What is Worship?
This is a beautiful question that, without great care, can prompt some very ugly argument. Why? Because each of us experience “worship” in unique ways. Our experience, our sense of the presence of the holy, is shaped by a vast array of factors. Where and when we grew up, how our families worshiped, what denomination we did (or do) belong to, what sort of music we are exposed to, what rhythms of devotion we adhere to… all these elements contribute to our definitions, our conceptions, of worship.
Worship is typically a “community” experience, a “social” event (one that involves more than one person). And yet, each of us have doubtless known tremendous moments of “solo worship” whether in church, out in a meadow, on a beach, or a mountainside.
Is worship a “mood”, when we experience the near presence and intimate connection of Holy God in the moment?
Is worship an “attitude”, a sense of devotion, obedience, and abandonment to our trust to the will of God?
Is worship an “activity”, where our will and body bend the knee in awe as we sense the majesty and magnificence of Holy God?
Is worship an “event”, where two or more are gathered in His Name, and Christ stands among us?
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I am going to respond to the question, “What is worship?” in my own unique idiom, expressing as clearly as I can what I sense to be a true answer. But I can only do that, in good conscience, if it is clearly understood that I make no claim to omniscience or corner on the Truth market. If you, or other commentators here, disagree with my view and see things utterly differently, you are as likely to “be right”, to be seeing Truth from within your own life, as I am from within mine. So, Gentle Reader, please feel free to disagree.
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I have come to a view that “Worship” is a word we (as finite humans) assign to a “dimension of relationship between ourselves and Holy God”.
All the examples noted earlier fall within this dimension. Whether we are alone or with others; wherever, whenever, and however we were raised; however we are conditioned to experience religion now… there is a unique “vibe” involved when we encounter the Living God with unquestionable awareness that He is He and we are merely ourselves.
For many of us, our work is our worship. When we serve others, when we conduct our affairs and business as though for the Lord, when we “offer up” gifts or sufferings to the glory of His Name… all those are acts of worship. And there’s the critical element:
Most of the time, we think of “worship” in terms of acts, of activities, of things we do that express this relationship with God from our heart to His. By contrast, I propose that it is the tenor of the relationship itself, not what we do with it… that is worship.
So, what makes “worship” anything other than “life as a whole”? What sets “worship” apart from simply “Christian living”?
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I consider us embedded within the Worship Relationship, the “Worship Zone”, when our primary focus is fixed on Holy God Himself for His own sake, and all other focus and perception is secondary and peripheral.
This is clearest, easiest to imagine, when we think of “going to God’s House” (e.g. “church”), to pray, sing, and express worship to Him. Ideally, while we can enter into a “synchronized” form of worship in a community and a communion with others in such times, this is a very individual act. You may recall in your own life, particular unique moments when “something special” happened between you and God… when you entered in to a “moment”, an “instant” of worship (perhaps during prayer, perhaps during music, perhaps during a reading or sermon)... where there was an unforgettable moment of just “you and God alone”, and a touch between your hearts that defies description but changed you forever. In that moment, the “eyes of your heart” (as the Apostle Paul would call them) fixed with a laser-focus on God Alone, and… you… worshiped…
Sometimes such moments come in private meditation, prayer, devotions, or reflections. I call these “Isaiah 6” moments, when sometimes the heart, the mind, the mouth are simply so overwhelmed with the magnificence of God, with His majesty, grace, and love… that our own hearts and lips, frail and hesitant though they are, simply cannot refrain from responding in generous answering love.
Runners or other athletes speak of “getting in the Zone”, the Runner’s High, the realm of hypnotic endorphins. We sometimes drive a familiar route, contented and peaceful, and although we have been quite alert to all road hazards and driven safely, we’ve been unaware of the passage of time or distance and “come back to ourselves” much closer to our destination than we last remember.
Similarly, there are times we can “work at a task”, (folding bulletins or mailers, planting seed, digging, sorting, hammering, setting a table… lots of different things), and yet be deeply engrossed in “worship”. How? Because our focus is fixed on God Alone, and the activity is peripheral.
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These are just “thoughts”, Gentle Reader. Just “reflections” and “ideas”. Do not take them for “lessons” or “definitions”, or anything that should bound and box your own experience of “worship”. Scripture says to “pray always”. How do we do that? Scripture says to “rejoice in the Lord always”. Well, how do we do that? Scripture says to pray “in all things with thanksgiving”? Well… you know.
I think the key to all of that, the key to all joy and living as a Kingdom Son/Daughter, Prince/Princess in His Name, is to find and enter our “Worship Zone” as simply and frequently as possible. When God… Father, Jesus, Spirit… are in the center of our field of vision, and even our relationships and interactions are seen as reflective of that primary central relationship, not only do we worship always, but we bring His power, grace, and blessing to each of those relationships as we love and touch them.
Then, when we are alone with Him, we are allowed to enjoy His presence exclusively, without having to share our time and attention with others, and we are not being “selfish” or doing “wrong” about it.
Formal “worship” (as in a church service) is the opportunity to be “rightly selfish” and focus upon Him Alone, without neglecting any duty to serve others or minister to their needs in those moments.
How is Sunday morning different, in worship, in duty to God, from Monday afternoon?
On Monday afternoon I express my worship through obedience to His command to “feed My sheep”, or “tend My lambs”. My focus, my thoughts and efforts, are directed towards Him (always), but ALSO towards them… provision, protection, healing, affirmation. I must exercise “split vision” to perform my assigned duties.
Sunday morning, however, (provided I am not a worship leader of some sort, but an attender/participant only)… I get to be far more “selfish” about my time and attention. Aside from greetings to one another, fellowship before and after service, I have the privilege, the right, even the duty… to shut away all my distractions, all the other voices, all the other “brightly colored balls” vying for my attention… and I can focus on Him Alone, resting in His arms, allowing Him to support, protect, feed, and affirm ME… as at all other moments I must do for others!
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Anyway, there it is. To me, “worship” is simply what happens when our eyes focus and see God. We can’t help it, it just happens. It’s a “Zone”, a “Dimension” of its own. But how shall we RESPOND to that? That’s both the fun part and (unfortunately) often the source of conflict. My advice? Respond sacredly. To Him, to one another, to ourselves. Respond to His and the Holy Spirit’s “Call to Worship”, with all the respect and reverence we can, not only to Him, but in deference and courtesy to others with other traditions and belief systems… for when they, too, are focused on the Divine, on Him as they perceive Him, then they too are in worship.
Grace and blessings to you!