What is Worship

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What is Worship?

A discussion of the worship as a lifestyle idea

Worship as a Lifestyle?

A popular teaching in the worship area these days is the topic of worship as a lifestyle. I have listened closely to these ideas and have some comments to make as we endeavour to discover the meaning of what worship really is. It is an important question and deserves closer inspection.

It seems to me that the truth trying to emerge, is that our lives must be consistent with our worship, otherwise we are hypocritical, that worship is related to all of life. All aspects of our lives must be given over to God's rulership. There is also the effort to get people to understand that worship is more than just singing songs. I certainly agree that this needs to be taught and emphasized, especially by those of us working in worship ministry. My question is: how far should we expand the understanding of worship? In attempting to expand a narrow view of worship, we have pushed it past singing songs, past our daily work, finally making worship represent everything we do.

I believe we can reconcile apparent contradictions, and still communicate the necessary truths and principles of worship that we want taught.

I have struggled to see how there could be a special lifestyle that worshipers have -- it seems to me that the only lifestyle there is for Christians is the Christian lifestyle. If we are Christians, we obey God, serve Him with all our being and worship Him alone.

It may appear that to narrow the concept of worship to just our acts of worship is limiting its meaning. Every concept needs its limits defined, that's what distinguishes it from some other idea. We should limit the meaning of worship, but, it should be kept to what we can agree the bible says it is, and not something we think it should mean. Widening a truth beyond its biblical meaning is just as much an error as narrowing a concept. The question is not whether we are narrowing or widening, but are we scriptural. Worship is related to the whole of life but that doesn't mean it is equated to all of life.

One reason for the widespread acceptance of the lifestyle view of worship could be the need for the understanding of the spiritual value of everyday work. There is renewed enthusiasm for breaking down the barrier between sacred and secular. One way to make work feel more spiritual is to call work worship. A theology of worship which says everything we do is worship helps us feel that life on Monday is just as important than Sunday. We don't need to call work worship to be convinced work is valuable and a holy activity. Work is work and worship is worship and they're both valuable to God, but they're distinct activities.

What Does the Bible Say?

The biblical basis for the idea that everything we do is worship seems to originate from an interpretation of ("...present your bodies as a living sacrifice...which is your spiritual service of worship"). The word translated as worship is latreia which, according to Strong, is derived from a word meaning menial servant. The KJV and NKJV both translate this word as service in this verse. In the RSV bible this word is translated worship in only a few places, but as service in over 20 instances. It is not the main biblical word for worship and therefore should not be used as a primary source of what we understand worship to be.

The word latreia has the meaning of service in the temple or tabernacle (the things the Levites did) and has the connotation of divine service --- service offered to God. Hence the similarity to worship. However, if we are doing a study on biblical worship, we should concentrate on the meaning of the original words used most frequently. The Hebrew word most used for worship is shachah and its Greek equivalent is proskuneo (see appendix for definitions). These words show worship as a specific act at a specific time involving the total attention of the worshiper. To use Romans 12:1, with a translation (in some Bibles, not all) of latreia as worship, as a major biblical teaching on worship is shaky, it confuses worship and service.

We should not only look at the meaning of the biblical words, but also we should look at the context to find meaning. We need to ask the who? when? what? how? questions. In looking at the verses, it appears as though worship is a specific act. People and groups are seen responding to God in different circumstances. (The following Old Testament references use the Hebrew word shachah and New Testament, the Greek word proskuneo.)

Individuals Worshipping

Individuals worshiped at specific times prompted by specific circumstances

  • Moses Moses bowed to the ground at once and worshipped. Exodus 34:8,
  • David Then David got up from the ground. After he had washed, put on lotions and changed his clothes, he went into the house of the LORD and worshipped. Then he went to his own house, and at his request they served him food, and he ate. 2Samuel 12:20. When David arrived at the summit, where people used to worship God, Hushai the Arkite was there to meet him, his robe torn and dust on his head. 2Samuel 15:32,
  • Gideon When Gideon heard the dream and its interpretation, he worshipped God. He returned to the camp of Israel and called out, "Get up! The LORD has given the Midianite camp into your hands." Judges 7:15.
  • Job At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship Job 1:20.
  • Joshua "...Neither," he replied, "but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come." Then Joshua "fell face down to the ground in reverence", and asked him, "What message does my Lord have for his servant?" Joshua 5:14,
  • Hannah Early the next morning they arose and "worshipped" before the LORD and then went back to their home at Ramah. Elkanah lay with Hannah his wife, and the LORD remembered her. 1Samuel 1:19 and
  • Jehoshaphat Jehoshaphat bowed with his face to the ground, and all the people of Judah and Jerusalem fell down in worship before the LORD. 2Chronicles 20:18.

