Our first response to God’s goodness and greatness is worship. In fact, Calvin says that our first priority in life is to seek to be worshippers:“We should consider it the great end of our existence to be found numbered among the worshippers of God.”
We exist in a Christian culture where worship is often controversial as believers fall out and churches split over style and traditions. We also live in a Christian culture where at times it sadly seems that worship has become big business. We live in the day and age of the celebrity worship leader. However, as Bob Kauflin says:
“Whether you see the ‘worship phenomenon’ as a good thing, a bad thing, or something in between, this much is certain; the worship of God matters. It’s never irrelevant. It’s never unimportant. The worship of God should always be a hot topic. And from God’s perspective, it is. There is nothing more foundational to our relationship with God and to our lives as Christians.”
- Worship is…
What exactly does it mean to worship? What is worship? We often use the word to describe what we do when we gather as believers, especially the sung and/or liturgical part of a meeting. However, worship is broader than that. It’s both about what we do together corporately when we gather and about what we do as we scatter into the world during the week. Worship is about living the whole of life for God.
It involves giving homage and adoration. David Peterson says
“The words most commonly translated ‘worship’ in Scripture convey the notion of homage or grateful submission to God. In general use, these terms expressed the oriental custom of bowing down or casting oneself on the ground, kissing the feet, the hem of a garment or the ground as a gesture of respect to someone (e.g. Gen 18:2; Exod 18:7; 2 Sam 14:4).”
Worship is about glorifying God. Bob Kauflin takes us to Psalm 145:3 which says
“Great is the Lord! He is most worthy of praise! No one can measure his greatness.”
In this Psalm,
“David shows the appropriate starting point for worship. It involves thinking about, magnifying, and responding to the glory and splendour of God.”
This helps us to think about the role of worship leaders in the church. As Kauflin comments,
“Many of those we lead on Sunday morning are eager to join us and have been magnifying God’s unsearchable greatness all week. Others are distracted. It could be anything from the superficial to the serious – deadlines, unpaid bills, a friend’s unkind comment, a lab test for cancer, the thump-thump noise the car is making, a rebellious child, some besetting sin. Or a million other details of life. What size does God appear to be when our mind is preoccupied with all the cares, worries, and concerns of life? Very small. But God is not small. He is great. Magnifying and cherishing his greatness is at the heart of biblical worship.”
This means that those of us who are preparing to lead worship each week will want to think carefully about how we help those coming who are distracted, overwhelmed or see God as small. This might include taking time to acknowledge those challenges, circumstances and fears at the start of the meeting. We do not come to worship with a sense of escapism to run away from those things or pretend that they are not real. However, we should gain a new perspective on them as we gather. Those things are in fact small and God is big, not the other way around. Prayers, Bible readings and songs that declare God’s greatness, sovereignty, beauty and invincibility can help to re-calibrate the heart.
Not that our focus should solely be on the corporate gathering. It’s not just on Sunday as we sing and pray that we want to see God as big. We all have a responsibility to each other throughout the week to help one another to be true worshippers. The encouraging text, phone call or visit can make the difference. Shaping and seasoning conversations with gospel truth can pull another believer out of the despair that grumbling and gossiping cause. The worship service itself can be a place where we regroup and reorientate for the week ahead. The songs we sing, the tone and content of the talk can all convey a sense of God’s goodness and greatness that will help people to keep seeing God as big throughout the week.
- How do we worship God?
Or alternatively, we could say “How do we glorify God?” John Piper takes us to the Westminster Confession faith, Shorter Catechism.
“You might turn the world on its head by changing one word in your creed. The old tradition says;
‘The chief end of man is to glorify God
Enjoy him forever’
‘And?’ Like ham and eggs? Sometimes you glorify God and sometimes you enjoy him? Sometimes he gets glory and sometimes you get joy? ‘And’ is a very ambiguous word! Just how do these two things relate to each other?
