worship service, is “worship is the church of Jesus gathered in His name to receive His gifts through Word and Sacrament and to respond in prayer and praise.”

The key elements of worship – that we gather (it’s not a solitary thing) in His name (because this time is set apart) to receive His gifts (because that’s the primary action) through Word and Sacrament (the means by which He gives us His gifts of faith, forgiveness, and restoration) and to respond in prayer and praise (because our part comes last and this is how we respond).

What Does It Look Like?

The great thing about the worship of the church is that it gets to reflect the creativity and diversity of the people of God. You’ll notice in the definition above that there’s not a word about style – or even specific content, really. About the most specific elements are the Word of God and the Sacraments, though there is even room for creative expression here too. The “Word” is in reading Scripture, the Sermon, speaking or singing words of Scripture together, and so on. The Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper also have room for creativity in how they are shared.

When our worship takes seriously that it is about God’s people gathered in His name to receive His gifts through the Word and the Sacraments and to respond to His giving with prayer and praise, it shapes and informs every aspect of what we do in worship. Everything that we do in our time together in worship is affected by that approach.

Our songs should center on Christ and what He did – specifically, not in generic terms (being “great” or “powerful,” for example). They should remind us that what we’re doing is communal, not individual. We are part of the Body of Christ as Christians. Our life and our worship is not about “me and Jesus” but about Jesus and us. I’m not my own – I belong to Jesus and to the other members of The Body. I don’t function in a vacuum. Our worship should reflect and teach that!

The other elements of the service, whether that’s the prayers, the sermon, special music, the atmosphere in the room, the liturgy, the instrumentation, the way people dress – should all be reflective of who we are and why we’re here: to encounter our God together and receive from Him the gifts that He gives, and together offer a response of prayer and praise. Nothing else needs to happen in worship or should happen in worship that gets in the way of that goal or that leads to confusion about why we’re here. That goes for worship of any style – traditional, modern, or whatever new forms develop from the creativity and diversity of God’s people.

About Matthew Starner

Matthew Starner is pastor of Journey of Faith Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they help people take their next step on their journey with Jesus.

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