The Worth of Worship

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Michael Knowles

Yorkminster Park Theological Forum

Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, Toronto

March 11, 1999

What makes worship worthwhile when it seems so difficult to worship well; when we who worship week by week disagree so much about how to worship well?  What makes worship worth it when it's so hard to lead, so hard to enter into, so hard even for us to agree with one another about what worship should consist of?  What, in short, is "The Worth of Worship?"


As much as any other denomination, Baptists are currently engaged in a long-running battle over worship.  There are skirmishes on this subject every Sunday, and casualties on every side.  Those who prefer drums and guitars declare boldly that organ music isn’t really worship.  Those who love pipe organs and choirs respond with equal insistence that amplifiers do not belong in the sanctuary.  And when the amplifiers are removed, the bass guitar, the keyboard, and the un-singable lyrics can go out the door with them.  Why is it that what one worshipper finds deeply moving seems trite, irrelevant, even offensive, to another?   How often do we hear people who prefer an emotionally exuberant, spontaneous, or charismatic style of worship, argue that a carefully crafted, liturgically ordered, reflective approach just isn’t worship?   Or those who love a contemplative approach, those with a finely-tuned sense of aesthetics, or a love of ceremony, insist that hand-waving and emotionalism are actually offensive to true worship?  To say nothing of jumping up and falling down.  Books versus overheads; set prayers versus spontaneous ones; the offertory before the sermon or immediately following.  People leave churches, and pastors are fired, over questions like these, questions of worship.

This is a battle of wills, a battle of generations, a battle of cultures and of theologies, in which each side insists that God is on their side.  Why?  Because this is no ordinary disagreement over the colour of the carpet or the cost of a new roof, but a battle about how to worship almighty God.  In arguments like these, people rarely say, “That isn’t my kind, my style of worship, my personal preference.”  At least in my experience, the combatants are much more likely to say, “That isn’t even worship.”  By which they mean that they are unable to recognize it as such because it isn’t their way of doing things.  Such a response amounts to a confession that they aren’t able to recognize or reach out to God in a form they themselves find unfamiliar. 

But whatever our own, personal preferences may be, I want to propose that worship is far more complex than arguments like these will usually allow.   Worship is a complex combination of affirmations about who God is, on the one hand, with affirmations about who we are, on the other.   The difficulty—and the dogmatism—arise when we fail to recognize the difference between the two; when we fail to recognize which of the two, practically speaking, is more important. 

With regard to God’s side of the equation, a little history of language is helpful.  Our modern word, “worship,” is simply a shortened form of the Old English “worth-ship.”   At least according to its origins in the history of our language, “worship” is a declaration of what we deem worthy.  Worship is a declaration of worth.  Accordingly, the purpose of Christian worship is to declare the worth of God as made known to us in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  “Those who worship God,” Jesus told the Samaritan woman, “must worship in spirit and in truth.”  They must worship with inner integrity, not simply as an external display, and they must be truthful in their worship, true to the character, the nature, the person, the qualities and characteristics, indeed the very identity of God.  That is the “God” side of the worship equation.

On the other hand, our worship is never disembodied.  It is always, inescapably, the worship of particular people at particular times and places, with particular words and music and physical movements.   In that sense, as much as true worship is always directed to the one, true God, worship is also a statement about who we are: socially, culturally, linguistically, as well as theologically.  Not even Roman Catholicism employs Latin for worship any longer, though it took even longer to wean Anglicans from Jacobean English.  We worship in the language, and languages, of our own day.  Our worship may be directed towards the God and Father of Jesus the Messiah, but it is necessarily articulated in words that make sense to us.

Even so, we need to take this logic one step further.  Worship is not simply an explicit declaration about who God is, by means of an implicit declaration of who we are.  Rather, in the process of declaring what we believe to be true about God, we find ourselves transformed by the reality of God.  Worship is a declaration of who God is, independent of human community; worship is a declaration of who we are, as members of human communities; but worship is above all a declaration of who we are in the presence of God; who we are in process of becoming because of who God is, and how the reality of God changes us.