Evidently, the old theologians didn’t think they were talking about two things. They said ‘chief end,’ not ‘chief ends.’ Glorifying God and enjoying him were one end in their minds.”
And so Piper suggests a small alteration to the question in the catechism.
“The chief end of man is to glorify God
Enjoying him forever.”
The correct response to God’s greatness is to be overwhelmed and overawed. His greatness is not just about ‘might’ to be feared and dreaded but is also about overwhelming beauty. His greatness and sovereignty point to infinite love, order, wisdom, purity.
This means that, when we worship,
“We aren’t simply reciting facts about God, like students reviewing their multiplication tables. God wants us to delight in him (Psalm 37:4). He is exalted when all energies are directed to one end – being satisfied in who he is.”
It means that we worship him with our happiness, our contentedness, our pleasure. Piper goes on to say that:
“When I was in college I had a vague pervasive notion that if I did something good because it would make me happy, I would ruin its goodness.”
However, he came to realise that:
“Praising God, the highest calling of humanity and our eternal vocation did not involve the renunciation but rather the consummation of the joy I so desired. My old effort to achieve worship with no self interest in it proved to be a contradiction in terms. Worship is basically adoration and we adore only what delights us. There is no such thing as sad adoration or unhappy praise.”
This was a revolutionary, life changing discovery for him. As he comments,
“We have a name for those who try to praise when they have no pleasure in the object. We call them hypocrites. This fact – that praise means consummate pleasure and that the highest end of man is to drink deeply of this pleasure – was perhaps the most liberating discovery I ever made.”
The worshipper is a happy person. Piper calls him a “Christian hedonist” finding his pleasure in God.
The worshipper is an artist. They are someone who in some way captures and reflects something of the awe, beauty, greatness and vastness of the eternal God in the moment of worship.
The worshipper is a receiver (Kauflin, True Worshippers, 31) They are acting in response to God’s goodness. Worship is a response to God’s goodness; a recognition of his love, mercy and grace. Kauflin illustrates this with the story of a friend.
“I have a good friend named Craig who years ago attended seminary, carrying a heavy class load and serving in an unpaid internship. Being a typical seminary student, he was dirt poor.
Craig kept in touch with a college buddy who’d landed a job that actually paid good money. Every so often, the two of them enjoyed a meal at a local restaurant. Despite Craig’s genuine protests, the friend would always foot the bill. Finally, Craig took a stand. ‘Please let me pay!’ he insisted.
His friend was unmoved. ‘Craig, why is it so hard for you to receive? You can’t even be a Christian if you can’t receive!’
Craig’s friend was right. Our first responsibility as Christians is not to give to God but to receive from him.”
“The ability and desire to worship God is something that God himself gives us. But there is another aspect to that gift. In the process of drawing and enabling us, God reveals himself to us. He tells us who he is. Not only are we unable to worship God apart from his grace, we don’t even know who it is we’re worshipping. God has to tell us. And he’s done that in the Bible.”
Enjoying God will mean
– A genuine sense of celebration in corporate worship – joyful singing, reading Scripture, prayers of thanksgiving.
– Enabling people to use gifts and talents – as noted above, worship has an artistic dimension -a place for dance, instruments etc. I don’t agree with a minimalist view of these things: that instruments are just there to support singing. Corporate worship will give a right place for the range of emotions silent space and gentle music to reflect alongside the noise and rhythm of celebration and declaration. There should be space for crying as we are moved by our own sin and the state of the lost; space for smiles, laughter and cheers as we rejoice at God’s goodness and share in his triumph over sin and death.
– Every day service. Worship is both what we do together corporately at formal gatherings and what we do as we scatter into the world.
That’s right: worship, even though it’s about enjoying God’s greatness and goodness, even though it’s all about receiving God’s grace, is still about service.
In the Old Testament, we see that,
“The purpose of Israel’s redemption from slavery in Egypt was to serve the Lord (e.g. Exod 3:12; 4:23; 8:1).”
