In a pluralistic world where so many people adore so many things in so many ways, it can be difficult to settle on a definition that is adequate. Even then, a statement of what worship is can be skewed by personal preference.
Defining Christian worship is less difficult. I’ve read several statements from various theologians and worship leaders (define that term!) that seem to be adequate in providing a clear, concise statement of worship is. Yet, each one is slightly different because it comes from a place deep inside the one telling us what worship is.
Modern Definitions of Christian Worship
The dictionary defines worship as “reverent honor and homage paid to God or a sacred personage, or to any other object regarded as sacred.” Here are a few statements that attempt to describe Christian worship:
Worship is the work of acknowledging the greatness of our covenant Lord. (1) John Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth: A Refreshing Study of the Principles and Practice of Biblical Worship
Worship is about what we love. What we live for. It’s about who we are before God. (17) Bob Kauflin, Worship Matters: Leading Others to Encounter the Greatness of God
Worship is our love response to his loving provision, so nothing is more honoring of his grace than making its themes our own. We honor God, confess the need of his Son, claim his pardon, bolster our obedience, bless our neighbor, and testify of our Savior when our worship echoes the gospel that saves and sustains us. (117) Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice
…the worship of the living and true God is essentially an engagement with him on the terms that he proposes and in the way that he alone makes possible. (20) David Peterson, Engaging with God: a Biblical Theology of Worship
…acknowledging that someone or something else is greater – worth more – and by consequence, to be obeyed, feared, and adored…Worship is the sign that in giving myself completely to someone or something, I want to be mastered by it. (143) Harold Best, Music Through the Eyes of Faith
In all of these statements, as varied as they are, something exists in each one that you and I do. It’s a response, an action, an acknowledgment. In defining the gospel, Greg Gilbert lists four points in his book, What is the Gospel?:
1. God (Who made us, and to whom are we accountable?)
2. man (What is our problem? Are we in trouble and why?)
3. Christ (What is God’s solution to that problem? How has He acted to save us from it?)
4. response (How am I included in that salvation? What makes this good news for me?)
I like this definition of the gospel. It’s simple, and if I’m sharing the gospel to someone, it gives me an outline of four points to work within. The last of Gilbert’s four points always leads me to worship.
It’s Not Just on Sunday
The authoritative statement on worship – and the foundation for the statements above – is Scripture. Throughout the Bible, we find God’s commands to worship. The Old Testament is full of commands, directions, and examples of worship – from the nation of Israel to David and the Psalms to the Prophets, we find worship everywhere. In each occurrence, it is a response to God’s salvation.
In the New Testament, our response is a fuller, all-encompassing response. It’s not just a Sunday thing…instead, it’s a life lived for God’s glory. In Romans 12:1-2, Paul exhorts us:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
And in John 4:23-24, we read Jesus’ words:
But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.
Like Gilbert’s gospel definition, the New Testament calls us to respond, not just with a ceremony or a once-a-week gathering, but with a lifestyle. Everything we do every minute of every day is to bring glory to God, and we do this out of response for his saving mercy and grace.
The Core of Our Worship
It follows, then, that when we respond to God in worship, be it ceremony or lifestyle, it is because we have a deep affection for God and the mercy and grace we have received. Jonathan Edwards defines affection as “the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul.” Sam Storms explains in Signs of the Spirit that “Whatever the mind or understanding perceives, the inclination either is pleased with and approves of or opposes and disapproves of” and these “inclinations…reveal the fundamental orientation of the heart.” In other words, the mind reacts to what is in the heart, and our actions display that. If, in your heart, you are truly grateful for God’s salvation for you, then you cannot help but respond by worshipping, both with the Church gathered and in your daily living.
Storms goes on to say that this affection for God is not fundamentally an emotional expression. Because our emotions can be temporary and are many times independent of the mind, i.e. fear, euphoria, they are not good indicators of what the heart and mind approve of. To summarize, Storms states,
Affections…are always the fruit of effect of what the mind understands and knows. One can experience an emotion or feeling without it properly being an affection, but one can rarely if ever experience an affection without it being emotional and involving intense feelings that awaken and move and stir the body.
Scripture gives us clear instruction to clap, dance, shout, sing, bow, kneel, and so on. Yet, the emotionalism and physical expressions that are part of our worship must be an expression (or inclination) of what is in our heart. That is true worship.