So God is not a benign or passive presence in worship, any more than we ourselves are: both realities contribute to the conduct and expression of our worship.  The key question, again, is which part of the equation takes precedence, and to what degree.  It has been said that ever since God created human beings in his own image, we’ve been trying to repay the favour.  And the temptation always is to think that God is surprisingly like us; that in the end, God’s preferences turn out to be remarkably like our own, whether in matters of music, or language, or the company we keep, or the lifestyle we prefer.  But that kind of reasoning is not worship.  On the contrary, it is the very definition of idolatry.  The key to true worship is to proclaim the reality of God in such a way that we allow God’s reality to transform us, far more than we intend our identity, language, music, cultural styles and preferences, to transform, or diminish, or discolour the reality of God declared and made known to us in Jesus Christ.

So to return to my original point, I would argue that the majority of our disagreements about worship relate as much (if not more) to aesthetic and cultural issues (statements about human identity) as they do to issues of theology and divine identity.  To be sure, there are theological differences and disagreements between different worship styles and emphases.  But the practical issues at stake when congregations disagree about worship are more likely to concern questions such as what sort of language we should use; what style of music is preferable; and what degree of emotion should be displayed in the course of worship.   My own experience suggests that in questions of worship and worship style, we are as likely to observe personal preferences in search of theological justification, as we are to encounter theology in search of a suitable form of expression.  To put it another way, we declare in theory that the God half of the worship equation is more important, but in actual practice, more of our time and attention are directed to the human half of the equation. 

Actually, it’s more subtle.  We do in fact say things like, “Oh, that kind of music, that kind of preaching, that kind of ceremony, isn’t pleasing to God.”  Now, I don’t want to sound disrespectful, but I’m not yet convinced that those of our number who argue this way have really heard a word from God about divine likes and dislikes.  I’m more easily convinced that such a view amounts to a subtle and unintentional form of psychological projection: I rather suspect that what they really mean is, “that kind of music, that kind of preaching, that kind of ceremony, isn’t pleasing to ME; it prevents me from worshipping, so surely it can’t be pleasing to God either.”  Our arguments may claim to be about God, but they are more often about ourselves. 


Michel Belzile, who is the pastor of Hagersville Baptist Church, completed a Doctor of Ministry thesis at McMaster Divinity College last year, surveying worship styles and preferences of member churches within the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec (BCOQ).  What I found interesting, coming as I do from outside the Baptist tradition, was how many different approaches to worship can all claim an authentic Baptist heritage.  Dr. Belzile identified six basic patterns or styles.

For example, we’re all familiar with the kind of worship service that begins with music, leads up to the message, and concludes with an invitation.   It’s basically an evangelistic or revivalist model, geared to proclamation, except that in a church of committed believers the invitation is no longer necessary.  So once the invitation is dropped, this style of worship consists of music, followed by the message, followed by the dismissal.  That’s one basic pattern.  But in the early years of this century, Canadian Baptists who considered the post-Revivalist pattern too unstructured and irreverent developed a more formal evangelical approach.  Less interested in conversion or instruction, and more focussed on worship of God, this was the classic style of BCOQ worship into the 1960's, complete with hymns, lessons, anthems, prayers, sermon, and benediction, not to mention, as often as not, robed clergy and choir.  Then the Liturgical Renewal movement produced an even more formal and structured approach, more complex and ornate, with a new appreciation for congregational participation, liturgy, and the centrality of the Eucharist (which itself was a new name for many).  You can see this approach most clearly in the 1976 Manual for Worship and Service.1

Then, at least partly in reaction to all that formality, the more recent influence of the Charismatic Renewal movement is obvious in the Praise-and-Worship style of service.  In a Baptist setting, this kind of worship is usually highly informal, unstructured, expressive, and participatory.  Guitars, amplifiers, and worship choruses are typical, but the pattern of the service is again basically akin to that of the revival meeting: music, followed by the message, followed by a time of ministry.

