Two Kinds of Worship?

One of the things I like about Christian theology and practice is that it is always evolving. Sure, certain absolutes remain constant, but lots of the periphery change and I believe the reason why the Christian faith has endured (and in fact flourished) over the centuries is because of its cultural adaptiveness.

So, when I write in this blog, I’m not trying to provide static answers and manifestos. I appreciate that my own thoughts will change and be challenged, as much as I seek to challenge and grow the mindsets of others.

If you’ve read my earlier posts on defining worship, you will see that I take a very broad view of what worship is. The definition I like the most is Harold Best’s, which says that worship is “continuous outpouring”, meaning that our whole life is our worship to God.

I thought that was pretty progressive, until I came across James MacDonald’s writings in the November 2012 issue of Worship Leader Magazine. In his article, “Unashamed Adoration”, MacDonald says this:

We are frequently told that making a meal for your family or cleaning your car or helping your neighbour are all acts of worship. When these acts are the outgrowth of our love for God and are done to demonstrate that love, I would agree that they are “worshipful”, but technically they are not worship. I’m not seeking to parse meaning with undue rigour, but we need to be precise in our definitions if we want to accurately embrace the very purpose for our existence. Worship is the actual act of ascribing worth directly to God. Worshipful actions may do this indirectly, but when the Bible commands and commends worship as our highest expression, it is not talking about anything other than direct, intentional, Vertical outpouring of adoration. While that does not have to be put to music, it does have to be direct in order to rise above the “worshipful” and actually attribute worth to God…. Worship is mind, emotions, and will engaged in whole-person ascription of worth.

Nothing brings glory down in church as quickly and as powerfully as when God’s people unashamedly adore God’s great Son, Jesus Christ.

I like the distinction McDonald makes between “worshipful acts” and “worship”, with “worship” being something requiring intensity, intentionality and vertical-focus.

Just the other night, I was trying to describe what we were going to do for Global Day of Worship and how some time during our “worship”, we should have a time of giving. I had to make inverted comma signs with my fingers when I said the word “worship” to delineate between musical praise and taking the monetary offering. And then the thought occurred to me that I might need to use “air ponies” (as Gloria in Modern Family puts it) every time I want to describe intentional praise as distinct from lifestyle-worship just in case anyone misunderstands me. At that point in time, I thought whether an excessively broad definition of worship might make the term meaningless and unusable.

So perhaps, much can be said for MacDonald’s position in taking us back to a more rigid (and what I had thought was a less progressive) definition of worship. What do you think?

More Definitions of Worship

Today at Arrows College, we delved deeper into the theology of worship and creativity.  I was really inspired by the first session in which we surveyed worship through the Old Testament. Because of time constraints, we couldn’t look into individual passages in much detail, but I was thinking it’d be a great idea when I get some time to properly survey the Bible from Genesis to Revelation through the lens of worship. That will be a fairly big project to undertake in the future!

Anyway, in this post, I want to consider in more detail what “worship” means.

So far, we’ve had the following definitions.

Harold Best:

Worship is the continuous outpouring of all that I am, all that I do, and all that I can ever become to God.

Timothy Keller:

Worship is ascribing ultimate value to something in a way that engages the whole being.

Here are some more definitions:

Evelyn Underhill:

Worship is the total adoring response of man to the one Eternal God, self-revealed in time.

Archbishop William Temple:

Worship is the submission of all our nature to God.  It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness; the nourishment of mind with His truth; the purifying of imagination by His beauty; the opening of the heart to His love; the surrender of His will to His purpose—and all of this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin.

Warren Wiersbe:

Worship is the believer’s response of all that they are—mind, emotions, will and body—to what God is and says and does.  This response has its mystical side in subjective experience and its practical side in objective obedience to God’s revealed will.  Worship is a loving response that’s balanced by the fear of the Lord, and it is a deepening response as the believer comes to know God better.

Judson Cornwall:

Worship is an attitude of heart, a reaching towards God, a pouring out of our total self in thanksgiving, praise, adoration and love to the God who created us and to whom we owe everything we have and are. Worship is the interaction of man’s spirit with God in a loving response

David Peterson:

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.

