Since the first century the churches of the world have recognized a threefold mission: worship, evangelism, and edification. But of these three the greatest is surely worship because true worship is the source of the other two. The proclamation of the good news to the lost and the building up of the church by the maturing of each believer flows from hearts that are made warm and vital by the worship of the living God. Jesus spotlighted that fact with the words:
30 And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.
Worship is a heartfelt encounter of men and angels with the true God. It is an act of attention to the living God who rules, speaks and reveals, creates and redeems, orders and blesses. The essence of worship is genuineness. Worship may find expression in thought, in prayer, in praise, in song, in body position, and in activity such as dancing or uplifting of arms-but without genuineness all becomes false worship. Jesus instructed the woman at the well in this matter, saying:
23 But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him.
True worship reflects the biblical truth that we are made in the image of God. It is a way of discovering God and in that discovery becoming more like Him ourselves.
18 But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.
Worship is therefore an essential to finding out who we are as men and women. Since we are made in the image of God, we must find out what that image is in us by discovering what God is like. Worship itself does not invoke the presence of God---rather, worship is a response to the presence of God. If we fail to truly worship, we will be something less than human, living shallow and often hollow lives.
Failure to worship leads us to a life filled with spasms and jerks, as it is yanked around at the mercy of every advertisement, every seduction, every temptation. Without worship we live both manipulated and manipulating lives. We react in either frightened panic or are calmed by falsehoods. If there is no center, there is no circumference. People who do not worship are swept into a vast restlessness with no steady direction and no sustaining purpose.
The knowledge of God obtained through the reading and proclamation of the word of God is indispensable to true worship. When the word of God is expounded in clarity and power, the congregation begins to sense and see the glory of the living God. It is then they are ready to bow down in awe and joyful wonder before His throne. Therefore, acceptable worship is impossible without preaching, for preaching is making known God's Name, and worship is praising the Name of the Lord made known. The preaching of the word of God is the great corrective to false worship, continually calling the people of God away from unbiblical extremes and the sinful exaltation of self and refocusing their attention upon the greatness and majesty of God and his work of gracious redemption.
The individual worship of a believer is likened in Scripture to a fragrant incense arising to delight the heart of God. It is not because God needs to be worshipped that he is delighted, but because he knows we need to worship, and it delights him to see us fulfilling that which is essential to all spiritual health and ministry. The danger in worship is that of pretense or self-deception. Words and phrases may be uttered with the lips which are not felt in the heart. Prayers may be spoken mechanically or repetitiously; intercession for others may be a mere recital of names with the superficial catch-all, bless so-and-so. All this is false worship, for the heart (which God is reading) is not in it.
Another threat to worship is unacknowledged sin. Lack of self-judgment is a common hindrance to genuine worship. Also, true worship cannot happen without the horizontal relationships with our brothers and sisters being cleared up, as Matthew 5:23-24 and 6:14 make clear.
23 Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;
We are to forgive others because we ourselves have been forgiven. Those who claim they cannot forgive imply that they have forgotten their own gracious forgiveness, or perhaps never really have known it! God requires that we genuinely forgive those who have offended us before we can worship him with a clear conscience and a true spirit of praise.
Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give.
God is not only to be worshipped individually, but also corporately, in company with other believers. We can learn much about corporate worship from the Old Testament. There God taught Israel that there was a divinely predetermined place for corporate worship in the Tabernacle, corresponding to the congregation of believers today: (Hebrews 3:6; 1 Corinthians 3:16-19; Ephesians 3:20-21).
But Christ as a son over his own house; whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end.
Also, there was an acceptable basis for worship in the sacrifices offered, picturing the death of Christ as our sin-bearer, and the continuing emphasis of the cross in believers’ lives. Further, there was a visible result of worship made evident in healed antagonisms, confessed rebellion, restitution, and restored relationships, followed by passionate joy and praise uttered for the grace and mercy of God. (1 Corinthians 5:7; 1 Peter 1:18-19)
Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us:
Corporate worship, like individual worship, can easily drift into external expressions without heartfelt participation. The motive for worship may subtly shift from the praise of God to gaining the attention or approval of others. Hymns may be mouthed with no comprehension of what is being sung. Rituals may be observed mechanically, or biblical phrases chanted in a formal or routine manner. Frigid formalism requiring bodily stillness and solemn, expressionless faces; harshness and authoritarianism from leaders; guilt-appeal centered offerings; showmanship and attempts to program the Holy Spirit; use of exalted titles; claiming of special access to God-all these spoil worship and reveal it as fleshly and unspiritual. Many passages of scripture describe God's revulsion at that type of hypocrisy. He is not honored but rather insulted by such phoniness. Such worship becomes a pathetic charade in which people often try to get God to pay attention to them or to do something for them. It is destructive and deadening and will soon result in a terrible drain of spiritual vitality from an individual or congregation. But authentic worship breaks down personal antagonisms, eliminates selfish ambition, produces genuine humility and thankfulness, and links heart to heart, building the church up in love.
It is the responsibility of leadership to correct congregational worship when it begins to become artificial, predictable, or routine. Pastors must be aware that the world, the flesh, and the devil are all at work to make worship superficial, shallow, and performance oriented. Pastors can best oppose this by maintaining truly worshipful hearts themselves. They must teach the whole congregation what God desires in worship and resist the constant drift toward mere entertainment rather than devotion. They must take prompt action to limit excesses of movement or voice which call attention to the worshipper and not to the Lord. At the same time, they must resist attempts of individuals or groups to deny proper biblical expressions of worship because of tradition or prejudice.
The sign that true worship is being achieved is a maturing congregation. Personal witness is widespread, loving service to those who hurt should be increasing; friction among members should be decreasing; appreciation for benefits and public thanksgiving should be often manifest; moral standards are held in high regard, but deviations are not coldly treated and the steps of discipline given in Matthew 18:15-17 are lovingly followed:
Matthew 18: 15 Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
The exposition of the Word of God lies at the heart of every ministry, and the exercise of personal gifts is continually encouraged. When these things are happening, a congregation has clearly become the household of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth, is people belonging to God. Remember that the Father is seeking such to worship him!
The closing chapters of the book of Revelation make clear that the ultimate exercise of God's people is worship. When the long agony of sin is over and creation is restored to its pristine glory, the angels and the redeemed are seen around the throne, endlessly praising God for His wisdom, love, and power. That may sound boring and routine to many, but in reality, it represents the awed wonder of creatures who continually are discovering new aspects of God's nature and character. So awesome is our God that we shall never reach the end of his amazing attributes. In true worship something happens to the worshipers. Minds are cleared, perceptions come into focus, spirits are renewed, truth breaks out in new clarity. That is what sends us out to tell the good news to those who long for hope, or peace, or freedom from guilt.