One of my favorite movies of all time is “The Princess Bride”. It’s just an all around fun movie.
Throughout one portion of the film, we’re introduced to a criminal character named Vizzini. Without getting into much of the plot here, he is on the run from a man trying to stop the kidnapping of a princess.
At every turn, the man chasing them seems to defy all odds to keep up with them. And at every turn, Vizzini realizes he’s still there and shouts, “Inconceivable!”
Finally, one of the men working under Vizzini looks at him thoughtfully and says, “You keep using that word… I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Ladies and Gentlemen… welcome to my “You Keep Using That Word” series. A “study” (why not, people throw that word around nowadays anyways) on words we use that don’t mean what we seem to think they mean.
Today, let’s look at the word “Worship.”
I’m going to be completely honest, I’ve had this topic in mind since long before I actually started this blog, which naturally made it a beast to get out. This particular topic is one that I am extremely passionate about, and as you know, those topics can be tricky to discuss without getting too fired up or coming off snarky.
But it’s time to get into it. In the American Christian church, I’ve been watching this “fight” happen for most of my life. The great worship debate. What is the right way to worship? Bring up the word “worship” in mixed company and you very well may accidentally start a small, polite fight right there.
In one corner, you have “traditional worship.” Hymnals and organs and liturgy and tradition (hence the name). Those in this corner believe strongly that worship is about rich theological depth to the songs they sing and liturgical significance to all they do. Many decry contemporary worship as mere “entertainment” for the congregation, the music unsingable and wholly lacking sound doctrine of any kind.
In the other corner, you have “contemporary worship.” Modern songs with a praise band that do not shy away from engaging the emotions. Those in this corner believe strongly that worship should be free to move forward with the times and that it is about reaching out to God through means the hymns no longer accomplish. Many sigh heavily at traditional worship as snobbery, boring, and lacking realness of any kind.
This is, of course, a very broad definition for both. There are a ton of nuances and deviations on either side of the issue. And for the sake of total disclosure, I am currently the worship leader of a contemporary worship style church, and I am also a high school choral director who has been in traditional worship services for a good portion of my life.
So, with that in mind….
Both of these corners have it wrong.
What? That’s not what I’m supposed to say! Right now I’m supposed to either defend tradition or talk about singing a new song to the Lord! I’m supposed to grumble about the dadgum guitar solos or shake my head at phrases like “let Thy goodness like a fetter” not meaning anything to anyone anymore. I’m supposed to take a side!
I have. And I take God’s side. Because, and hear me on this folks, worship is not about your musical preferences.
I’m just going to brush aside the fact that this entire inane argument reeks of an imperialistic mindset. Would you go on a mission trip and tell a group of people worshiping in their cultural style that they need to start singing hymns or contemporary worship songs that make no sense to them musically or in the cultural things they reference? If you would… please do not go on a mission trip.
Okay, so maybe not completely brushing that aside… now I am. Moving on.
Ahem. Brushing that aside, the whole argument of which style is better is utterly ridiculous because neither of them address the actual topic of what worship is. We keep using that word….
That being said, it now begs the question:
What is worship?
So glad you asked! 🙂 The actual definition of worship is “to render religious reverence and homage to; to feel an adoring reverence or regard for someone or something.”
Reverence. Homage. Adoring.
Please tell me how you can quantify those by watching someone sing.
Sure, you can look at the person singing the hymn with eyes closed and a reverent expression. Of course, they could be pondering what they want to eat for lunch while mindlessly singing the words of a hymn they know by heart.
Sure, you can look at the person with hands outstretched singing their heart out as the band hits the big chorus. Of course, they could just really like that particular song and be getting an emotional rush out of it.
But the Lord said to Samuel, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7
Worship is about where your heart is. Worship is about an individual turning their heart as well as their life toward God. Period. End of statement.
Worship is not about instruments. It doesn’t matter if someone is playing a pipe organ or an electric guitar, they can be doing it for their own personal satisfaction and the attention it gets them or they can be doing it as an offering of love, devotion, and honor to God.
Worship is not about the group singing. It doesn’t matter if someone is standing alone with a microphone or sitting in a robe amidst a large choir. They can be singing for their own personal pride or they can be singing to God.
Worship is not about the songs you sing. Hear me, now. Yes, it’s important that a song doesn’t go crazy and start saying things about God that aren’t true. It’s not honoring to someone to lie about them. However, we are super quick to snap that something isn’t honoring to God. (If you ever use the phrase “Jesus is my boyfriend song” around me, expect me to ask you how you feel about being the bride of Christ… just sayin’.)
God is love. God is truth. To focus on only one aspect of God and ignore others is to dishonor the whole of who He is.
In high school, my father was moved to pastor a small traditional church. At this point, I had grown up on contemporary worship… and I loved it. I thought traditional worship and hymns were the most boring thing I’d ever heard. You couldn’t worship with that! Talk about a chip on my shoulder….
Every Sunday, after the offering, we would always sing the Doxology.
Praise God from Whom all blessings flow.
Praise Him all creatures here below.
Praise Him above ye heavenly hosts.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
I’m somewhat ashamed to say that I went on autopilot every time we sang that song. Mindlessly sang the words… maybe tried to find a new harmony… ultimately just plodding through.
There was a woman in that church who is, to this day, one of the godliest women I’ve ever met in my life. Her heart and soul belong 100% to God. She sat next to me in the choir loft, and one day during the Doxology I just happened to glance over at her.
Her eyes were closed, her head was lifted, but what captured me in that moment was the absolute love that poured off of her. She was not just singing those words, she was worshiping with them. With the Doxology, she understood more about the worship of the Almighty Living God than I (with my big ol’ worship chip) could possibly imagine.
I learned more about true worship in that moment than from any conference or event I’ve been to since.
True worship can happen with a praise band and crazy lights. True worship can happen in a cathedral with a full choir and pipe organ. True worship can happen in your living room by yourself with a piano. True worship can happen in a dadgum drum circle if the people have their hearts centered on God.
Are you allowed your preference? Of course! We are created unique by God, and therefore different styles of music will help different people enter into worship easier. Be careful when you say you can’t worship with a certain style though. I fell into that trap for years. You’re essentially telling God that He is less important than your preferences. Careful….
Whatever style you prefer, I implore you now to really study your heart. Even more, ask God to search your heart.
Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. – Psalm 139:23-24
We do not worship liturgy. We do not worship a feeling. I think I can say with good confidence that worshiping anything except God, even while trying to give the appearance of worshiping Him, is idolatry. Allow God to point out the things in your worship that are not pleasing to Him.
If you are saying to yourself right now that there’s nothing displeasing… then I say you’re not listening. None of us are perfect. None of us are there. Set aside your pride and let God change your heart.
In the end, a true worship encounter with God can be a little scary and a lot overwhelming. Maybe all these rules and debates are just our way of covering up the fact that we don’t want to have an encounter like that. You can’t encounter God in true worship and not change. It may be a big, sudden change… or it may be slowly molding you over time. But worship produces change every time. Pride is so much easier a path to take.
I know this may not change a thing in the grand scale. I do. This crazy “battle” will continue until God changes the hearts of those involved or Jesus comes back. But if just one person reads this and says “whoa…” then it’s worth it.
I have so much more to say on the subject of worship, but that’s all for this particular aspect. Instead, I’ll leave you with words Jesus once said to a woman at a well… who had actually just asked him a question about what was the “right” way to worship.
“But the time is coming – indeed it’s here now – when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship Him that way. For God is Spirit, so those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth.” – John 4:23-24
Worship. Let’s start using it right.