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Posted by on Jun 22, 2015 | 7 comments

What is Worship?


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.[1] 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.

  1. 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[2] 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.”[3] The prophets are unanimous that what pleases God most is a godly and righteous life, not a surplus of sacrifices or songs.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!

Further Reading

Smith, James K. A. Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. Vol. v. 2. Cultural Liturgies ; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2013.

N.T. Wright to worship leaders today.”

The Imminent Decline of Contemporary Worship Music.”


[1] 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.

[2] Psalm 50:12

[3] Isaiah 58:6

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Just your average grad student, trying to conquer the world through theological debate, like so many before me. I believe theology can be both profound & easy to understand, academically rigorous & accessible. I contribute to a less academic blog at Everyday Theology.
  • Rachel Davies

    Nice post. Do you think we should stop singing the more feelings-oriented songs altogether, or just have more of a balance?

    • Hi Rachel, thanks for the comment! I guess if I had my way (which might be dangerous) the songs which describe how the singer is feeling would still be written, but not prescribed in church services. Like many other wonderful Christian songs that we never sing on a Sunday morning, they could nourish the people who get life out of them. I might play them alone in my room and sing to them. But what is sung on a Sunday morning would be usually (perhaps not exclusively) restricted to things that do not depend on anyone’s feelings about God that morning.

      I could be wrong in wishing this. But I’m keen to make church an environment that is as inclusive as possible within the boundaries of what makes it church. I would be sad if someone felt alienated because the songs implied an attitude they don’t have, or insinuated that, if they were a good Christian, they should be having that attitude. Songs which declare Biblical truths about God are not in danger of doing that, since they only require the boundaries of what makes a church itself in the first place.

      • Rachel Davies

        Yeah – I think I agree with that. There have definitely been times over the years when I have ‘opted out’ of singing a worship song during a meeting because to do so at the time felt almost like lying to God, e.g. singing something like ‘I’m so happy today…etc.’ when I was actually having a pretty rubbish time.

        For me, a real faith requires authenticity and being honest with God. If a song is based more on the truth about who God is, then you can sing it regardless of how you’re feeling – because it’s still true. However, if you have to identify with particular emotions to join in, then you can feel like you have a choice between singing things to God which aren’t sincere, or being excluded from the worship altogether.

      • I also sometimes struggle with overly emotional songs but one concern I have with the thrust of your argument is that it could narrow our understanding of truth. Thanks, perhaps, to the Enlightenment, it’s easy to reduce Christianity to a set of rational principles. I don’t really buy this and I think that one thing going on when Christians make music together is about community; reinforcing narratives that hold the community together. You can often see this more clearly in communities that have faced adversity.

      • Thanks Andy! You make a very good point that I should consider more carefully. There is a sense in which a song written to be sung by a community should reflect the state of that community in more than just the statements it believes – should also reflect its “mood” you could say. So there should be a dimension to worship songs that is more than just “theologically accurate words put to any kind of music.”

        Thanks for bringing this up!

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  • John B

    Hey Barney, a really good post here. I really think you put your finger on the pulse of the problem (yes, it’s still alive despite Gordon’s sixth point about his generation “beginning to die”). It was interesting that Gordon put the statistical perspective as his very first point – perhaps that also contributes to your “general” feeling about the state of contemporary worship rather than your “total” feeling. I guess it is just impossible to know how satisfied we would be 200 years ago appraising the state of Christian worship.
    One thing I am currently working on, more in my mind than anywhere else (although a bit on my blog, as I work my way through the alleged “greats” of 2014 according to is the teaching aspect of “the worship time”. It struck me that most of collective worship times are absolutely filled with theological words. It is where the people of God do their theology. My basic thinking is that in churches where teaching is weaker and/or less concern over theological content of worship songs is practiced, the theology of the worship songs could actually be informing the congregation more about “God” than the preacher does. Really. This is obviously a very particular and modern brand of theology, but it can be the most insidious. It is not the cerebral or even Berean approach, where we double-check everything is basically “OK”. Modern adoration correctly creates space to abandon that kind of thinking. Reason is surrendered to allow proper engaging of our deeper and innermost parts with Father God and the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s a lot of trust, and requires a lot of things to be in place first.
    I guess what I am saying is that we can develop some of the issues you highlight by looking at the connection between times of teaching and collective worship: the former was designed (in part, as you say) to inform the latter. For some of the folk who have commented (hi Andy P by the way if you’re reading this!), I think this has now become the issue. That kind of surrender has become so difficult because you simply can’t trust that what you are pressured to think and say is even right. So we can’t relax. We have to remain Berean even during those times of surrender. And that seems wrong.
    That’s most of what I have to say. Over on the blog you can see how I also strive after greater clarity of who the “you” is, even who “the Lord” is. A lot of worship tends to also muddy God into some yucky modalist blob called Jesus.
    By the way, I think God is actually great and indeed more than worthy of love and worship!

    • John,

      This is a really excellent point. You’re quite right that people’s innate theology comes much more powerfully through the worship – the repeated words put to a memorable tune – than the sermon. In case you’re interested, there’s been some work done on this recently by James K.A. Smith, a philosophy professor at Calvin College in america. His book, “Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works” makes precisely the point you’re making, and calls for a reform in our worship as a result. I’m pretty sure you’d love the book!