Seven Things I'm Learning about Worship
- 2009 2 Dec
So, what's your philosophy of worship?
You don't have one? Well, as my friend Jerry Clower once said about the ego, "If you don't have one, you oughta be getting yourself one, because you're going to be needing one!"
Your philosophy of worship would tell how you think people worship best, who can do it, and under what circumstances. What kind of worship does the Lord treasure most from people like yourself? And what advice could you give a younger Christian on how to get the most--and give the most!--during an hour devoted to worship?
Personally, I'm still learning (I'd better learn quick, since I'm team-teaching a course on Worship Leadership at the Orlando extension of NOBTS the first week of January!).
But, here's where I am at the moment...
1. Worship is a verb, and an active one at that.
No one worships for you, any more than someone else eats your food or lives your life. Some things you have to do for yourself, and worship is one of them.
So, the next time you plant your carcass on a pew in church and shift into neutral, henceforth expecting the pastor and minister of music (worship leader?) to apply worship unto you, be forewarned that it is not going to happen.
If any worship takes place inside you, you will have to do the hard work yourself. No one can do it unto you.
2. Worship is work, and hard work at that.
The heart is a rebel. It resists humbling itself, resents the "intrusion" of another into its space even if that Other is the One who created it in the first place, and reacts negatively when you decide to spend time in prayer, the Word, and giving yourself anew to God.
The mind wants to dwell on its own pleasures. So, you'll have to take charge and tell yourself how things are going to be.
The Psalmist does that all through Scripture: talks to himself and orders the self to be quiet or be worshipful. "Bless the Lord, O my soul!" See what he's doing? He's ordering his inner self around. "Bless His holy name." "Forget not all His benefits" (Psalm 103).
So, when you enter the house of God or when you simply pull off into a corner of your living room, if you are like most of us, you'll have to make yourself do it.
That's one reason for praying this prayer again and again: "Lord, give me a heart of fire toward Thee, a heart of flesh toward others, and a heart of iron toward myself."
3. Worship must happen as Jesus taught, or it does not take place at all.
Jesus told the Samaritan woman, "God is Spirit and they who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24).
Books have been written on the meaning of that verse. Here's my quick take on it:
"Spirit" means we worship with our spirit, not our bodies. We cannot plop our bodies down in a pew and somehow think that an hour later we have worshiped God just because we've been in the vicinity of praise.
"Truth" means a lot of things, and perhaps everything the word encompasses (and that's a lot!). But one thing we can be sure of--it means we are to worship God in the way He taught and not ways of our own concoction.
Through the centuries there have been people who sincerely worshiped God by tossing their children off cliffs or sacrificing them on burning altars. We will grant they might have been worshiping in their spirits--and we'll assume they were well-intended, although that's a stretch--but they were not worshiping in truth because God specifically bans such practices.
I am to worship God in the way He wants to be worshiped, otherwise it doesn't count.
4. Worship takes place better in groups, and the larger the group the better.
"Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst." (Matthew 18:20)
I'm still learning the reality of that statement (found only in this one place in the Bible). But here's what I think it means:
Anyone can worship God anywhere. But when two or more believers get together to praise and honor Him, Jesus is there in a greater way than otherwise.
"Preacher, I can worship God just as well on the creekbank." No, you can't, but even if you could, you don't.
"Do not forsake the assembling of yourselves together," said the writer of Hebrews (10:25). Why? "to encourage one another."
That's a good reason for meeting with other believers, but it's not the most important one. The greatest reason for you and me meeting together with others has nothing to do with you and me. It has everything to do with the Lord Himself.
He will be there in a way He was not present with just one of us.
I don't explain that; I just say it. That surely is the point of Matthew 18:20's promise.
I hope you have personally seen (and yes, felt) the truth of that. I hope you have sat, stood, and knelt in a stadium of thousands upon thousands of brothers and sisters in Christ to give praise to the Lord and have known the power and uplift of those moments.
If so, you'll appreciate the promise of Revelation 7:9:
"After that, I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice, 'Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.'"
John the Revelator does not say, but I'm betting at that moment, no one complained about what someone else was wearing (okay, I know--they're all wearing the same outfit, the white robes).
And no one is pointing out that "she's raising her hands" or "he's dancing to the Lord" or "I don't like her speaking in tongues" (presumably we'll all be speaking the Heavenly language!).
No one will be saying, "I like the old songs better."
No one will be saying, "Why the drums?"
The reason no one will be doing these things is that we will finally (FINALLY!!) be able to worship God in the way our spirits have wanted and yearned to, for the first time ever.
No one will be looking at each other. Every eye will be on the Throne.
And that's how it ought to be even now.
I'm writing this on Monday after a long weekend of ministry in another state. Sunday afternoon, as we were getting out of the car at the home of my hosts, I noticed the sport coat I had worn to church that morning. It was not the one I thought I had brought from home Saturday. Instead of pure black, it was dark blue.
I checked the label and sure enough, it was a suit coat. That set me to wondering if I had worn the black sport coat with the blue trousers that matched this coat at the Friday night wedding of Maggie Retz and Matthew Tastet.
