One Sunday morning the pastor noticed little Alex standing in the foyer of the church staring up at a large plaque. It was covered with names and small American flags. The six-year old had been staring at the plaque for some time, so the pastor walked up and stood beside the boy.
"Pastor, what is this," said Alex still focused on the plaque. The pastor replied, "Well son, it's a memorial to all the young men and women who died in the service." Soberly, they just stood together, staring at the plaque. Finally, little Alex, barely audible and trembling with fear asked, "Which service, the 8:30 or the 10:45?"
We relate to Alex's concern. We know that sometimes Christians - including ourselves - appear more dead than alive in worship. Tragically, the "frozen chosen" is too often an apt description. And we can be certain that such worship - no matter how meticulously designed, aesthetically pleasing, or intellectual stimulating - grieves the Lord, who is the ultimate audience for our worship.
Right actions and right thoughts are not enough. Passionate worship is an act of the whole person. It is to embody the greatest commandment: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind." It is expressed in the psalmist's cry, "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name" (Psalm 103:1). Half-hearted worship - "going through the motions" while the head and heart remain frozen - is a temptation we must constantly battle in worship.
We desperately need to practice passionate worship - worship that is whole-hearted, not half-hearted: Worship that is alive and an expression of a heart sensitive to God instead of worship of a heart cold to God; worship that eagerly expects to encounter God through singing, prayer, preaching, and Holy Communion; worship that is committed to responding to God's revelation.
We All Worship Something or Someone
Worship is important. It impacts every aspect of our existence. And don't let anyone fool you: We all worship something or someone!
We are homo religiosus, that is, worshiping beings. We are wired to praise that which we find true, good, or beautiful. Praise comes naturally to us because we are, by nature, worshipping beings.
For example, we all are driven to respond to truth. When we hear something that is deeply meaningful, we naturally respond with an "Amen" - "Yes, that is true!" When we observe that which we discern as a good action, we are driven to affirmation - "Well done!" When we experience something beautiful - a glorious symphony, a work of art, or a well-designed product - our natural tendency is to applaud and to tell others of our experience.
The truth is clear: In the presence of truth, goodness, and beauty, we find ourselves inexplicably driven to voice our approval and bear witness of this approval to others. Why? Because we are homo religiosus - worshipping beings.
We are so prone to worship, that we must be careful that, in our worship, we do not "sin and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Our positive affirmations of truth, goodness, and beauty should lead us to their true source and goal - God. "When goodness, truth and beauty are combined we have glory. When boundless goodness, total truth and sublime beauty are combined in supreme degree, we have divine glory."
Worship puts things in proper perspective. It allows us to recognize God as the source and goal of goodness, truth, and beauty. It calls us to recognize God as the ultimate value through which we view all of life. Putting God first prevents us from putting other things - even good things - in the place of God. It keeps us from idolatry. Theologian Paul Tillich defined idolatry as elevating something finite into a position of ultimacy, that is, to make a God of finite reality - to put something in the place of God. A finite reality allows us the opportunity to control and manage it, but our ultimate valuation of it simultaneously cuts us off from its true source. When this finite reality is given ultimate place in our lives, it diminishes rather than expands our horizon.
The Apostle Paul stated it more plainly. He defines humankind's fundamental problem as failure to worship God, and consequently, the worship of that which is less than God results in human debasement rather than human flourishing: "for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles" (Romans 1:21-23).
What we worship can ennoble us - lift us above and beyond ourselves - or it can degrade us. It can uplift us or destroy us. Just put any of the following in the place of God - money, fame, power, sex, self - and you see how these finite values dehumanize and degrade. They cannot bear the weight of God. They cannot bear the weight of ultimate worth. And if they do, they become a vicious demon rather than an ennobling angel.
Certainly, worship matters, for it impacts every aspect of our existence.
What Worship Is
Worship is of central importance in the sacred scriptures for good reason. Our whole-hearted response to ultimate reality - the presence of God - defines who we are and how we will live. We live according to our ultimate value, in regard to that which we ascribe ultimate worth. Worship is no less than ascribing worthship to God - ultimate worthship. The ultimate worthship of God puts everything else in proper perspective.
One of my favorite definitions of worship comes from Ralph P. Martin. In worship the church celebrates God's rule over all human life. "Worship is the dramatic celebration of God in his supreme worth in such a manner that his 'worthiness' becomes the norm and inspiration of human living."
Worship confesses God's ultimate value - God's "supreme worth." And this worth has significance for human existence, for it is "the norm and inspiration of human living." All "lesser" values are viewed in relation to God who possesses ultimate value. Thus, worship continually reorients our values to correspond to the reality of God's supreme worth.
What Worship is Not
Worship is good, but it can - like all good things - be abused.
Worship is abused when it is more about us than God. Worship is not a self-help seminar. It is not a political rally. It is a time to reorient ourselves to the glory and greatness of God. We are not the center of worship; God is. This selfish attitude is most clearly evidenced when we attend worship for "what we get out of it." The more important question is, "Does our worship honor God?" We must never forget that God is the ultimate audience in worship.
Worship is abused when it is served or received merely as entertainment. Schnase writes,
People are not at worship to observe and evaluate but to receive what God offers and offer their best in response. "What is God saying to me through the words of Scripture, even if they are read imperfectly; through the sermon, even if the illustrations are weak; and through the unifying power of music, even if the organist drags the pace a little? What does God say that we need to hear through the prayer, the creed, and the sacrament of Holy Communion? Am I allowing God's Spirit to form me, change me, transform me through these experiences, or am I evaluating the quality of entertainment?"
