What is Worship? Consider the meaning of the word. The English word worship is derived from an older Anglo-Saxon word weorthship which meant "to honor." Christian worship, whether individual or corporate, offers honor to God. Worship can and should characterize our daily lives, however the term is most often used with reference to corporate assemblies which are dedicated to offering praise, adoration, and thanksgiving to God.
Disagreements and dissent. Corporate worship is undeniably an essential part of the Christian life. Currently, there is a call being sounded for the reform of corporate worship within churches of Christ. This call asks for an examination of our worship patterns (activities). Those sounding the call believe our current worship is inadequate. Critical descriptions such as predictable, stale, boring, and uninspiring have been heard. Those asking for this rethinking sense an urgency in their appeal. Some fear that if we do not change, we will die. Some hear these calls as prophetic. Others hear them as heretical.
Listening to others with integrity. Whether the voices around us be prophetic or heretical in their calls for reform in corporate worship, one should always be willing to listen and examine others' claims and thoughts (1 John 4:1). It is possible that such voices could be God calling us to wake up. If so, the calls must not go unheard. But listening must not be uncritical. We must listen with integrity. We are responsible for critically examining what we hear. Appeals for change must be scrutinized closely. Tough biblical and theological questions concerning purposes, goals, and motives must be raised.
Intent of this essay
A call for reform should not threaten us. The restoration movement began as such a call. All must consider the real issues inherent in the call to reform corporate worship. As the call for reform gains strength, ignoring and avoiding the issues will be a mistake. Therefore, we must consider and clarify our own thinking with regard to these things. We must seek a forum for honest, productive dialogue. We must seek the insights of all, whether opposed or in agreement.
The Purposes of Corporate Worship
True worship begins with God as its object. God is both initiator and recipient of worship. It is good for human beings to bow down and worship because it helps keep the Creator-creature distinction in perspective. Remembering events of God's great and powerful acts at the Exodus, the Passover, the crucifixion, and the resurrection serve as a reminder of God's worthiness, faithfulness, and power. They should evoke a response. Thus worship becomes the celebration of God's worthiness which naturally calls forth praise and honor from believers. The outcome of worship is that God's worthiness and glory shape the gathered community and become the pattern and motivation for living.
When Christians in corporate worship place God at the center because of God's glory and worthiness, two things are accomplished. First, it helps us avoid the tyranny of subjectivism. Second, it causes us to consider ourselves from the perspective of God's knowledge of us. Ralph martin states that Christian worship is "an exercise of the human spirit that is directed primarily to God; it is an enterprise undertaken not simply to satisfy our need or to make us feel better or to minister to our aesthetic taste or social well-being, but to express the worthiness of God himself." When the primary measure of worship is selfish, focused on what we can obtain or "get out of it" we can be sure that we have misplaced the purpose of worship. Such subjectivism becomes idolatrous because it honors the creature above the Creator.
Is our corporate worship God-centered? Do our purposes in worship match God's holy and divine purposes? Does our worship arise as grateful recognition of God's mighty acts done in our behalf? Have we eliminated the idolatrous human tendency to elevate self and selfish needs above God? Do we come prepared in mind and spirit to make a contribution to the corporate recognition of God's worthiness? An examination of corporate worship should begin with questions about its purpose.
Expectations in Worship: Worship as responsive celebration.
Why does one get up each Sunday and take time to get ready and assemble with the church? What brings us together? For some it may be the simple conviction of duty, that we should assemble. Such a sense of responsibility should not be ridiculed, but we can hope that attendance at public worship arises above a sense of compulsion. Worship is response to God's merciful and gracious initiative. It is celebration of the experience of salvation.
What can we reasonably expect from the experience of public worship? If our expectation is to obtain, we will probably be disappointed. The motivating factor behind worship is not what we can obtain, but what we can bring to worship and thus to God. Public worship reflects what is already in the hearts of the worshipers. No wonders are worked in the Sunday assembly which change me from what I was before I came. The quality of worship in daily life will be reflected in the corporate worship assembly. The inability of worship leaders to get the congregation excited can sometimes be more of a reflection on the spiritual lives of the congregation than the ability of the worship leaders.
If we are not careful, our infatuation with consumerism dictates our focus in worship. We are told, "have it your way," and "satisfaction guaranteed." Consumerism works from a position of providing satisfactory services. In worship, the customer is not always right. Consumers expect to be served on demand. Christians expect to serve on demand of the needs of others. When corporate worship is driven by the expectations generated by consumerism, we have a problem.
Is our primary purpose in worship to keep the members satisfied, or to keep the visitors satisfied? If it is, we have fallen into subtle idolatry. At its heart, idolatry is putting self before God. The quest for personal gratification becomes the driving force in life. If my measure of worship becomes what I get out of it rather than what I bring to God, then I have taken God's place as the recipient or worship. That is idolatry.
Therefore, careful examination of our personal motives and expectations for the worship experience is needed. Fortunately, or unfortunately, what we receive in worship is largely determined by what we bring to worship.
Worship and Our Emotions
A quest for meaningful worship is a worthy one. But what determine whether what we experience in worship is meaningful? Are feelings a legitimate measure? Let me begin by saying that worship involves the emotions. However, song leaders should not be expected to function as cheerleaders. Expecting worship to make us feel better is reaching for an artificial emotional high point. Song leaders and preachers are not to manipulate the emotions. Eugene Peterson writing about prayer provides insights for worship.
Feelings are the scourge of worship. To worship by feelings is to be at the mercy of glands and weather and digestion. And there is no mercy in any of them. Feelings deceive. Feelings seduce. Because they are so emphatically there, and so incontrovertibly interior, it is almost inevitable that we take our feelings seriously a reputable guides to the reality that is deep within us--our hearts before God. But feelings are no more spiritual than muscles. They are entirely physical....To suppose that our emotions in any way give us reliable evidence of the nature or quality of our life with god is to misinterpret them. They are wonderful and necessary and glorious. But they are not the measure of meaningful worship.
This does not remove responsibility from those who lead in worship. Worship leaders have a great responsibility to help us enter into the presence of a great and holy God who is the Creator, Sustainer, and ultimate Judge of us and our universe. Worship leading is an essential ministry that help the body gain perspectives on god, listen to God, and respond appropriately in love with all our hearts, minds, souls, and spirits. This is not to suggest that worship cannot or will not be a deeply emotional or moving experience. It only says that worship arises from hearts that are deeply involved with God each day of the week. The ideal for Christians is that we assemble as the body of Christ with joy in our hearts arising from our daily experience of God's saving act in Jesus Christ. Worship thus becomes a meaningful, expressive response to God's gracious actions on our behalf.