Worshiping God and Worshiping Worship

I’ve been studying the topic of worship a lot lately, and I’ve concluded that our problem isn’t really poor worship or worship “mechanics” (music, liturgy, etc.). Our problem is poor thinking about God. It’s lack of thinking about God. And changing instruments or coaxing our people to sing louder won’t do a thing to fix it. In fact, it might just do the opposite, making us think we’re worshiping better because the volume and polish of our singing is up.

WowUnless we understand that the nature of the problem is a faulty view of God, our efforts to improve our corporate worship will be ironically self-defeating: we’ll end up worshipping worship rather than worshipping God. (Isn’t that the state of much of evangelicalism today?!) No, we don’t need livelier music, cute quips and perpetual cheerleading to convince our people to “sing out on the second verse.” We need to help them see God for who He is as revealed in His Word. Then worship will be genuine, not manufactured. Then worship will be focused on God, not itself. Then our churches will actually “sing like they mean it”–because they will!

D.A. Carson makes this point powerfully in Worship by the Book (brought to my attention by Jason Janz’s post for worship leaders a while back). Here are several excerpts from the book:

“What ought to make worship delightful to us is not…its novelty or its aesthetic beauty, but its object: God himself is delightfully wonderful, and we learn to delight in him.” (30)

“Although there are things that can be done to enhance corporate worship, there is a profound sense in which excellent worship cannot be attained merely by pursuing excellent worship. In the same way that, according to Jesus, you cannot find yourself until you lose yourself, so also you cannot find excellent corporate worship until you stop trying to find excellent corporate worship and pursue God himself.” (30-31)

“Despite the protestations, one sometimes wonders if we are beginning to worship worship rather than worship God. As a brother put it to me, it’s a bit like those who begin by admiring the sunset and soon begin to admire themselves admiring the sunset.” (31, emphasis his)

I think Carson has hit the nail on the head. I’ve gone on record as saying that worship in most fundamental churches is broken. To “fix” it, we need neither more tradition nor more innovation, though I’m not necessarily opposed to either. Some intentional thought regarding what we do in our services can help draw people’s attention to Christ. We can eliminate distractions like jokes and announcements. But at the end of the day, what we need is more awareness of God’s magnificent character, and no amount of creative service orders will make up for its absence.

Two more Carson quotes to emphasize this point:

“Pray, then, and work for a massive display of the glory and character and attributes of God.” (32)

“What we must strive for is growing knowledge of God and delight in him–not delight in worship per se, but delight in God.” (32)

So how do we help the people we lead get to that point? How do we get there ourselves? I’ll make two suggestions for starters.

First, we must emphasize God in our Bible study and preaching. We must make much of Christ and the Gospel. We must have our eyes peeled for God’s revelation of Himself in Scripture, not just sermons and commands and promises. Think about it: how much is God’s character emphasized in your preaching? “Not enough,” is my own answer.

Second, we can begin to model a heart for God before our people. We can teach them to pray God-honoring prayers by praying God-honoring prayers before them and with them. We can teach them to pray Scripture by praying Scripture. We can teach them to marvel in God’s great character by doing so ourselves. We can teach them to sing with understanding by pointing out great doctrines in our hymns. We can teach them to sing joyfully by singing joyfully. The reality is, the people we lead will not be more enthusiastic about worship than we are…and maybe that’s the problem.

We don’t just need better worship; we need a better understanding of who God is, and the latter will go a long way in improving the former. When we understand that God is “great” we will understand why he is also “greatly to be praised” (Psalm 96:4). Though our worship might be broken, “it is man’s inadequate concept of God that needs to be rescued” (Tozer, Whatever Happened to Worship, 86).


12 Responses

  1. Excellent post, Chris! It was good to be reminded of those things. How easy we forget! Life is all about God and His glory, and therefore, so should worship be all about God, not all about worship. My frustration as a “worship leader” is that even when God is made to be the center of the worship service, there are still people in the pews who remain unmoved and never really enter into true worship. O that God would do a work in our hearts that we would be moved to worship Him in spirit and truth!

  2. Thanks, Kris.

    I share your frustration & I “second” your prayer. The reality is, those people aren’t worshiping with you on Sunday because they haven’t worshiped alone all week, which is tragic.

  3. Great thoughts and practical advice. I would add that another way to fix our worship is in the choosing of hymns that we sing. We need to choose songs that are filled with correct doctrine. This is why I appreciate hymns above choruses. Some choruses do teach doctrine, but often hymns have much more to chew on. We recently had Dan Souza preach revival meeting for us and he called choruses “7-11 Songs” because you say 7 words 11 times in them! I liked that description. It is the worship leader’s responsibility to choose songs that will promote what you are talking about.

