I grew up in a church which was home to two competing attitudes to Christian worship. One of them was expressed when people emerged from a service grumbling that they “didn’t get anything out of” the worship that morning. The other was manifest in a common response to this complaint: “It doesn’t matter whether you got anything out of it. Worship isn’t for your benefit, but for God’s.” These contrasting views made either: (1) pleasing human beings, or (2) pleasing God, to be the primary purpose of worship.
In recent years I’ve been led to question both these perspectives. Not because it’s wrong to enjoy worship or to see God as enjoying it, but because both these angles miss something essential about what worship is for, why we were given this gift and discipline as followers of Jesus. In what follows I’m going to say three things worship is not, to clear the ground for a final statement on what I think worship is.
- Worship is not especially “for God.” I say “especially” because, like everything Christians do and think, the ultimate goal of worship is of course to glorify God and make him known. But I am not sure that worship pleases God more than any other activity done with this goal. In the Bible God tells over-eager worshipers “if I were hungry I would not ask you” and reminds them that what he really cares about is that his people should treat each other well. “Is not this the kind of fasting I want? To loose the bonds of injustice.” The prophets are unanimous that what pleases God most is a godly and righteous life, not a surplus of sacrifices or songs.
- Worship is not about “how you feel.” In my own church culture, there has been a temptation to confuse overwhelming emotions with the presence of Christ in our midst. This leads to a pursuit of those emotions for their own sake, and songs written with the primary aim of producing these emotions. But the funny thing about emotions is that they are elusive: as soon as you pursue them for their own sake, they start to become sickly and lose their quality. Instead, feelings about God should be seen as a gift, a side-effect which God may or may not grant to those who seek him with all their heart.
- Worship is not something we initiate. Many evangelicals see worship as a primarily human activity which lasts for as long as we are doing it. We know that the angels also worship in heaven, but that is unrelated to the service we have on a Sunday. But in the broader Christian tradition, worship is participation in an eternal dance which began before the creation of the world. It is a departure from the earthly pattern of time, and an entering into a heavenly time in which the saints through all of history join in one unending harmony.
So what is worship and why do we do it? I would compare worship to food. The purpose of food is not primarily that we enjoy it, but that it is good for us (although it helps if we enjoy it), sustaining and nourishing our physical life. Worship songs which are aimed at stimulating emotion could be compared to chocolate or ice-cream: a nice treat, but not the best as a staple diet. Healthier food is, sadly, often less stimulating than junk food, but far better for us in the long term.
Worship is about Christian formation, re-orienting ourselves towards our ultimate goal and purpose, reminding us of things that we easily forget during the week, bringing back into focus the truly important things that so easily slip from our perspective. Worship involves our whole selves – mind, heart and body – a holistic enactment of what is true but unsaid the rest of the time: that communion with God is the ultimate goal of human existence.
Worship is also a re-affirmation of the unity of the Church, the bride of Christ. This is why it is usually communal. Not that it is impossible to worship alone, but that the natural home of worship is in the gathered body of Christ. The Christian tradition has seen worship as bringing together all who are faithful to their husband, Jesus, and to his prayer that we should be united in our love for him. The Eucharist, or bread and wine, are a sign and expression that, just as there is one God, so there is one united people of God.
There has been a decline in the quality of worship songs over the last 20 years in evangelical churches. In the 80’s, the songs we sang declared truths about God regardless of how you felt while you were singing them. But recent songs have more often been oriented towards how the singer is feeling about God: in short, their focus has shifted more towards us. They expect that (in spite of the overwhelming witness of the Psalms) a good Christian will always be feeling certain positive emotions towards God which they are eager to express every Sunday.
I would love to see churches adopt a more holistic approach to worship, not neglecting any part of the human person but involving the mind, the heart, and the body. I would also love to be part of worship in which I could participate no matter what mood I was in, knowing that to re-focus on eternal, unchanging truths about God is the very antidote to my rapidly changing moods and desires.
Due to a facebook conversation with a worship leader I greatly respect, I want to qualify my statement above about a decline in the quality of songs. I don’t mean to suggest that no good songs are written or sung in churches today, nor to cause offence to those who do excellent and talented work in providing a context of worship for us laypeople. My own subjective/anectodal experience of the last few years is that the songs chosen for Sunday mornings have been more emotion-centred than they used to be. But I am open to being challenged on this point!
Smith, James K. A. Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. Vol. v. 2. Cultural Liturgies ; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2013.
 I’m using the word “worship” here in its common sense. In Scripture there is much evidence that worship was understood as the orientation of a person’s whole life, their fundamental commitment and ultimate obedience. In this sense, worship is far more than what one does on Sunday (singing songs or chanting liturgies). But if “what one does on Sunday” still has significance then it also needs a name, and worship seems an appropriate name for it. Many words in English serve multiple overlapping purposes without confusion of meaning.
 Psalm 50:12
 Isaiah 58:6
This post was first published at Many Horizons on 22 June, 2015.