Those are four different, authentically Canadian Baptist styles of worship: a fifth is from the Church Growth movement.  It’s less common in Canada than the US, but beginning to show up more and more.  This style is “seeker-sensitive” and intentionally evangelistic: it tailors the worship service to the needs of a particular group—Baby Boomers, or Generation X—in order to reach them for Christ.  Of course, any one style usually offends or alienates someone else, so many number of churches are attracted by the work of Robert Webber, who advocates a “Convergence” model, blending elements from charismatic and liturgical styles in an attempt to satisfy the worship needs of a broad range of church members.2

But listing six styles barely scratches the surface of the differences that divide us.  Whichever style we prefer, we still have to ask where the focus of worship lies.  Is it the singing?  Scripture?  The sermon?  The altar call?  Prayer ministry?  Gifts of the Spirit?  The Lord’s Supper?  How much participation should there be, and how much of the service should be led from the front?  Should worship be quiet and contemplative, or exuberant, a celebration?  And what kind of music should we use?  Then there are differences of culture and language: African-Canadian, French, English, Portugese, Spanish, Chinese-speaking congregations.  There are urban churches, and rural ones.  Churches founded before 1900, with a long history and tradition (55% of the churches in the BCOQ fall into this category), and churches established in the last 20 years (17% of BCOQ churches).  Toronto churches, and churches happy not to be in Toronto.  Churches with lots of resources, and churches with relatively few.  And did I forget to mention gender issues?

And if that were not enough, also disagree on why we worship.  Here let me suggest four options:  Traditionalists place a high value on historical continuity.  According to the traditionalist, we worship in the presence of a great cloud of witnesses; we keep faith in worship with those who have gone before.  We do it this way because we’ve always done it this way.   That’s what makes us who we are. 

Loyalists are a kind of traditionalist on a smaller social and geographical scale.  According to loyalists, we worship this way because it’s our way of belonging to this community.   We do it this way so that we know, and everyone else knows, who we are.

Existentialists place a high value on personal experience.  An existentialist would say, “I worship this way because it brings me closer to God.”  We do it this way because this way we get to encounter God, and God encounters us.  We experience God’s real presence. 

Finally, Evangelists worship in a particular way so they can reach out to others in the name of Christ.  They worship this way because it makes non-members feel welcome.   They are experts in “barrier-free” worship.

Let’s admit at once that there are strengths and weaknesses in each of these four approaches, just as there are strengths and weaknesses to each of the six worship styles that Dr. Belzile has identified.  I want to suggest that none of them alone provides an adequate explanation, an adequate reason for worship.  If anything, worship includes all four purposes: tradition, identity, experience, and outreach.  But neither does any one of them provide the central purpose of worship.  In fact, I think they are all by-products of worship.  Aiming for tradition, identity, experience, or outreach as primary goals will not, in my opinion, produce good worship.  But aiming for excellence in worship is altogether likely to be true to the best of tradition; it will create Christian identity, lead worshippers to experience Christ, and help outsiders to encounter the reality of God.  .            


So we need to take this one step further.  I don’t think it’s ultimately productive simply to aim for excellent worship.  Because not even worship is an end in itself.  The purpose of worship is not worship: as I’ve argued from the outset, the ultimate purpose of worship is to declare the worth, the reality, the transcendence, the character of God.  So if  worship is not about us as much as it is about the God who inspires our worship, our primary task is to know this God, indeed to be known by this God, enough to be able to worship.

Which brings us to the Book of Nehemiah, chapter 9.  Here the writer describes the worship of Ezra and the returning exiles as they begin to rebuild the ruins of Jerusalem, swords in one hand, trowels or spades in the other.  What fascinates me about Ezra is that he and his fellow Israelites find that they need to re-orient themselves; to re-establish themselves as a community of faith in order to be able to live in the land that the Lord God has given them.  As we return from cultural exile during the era of modernism and the so-called “death of God,” and as a church seeking to find its place, its way, in the context of a post-modern culture, we have much to learn from Ezra about the centrality, the purpose, the vision, the worth of worship.   At a time when we find ourselves in some difficulty on the subject of worship, what it is and how it is to be conducted, this chapter brings us back to first principles. 

