What is Worship? (Rethinking Church #21)

Today we move from considering the organizational structures, finances, and the clergy systems that characterize most contemporary churches and shift our attention to the Sunday gathering. What goes on at a typical Sunday gathering of an evangelical, Bible, or community church? (I am not at this time addressing the theology and character of liberal, mainline, or liturgical churches.) And why do such churches gather? I think we can place the Sunday activities of these churches into three general categories: worship, instruction, and fellowship. Ideally, these three types of activity aim at forming the church as a group and as individuals into the image of Christ.


It would be worth our time to examine all the biblical words and activities related to worship, but I can achieve my limited purpose in this essay by working from a general idea of worship. Worship is a God-directed activity that attempts in thought, word, bodily position and movement, or symbolic use of elements of creation to express a fitting response to the being, character, and action of God—in expressions of admiration, gratitude, and submission. In worship, we place before our minds the greatness, goodness, beauty, generosity, and love of God. We don’t need to think of these qualities as general characteristics only. For God demonstrates these qualities in the wonders of creation, in acts of salvation and judgment experienced and told by the prophets and poets of ancient Israel, and most of all in the life, words, miracles, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In worship we express awe at God’s greatness, gratitude for his generosity, praise for his excellence, longing for his presence, and amazement at his love.

Strictly speaking, worship is an individual act. It must come from the heart and express the true thoughts and affections of the individual worshiper. Certainly the presence of others of like faith can enhances our worship. We find others’ expressions of worship resonating with our own and increasing our sense of God’s presence and glory. Hearing others sing, pray, praise, witness, and explain the scriptures can enhance our perception of God’s presence, praiseworthiness, greatness, and love. Some are gifted to articulate in words what we can only feel. Many eyes and ears can perceive and many voices can express what one cannot. Hence corporate worship can be transformative. But the transforming power does not derive from the number of people praising God but from the vision of God that together we see. And for worship to be authentic and transformative, each person must see with their own eyes, hear with their own ears, and express their own hearts.

I understand completely the desire to attend worship at a large gathering in a state of the art facility to be lead in worship by talented professionals. The music is excellent, the lighting is perfect, and the stage presence of the worship leaders is impressive. The worship flows smoothly. Sound fills the room. Just seeing a sea of people standing to sing and raising their hands gives one feeling of confidence and spiritual power. But as someone who served as a church leader in one role or another for thirty years, I ask myself about the cost in financial resources and volunteer time to make this event happen. Is it worth it?

More importantly, does this impressive event accomplish the purpose of corporate worship better than less elaborate and costly gatherings? If the purposes is, as I stated above, to encounter God’s greatness and love and express our wonder and gratitude, all with the goal of transformation into the image of Christ, I don’t see any decisive advantage. Twenty believers gathered in a living room can accomplish the same goal. No doubt the large gathering, because of its greater resources, can do things a small group cannot.

But the reverse is also true. In an assembly of 2,000 people, 1,950 will be completely unknown to you. You will sit in rows looking at what is happening on stage. The senior pastor is like the celebrities you see on the screen. You feel like you know them, but you’ve never had a meal with them. And they don’t know you. In a small gathering you can hear from everyone, you can learn their stories, see their faces, and hear their voices. There is no stage, no spotlight, and no microphone. You know their names and the names of their parents and children. You know their concerns. You grow to love them in the concreteness of their everyday lives, and you are available to each other throughout the week. Worshiping with this church is really transforming.

Of course, these two models are not mutually exclusive. You can choose one or the other or combine them. Whatever you choice I hope you will measure what we actually do as churches against the essential nature and goal of church. I get the attraction of the big church in the matter of worship. But what about the other two reasons for gathering, instruction and fellowship? Next time we’ll think about that.

7 thoughts on “What is Worship? (Rethinking Church #21)

  1. nokareon

    Do you think worship might be best facilitated for some people in a large, highly produced setting and for others in smaller, more intimate settings? I know people who have been put off by highly produced auditorium worship as well as others similarly put off by small settings with technical or musical issues. Granted, these preferences are also shaped by what kind of worship congregants are used to, so there is some cyclic reinforcement at work.


  2. ifaqtheology Post author

    Yes. I want to leave it open. I don’t want to make a theological judgment when the issue is really aesthetic. I want to encourage everyone to make sure that they do whatever they do in view of the essential nature and true mission of the church. I want to free the Christian imagination to dream of multiple ways to be the church in our crazy world. Thanks!


  3. Charles A Hanson

    It is all about the money in selling their music and books. It is not about worship??? Some mega churches have a million followers. If they sell 500,000 music cds or however they market them at 15 dollars apiece that is $7,500,000. and they do it more than once a year. The same with all the books they sell, every month they have a new book for sale. Add it up not a bad income. Plus all the tithe, this is our crazy churches today and they love it.


  4. Dr Jonne Smalhouse

    Hi Ron.
    You say “… for worship to be authentic and transformative…. ears and eyes…” and that really says a lot (if not everything). Like all thrilling preachers to whom we listen intently; yet to find meaning in what they only allude to. Just like Jesus. Ron.
    Much of this topic is in Matthew 11.
    I call it Jesus’ “popstar to superstar” moment, when he begins to introduce himself in the heavenly setting ( Matt 11:12). It is himself he mentions, and he is talking about not just being mugged and mobbed; but nearly ripped to pieces by the adoring crowds.
    So why not talk about popstars? Jesus mentions “eyes and ears” and children in the market place crowds being entertained and also entertaining.
    Ron is right when he intimates you can be completely alone (but for a single friend) in a massive crowd! This aloneness can really work as worship for some*, as an excuse to ride along for others, but also a place for the devil to hide.
    * Closing my eyes, singing a solo song in front of 2000 people, it’s just me and God: trust me. Irrespective of the compliments afterwards. It’s pleasing to share your love…
    And likewise, some modern theologians define worship as simply “sharing love, and returning God’s love with love”. I like that, hope you do too.
    And i feel that in Matthew 11 Jesus alludes to all of these things with a great caution at the end. It’s a kind of “while you are at my superstar concert, sing in your heart if you don’t want to sing, but be careful not to come to me for entertainment…”.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s