Every Sunday millions of Christians around the globe gather together with their church for a worship service. If you’ve been to River West on a Sunday, you have likely heard our pastors use the word worship to describe what we do when we gather in the name of Jesus. But, without a doubt, a variety of ideas, images, and thoughts arise when we hear the word worship. My guess is that you and many others may even be wondering what the word actually means. Is it a noun? Is it a verb? Is worship the same as singing? Is worship synonymous with closing my eyes and lifting my hands? Is worship confined to our Sunday gatherings? Or, can I worship outside of the walls of the building in which our church meets?
As the Worship Pastor at River West I spend a lot of time thinking about these questions, considering how we might, Sunday after Sunday, be called to a clear understanding and fuller expression of worship. With this in mind, this post is the first in a series of articles that I hope will help equip the Church to become a people who understand what worship is and how to worship Jesus with their whole lives.
So where do we begin? Books upon books have been written and sermons upon sermons have been preached on the theme of worship: what it is, how we do it, and why it’s important. Indeed, a robust theology of worship requires deep study that I would encourage for all Christ-followers. But in an effort to bring the idea of worship down from the clouds and into language that is accessible, I’d like to provide you with a definition that I think encapsulates the fullness of what it means:
Biblical Worship (I say “Biblical” because we’re specifically talking about worship directed toward the triune God of the Bible—Father, Son, Holy Spirit) can be defined in this way:
Biblical worship is a whole-life response (head, heart, hands) to the greatness and goodness of God.
Read through that a few times and internalize it.
This simple definition is jam-packed with a ton of meaning that I want to take the time to discuss in this short series. But for our purposes right here and now I want to talk about worship being a response to the greatness and goodness of God.
Worship Is ALWAYS A Response
“In the beginning, God….” That’s how the Bible begins. Though I often act as if “In the beginning, Colin…,” that’s not at all what we are told! God’s word tells us that He alone is the sole creator of the universe, which includes this world and, of course, you and me. God acted first, therefore life itself and all the gifts we have come from Him. And so our worship of God is always in response to this reality.
But to take it further, when we come to God in worship we are responding to the nature of who He is (His greatness) and also what He has done for us (His goodness).
God Is GREAT
My favorite example in the Bible of a response to God’s greatness is found in Isaiah 6. At the beginning of the chapter we see an incredible scene where Isaiah finds himself standing in the very throne room of God where he beholds the fullness of God’s holiness and glory. What would you do if, right now, you were standing in the presence of the living God? Would you try to make yourself look good, or at least presentable? Or maybe you would attempt to perform some act of piety?
Isaiah does none of those things! I believe Isaiah’s response here represents what we all would do if we found ourselves in the same situation. In response to God’s greatness Isaiah is cut to the core, and falling on his face he wails:
“Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” —Isaiah 6:5
When we encounter God in all His greatness, we can’t help but respond with a repentant worship that flows naturally — it isn’t forced, manipulated, or performed. God reveals His greatness to us and we respond; that’s how it works. And when we see the greatness of our “King, the LORD of hosts,” we can’t help but fall down before Him in worship.
God Is GOOD
So, if God’s greatness alone demands our worship, then why does His goodness matter? Because while His greatness results in a response of repentance, His goodness results in a response of devotion. Continuing in Isaiah 6, an angel then flies to Isaiah and touches his lips with a burning coal, declaring:
“Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” —Isaiah 6:7
While this vision took place hundreds of years before Christ, it points toward a salvation that God will provide for His people. Isaiah didn’t earn it or deserve it; God simply forgave him and cleansed him from his unrighteousness. This is the Gospel, the good news of what Christ has accomplished for us. It is in the Gospel story of Jesus Christ that we receive God’s goodness as a gift of utter grace, a goodness that calls us to respond in worship. The text continues in Isaiah:
“And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” —Isaiah 6:8
Isaiah responds to God’s goodness with devotion. He gives his life over to the LORD to be used for His purposes. When someone gives us a gift far greater than we deserve, our natural response is to offer up anything—we might even say, “I owe you my life!” In the same way, we devote to God every facet of our lives in response to His goodness.
To summarize, Biblical worship is a response to the greatness and goodness of God. And our response is to give Him our whole lives. I invite you to keep this close to your mind and heart when you gather at church this Sunday and sing songs about God’s glory and His love for us. I encourage you not to try harder to worship. We only need to see His glory more fully and drink in His grace more deeply. It’s from there that your worship will flow naturally.
I also invite you to stay tuned for my next post on worship where I will be writing about what it means to be whole-life worshipers who respond by devoting our heads, hearts, and hands to God.