In the New Testament, we are reminded that we too were saved by grace for works of service. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
This service is not about how we earn God’s love. It’s not even about mere duty or gratitude. Rather, it is,
- Part of the artistry described above – working in God’s creation, stewarding it, looking after it for our mutual enjoyment
- A means of demonstrating God’s love and so magnifying his goodness
- The way we show obedience and loyalty to God
“Israel’s service is related to fearing God, walking in all his ways and observing all his commands and decrees. A total lifestyle of allegiance was clearly required of God’s people (e.g. Deut 10:12-13; Josh 22:5; 24:14-24).”
Service is an expression of hope in future grace
- The difference that knowing God’s character makes to our worship (or why doctrine matters experientially)
We can only worship God truthfully because and when he reveals himself to us. However, that does not mean that when we don’t know God then we are not worshipping him. “We’re always worshipping something, someone.” Or as someone else puts it,
“We never begin worship, we aim it.”
In other words, worship is something we do naturally, but we are either worshipping the true God or idols. This can be about worshipping a false image of God. This happens when we glorify in things that are not good or not great: when we believe lies or half truths about him. We also end up worshipping other alternatives: false gods. Often we end up worshipping ourselves – and the works of our own hands. This is the danger of pride. Honestly and helpfully, Kauflin talks about how being involved in leading a church, he grew proud. God intervened. It was a painful breakdown.
“It wasn’t a lack of worship that caused my breakdown. It was worship in the wrong direction. Worship in the wrong direction is called idolatry. It’s looking to anything other than God for our ultimate satisfaction, comfort, security, or joy.”
Finally, we can end up with a wrong understanding of what true worship is if we don’t truly know who God is. Kaulfin says:
“If our songs aren’t specific about God’s nature, character, and acts we’ll tend to associate worship with a style of music, a heightened emotional state, a type of architecture, a day of the week. A meeting, a reverent mood, a time of singing, or a sound.” 
Therefore, there are some important implications that arise out of our doctrine including:
– We will see and value the importance of accurate, explicit description of God in our songs, prayers and teaching.
– Spiritual reformation and revitalisation in a church will be seen in corporate worship and life worship including the words used, attitudes, actions etc. We will hold each other accountable – recognising that pride is dangerous because it leads to idolatry
– We will think carefully, lovingly and wisely about the implications of this for non-believers participating in corporate worship.
The first and most important application of all our Bible teaching, preaching and studying should be worship. The nature of our worship will be a sure sign as to whether or not we are believing truth or lies about God and his character.
 John Calvin cited in Kauflin, True worshippers, 21
 Bob Kauflin, True Worshippers. Seeking what matters to God (Wheaton, Il.: Crossway, 2015), 21.
 Peterson, Encountering God Together, 37.
 David G Peterson, Encountering God Together. Biblical patterns for ministry and worship (Nottingham. IVP, 2013), 28-29.
 Bob Kauflin, Worship Matters. Leading others to encounter the Greatness of God (Wheaton, Il.: Crossway, 2008), 61.
 Kauflin, Worship Matters, 61.
 John Piper, Desiring God (Leicester. IVP, 1996), 13.
 Piper, Desiring God, 14.
 Kauflin, Worship Matters, 65.
 Piper, Desiring God, 14.
 Piper, Desiring God, 15.
 Piper, Desiring God, 15.
 Kauflin, True Worshippers, 31.
 Kauflin, True Worshippers, 39.
 Peterson, Encountering God Together, 33.
 Peterson, Encountering God Together, 34.
 Kauflin, True Worshippers, 51.
 Matt Papa. Cited in Kauflin, True Worshippers, 51.
 Kauflin, True Worshippers, 50.
 Kauflin, Worship Matters, 62.
 Kauflin, Worship Matters, 62.
 This opens up questions about seeker friendly services and whether or not we should expect non-Christians to take part in corporate worship through singing, praying etc. This is probably worth a whole discussion in its own right.