Their task, of course, was to rebuild not only Jerusalem in general, but the Temple in particular; to restore the worship of God’s people to its rightful place in their corporate lives. I suspect that had they been Anglicans, they would have waited until the Temple was fully rebuilt; the liturgy restored, the candles lit, the choir in place, the robes and vestments impeccably turned out...and then they would have worshipped.  Nehemiah tells us that there were singers (245 of them) and priests, as many as could prove their pedigree, and 597 liturgical garments.   But Nehemiah spends no time at all describing any of these things, because in his eyes they are not the heart of worship.  He simply says that eight of the Levites stood up and invited the people to worship.  In response to that invitation, Ezra and the people of Israel began to worship. 

Nehemiah 9, verse 6: And Ezra said, “You are the Lord, you alone.”  He begins his worship by proclaiming the name and identity of God: “You are Yahweh, the one who is,” the name revealed to Moses in Exodus chapter 3.  Remember that Moses wanted some kind of guarantee as to what kind of God this was who had appeared in the burning bush.  So God replies, “I am who I am; I will be whom I will be.”  Ezra begins his worship by declaring the name and very nature of God; a God whom we cannot put in our pockets, constrain or control; a God not limited by human circumstances and situations.  Cultures come and go; crises come and go; churches and congregations come and go, but the Lord God is the same, yesterday, today, and forever.  Ezra says, in effect, “We may be in trouble, but you are God, the living God: you are the Lord.”  I take that to be the first, and primary, premise of worship.

And you alone are the Lord.”  That’s the second principle of worship, that when we come before the face of God to declare God’s unique identity and worth, we become conscious of all the other allegiances that vie for our attention, all the other idolatries that ask us to bow down and prioritize them.   And that includes the idolatry of our own favourite forms and styles of worship.  Repentance, turning away from other options, is never far from the surface of worship.

Continuing with verse 6, Ezra declares, “You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their  host, the earth and all that is on all of them you give life, and the host of heaven worships you.”  But why, we may ask, does the heavenly host worship God?  Why, for that matter, do the trees of the field clap their hands, the mountains and the hills break forth in praise before Him?  Because they acknowledge God to be their one Creator and Sustainer.   They acknowledge, and we acknowledge with them, that we are not simply the work of our own hands, the product of our own efforts.   Our very existence, our very lives, are God’s gracious gift.  I take that to be a third principle of true worship. 

Verse 7, “You are the Lord, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans, and gave him the name Abraham; and you found his heart faithful before you, and made with him a covenant...and you have fulfilled your promise, for you are righteous.”  In worship we confess the qualities and characteristics of this God: that God alone is Caller and covenant maker; that God is faithful—there is no shadow of turning in Him; and that God is righteous altogether.  So we proclaim by our worship that God is Lord, and Lord alone; that God is our Creator and Sustainer; and that God has called us, both as individuals and as a church, no longer into the covenant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but into the covenant of His Son Jesus, in whom all the promises of God find their “Yes.”  Declaring who God is means declaring what God has done.  In fact it means declaring what God has done for us, and declaring all of that leads to the discovery of who we are in Him.

 And you saw,” Verse 9, “the distress of our ancestors in performed signs and wonders...You made a name for yourself, which remains to this day.  And you divided the sea before them.  Here Ezra proclaims that God is the Saviour, the Deliverer of those who cannot save themselves.  This is getting personal.  The Jewish Seder supper, the celebration of the Passover and God’s mighty deliverance of Israel from Egypt, declares, “In every generation, let everyone look on themselves as though they came forth out of Egypt...It was not only our ancestors that the Holy One, blessed be He, redeemed, but us as well did He redeem along with them.”   “Therefore,” it continues,

we are bound to thank, praise, laud, glorify, exalt, honour, bless, extol, and adore Him who performed these miracles for our [ancestors] and for us.   He has brought us forth from slavery to freedom, from sorrow to joy, from mourning to holiday, from darkness to great light, and from bondage to redemption.  Let us then recite before Him a new song: Halleluiah.3

Worship, whether for Ezra, Israel, or us, is always personal, because sooner or later it gets down to the question of what God has done for you and for me.   Worship arises from the recognition that we ourselves are included in God’s mighty acts of deliverance and salvation.