I mentioned that to my hosts, Roy and Penny Lively of Brandon, Mississippi, and they laughed. "Believe me, Joe," one of them said, "no one noticed. Every eye at that wedding was on the couple."
They are exactly right. I could probably have worn dirty blue jeans and sneakers and no one would have noticed. The focus of the audience was on the beautiful bride and handsome groom. That's the proper order of things.
So, let's have no more of this silliness that says, "I don't like the way he's dressed in the house of God" or "We don't allow clapping in this church."
It's not about you and it's not about me. Worship is about the Lord. He's here and nothing else matters.
5. The best worship includes everyone, not just a single strata of society.
I'm not in favor of a worship service for the children, another for young adults and still a third for the oldsters. Bring the family of God together and put something for everyone in there. They have a lot to offer one another.
I love the way they worshiped in Ezra 3:10-13.
After the Persians ousted the Babylonians for supremacy in the ancient world, they began to allow exiled and displaced people to return to their native lands. In the late 6th century B.C., numbers of Israelites were released from Babylon and sent back to their homeland, a sad place ever since Nebuchadnezzar and his hordes had devastated it some 50 years earlier.
Holy Jerusalem lay in shambles and the beloved Temple was a pile of rubble. The first thing the returning citizens did was to build an altar at the Temple site and begin worshiping. Then, they started cleaning off the grounds and re-building the foundation for a new temple.
When the foundation was finished, they stopped to hold a worship service. And that's when something fascinating happened.
The old-timers--those who could remember the first Temple--wept. And the youngsters, too young to know anything about those days, rejoiced and laughed.
So, you have a worship service filled with both weeping and laughing. "No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away" (Ezra 3:13).
My childhood was spent in two churches, a Methodist church in a West Virginia mining camp, and a Free Will Baptist Church in rural Alabama. I suppose both were fairly tame affairs, with nothing unusual for the most part. No snake handling, no miracles of healing, no one raised from the dead...
But I wish you could have seen "Miss Minnie" Knight worship. She danced all over the Baptist church. This diminutive octogenarian who normally sat through worship services without a word, but whose smile and sweet spirit radiated Christ, would thrust her hands heavenward and begin a little shuffle that carried her all over the church, up and down aisles. During this time, people were praying or singing. When the praying and singing ceased, Miss Minnie sat down too.
As children, we probably thought it was a little bizarre. But I cannot ever remember any person making a single unkind or negative comment about Miss Minnie's manner of worship. That was how she did it, and she was one of the most wonderful people any of us knew, and that was the end of it.
6. There's so much we don't know about worship, so leave room in your philosophy for change and growth.
Paul said, "We see through a glass darkly" (I Corinthians 13:12) and "We do not know how to pray as we should" (Romans 8:26). No argument there.
I think we can add another thing to that. We do not worship as we should. In fact, we are probably all kindergarteners in the school of worship.
But one day, we will worship God in the way he intends and our spirits yearn for.
I have walked down Richmond, Virginia's Monument Avenue in the fall of the year when the leaves of the huge maples were in their full glory, displaying brilliant oranges, reds, and purples, and almost wept. My senses were so overwhelmed, my mind soaring, and my poor soul trying to drink in all I was seeing, but it wasn't working.
All that beauty was on the outside and no matter how I tried, I could not take it in. I might as well have been looking at a picture of it in a book. I felt so frustrated.
Who has not felt that way when listening to uplifting music? Your soul soars and your spirit expands, and you feel so helpless.
I have felt that only a few times in sermons, but I have known it. There were times when E. V. Hill preached that I wanted to stand on a pew and shout to the top of my lungs. My inner self was about to explode.
That's when I have envied the Pentecostals. It appears--I do not know this--that some of them know how to enter into that kind of worship, to fully savor that experience.
But I shall. One day. God grant.
"Dear children, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when He appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is" (I John 3:2).
Until then, when we come to worship, do the best you can.
7. Finally, whatever you believe to be the best way to worship, cut the other fellow some slack. Not everyone will want to do it your way.
The other fellow is worshiping the best he can, in a manner that expresses what he's feeling.
Peter was growing uncomfortable. The Lord had been telling him how things would be for him in the future, and much of it sounded awful. So, like a disciplined child seeking to turn the attention to a sibling, Peter points out John and says, "And Lord, what about him?"
Jesus spared nothing, but said, "What is that to you? You follow me" (John 21:21-22).
Lord, what about how this guy worships, what he wears, what they use, what they're not doing?
What is it to you? Follow Jesus.
When the man born lame was healed in Acts 3, he showed his joy by leaping and jumping and praising.
When a woman was forgiven of her great sin, she showed her strong devotion by bathing Jesus' feet in her tears and drying them with her hair (Luke 7).
We should be cautious about sitting in judgment over the way other people worship.
After all, "who are you to be sitting in judgment on someone else's servant? To his own master, he stands or falls" (Romans 14:4).
How do you worship the Lord?
Oh? Well, if it's alright by the Lord, I'm cool by it.
Dr. Joe McKeever is a Preacher, Cartoonist, and the Director of Missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. Visit him at joemckeever.com/mt. Used with permission.
Original publication date: December 2, 2009