Louie Giglio

Worship is our response, both personal and corporate, to God for who He is, and what He has done; expressed in and by the things we say and the way we live.

Having looked at all those definitions, it will be clear to you that it’s pretty difficult to comprehensively nail down the concept of worship.

During our worship survey, our group was asked to look at Micah 6:6-8 and answer the questions: (1) What worship is; and (2) What worship is not.  Lisa, Nicky, Serene, Hilary and I came up with some profound thoughts which I will try to synergise below. So these thoughts are not mine. Rather they are the combined work of a bunch of inquisitive thinkers.  Here’s the passage:

With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

First, what worship is not.  Worship is not about offering of things or possessions. It’s not about systems and formulae and rituals. Nor is it about quantity, quality or even extravagance. The prophet asks: what can I offer? Rams? Oil? My firstborn? I think we all agree that our firstborn is one of the most precious things we can offer. It not only signifies our affection, but also our help, support and our legacy. Notice that the offer of the firstborn is for “my transgression”. When it is “me-centred”, it cannot be worship.  So you can give your most precious thing, and it will still not be worship. Worship is not about our trying to buy God’s favour.

The key is your attitude.

The prophet poses the question: “What does the Lord require?” This points to obedience to God’s requirements. Worship is therefore essentially a lifestyle of obedience which manifests in outward actions: “to do”, “to love” and “to walk”. And it is not only about our being in proper relationship with God, it is also about our right relationship with the people around us.

It is only in that context then that offerings, lavishness and extravagance, when done towards God, have their proper place, be it the widow’s mite, Mary’s alabaster box or Abraham’s placing of Isaac on the altar.

And I think it’s apt that it’s never about our firstborn, but God’s firstborn. Jesus is the inspiration and progenitor of our worship. We love, because He first loved us. When we were unable and unawakened to worship and in a state of sin, Christ died for us. So, shall we offer our firstborn? No – the suggestion is that because God has offered His firstborn, He has now paved the way for us to worship! Hallelujah!

Going Back to (Worship) School

Today, was my first day back at school following my last exam at uni and after 12 years of working life. It was quite a surreal experience. I almost felt like I should have packed a piece of fruit and a muesli bar and 15% juice in a tetrapak. I also wondered whether the cool kids would want to sit with me.

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t that dramatic, but I was glad to be back studying again, even if it was just for one week at the Worship Module of Arrows College with Pastor Ray Badham of Hillsong College teaching on worship and songwriting.

The first thing that really amazed me was just how many students had set aside 10 weeks of their life to complete the Arrows course. There were people from all generations and all walks of life. I was really impressed by a young worship leader from Faith Community Church who decided to step out of the comfort zone of his job as an accountant in a Big 4 firm to pursue God’s call for his life in church ministry.

During the morning chapel time, Pastor Benny Ho shared an insight from John Maxwell about three zones that we can live in: the challenge zone; the comfort zone and the cruising zone. When we operate in the challenge zone, this is where we are stretched and stimulated, ultimately leading to our growth. When we are in our comfort zone, all we are doing is something we already know. The worst is when we fall into the complacency of the cruising zone. This essentially leads to stagnancy and death. Pastor Benny encouraged us to always reinvent ourselves and put ourselves back on the shelf of the challenge zone.

I feel that this year, God has really challenged me beyond the things I am used to – particularly in the context of ministry where I am stepping out to do more things within the city itself. I feel completely out of my depth but at the same time needing to rely on God all the more.

So there I was, sitting in a class of 30 or so students, hoping that God would somehow speak to me about this next phase of my journey. I didn’t come with much of an agenda, except perhaps that I was getting a bit tired of my day job and hoping that this will be a week of refreshing and re-firing and being receptive to whatever God would say to me.

Today was also about going back to school on the basics of worship.

Pastor Ray shared about what worship is: essentially making the point that it is a lot more than just what we do on Sunday.

I have in two previous posts, Defining Worship and Defining Worship Part 2 sought to define worship. Looking at worship in contrast to idolatry, Pastor Ray adopted Timothy Keller’s definition: “worship is ascribing ultimate value to something in a way that engages the whole being.” And Pastor Ray shared that the primal design and direction of our lives is to worship God. When idolatry comes in, it distorts our lives.

