raised-hands-in-worshipDo you ever find yourself locking onto someone at church during the music? Perhaps their eyes are closed and their hands are raised and maybe you say to yourself, “man, they’re really worshiping!”

Do you ever find yourself referring to the music portion of your church’s service as the “worship,” as opposed to the “preaching”?

Do you ever find yourself just not “feeling it” on any given Sunday morning and thinking to yourself “I just can’t worship today”?

I know I’ve been here many times.

The modern church has attached some interesting definitions to the word “worship.” Everything from lifting hands, closing eyes, smiling real big, and singing real loud have become the hallmarks of “real worship;” and if you’re anything like me, this may make you feel… inadequate.

I’m an emotional person. I get choked up easily and am quite sentimental. However, I tend to not allow these emotions to surface themselves too often. Call it what you will, I’m reserved when it comes to emotions, especially in corporate worship. As such, any equivocating that takes places between physical, emotive forms of worship with “real” worship makes me nervous and often leaves me feeling guilty for just not “letting it go.”

But can what God wants from us in worship truly be reduced to mere emoting and physical expressiveness in the worship service? I think not. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for forms of physical expressiveness in worship and I by no means think that all people who practice such forms are reducing worship down to merely those forms. My concern lies with the definition of worship itself.

Anytime we attach an extra-biblical definition to the word “worship,” we do damage to it and we risk doing damage to those who may not hold to that definition. For those who may or may not enjoy music, but instead can’t wait for the preaching, we run the risk of making them feel as if they’re not truly worshiping simply because they may or may not enjoy the music that we mistakingly label “the worship.” For those (like me) who may be a little more reserved in their emotional expressiveness, we run the risk of making them feel as if their worship is not heartfelt and inadequate.

Indeed there are many forms of “praise” throughout the Psalms and the whole of the Old Testament that I believe are more than appropriate within the Christian worship service; and I do not wish to ever dismiss those forms simply because they’re in the Old Testament. But as New Covenant worshipers, how are we instructed in the New Covenant (Testament) to worship God? If there is one general definition given to the word “worship” in the New Testament, what and where is it?

I believe Paul gives us a very adequate answer to that question in Romans 12:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2 ESV)

After eleven chapters of what proves to be the most systematic unpacking of salvation in the New Testament, Paul can’t help but burst into this doxological appeal to his hearers. Because God has overcome your idolatry and rebellion (Rom. 1), because god has provided his righteousness to you through faith apart from the Law (Rom. 3), because God has acted in the second and last Adam (Jesus) to redeem you from the curse of sin and death (Rom. 5-7), because God has allowed you to receive his Word with faith and believing unto salvation, and because of God’s sovereign election of you unto eternal life (Rom. 9-10), you ought to offer your whole self, body, mind, and spirit, to God as a sacrifice of worship and thanksgiving.

What does this look like? Paul answers that question too in verse 2 saying that a heart and mind devoted to God in life-worship is one that is continually being transformed to conform to the very will of God.

I will not post it here, but Paul goes on throughout chapter 12 to expound yet further on the nature of Christian worship both individual and corporate. Verses 3-8 are an appeal for Christians to use their gifts and callings within the church as “members” serve the body. This is worship.

Further, we in the Church are commanded to “let love be genuine,” and are exhorted to serve one another with patience, sympathy, compassion, and honesty (vv. 9-21).

It seems then that as Paul builds his case for true Christian worship within the context of chapter 12 (and the rest of this letter), the ultimate picture and mandate of worship finds fulfillment in the corporate gathering. But we see no mention of lifting hands, closing eyes, dancing about, or looking happy; instead, we see sincere, real-world exhortations to service, love, honesty, compassion, sympathy, and humility. These are the marks of true worship.

And I could go on. Paul spends the majority of the rest of his letter to the Romans expounding on these themes of real worship including everything from submission to earthly authorities to being gracious to one another and refusing to judge based on external forms.

Yes, we may lift our hands in praise to the Lord, we may sing loud and strong with eyes closed (or wide open) and heads raised to the sky, we may even jump and leap for joy at the marvelous grace of God. But when the hands come down, they better be ready to comfort the brother or sister next to us who is grieving beyond the point of lifting their hands. When we open our eyes, we better be ready to receive the Word of the Lord and the Sacraments as true food for our soul well beyond what any song could supply. And when our feet hit the ground, they better be ready to be “swift and beautiful” in the service of God and his gospel.

So let us define “worship” rightly. Can we stop reducing it to mere physical forms? Can we stop degrading the Word and the Sacraments by separating them from our use of the word “worship”? Can we stop judging others because they do not exhibit the same outward forms that we might? Ultimately, can we grab hold of the wonderful definition of Christian worship provided for us by the Apostle Paul in Romans 12-15; Worship that goes beyond the outward forms and is truly exhibited in love and service to the Body of Christ?

I pray this for myself and for all of Christ’s Church as we all grow in what it means to offer our bodies as “living sacrifices” in worship to the Lord of grace.



One thought on “Real Worship: What Does it Look Like?

  1. I really appreciated your attention to the inadequacy of our casual definition of “worship”! Worship can certainly not be limited to music or even emotional expressions directed toward God. It is a lifestyle that should encompass every aspect of our lives. As a “worship leader” I have tried to change my vocabulary slightly to communicate the crucial between “singing in church = worship” and “singing in church = one of MANY expressions of worship.”
    Something else that troubles me is when we label worship as “good” or ___. What does it mean that worship is “good”? Does it mean that the person felt emotionally moved by the music? That they were convicted by the Holy Spirit? That they experienced joy? That they sensed unity in the congregation? That God was exalted by the expression of praise lyrics? I’m not really sure what to do about the whole issue, but I think it will require a shift in the mindset in evangelicalism in order to address.

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