“But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23–24, NASB)
Worship wars never cease to end in the church. To listen to some Christians, the method with which you worship determines whether you are going to heaven or not.
When I surrendered my life to Christ (almost 32 years ago), I attended a church that had lively music—often with a rock beat. The worship service could be spontaneous, sometimes quite long. People would dance, clap, praise God in tongues, and a host of other ecstatic emotional expressions.
I have attended other churches where there was some more restraint. In some, rock music was considered demonic. They thought that God obviously likes southern gospel, or slightly more soft pop types of music. There might be a little more restraint in the worship, but it might be somewhat casual in its format.
Now, I attend a church that has a lot of upbeat music (we have some guitarists who can rock out!), but the worship service otherwise is very structured. We follow a strict liturgy, based primarily on the Book of Common Prayer, with elements that will seem familiar to many Roman Catholics. We receive communion every Sunday. We say the Lord’s Prayer at every service; many of the prayers are read from a book, or are written before the service. Although we profess to be charismatic, you may not always hear the pastor say an off-the-cuff spontaneous prayer that just pops into his head.
So, which form of worship is correct? In a sense, all of them have elements of true worship; yet, none of them are truly worship in themselves. While some people may be tempted to call my current church’s structured liturgy “dead worship,” it is a false accusation. Actually, a close study of Scripture would show that the liveliest worship (in terms of volume, tempo, and energy) can be the deadest of all, if it is not conducted “in spirit and in truth.”
When Jesus made the statement in John 4, He was speaking to a Samaritan woman, who had asked Him whether God wanted people to worship in Jerusalem (as the Jews did) or on the mountain where the Samaritans worshiped? The Samaritans and Jews, despite having a similar heritage and sharing the books of the Old Testament, had the ultimate bitter worship war. Jesus was not really being a “good Jew” by talking to this heretic woman. Yet, His response cut through the fog of tradition: The woman was asking the wrong question. It did not matter where she worshiped God. The question was whether she was worshiping God in spirit and in truth. Is her worship alive or dead?
When is worship dead, and when is it alive?
- Worship is alive when it is led by the Holy Spirit. Some people confuse this with emotionally-charged worship, or with certain up-tempo styles of music, or if it is spontaneous. All of these can be elements of worship in spirit, but it is not always the case: For example, while genuine worship will generate an emotional response in many cases, it is possible to seek an emotional high through worship activities. In that case, we are really worshiping the experience instead of worshiping God.
- Real worship is focused on God, not on ourselves. Far too often, we are tempted to confuse worship with entertainment. We think, “If I enjoyed it, the worship was good. If there is nothing in it for me, I will have to find another church.” Is your worship focused on yourself, or is it focused on Jesus? Are you more concerned with praising God for who He is, or with singing your favorite songs and having good feelings?
- Worship is alive when it yields to the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. Genuine worship will strengthen our relationship with Christ. It will enable us to bear more of the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23).
- Worship will be grounded in truth. It is grounded in the truth about God as revealed in Scripture. It will be consistent with Scripture. This does not mean that every single element of our worship must be mentioned specifically in the Bible (this has led some churches to do some weird things, just because of an isolated misunderstood verse somewhere in Psalms). However, worship should be consistent with the spirit and tone of Scripture, and it should not contain any elements that are specifically prohibited by Scripture.
- Worship will draw us into truth. A genuine worship experience will give us both a greater vision of God’s glory and holiness, contrasted with a deeper awareness of who we are in relation to Him. A good example of this can be found in Isaiah 6:1–5. Through a vision (many commentators believe it occurred in the Jerusalem temple, during worship), the prophet catches a glimpse of worship in heaven: He becomes even more keenly aware of God’s glory as well as his own sinfulness. But then, he learns more about God’s forgiveness and sanctifying power, and is emboldened to volunteer to be sent by God into ministry.
When it comes to worship, take your eyes off of yourself. Stop focusing so heavily on the style of worship or music. As the classic worship song says, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus; look full in His wonderful face. And the things on Earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”
This post copyright © 2016 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.