Martin Lloyd-Jones says this:

An idol is anything in my life that occupies a place that should be occupied by God alone… An idol is something holds such a controlling position in my life that it moves and rouses and attracts me so easily that I give my time, attention and money to it effortlessly.

The psalmist observes in Psalm 135:15-18:

The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
eyes, but cannot see.
They have ears, but cannot hear,
nor is there breath in their mouths.
Those who make them will be like them,
and so will all who trust in them

We become like what or who we worship. And that is why Paul says in Romans 1:18ff that as a result of idolatry, God gave humanity over to futile and foolish thoughts and to the degradation of their bodies.

True worship on the other hand transforms us into the image of God. So worship transforms us in an upward spiral towards becoming more and more like Christ, from glory to glory, strength to strength. As Christ-followers, we don’t always engage in true worship, but when we do, transformation is always the result.

We often equate worship with music and singing, but it was great to be reminded about this foundational truth: Worship is much more than what happens on a Sunday. It is about ascribing God his true worth and in the process being changed to be more like HIm.

Worship: Treasuring God Above All Else

Here is a great definition of worship I recently came across whilst reading John Piper’s Let the Nations Be Glad.  Piper says (at 231):

Worship is not a gathering.  It is not essentially a song service or sitting under preaching.  Worship is not essentially any form of outward act.  Worship is essentially an inner stirring of the heart to treasure God above all the treasures of the world –

a valuing of God above all else that is valuable

a loving of God above all else that is lovely

a savouring of God above all else that is sweet

an admiring of God above all else that is admirable

a fearing of God above all else that is fearful

a respecting of God above all else that is respectable

a prizing of God above all else that is precious.

In other words, worship is right affections in the heart toward God, rooted in right thoughts in the head about God, becoming visible in right actions of the body reflecting God.

Wow, no wonder Paul says in Romans 11:36 that “from Him and through Him and to Him are all things!”

Defining Worship Part 2

Today, I want to finish up what I started a month ago when I introduced Harold Best’s definition of worship in my post Defining Worship. In that post, I extracted Best’s definition, being that worship is “the continuous outpouring of all that I am, all that I do, and all that I can ever become to God”.

Here I want to unpack that a bit further.

First, the concept of continuousness. Best says in Unceasing Worship (p 18):

Worship does not stop and start, despite our notions to the contrary. Once we place emphasis on specific times, places and methods, we misunderstand worship’s biblical meaning. Worship may ebb and flow, may take on various appearances and may be unconscious or conscious, intense and ecstatic or quiet and commonplace, but it is continuous.

I want to pause here and consider the idea of “unconscious worship”. Most worship leaders will implore you during worship times on Sunday to “give your full attention to God”. This is a question of intensity and focus. But what happens when you go to work on Monday and have to think really hard about how to solve a client’s problem, or to draw up a design or to write up a complex formula? In my experience (and I’m being honest here), I don’t often think about God. When I am drafting a legal contract, I am don’t sing “Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to Thee…” whilst I am typing “Subject to the payment of rent, the Landlord leases the Premises to the Tenant” etc. I think my head will explode! And my secretary will think I’m nuts!

But that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped worshipping because as I have said elsewhere on this blog, your work is also worship.

So worship changes intensity, it ebbs and flows, but it never stops. It’s continuous. I like the idea of “unconscious” worship!

Next, is the concept of outpouring.

Outpouring implies a direction. You pour into or towards something. Overflowing is different to outpouring. Overflowing happens in every direction. When you fill up a bucket to its brim, it overflows everywhere. But pouring out has a sense of intention.

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day who said that if you look at how adherents of other religions worship, you can take away all the external trappings (like clothing style or music) and it wouldn’t look too different to what Christians do on a Sunday. This is true. The difference (and the key one) is one of direction, because as I have said before, everyone is worshipping something or put another way, nobody does not worship. The basis of that difference is being to able to answer the question why the Christian God is deserving of our outpouring more than any other God. That’s too big a question for me to deal with in this post, but hopefully one day I will be able to give a strong cogent answer to my friend (I suspect I may actually not give her a concrete answer, but we will probably ask a series of questions and come up with the answer together!).

