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When I was in seminary, I was encouraged to develop a working definition of worship that I could modify as needed over time. What I came up with is probably not original to me. Here’s my definition: “Worship is a response to who God is and what He has done for us.” OK, let’s break that down.
- “Response.” A response means that worship is the “effect” side of a cause-and-effect relationship. Many of our modern worship songs want to rush us to the “effect” side of the equation without giving proper focus to the “cause.” The lyrics express some feeling of emotion (love, gratitude, awe) without showing us the reason for this type of reaction. We have not yet contemplated who God is nor what He has done for us, and yet we are guided into a response. There is nothing wrong with emotions; at some level, our emotions should be touched by genuine worship. Worship, however, is not merely an emotional catharsis to make us feel better. It’s not about us. God is the focus.
- “Who God is.” Idolatry is when we worship something or someone other than the one true God. God is not merely an abstract notion such as Love or Peace. Yes, God is love (1 John 4:8) and we have peace with God through our faith in Christ (Romans 5:1). Yet, when we limit God to one characteristic, we can end up with a God who is love but not holy, or a God who brings peace but not division. When we worship, we need to make sure that we are responding to the God revealed by Jesus Christ and by Holy Scripture, and not merely a God I have made in my own image.
- “What He has done for us.” Often, the Psalms offer worship and praise to God by recounting His saving acts, whether reflecting on how God delivered His people from slavery in Egypt, or a more personal remembrance of God’s salvation in the life of the psalmist. When we worship God, we too remember all He has done for us. For those of us on this side of salvation history, we reflect on the saving act of God through Jesus’ death and resurrection. We recount how He raised us from spiritual death to new life in Christ. We tell of the sufficiency of the cross to pay for all our sins and to reconcile us to God. We praise God for the gift of His Spirit who indwells us and empowers us for God’s work in the world. Worship is being appropriately astonished by God’s grace and voicing gratitude and praise. Genuine worship should not merely be an experience but should lead to spiritual transformation.
Finally, worship is not limited to an event (i.e. Sunday morning worship) or to singing. Worship is much, much greater than a church service or merely singing psalms, hymns, or spiritual songs. Worship is a lifestyle. Offering our lives to God as living sacrifices is perhaps our greatest spiritual act of worship (see Romans 12:1).