What comes to mind when you think about worship? Do you think about something that occurs on Sunday morning, or do you think about the total context of your life? Do you "hear" worship in terms of Southern Gospel melodies, contemporary choruses, or a multiplicity of tongues with strange melodies?
Worship has, in some quarters, become an issue of controversy related to various styles of music. These debates about worship styles are simply another symptom of our spiritual myopia, which evaluates most church events or experiences in terms of what pleases or appeals to us. Worship is not about us! We are not the audience. God is both object and audience, and we are those who participate in worship through the offering of ourselves to the King.
Our myopic thinking, which judges worship on whether or not it pleases us, may indicate how little we think about the world and the global church. I have been in international settings when people from a large number of nations sang the same hymn in their own national language. It was a glorious moment of worship which made the participants wonder about the beauty of worship in heaven when God gathers people from every tribe, tongue, and language group to praise Him. Is it possible that our worship here could begin to reflect the glory of Kingdom worship?
Worship is central to the Kingdom-centered church because it flows out of devotion to the King and provides the passion and power that prompts the church to extend the ministry to the ends of the earth. Authentic worship should keep the church passionate about the world, with the singular desire that all peoples and all nations would know the King and worship Him. Thus, missional activity will be the natural outgrowth of worship.
Worship in the Early Church
We have consistently looked to the early church for our model of the Kingdom-centered church. I would encourage you to pause a moment and read Acts 2:41-47. Listen to these descriptive statements about the early church: they devoted themselves to...the breaking of bread, and to prayers (2:42), and every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people (46-47a).
When you read that text what commands your attention? Worship was not something that was practiced for a short time on Sunday morning; it was part and parcel of life for the early church. It literally permeated their existence. We often forget that many early Jewish believers would have been abandoned by their families and, thus, fellow believers became their family. The practice of taking their meals together was more than a soup kitchen line for the needy; it was the passionate desire for fellowship and worship that compelled the early believers to gather daily for food and worship.
We have lost something of the power and majesty of worship because we have relegated it to a fixed hour on Sunday morning rather than making it the focus of our existence. If worship permeated our daily life, we would live daily in the anticipation of the moment that we could assemble with our church family in corporate worship. Thus, our attendance pattern would never be an issue of convenience but one of necessity. When we do attend, we would judge the value of worship based on whether it pleased God and changed us rather than whether it entertained or pleased me.
I have long been drawn to the church at Antioch, which was a church with a global vision. They dared to believe that they had been empowered to reach the world with the Gospel. How does a church develop such vision and courage? The key is found in Acts 13:2: As they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said.... The Greek words translated "ministering" is leitergeo from which we get the word liturgy. This church was worshipping when the Lord gave them the passion and strategy to reach the known world by sending Paul and Barnabas on a church planting missionary journey. Authentic worship will cause our hearts to be in tune with the heart of God and will thus result in meaningful service and intentional mission.
Worship and the Kingdom-Centered Church
Warren Wiersbe has defined worship thusly, "Worship is the believer's response with all that he is — mind, emotions, will, and body — to all that God is and says and does. This response has its mystical side in subjective experience, and its practical side in objective obedience to God's revealed truth. It is a loving response that is balanced by the fear of the Lord, and it is a deepening response as the believer comes to know God better."1
Worship may sometimes be entertaining, but it is not about entertainment. Authentic worship is the believer's response to the self-revelation of God. Worship originates with God and demands the response of His people. Worship's primary goal is to give glory and honor to God, and, when authentic, it always results in the edification of the worshipper, leading him/her to serve the living God Who is the object of worship. Thus worship involves both giving and receiving, commitment and blessing. True worship is balanced, involving the mind, emotions, and the will of the worshipper. It incorporates both attitudes (such as reverence, awe, joy, and respect) and actions (such as bowing, praising, serving, and giving). It will always call us to the ends of the earth with the passion that all nations and peoples will be able to worship their rightful King.
For the participant, worship involves praise through music, prayer, the reading and preaching of the Word, and an appropriate response by the commitment to serve. Music, for many, is the central thread of worship which knits the various elements in a symphony of praise presented to the Father. The style of music will vary from context to context and from continent to continent. Music that is culturally suitable and theologically sound should be chosen with the singular purpose of leading God's people to focus on and adore God alone. It should be presented positively and powerfully with a desire to offer the King our best. We should sing the hymns and choruses with attention to the words since these are covenant commitments to the King of kings.
Corporate prayer should be a central component of worship and not an afterthought that allows the participants on the platform to shift positions while "every head is bowed." Prayer provides the opportunity for the worshipping community to come boldly before the throne of grace in the presence of the Creator and King. It enables us to verbally acknowledge His presence, to stand before Him in praise, to confess our sins, to seek forgiveness, to offer ourselves to God as tools through whom He can advance His Kingdom, to ask provision for our daily needs, to intercede for the nations, and to offer thanksgiving to our gracious God.
The reading and reciting of Scripture should be a central component of our worship. The Word of God has inherent dynamic power. The preaching of the Word is the centerpiece of worship. It is very simply declaring the truth of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. The sermon must first be an exposition of God's Word which will address man's most critical needs and concerns. The role of the worshipper is not to critically evaluate the sermon or the skill of the one delivering it, but to listen for the voice of God and respond with obedience.
Worship through the giving of our offerings should never be misconstrued or presented as a means of subscribing our budget or paying our bills. It is a vehicle for expressing our dependence upon God and our gratitude for His loving provision for all our needs. The giving of His tithe and the presentation of our offerings is an acceptable and appropriate sacrifice of a priestly people. Tragically, we have divorced the giving of money from its theological foundation and thus we have trivialized it, making it little more than a punch line to a trite joke about a Baptist meeting. If we are serious about advancing the Kingdom, we will rejoice when given the opportunity to worship God through our gifts with the sure knowledge that He provided all that exists with the intention of reaching the nations.2
Authentic worship always calls for the worshipper to respond through commitment. The call to commitment is the natural and spontaneous outflow of true worship. Every time we worship, we should each ask ourself: "What has God said to me and what must I do about it?"
1 Warren W. Wiersbe, Worship (Nashville: Oliver-Nelson Books, 1986), p. 27.
2 If you desire further assistance on understanding the role of money and the Kingdom, see Making Change: A Transformation Guide to Christian Money Management (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publisher, 2006). A forty-day study will be available in February.
Kenneth S. Hemphill is the SBC national EKG strategist.