Of “outpouring”, Best says this (p 19):

It implies lavishness and generosity: when I pour something, I give it up; I let it go. Dripping is not outpouring; there is space between the drops. But in pouring, the flow is organically and consistently itself. In spite of a mixed simile, pouring is seamless.

The lavishness and generosity of outpouring is illustrated in the Gospel story of Mary and the alabaster box (which I have looked at elsewhere on this blog). But here, I like Best’s comment about “giving up” and “letting go” the most. Worship is about surrender. When you worship, you are really surrendering your whole life to God, or as Paul puts it in Romans 12:1, offering your whole life as a living sacrifice.

The thing with pouring, or with sacrifice (for that matter) is that once the act is done, it is irretrievably done. You can’t take it back. You have either poured it out, or you have been consumed by fire. There’s no going back to the way things were. How we continue in that process is by the grace of God, knowing that God never lets us out of His hands once we commit our lives to Him.

Lastly, worship cannot be self-contained, as Best says, “even when it barely dribbles out”. In the story of Mary, the Gospel writers say that the whole house was filled with the fragrance of Mary’s worship. In this sense, worship and witness are really one comprehensive reality.

Okay, now enough of the big, complicated ideas.

Let me reduce this into somewhat more simple terms: Worship is like being married to someone. If you haven’t tried it, you should give it a go! The fact of marriage means that you give priority to your wife. Sometimes this is conscious, sometimes not. Your daily routine reflects that priority. You always come home to her; you have time for her (even though you have a lot of other things on your plate) and you share your whole life with her.

Sometimes, you give fuller effect to that priority. For example, you would like to watch the cricket (actually this is a bad example because I abhor watching the cricket!) but you decide to spend some quality time sipping tea with her and chatting about your day. You might call this “quiet time” (I know, I couldn’t help chucking in a religious term). Still more intensely, there will be times when you pay especial honour to her, and everything you do is about her: you write her a card saying how beautiful she is, what a great person she is, you buy her dinner, you give her flowers.

But yet, there will be times when you don’t pay her enough attention. You do things that make her upset. You’re inconsiderate. You put your own desires above hers. (Okay, I am talking about myself, but using the “you” pronoun gives me a sense of solidarity with the rest of you). That doesn’t mean that I stop being married.

And that, my friends, is very much like our worship.  It makes me wonder whether this is why the New Testament church is often described as the bride of Christ.

At the end of the day, worship is relational. When we enter into relationship with God, we have changed the direction of our worship from ourselves, from other gods and things which seek mastery over us, and we are now directing our worship towards God. It doesn’t always feel like we are worshipping, or that God is at the centre of it all, or that God is even close to us, but that’s okay. At the end of the day, we’re coming home again.

Why the Distinction Between “Praise” and “Worship” Matters

In an earlier post entitled Defining Worship, I introduced Harold’s Best definition of worship as continuous outpouring.

If worship encompasses all of our life, then “worship” is a much bigger concept than “praise”.  In fact, we can think of “praise” as a subset of “worship”.  Robert Webber once said that “worship is a verb”, but I’d like to think of it as worship being a state of being and “praise” being the verb by which “worship” is expressed.

If we refine this thought further, we can say that “praise” is the ignition point, or pilot light, of “worship”.

Think about it this way:  what we do in corporate praise on a Sunday is only the start of how we live a life of worship from Monday to Saturday.  Our aligning of focus towards God through praise should be the inspiration and catalyst for a life of worship demonstrated in how we live for God in the workplace, in our homes and in our communities.

This has a couple of pretty significant implications which I want to explore further in this post:

1.  Who is the Real Worship Leader?

I’m not one to make a fuss about nomenclature, but I remember in the early 90s how those in worship ministry made a conscious shift from referring to the guy on stage as “song leader” to “worship leader” to the more funky Matt Redman-driven “lead worshipper”.

About 10 years ago, I said that maybe a better designation would be “worship facilitator”.  I said this because I thought that the role of the guy on stage would be simply to facilitate the offering of worship for which each member of the congregation was ultimately personally responsible to bring.

