What is worship? Hint: it’s not what you think!

I just finished reading an article about worship.  Or a worship service.  Or praise music.  Or singing.  I’m really not sure because the author used all of those “worship” words interchangeably, as though they all meant the same thing.  News flash: They don’t.

Which brings us to the question — What is worship? Let’s begin by defining what worship is not.

  1. Worship is not the worship service. “The worship service” (or hour or celebration or whatever you call it) is an event, a time, a place that we set aside to do the work of worshipping.   If your church is like mine, sometimes we worship and sometimes we don’t, but we still call it the worship service.
  2. Worship is not the music. Praise bands, worship leaders, singing, choruses, and so on are not worship.  Music can be a vehicle for worship, but music is not a synonym for worship.  Singing worship songs does not necessarily constitute worship.
  3. Worship is not everything we do. I read that in a book about worship, too.  The author’s point was that our lives are worship, if we live them in reverence for God.  Or something like that.  I disagree.  While I may be a Christian all the time, I am not worshipping all the time.  Which is kind of the point, isn’t it?  Worship is special, a time-out from everything we do the rest of the time, to devote our full attention, emotion, and presence to God.
  4. Worship is not going to church. Pretty well covered this in #1, but just in case somebody missed it, here it is, again.

Okay, my fifth grade teacher taught me you can’t define something by what it isn’t, so what is worship?  Jesus gives us a pretty good idea when he talks to the woman at the well.

God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.  -john 4:24

“Spirit and truth” is what he says.  Spirit and truth.  Not a place, not a doctrine, not a practice, but an essence.  Spirit and truth.

Spirit and truth can take many forms from Jesus’ day to the 21st century, but worship isn’t form.  Spirit and truth can be expressed in many ways, but worship isn’t technique.  Worship is that indescribable communion of God’s spirit with ours that opens our eyes to the one who is truth.  But maybe that doesn’t describe worship, either.  Maybe worship is so hard to define that we use substitutes like “worship service” to mean worship.  Maybe that’s the best we can do.  Like the woman at the well, we focus on time, place, and technique, when we really ought to focus on spirit and truth.

This Sunday at 11 o’clock, or whenever you have your worship service, see if, among the announcements, video clips, praise songs, sermon and sound system, you encounter this whisper of a moment when God’s spirit engages your congregation, and heaven and earth fleetingly meet.  That, for me, would be worship.

15 thoughts on “What is worship? Hint: it’s not what you think!”

  1. Indeed the only biblical worship, is the doctrine of God triune! Here is where we find “spirit and truth”, before the Father! The Father is the regal, the cause or origin of the Godhead, from whom the Son is begotten eternally and also from whom the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally. (St. John 15:26)

    Fr. Robert

  2. Hmm…interesting. I’m mulling on it. I dig it, but I need to sit with it. How do you incorporate the word “liturgy” into your understanding of “worship?”

  3. anglobaptist

    I am an Anglican, I use the Book of Common Prayer, and I am also close to Orthodoxy’s beauty of liturgy. For what it’s worth, though I am Irish born and bred, I was theologically educated in England.

    Fr. Robert..”Irish”

  4. Fr. Robert,

    I am a baptist educated in an Episcopal seminary. I was thinking about the literal translation (?) of “the work of the people” in relation to some of Chuck’s thinking. Chuck, do you incorporate this in your understanding of worship?

    Fr. Robert, it’s good to meet you!

  5. Fr. Robert, thanks for your comments and welcome from one Irishman to another (know any Warnocks?). Anglobaptist, thanks for your comments, and glad you and Fr. Robert struck up a conversation. Brewster, thanks for your comments and come back soon! -Chuck

  6. Hello again…

    We’ve been talking and thinking and praying, not always in that order, about this for some time in our church and our own work, which is partly bourne oput of a frustration with the narrow definitions of ‘Worship’ I’ve dealt with. As a working definition I ternd to see it in the terms of the German word ‘Gottesdienst’ which it used for a church service. Literally it means ‘God’s service’: We bring our gifts to serve God.

    I’m part of a storytelling team and we see what we do as a prophetic act of worship and I’m always looking at ways to bring new people with different skills to present their gifts to God, in the midst of their worshipping community, and glorifying him through the artistic work we present.

    On the other hand I do think that worship can be a lifestyle. I think we can get into the habit of inviting God to be part of what we do, in the manner of the celtic church.

  7. Oh dear, my friend – I’m so happy to tell you that you’ve got “Gottesdienst” 100% backwards.

    Literally it means the exact opposite of `God’s service’: We bring our gifts to serve God.

    Gottesdienst = The Divine Serves US.

    God pours His Word into our ears, eyes, hearts. God pours the life of his Son, crucified on the cross for us for forgiveness of sins into us. He sets the table before us. We are guests, receiving all of his good gifts. We are not the ones inviting God to be part of what we do… quite the contrary. We do not present our gifts to God, as if He is in need of our time & talents. By his great mercy and love, he extends us the courtesy of being involved in what He has been, is, and will be doing forever and ever. Amen!

    In Divine Worship = God Serves us, filling us with his love, his strength, his peace as we are prepared for another week of love and service, bearing Christ to our neighbor.

  8. Hi everyone… new to the post and glad I found it.

    I had a talk with a fellow musician who sustains that when you worship, the posture of the body matters (bow down, postrate); My understanding is that in the neotestamentary church, worship is a posture of the heart/spirit more than anything else. Otherwise, how could someone who is paralyzed (neck up) worship our Almighty God? Is he/she deprived of this great apportunity?

    Thanks in advance for your comments!

    God bless you all,


  9. from one small church guy to another…thanks the post is great – it really captured what i was thinking – the definition of worship is elusive

  10. i need to understand the defference betwean worship and praise. Please help. Thank you.

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