What Happened to Worship?

What should be your ultimate priority in life?

The psalmist answers that question with an earnest call to worship our Creator: “Give unto the Lord the glory due to His name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Psalm 29:2, NKJV). That is every person’s supreme duty for time and eternity—to honor, adore, delight in, glorify, and enjoy God above all His creation, as He is worthy to be worshiped.

My own heart has been relentlessly stalked by the lion of worship over the years as I have traversed the pages of Scripture. My mind has been repeatedly arrested by the awesome majesty of the One we worship, by the ineffable glory of His perfect holiness, and by the pathetic reality of how far short we routinely fall in giving Him the honor He deserves. 

I know that redemptive history is moving along a very narrow path that will someday widen into what Isaiah calls “the Highway of Holiness.” There “the ransomed of the Lord” forever will worship with “joyful shouting” and “everlasting joy upon their heads” (Isaiah 35:8–10). I long for that day, and I want a taste of it even now. That should be the heart’s desire of every believer.

In my ministry, I have always longed to lead people to a personal encounter with the majesty of our holy God. But for years I fell short of fully understanding what worship was and how it was to be accomplished. Out of personal frustration with my own failures in worship, and from a deep, growing concern for a contemporary church that seemed to know as little as I did about true worship, I sought a better understanding of the Bible’s message on the subject.

One of the first things I discovered is that authentic worship is not a narrowly defined activity relegated to the Sunday morning church service—or restricted to any single time and place, for that matter. Worship is any essential expression of service rendered unto God by a soul who loves Him for who He is. Real worship therefore should be the unceasing activity of every believer, and the aim of the exercise ought to be to please God, not merely to entertain the worshiper.

In January of 1982, while preaching through John 4, I realized that I should be pursuing the stalking lion, rather than vice versa. It was a significant turning point in my ministry and in the life of our church. A new awareness that ceaseless worship ought to be every Christian’s highest priority reinvigorated our people.

I long to see these truths unleashed among every evangelical Christian’s worldview. A solid, biblical understanding of true worship would be the perfect antidote to the pragmatic, program-driven, prosperity-obsessed mentality so many evangelical churches now cultivate. By striving so hard to fulfill human needs, satisfy human desires, manipulate human emotions, and massage the human ego, the church somehow seems to have lost sight of what worship is supposed to be about. The typical church today is actually practicing a kind of populist religion that is all about self-love, self-esteem, self-fulfillment, and self-glory. All those things point people in the exact opposite direction from true worship.

There appears to be scant concern today about worshiping our glorious God on His own terms. At one end of the spectrum, “worship” seems to mean little more than some rote liturgy in a starched and stuffy setting with stained-glass windows and organ music. At the other extreme, “worship” aims to be as casual and as relaxed as possible, reflecting an easy familiarity with God unbefitting His transcendent majesty. This type of “worship“ seems to aim chiefly at making sinners comfortable with God—purging from our thoughts anything like fear, trembling, reverence, or profound biblical truth. 

In the minds of many contemporary evangelicals, the word worship signifies the musical portion of the order of service, as opposed to the sermon or the offering. The chief musician is called the “worship leader” to distinguish him from the pastor (whose role apparently is perceived as something other than leading people in worship).

Music is, of course, a wonderful medium for worship. But true worship is more than just music, and music—even Christian music—is not necessarily authentic worship. Music can be an instrument for the expression of worship, but there are other spiritual disciplines that come closer to the essence of pure worship—activities like prayer, giving, thanksgiving, and listening to the Word of God as it is proclaimed and expounded. It is significant that Jesus spoke of truth, not music, as the distinctive mark of true worship (John 4:23–24).

But many people do not feel they have worshiped at all until they have been swept into a trancelike state of nebulous passion, usually by a series of choruses. That’s why so many songs written for corporate singing are long and repetitive—and they’re deliberately sung in a certain order so that the tempo, beat, and volume build to a stunning climax.

That soul-stirring crescendo is thought by many to be the very essence of worship. The feeling associated with such an emotional high is sometimes deemed even more important than what we are singing about. The truth-content of the lyrics takes a back seat to the drama of the performance. I know of a church that starts every service with a rock band playing secular songs at top volume; they insist the practice qualifies as legitimate worship because it charges the atmosphere with high emotions so much better than classic hymns.

In many churches, practically every aspect of the corporate gathering has been likewise redesigned to suit the preferences of unchurched people. The aim is to draw them in, entertain them, impress them, and make them feel good about themselves. It is the polar opposite of authentic worship.

The decline of true worship in evangelical churches is a troubling sign. It reflects a depreciation of God and a sinful apathy toward His truth among the people of God. Evangelicals have been playing a kind of pop-culture trivial pursuit for decades, and as a result, the evangelical movement has all but lost sight of the glory and grandeur of the One we worship.

Perhaps even more ominously, the deplorable state of worship in evangelical churches reveals the absence of true reverence and devotion in the private lives of countless church members. Corporate worship, after all, should be the natural overflow of worshiping lives united together in fellowship.

J. MacArther

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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