These days, I don’t mind what you call the guy as long as you know what role he is fulfilling.  For ease, and because of general acceptance, I tend to use “worship leader” more.  In fact, when I think about it, I am now more inclined to call that guy the “praise leader” for the reasons set out at the start of this post.

But if we understand that “praise” is a subset of “worship”, we need to ask ourselves:  “who then really is the worship leader”?  If worship is the stuff that encompasses all of our lives, then the worship leader definitely is not the guy on stage who leads the singing for the first 30 minutes of a church service.  He is, as I say, just the “praise leader”.

Neither is he the preacher, because whilst the preacher gives instructions on how we worship with our whole lives, the preacher doesn’t see to those instructions being fulfilled during the week.

So if we take this a bit further, the “praise leader” and the “preacher” on a Sunday are only the initiators.  The real worship leaders are those found in the worshipping community – your spiritual mentors; your peers; your family; models of character and attitude – those who see to it (perhaps sometimes inadvertently) that in your daily life, Christlikeness is being formed in you.  In other words, all of us in the church are the real worship leaders!

2.  Fast Songs and Slow Songs

Those of us in worship ministry for a while will remember a time when we equated the fast songs with “praise” and the slow songs with “worship”.  This created an unfortunate dichotomy where fast songs were seen as a means of emotional hype (and belonging to the “outer court” experience) whereas slow songs (in which “worship” occurs) were deep and spiritual and therefore more desirable.

Also partly because the current style of fast songs were harder to execute, I have seen some worship leaders take to the extreme of ever only singing slow songs.

For those of you as shallow as I am, it meant that people got bored during the Sunday services.

If we understand that what we are doing on a Sunday is “praise” and the catalyst for our daily worship, then the distinction between fast songs being “praise” and slow songs being “worship” is no longer valid.  This is a great leveller between fast and slow songs.

So, I would suggest that intimately seeking God in a slow song has just as much significance as exuberant celebration through the fast song.  A cursory glance through the Psalms will confirm this:  we are commanded as much to thirst and hunger for God as we are to clap our hands and celebrate his victories.

Because of this, I now try to give as much “air time” to both fast and slow songs.

One day, when the time is right, I will lead a worship set that consists only of fast songs – for no other reason than perhaps to address the imbalance and to get us thinking.  For that, I’m going to need a drummer with heaps of stamina!

Defining Worship

I expect that this will not be the only post I write on this subject because “worship” is one of those words which we all understand in some way or another, but find extremely difficult to pin down.  Depending on the context, its meaning expands and contracts.  Also, a lot our understanding will also be derived from our subjective experience.  It’s very much like the word “love”.

But I’ve been writing about worship and the church for the last four months and I still haven’t explored this important topic, so it’s about time.

I want to begin by establishing context:  when I talk about “worship”, what I really mean is “Christian worship”.

At its simplest, “worship” and “god” are interconnected; you can’t talk about worship devoid of a “god” being the endpoint of worship.  Without “god”, there is no worship.

But “god” takes some pretty surreptitious forms which we often don’t recognise.  For the unredeemed, fame, fortune and popularity may well be “gods”, things around which people centre their lives.

In the Christian context then, it’s obvious that when we talk about the endpoint of our worship, it is Jehovah God – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, revealed through the books of the Bible from eternity to the present, existing outside of time and dimension, yet stepping into history through Jesus.

So here is the best definition I’ve come across so far for “worship” (I expect that more definitions may be proliferated in the future that might replace this one as my favourite).  It is “best” in form and substance because it is provided by theologian Harold Best.

In Best’s book Unceasing Worship, he defines worship as “the continuous outpouring of all that I am, all that I do, and all that I can ever become” to God.  (I am simplifying his definition somewhat, because it gets a lot more theologically technical, but what I have extracted here are what, I believe, are the core elements.)

This is a much better definition than the popular, oft-quoted definition of “worship is a lifestyle”.  Best’s definition recognises that worship is more than a lifestyle: it is also a state of being (“all that I am”) and also a life goal (“all that I can ever become”).

There’s a lot more to unpack in Best’s definition, but I will keep is as that for now.

In the meantime, have you come across a good definition of worship?  Or have you come up with your own?  Share with us by commenting below!