Ethan is the Director of Worship Arts and Music at Peace Reformed Church, and here is what he has to say about worship and the Christian life.
Have you ever thought about how we learn new words? The process is a truly beautiful testament to how we have been wired to absorb information. For example, I distinctly remember my ears perking up with interest when I heard a friend use the word “literally” for the first time. Here was a very mature sounding word that my ten-year-old self felt he should be using! To use it for myself, I didn’t go to the dictionary to learn the definition of the word. Instead, I listened to how others used it and inferred what it meant and how to use it in conversation; and it is because of these shrewd deductive skills that I proceeded to use the word “literally” as if it meant “figuratively” for the next few years.
Unfortunately I’m not the only person inferring incorrect meanings for words these days and there is one misuse in particular that gets me every time I hear it (literally!). Within Christian culture, we love to use the word “worship.” We use it to categorize songs, services, feelings, gatherings, styles, ministries, and genres. As a worship leader who works in a local church, I encounter this word a lot and I believe that the misuse of this word has led to a major misunderstanding of worship within the western Church. Just like my younger self, using an interesting word in the wrong way, many Christians have tuned in to how the broader culture speaks of “worship” and have inferred an incomplete understanding of it. Followers of Christ who desire to worship God rightly need to think beyond the assumed definitions that our cultural language imposes and look to Scripture to form a right understanding of true Christian worship.
From the very beginning, the Bible has something to say to us about worship. In Genesis 1:1 we read an account of the initiation of all things. “In the beginning, God created.” God spoke and brought forth the whole of creation and when all else had been made, God crowned creation with humanity, making Man in His image and likeness, giving Adam and Eve dominion over the rest of creation. In the broad picture painted in Genesis one, we see God revealed as Creator. Everything that we know of our existence was conceived in His imagination and birthed by His will. Here in the first chapter of Scripture, we get a hint towards what we are created for. No one looks at a piece of art without assuming an artist, or a building without supposing a builder. Every created thing points back to a creator and attributes worth to the one who brought it into being. In the same way, we are created to be arrows that point back to the One who created us. In making us in His image, God has imprinted humanity with His signature. We are the artwork and He is the artist. Giving worth-ship is an innate part of us. Thus, to be human is to be a worshipper. We have been created with a hunger to worship that we must continually satisfy. It is not a question of whether or not we will worship, but who or what we will worship.
In the perfection of creation Man ran to his creator to satisfy his thirst for worship. There was no question about it. Adam and Eve were sinless; and in their pre-fall condition their eyes were fully open to the glory of God. But their innocent eyes did not remain open for long. They listened to the words of the Tempter and believed the lie that they could be like God by transgressing the boundaries He had set up for them. In doing so, they exchanged the glory of the immortal Creator for the inferiority of mortal man. They turned from truth to a lie and worshipped and served created things rather than the One who is truly worthy (See Rom. 1:21-25).
The sin of our first parents has been passed down to all of us. This is man’s condition. Blinded by our sin to what is truly deserving of our worship, we worship what will never satisfy: carved images, ideologies, entertainment, human relationship, careers, success, sex, food, reputation, romance… the list is never-ending, but always boils down us seeking to give worth to ourselves instead of finding our worth in the One who is greater than ourselves. So the man struggling with alcohol abuse doesn’t have an alcohol problem; he has a worship problem. The woman in bondage to an eating disorder doesn’t have a self-image problem; she has a worship problem. The mother who can’t let go of her kids doesn’t have “letting go” issues; she has a worship problem. The man who lives for his career or the next sports season doesn’t have his priorities mixed up; he has a worship problem. All of sin, in its varied forms, finds its root in perverted worship.
You see, worship is always an act of response. Before the fall of man, Adam and Eve’s worship was initiated by God’s act of creation. They worshipped because they could clearly see God’s action. After the first sin, in our blindness to God’s glory and rebellion to His law, we worshipped the things that tell us they will satisfy. Perverted worship is our reply to the false promises of inferior glories. This is where we find ourselves stuck. Blind and deaf to the glories of God because of sin, we cannot turn from our perverted worship to right worship of God. Our fallen nature leaves us dead to this option. Our hope for worshipping God rightly does not rest in ourselves. Returning to right worship of God must be a response; a reaction to his action.
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked… But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ… so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” (Eph. 2)
Enter Jesus. His hands open deaf ears and heal blind eyes, His voice calls the dead to life and in His death and resurrection the sin that covers our eyes and deadens our hearts is paid for. Through Christ, God acted. Through Christ we can once again behold the glory of God. Through Christ we respond in worship. God acts and we respond with worship. From Abraham to Moses, to the judges, to King David, to the prophets…the whole of The Old Testament is a foreshadowing of this climactic intervention of God to pay for the sins of His people and bear His own wrath against sin. Biblical worship, then, is a response of gratitude, adoration, and exultation to this saving act of God through Christ. Every service, every song, every feeling to which we attach the word “worship” must be an outworking of this deeper foundation established in Scripture.
God acts and we respond. There is a back and forth to worship. Christian worship is a conversation of revelation and response. Within this God-initiated conversation, it is important to remember that just as things like services, songs, and feelings are not our ultimate definitions of worship, neither are they representative of the full spectrum of worshipful responses that we are called to give to God’s action in our lives. In Romans 12:1, Paul has just wrapped up an eleven chapter theological explanation of the gospel and begins chapter twelve with a challenge: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Here Paul is calling Christians to worship, “in view of God’s mercies.”
Like we’ve already established, Paul is identifying worship as a response to God’s action, but instead of calling the Roman Christians to simply perform the rights and rituals of a worship service, he calls them to offer everything – their whole lives as a worshipful response the mercies of God. In one verse Paul expands our understanding of worship far beyond the assumed definitions that the language of modern Christian culture imposes. Services and songs, feelings and genres can be worship, but they are only smaller components of a larger landscape. From singing to parenting to taking communion to taking out the trash… every action of life can and should be offered as a worship-filled reaction to the glorious good news of Jesus Christ.
At this point I should acknowledge something. Some might be thinking, if worship is everything, then worship is, effectually, nothing. That is to say, if we are to offer every moment of every day as a sacrifice of worship, then what’s so special about church? If worship is all of life, should gatherings of the body of Christ be thought of as distinctive, set apart practices? This is the danger that comes with stressing the whole-life implications of worship. There is indeed, a set-apartness to Christian worship services that we must not abandon. Scripture calls us to meet together, to sing to the Lord, to confess, to partake of the Lord’s Supper, to listen to the Word being preached. This is a vital action of worship, distinct from the rest of life. And yet, this is not the aspect of Christian worship that followers of Jesus need emphasized in today’s culture.
In a culture where “worship” is overwhelmingly used to categorize short-lived, isolated actions and emotions, it is vital for Christians to remember the depth and breadth of the worship the Scripture calls us to—a whole life response to the invitation of God through Jesus Christ. This is the perspective that many Christians in our day have neglected and that must earnestly seek to obtain. Only when we stop inferring our definition of worship from the countless voices of culture and tune into the voice of Scripture will we gain the deeper and broader understanding that will allow us to worship fully and rightly, offering every aspect of our lives in response to what the Lord has done. And in working toward that end may we find our deepest ambition and our greatest reward.