Groups of People Worshipping

Groups also worshipped at specific times, for example ...

  • the children of Israel ...And they believed. And when they heard that the LORD was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshipped. Exodus 4:31 Exodus 33:10 2 Chronicles 7:3, 1 Chronicles 29:28
  • the Levites Early the next morning King Hezekiah gathered the city officials together and went up to the temple of the LORD. 2Chronicles 29:20
  • the Wise Men On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. Matthew 2:11
  • certain Greeks Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the Feast. John 12:20.
  • the 24 elders ...the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say: Revelation 4:10.
  • the angels All the angels were standing round the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, Revelation 7:11

These groups or individuals worshiped by bowing, kneeling, standing etc and it was not just in the temple e.g. David worshiped on top of a hill, others where they were standing at the time. They worshiped for a variety of reasons; hearing God speak, feeling his presence or going through a rough time etc.

When people interpret Romans 12:1 by saying everything we do is worship, I believe they are confusing biblical worship with service. What we should be saying is that everything we do is service rendered to God, a true and fitting outflow of our allegiance to God expressed in our worship. The ambiguous use in English of the term worship service contributes to confusion as to what is service and what is worship. The bible does distinguish these two ideas e.g. in Matthew 4:10 and Luke 4:8 we see the contrast --- worship & service (proskuneo & latreuo in Gk).

Matthew 4:10 Jesus said to him, "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: 'Worship' the Lord your God, and serve him only.'"

Luke 4:8 Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.'"

These passages correspond to similar ones in the Old Testament (shachah & abad in Hebrew).

1Kings 16:31 He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him.

2Kings 17:35 When the LORD made a covenant with the Israelites, he commanded them: "Do not worship any other gods or bow down to them, serve them or sacrifice to them."

2Chronicles 7:19 "But if you turn away and forsake the decrees and commands I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them...."

Worship is Everything?

By saying worship means everything we do, we are in danger of losing its particular, specific meaning. We can over generalise to the point of actually losing the meaning altogether.

Obviously our lives must be consistent with our professions of God's Lordship. Otherwise our worship would be hypocritical and an offence to the heart of God. We live a life of service to God, and have specific times of worship to express our hearts to God.

In the New Testament true worship is made up of certain acts as in John 4:24"...they that worship must worship...") plus a corresponding right attitude ("...in spirit and truth.")

A right attitude of heart is required for true worship, this attitude is not worship in and of itself -- it is a necessary requirement to change false worship into true worship. The attitude is a quality of worship, not the worship itself. Worship is the verb. "In spirit and truth" is an adverbial phrase which describes how the action of worship is to be done. If we define worship as the attitude, we are confusing the grammar in John 4:24. If, for example, a leader says to a worship team: "Sing enthusiastically" we understand that sing is the verb and enthusiastically is the adverb. Singing is what to do, enthusiastically is the how. Similarly with Jesus' words to the woman at the well, worship is the what, and in spirit and truth is the how. Worship here is not the attitude, it is the act. The phrase in spirit and truth is the attitude, the how to do worship.

Worship should be incorporated into our lifestyle, so that we are able to worship regardless of the circumstances just like Job Job 1:20

The bible uses the analogy of a marriage to illustrate the relationship between Christ and the Church. (We are the bride of Christ). Pushing this picture a little further can help us understand the place of worship in our lives. You could liken worshiping God to expressions of intimacy between a husband and wife. You could even say, "Sex is a lifestyle!!" What would we mean by a statement like that? We obviously mean that you can't just confine sex to the bedroom -- it is an outflow of a love relationship that is expressed in other ways during the day, caring, helping, giving, serving. A thoughtless husband during the day cannot expect his wife to suddenly turn on to him at night. The same is true for worship -- our expressions of intimacy flow out of a day by day walk of loving obedience to our Lord. If we separate our worship times from life we lose the content of our worship and it becomes just a performance, an empty act.

But, how far can we push this idea of 'sex is a lifestyle'. We surely don't mean that everything we do is sex!! Eating is sex, work is sex etc, etc. But that's exactly what is said sometimes about worship -- everything we do is worship! Just because worship is related to life doesn't make worship mean that it is by definition everything we do.