Do we expect to be entertained or do we strive to be transformed? We "should not take a passive attitude toward worship, such as we usually take toward entertainment... Therefore, we should go to church to do something: to bring praise to God and to minister to one another. This perspective should make us less concerned about what we 'get out of' worship and more concerned about what we contribute to God and to our brothers and sisters." Worship is the work of the people, and not simply a performance of the religious professionals. We are responsible for what we bring to worship. The question we should ask is, "Did we listen for God or simply critique the service?"
If one desires entertainment, there are millions of other things more entertaining than the church. The problem arises when we expect church to be just as entertaining as an afternoon at the Cineplex, mall, or sporting arena. Let's face it - it's not and it never will be! There is a certain mustiness - even strangeness - to worship. And yet, it is impossible to remove this mustiness without losing the very essence of the ancient faith. Worship is not an endless pursuit of the novel, but a fresh encounter with ancient truths.
Worship is not restricted to any particular style. Though we may grow comfortable with certain forms and expressions of worship, we should not limit worship to our own taste. Much of the contemporary "worship wars" is not about theology or worship at all, but about particular tastes, styles, and sensibilities. Mark Labberton writes,
What is ironic and especially pertinent is that many debates about worship are just indirect ways of talking about ourselves, not God. Our debates can readily devolve into little more than preference lists for how we like our worship served up each week. It's worship as consumption rather than offering; it's an expression of human taste--not a longing to reflect God's glory. Surely these concerns cannot be what matter most or are most at stake in worship.
Finally, worship is not limited to one emotion. Passionate worship does not exclusively mean joyful worship. Worship in ancient Israel incorporated all emotional expressions and attitudes - anger, despair, grief, anxiety, lament, and sorrow as well as joy, delight, and gladness. God's rule was celebrated in all of life - not just good times, but all times. Therefore, we must not confuse passionate worship with only joyful emotions. Passionate worship encompasses our whole being in whatever emotional state we find ourselves in.
Worship is Good for Us
"It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High" (Psalm 92:1). Worship is not only pleasing to the Lord, but it is good for us. God does not need affirmation from us; we need to reaffirm our convictions and devotion. We need the continual reorientation of our values that worship provides.
Worship is good for us because it shapes and transforms our lives. We become like that which (or better, whom) we worship. Worshiping God enlarges our heart and perspective. Idols, on the other hand, shrink our heart and narrow our horizon.
In worship, we gain a fresh perspective that de-centers us and puts our lives in perspective to God and to one another. Put simply, worship takes the focus off ourselves, and places it upon God and others. Corporate worship takes us out of ourselves and places us within a community of faith. Harries reminds us that "when we truly admire something, we are taken out of ourselves... in true appreciation there is an experience of genuine self-transcendence. The ego is left behind and we simply behold and appreciate." We remember that every good thing we experience is a gift from God. We confess together that "from God, through God, and to God are all things" and the appropriate response is praise, "To God be the glory forever."
Worship reminds us of the structure of the universe and our place in it. In that universe, God is at the center of all that exists. We have graciously been given a place in God's grand miracle of existence, but we are not the center. In corporate worship, surrounded as we are by others, we experience this self-decentering reality of being in God's presence. We are merely one among many others entering the presence of God, and God is the shared focus of everyone. Worship thus points us away from ourselves and reduces us to wonder over the fact that God is even mindful of our existence.
If we approach this time with all our heart - with passionate worship - our tendencies toward individualism and self-sufficiency are exposed for the lie that they truly are:
Worship is the unique praise to God by the countercultural community that equips that community with a sufficiently deep sense of itself in relation to God that it can go from its worship into the world to effect social change. Furthermore, God's revelation, conveyed in worship through hymns, sermons, and liturgies, unmasks our illusions about ourselves. It exposes our pride, our individualism, our self-centeredness - in short, our sin. But worship also offers forgiveness, healing, transformation, motivation, and courage to work in the world for God's justice and peace - in short, salvation in its largest sense.
Worship is good for us for it causes us to share God's passion. God whole-heartedly loves us. God's love for us is passionate, true, faithful, and unyielding. God's desire is for us to respond to God's love with our whole heart - to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. When we do this, we then possess the resources with which to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Put simply: God loves us whole-heartedly and longs for us to respond in kind - with whole-hearted, passionate worship.
 Richard Harries, Art and the Beauty of God: A Christian Understanding (New York: Continuum International, 1994), 54.
 Ralph P. Martin, The Worship Of God: Some Theological, Pastoral, and Practical Reflections (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1982), 4.
 Robert Schnase, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations (Nashville: Abingdom Press, 2007), 38-39.
 John Frame, Worship in Spirit and Truth (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 1996), 80.
 Mark Labberton, The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God's Call to Justice (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2007), 21-22.
 Richard Harries, God Outside the Box: Why Spiritual People Object to Christianity (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2002), 31.
 Douglas Jacobsen and Rodney J. Sawatsky, Gracious Christianity: Living the Love We Profess, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2006), 98.
 Marva J. Dawn, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the-Century Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 68-69.
© Richard J. Vincent, 2008