  4. Chris,

    Excellent post, I wholeheartedly agree… but the frustration you and Kris mention is part of our fleshly condition: We can become cold and jaded and make an idolatry out of being “God-centered” too. The heart is very deceptive, even though it may be a redeemed heart.

    And there are some who seem to be stone cold no matter what is done up front. That is another issue, though. False assurance? Harbouring sin? Treating church attendance as an idol itself? Who knows? It could be any one of these. Or something else.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  5. Thank you for this writing, Chris! I couldn’t agree with you more. Last summer while counseling at the Wilds I found this clearly evidenced. There was no “worship pleading,” attempting to get more out of the kids. But consistently, week after week, the singing became louder and (from appearances anyways) more heartfelt. The worship changed because God changed campers’ hearts.

    I think that at least in some parts of the movement, we’re making progress. At school I hear less and less “joke sermons” (take that either way you want; they’re both accurate) and more and more close-to-the-text and exegetical messages. I have seen my own church over the past 10 years add consistent reading of Scripture as a part of the service and remove announcements from the body of the service, instead relegating them to the moments immediately before dismissal. These are small steps, but they are in the right direction! And that is very encouraging to see.

    Thank you for your wise post!

  6. Good post. I get tired of seeing even fundamentalists who renounce the emotionalism of pop CCM trying to whip up a crowd to produce acceptibly loud singing, er, worship. I think my favorite is, “You weren’t too strong on the first verse, so [to punish you] I am going to have you stand up for the rest of the verses.” A deeply spiritual reason to stand while worshipping.

  7. One more thought in response to Derek and the ever-popular “7-11” appellation. We should remember that there is worship in Scripture where the same phrase is repeated over and over again. “Holy, Holy, Holy,” for instance. There are also times when God is worshipped through silence (ie, no propositional content).

    I’m going to make what may be a controversial assertion based on Scripture’s use of repetitious worship. I think there are songs, like some praise songs, that might not be appropriate if they made up a whole order of worship, but that can be effective as an emotionally appropriate response to the truths about God that have been rehearsed.

    It’s not that we need some fluff to balance out the heavy old hymns. It’s that different songs serve different functions in a thoughtfully prepared order of worship. Our worship through confession, Scripture, prayer, and hymns should cause us to turn our eyes upward and address our praise directly to Him. Sometimes the specific music we choose can provide us a good way of expressing the fullness we feel.

    I don’t think I’m disagreeing with Derek, I just want to add a disclaimer to what he said. (I was a high schooler who campaigned for more hymns and less choruses.) Hope I haven’t muddied the water.

  8. I have had friends, who were former Catholics, remark how attending Mass in the cathedral was a very moving experience. “Worship” was somehow more meaningful and God seemed more majestic. My understanding of Catholic history says that cathedrals were built to dwarf the parishioner and create a sense of awe and reverence for God. Every motion and symbol employed in the liturgy has been planned for effect. Unfortunately God doesn’t dwell in those cathedrals.
    It’s possible that we can make the same mistake by building our buildings, constructing programs and fine tuning our “liturgy”. In this way we run the risk of taking one step back from worshipping God and begin worshipping our worship (excellent phrase!).

  9. Boice quotes the gem from C.S. Lewis:

    “The perfect church serviace would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.” (from Lewis’ Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, quoted by J. M. Boice in The Gospel of John, I, 367)

    The point is, if people leave the service primarily impressed by the worship leader, the choir, the preacher or even the service order, we’ve distracted them. “He must increase; we must decrease,” especially when we claim to be leading in worship.

    BTW, I gave Boice a hard time about a novel interpretation of baptizo over here. I’ve thoroghly enjoyed his commentary on John, however. It is perhaps the most helpful one I have.

  10. Boice has good illustrations, but for serious exegesis of John, Westcott and Murray are really must haves.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  11. This article has some great points! We as christians do tend to sometimes put on more of a show instead of “leading people in worship.” I’m sure God would rather have two people actually singing to Him and praising HIm for how great He is, rather than an amazing venue and a bunch of people “playing music for God” if you know what I mean.

  12. […] (For what it’s worth [or f.w.i.w., as he says], my friend Chris Anderson posted thoughts regarding this portion of “Worship by the Book” back in 2006. You can find those helpful thoughts here.) […]

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