Finally, there is a major philosophical, or logical problem with the concept of worship being defined as everything we do. It stems from one of the laws of logic which says, "A statement about everything is a statement about nothing". An example sometimes given is in defining the concept of a chair. If we say a table is a chair, a book is a chair, a window is a chair etc; then we have said that a chair is nothing in particular. The same is true if we say that work is worship, obedience is worship, repentance is worship etc, then it follows that worship is nothing in particular! You must have parameters or boundaries for a concept to have real meaning. You have to know where a concept's meaning starts and where it ends, what it is, and what it isn't.

So What is Worship?

It seems that from both the meaning of the words and the context of the passages, that worship is a special act of communicating loving submission, allegiance, honour, devotion, homage or obeisance (see Appendix for definitions). Acts of worship are usually accompanied by a corresponding attitude of humility, awe and respect. These words help build a picture of the expression of a total giving of ourselves, all that we are or desire to be, given over to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. This, of course cannot be done without a deep love for the object of our worship --- in our case, God, the God of Abraham, the biblical God.

The main ideas expressed in biblical worship are:

  1. loving devotion & intimacy
  2. allegiance and submission and
  3. an honouring of the value of a higher being. These three ideas can be expressed in many ways, but biblical worship is a specific act designed to express these themes.

Let us return to an understanding of worship as a specific event with a specific purpose. In the attempt to define worship as more than songs, we have fallen into the trap of over generalising our understanding of worship to the exclusion of its specific, biblical meaning. In an attempt to get to the heart of worship we have made grammatical errors and confused the what and the how of worship.

If we are to build a solid foundation in worship, for both leaders and participants, we need to gain biblical understanding to answer the question, "What is worship?" I trust that this paper has been some help to you in answering this question.


Bible Words

These are the two main biblical words translated as worship. Our understanding of worship must come from the truth contained in these words. The definitions come from Strong's Concordance ISBN 1598560662

English Words

These words help us to understand what the Hebrew and Greek words mean. They build a picture of the biblical concept of worship. (definitions from the Concise Oxford Dictionary --- additional comments in italics, mine)

  • Worship: (vb) adore as divine, pay religious homage to; idolise, regard with adoration
  • (n) worthiness, merit, recognition given or due to these, honour and respect (OE weorthscipe: worth--ship)
  • Obeisance: (n) a gesture, esp. bowing or curtsying, expressing submission or respect (something you do with your body)
  • Homage: (n) formal public acknowledgement of feudal allegiance, acknowledgement of superiority (something you say with your voice)
  • Reverence: (vb) to regard as sacred, to hold in deep and usually affectionate or religious respect (something you feel in your heart)

Some One-Liners!!

If worship = everything we do, then,

worship = nothing in particular!!!

"Worship is our lifestyle", No, worship is part of our lifestyle!

"Worship is our attitude", No, a true heart of giving to God is a prerequisite to true worship!

Worship = a specific act of expressing allegiance, submission and devotion to a deity, person, object or being.

And true worship, to God or idols, requires a devoted heart and is proven by a life consistent with such an expression)

Worship is related to, but not equated to the whole of life.

Four Different Uses of the Word Worship

A recipe for confusion!

I have identified four different usages of the word worship. Good communication requires a common understanding of the meaning of words used. By highlighting the four different uses of worship, we can better understand what people are talking about and we can more readily study what worship in the bible really is. The four meanings used are (moving from the more general to the more specific):

  1. Worship is everything: This is the most general term and it says that everything we do, if done to the Lord, is worship to him. Our work, recreation etc., is all worship.
  2. 11 a.m. Sunday morning: This is the term used mostly by the evangelicals to denote the worship service. It includes the singing of hymns, an offering, a sermon, prayers etc.
  3. Praise and worship: Charismatics use this phrase to describe a time where singing predominates -- both joyful and quiet. It is the time of corporate communing with God usually before the teaching. Worship is mostly understood to be the more quiet, contemplative part, but worship is also used to denote the whole time ("worship" & "praise & worship" are synonymous.)
  4. Shachah and proskuneo: For want of a better term, I have used the biblical words to denote the understanding gained from these words -- i.e. bowing in reverence, expressing heartfelt allegiance etc.

It is not important what we decide is the definition of the word worship. Too much can hinge on the meaning of the word. What really is important is that we understand the concepts trying to be communicated when we use the word. Charismatics understand each other when they say "praise and worship" but this phrase can easily be misunderstood by other groups unfamiliar with that particular style of worship.

Communication of the biblical concepts is what is needed. We must be able to adjust our terms depending on who we are with, without changing the truths of the bible, especially as we move internationally and interdenominationally. We can get horribly confused if the words we use mean different things to different people.

Kevin Norris, Kona