‘God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ (John 4:24)

The question of how we ought to worship has given rise to bitter conflict in the body of Christ. So well-known is the controversy that it has its own name: ‘worship wars’. Moderns are accused of producing watered-down, sentimental worship songs empty of theological richness and depth. In return, traditionalists are accused of inauthenticity and hypocrisy, mindlessly repeating words and phrases without feeling or meaning them.

Both these accusations stem from differing views about the goal and purpose of worship. In a previous post I argued that worship is Christian formation, nourishing us with spiritual food whose purpose is not to taste nice, but to make us healthy. Building on those ideas, I now want to ask what makes worship authentic.[1]

In this post, I argue that authentic worship:

  1. is lived.
  2. changes who we are.
  3. puts God at the centre.

1.   Authentic Worship is Lived

‘You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:
“This people honours me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.”’ (Matt 15:7-9)

‘I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.’ (Romans 12:1)

Controversial claim: authentic worship doesn’t have to be ‘from the heart’, if ‘heart’ is understood in the modern sense as a metaphor for emotions. We cannot choose how we feel and we should never be guilty for failing to feel the ‘right’ way. Our feelings are only part of our external circumstances, but our actions are a chosen response that reveals who we really are.

On the other hand, if ‘heart’ is understood in the Biblical sense as a metaphor for the will, Jesus makes it clear that this is essential (Matt 15:8). But worshipping with the right feelings is not the same as worshipping for the right reasons. The latter is all-important, but the former beyond our control.

‘Meaning it’ is not the same as ‘feeling it.’ When a husband says ‘I love you’ to his wife, it can be true even when he doesn’t feel it. Indeed, he ought to tell her he loves her, whether or not he feels it, as long as he means it. In the same way, it is quite possible to say sincerely that we love God even when we feel otherwise.

But ‘meaning it’ is the same as ‘living it.’ Feelings are fleeting and unreliable. A weak and spineless husband might feel love for his wife when she is there, tell her ‘I love you’, but still succumb to temptation and be unfaithful when he is not in her presence. The test of whether he ‘means it’ is in his behaviour, not his feelings. We only know he truly loves her if his words correspond to his actions.

Worship is hypocritical if our words fail to correspond, not to our emotions, but to our lives.

2.   Authentic Worship Changes Who We Are

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.’ (Romans 12:2)

Another controversial claim: worship can be mindless and repetitive, and yet still achieve its aim, if its aim is to train us and shape us, to transform our minds and hearts.


In this popular TED talk, Amy Cuddy argues that the true motto shouldn’t be ‘fake it till you make it’, but ‘fake it till you become it’. For example, if we adopt a bodily position associated with confidence, we will start to feel more confident, which will make us be truly confident in treating other people.

James K.A. Smith applies the same insight to worship, arguing that

We are liturgical animals who are defined by what we love, and … our loves and desires are primed and shaped by formative practices.[2]

In other words, repeated practices (i.e. liturgies) begin to shape what we desire. If we keep repeating ‘Your Kingdom come’, we will start to want His Kingdom to come.

C.S. Lewis applies the same insight to Christian duties outside church. He writes:

Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbour; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love them.[3]

This is why traditional liturgies have been accused of hypocrisy. We can easily confuse the practical wisdom of ‘fake it till you become it’ (promoted by Amy Cuddy, C.S. Lewis and James K.A. Smith) with plain and simple ‘fakeness’, dishonesty of the type Jesus condemned. But there is a difference, and the difference has to do with our heart, i.e. with our intentions in what we are doing.

Repeating the Lord’s Prayer or the Nicene Creed can be like reciting multiplication tables: it drills them deep into us, having a pervasive impact even when we do not consciously ‘think’ every word. We begin to dwell in the world of the words, such that they occur to us at other moments throughout the day, guiding our actions and decisions.

3.   Authentic Worship Puts God at the Centre

Actually, it doesn’t. We cannot ‘put God at the centre’. Using this language is dangerous because it confuses our perception with the reality. God is already at the centre. Nothing we do, say or feel can ever change that.

We do not worship in order to ‘put God at the centre’. The reality of God’s sovereign power and majesty is not something we conjure up, nor can we increase or decrease it by anything we do.

I am the centreWe worship to remember that we are not the centre. We worship to escape the narcotic illusions of worldly life that seem so real while we are in them. Advertising, capitalism, consumerism, our own egos – all conspire to persuade us that we are at the centre, that our needs and desires are what truly matter. They seduce us into prioritising our own comfort and security, offering us illusory promises and mirages.

God is the centreWe worship to re-immerse ourselves in the reality of Who God Is. We worship to reorient our lives toward him, which so quickly become oriented toward ourselves. We worship to remember that he is the only one who truly satisfies, that we find our rest in him alone (Psalm 62:1).

Whatever worship style reminds you of the centrality of God, and correspondingly of your place in the Universe – whatever worship style fosters greater love of God and of neighbour, not just during the church service but through the week – that is achieving the purpose of worship.

[1] As with my former post, I am using the term ‘worship’ to mean the activity of the gathered Church on Sunday mornings. There is a broader definition that involves our whole moment-by-moment life-orientation.

[2] James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Baker Publishing Group, 2013), 12.

[3] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (HarperCollins UK, 1997), Part 3: Chapter 6 ‘Charity’.

Featured image taken from God’s Grace Faces Us.

The following two tabs change content below.
Barney is the lead editor for the site. A theology fellow at Oxford University, he also hosts a podcast called Faith at the Frontiers.