Why does God want our worship? And what is worship, anyway? The word “worship” comes from the Old English word weorthscipe, meaning “an acknowledgment of worth or worthiness.” Worship is worthship—the act of giving God what he is worth, what he deserves. It is about bringing God what he wants.
In many of our churches, acts of worship have become synonymous with times of corporate singing and music making. Is God simply a massive music fan and what he wants is to be entertained while he reclines on his throne in highest heaven? This isn’t to belittle our music making, but to serve as a reminder that, as worship leader and songwriter Matt Redman puts it, “A song in itself is not what you have required.”
Music is intended to help us bring to God what he wants. What might some of those things be?
Anyone who has sung loudly in a crowd will testify to the incredible power of music to form community. Music has a unique ability to bring and bind people from all kinds of backgrounds together. At the same time, anyone who has been around the church for a little while will be able to testify to the potential of music to divide people.
Perhaps because music is so powerful, individuals can hold strong views about the best ways to utilize it in worship. A hymn that conveys timeless truths set to powerful harmonies and regal, hymnodic chord patterns fit for a king to one person may be an outdated, unengaging and irrelevant expression of another century to another. A song that gives someone the space and means to connect with God through simplicity and repetition may seem banal, shallow and saccharine to someone else.
Song choice can split congregations. As a worship leader and preacher, nothing has caused me more angst in preparing for a service than recognizing this fact and getting the balance of songs right. People—even people who are part of the family of God—can be complex!
Jesus tells an interesting story about the relationship between worship and unity in Matthew 5:23-24. He describes a person arriving at the altar of the temple, ready to offer a gift to God. Reaching the altar was a lengthy, complex process, as people navigated the rituals and geography of the temple. Jesus teaches that if, having undergone all of the rituals, a person remembers they have fallen out with someone, they should go and be reconciled before making their offering. Jesus’ first audience would have laughed at the thought of the would-be worshipper needing to perform all of the rituals again.
Jesus’ point is that worship loses its meaning—and even becomes contradictory—if you are performing an act intended to express your reconciliation with God while being knowingly unreconciled to a brother or sister. For our worship to be what God wants, it needs to come from a place of unity. Colossians 1:20 tells us that Christ died “to reconcile to himself all things.” This is God’s great mission for the whole world, so it must surely start with the church living as proof of this possibility. Singing tunefully and melodically, while accepting disunity within the congregation, is not the kind of worship that God wants.
Question for Reflection: How can the songs I select in worship help to foster and create unity? What are the relationships with others that I need to address?
The Bible is full of examples of God (usually through the prophets in the Old Testament, or Jesus in the New Testament) offering helpful (or sometimes sharp) critique of the way in which his people worship. To my knowledge, the critique is never directed at their dodgy tuning, or because they keep speeding up when the song gets louder, or because the drummer messed up the modulation during the killer key change. The critique usually centres on the fact that although they are expertly performing the outward rituals of worship, their actions don’t correspond to their hearts. You can see this critique in Matthew 23, where Jesus harshly condemns the teachers of the law and the Pharisees for their hypocrisy in worship.
Our worship needs to be characterized by integrity. Our lips and our lives need to match. This is the kind of worship that God wants. I remember being at camp as a teenager, with a guest worship leader from another church. We were a bunch of slightly socially awkward and reserved teens, and, despite his best efforts, we didn’t seem to enter into the times of sung worship in the way that he might have hoped. I can’t remember his exact words, but he seemed to imply that we needed to let go a little, to be more holy and Spirit-filled.
Then came the highlight of the week: the staff versus delegates soccer match. I’ll always remember the aggression and choice language of the worship leader on the pitch. Although he was used by God in many ways that week, like all of us, he was imperfect, and his behaviour wasn’t a positive model. The integrity of the worship times was damaged by the incongruence of the leader’s actions outside of the chapel.
This has served, often painfully, as a reminder for me in my own leadership. Worship leaders, like all worshippers, must live out on Monday what they sing about on Sunday.
Question for Reflection: What did I sing about last week in church that I’ve been struggling to live out in practice?
Related to integrity is a third thing that Scripture tells us God wants from worship. The Old Testament prophet Amos laments at the state of Israel’s worship: the poor are being cheated and the vulnerable exploited. He imagines God speaking to the people and saying, “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me … Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps” (Amos 5:21-23).
The Message translation puts it in contemporary terms: “I can’t stand your religious meetings. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fundraising schemes, your public relations and image making.” The sucker-punch is delivered in verse 24, when God, almost bellowing at his people, says, “Do you know what I want? I want justice—oceans of it. I want fairness—rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want.”
What God wants, in the context of our worship, is justice. It’s a reminder to all of us that our worship is not intended to be merely a private, internalized affair, concerned only with ourselves and our hearts. Rather, it is part of God’s plan to put the whole world right. As we encounter the living and loving God in worship, God intends to send us back out into the world to roll up our sleeves and participate in his redeeming work in the world.
The songs that we sing to God are also supposed to be anthems that fuel our action for “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” They are the soundtrack to the kingdom revolution. This is a costly element of worship, but ultimately takes us to the heart of being the kind of worshippers that God wants.
Question for Reflection: What songs are we using at the moment that might fuel and inspire missional action in the world?
Captain Callum McKenna is a tutor and pastoral support officer at William Booth College in the United Kingdom and Ireland Territory.
Here are a few songs that can help foster unity, encourage integrity and fuel justice.
Reprinted from SAWorship magazine
Photo: Daniel Gregory/Lightstock.com
Thanks for a thoughtful essay. I can't recall a song leader explaining to us in the congregation WHY we are singing, or why singing this particular song. Might be a good thing to add. As I recall, songbooks of old (like John Wesley and William Booth old) had prefaces that went into this to some extent, but who uses songbooks now? So maybe the task falls aptly to those who lead us in this facet of worship today.