Moreover,” says Ezra, verse 12, “You led them by day with a pillar of cloud, and by  night with a pillar of fire, to give them light on the way in which they should go.  It’s interesting that Ezra goes beyond God’s primary work of salvation: he includes the journey of faith that ensued.  He worships a God who not only calls and saves, but who leads and accompanies His people on the way to the Promised Land.  It’s a point that would not have been lost on those who stood there in the ruins of a half-rebuilt Jerusalem.  Worship is not only a response to what God once did, long ago in history, or back at the beginning of our personal pilgrimages.  Worship arises from regaining our vision of who God is and what God has done, when we begin to see that it’s in God’s nature to lead us in the long term.  “I am,” says Jesus, “the Good Shepherd.”

We can be even more specific.  God’s leadership in the lives of those who place their trust in Him is twofold.   First comes moral leadership, Nehemiah 9:13: “You came down also upon Mt Sinai, and spoke with them from heaven, and gave them right ordinances and true laws, good statutes and commandments.  Worship not only gives thanks for God’s direction, it acknowledges God’s call to accountability.  Worship isn’t just a matter of words; it’s also a lifestyle of obedience and conformity to the righteousness of God.

If that’s moral leadership, leadership of lifestyle, the other part of the equation is in verse 15, if we can skip ahead for a moment: “For their hunger you gave them bread from heaven, and for their thirst you brought water for them out of the rock.”  God, says Ezra, provides for the needs of those entrust their lives to him; those who are enfolded in God’s covenant.  That too is a reason for worship. 

Now let’s go back to the bit we missed, verse 14: “You made known your holy sabbath to them.  Even this is a cause for worship, for God is not always demanding, and the life of faith is not always one of striving.  There is a good reason why Jewish worship is on the Sabbath, why Christian worship is on the first day of God’s creation: because God gives to his beloved, rest.  Worship acknowledges that we are the work of God’s hands; that all we might accomplish or perform, even worship itself, is but a minor comment, a footnote to God’s work on our behalf.

Then Ezra concludes his recitation of the saving works of God, in the second half of verse 15, “you told them to go in to possess the land that you swore to give them.”  Not only does God give rest, God brings us into the heritage of His promises: fulfilling His good purpose for us. 

But he doesn’t actually end there, with the acts and purposes of God: he also includes an account of human conduct.  But it is not an account of laudable conduct: because all the praise belongs to God alone.  On the contrary, as part of his worship he recounts the recalcitrance and disobedience of God’s own people, and how that very stubbornness has only served to show, once again, God’s true character: to paraphrase Exodus 34: “You are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them.” 

Let me suggest three points to ponder in response to this conclusion, and the passage as a whole.  First, it’s obvious that Ezra really knows the God he serves.  Ezra isn’t simply reciting history; he is celebrating what he knows to be true of God, and what he knows to be true about God is embodied in the history of God’s actions on behalf of Israel.  Worship therefore begins, not with us, not even with our words.  Worship begins and ends with a declaration of the divine character, the identity, and the mighty works, the very name of God.

Second, Ezra recites the works of God because the works point to the One who stands behind them.  Ezra can talk about the past because he knows that God does not change.  God is still the one Lord, Creator, Sustainer, Caller, Covenant maker, Saviour, Shepherd, Provider, Giver of rest; the One who keeps every promise.  So when Ezra worships by remembering the past, it has profound implications for the present, not to mention the future.  If this is how God acts, and if this is who God is, then God’s people (you and me included) have cause for hope.  Therefore we worship.

Third, notice that Ezra is not talking about God; Ezra always talks to God.  His worship, for all that it might seem to be a simple recitation of history, is intensely personal and direct.  This worship engages God.  This worship dares to meet God, in the knowledge that God has already met us.


We need to regain a vision of worship that focuses more on the object of our worship than it does on the subjects who conduct worship.  For only in that way will we be able to understand the “what” and the “why” and the “how” of worship, and only in that way will be able to move forward in worship.  What makes worship into worship is neither the character of the worshippers, nor the characteristics of our worship.  What makes worship into worship is the character and the characteristics of the One whom we worship, to whom our worship is simply a response.  It is not our worship that enriches us; nor can our vision transform.  Only the One whom we worship can do that; only the One on whom that vision relies.  And that is why we worship Him.  We are invited, like Ezra and those who were once in exile, into worship; we are invited to worship the One who enriches our worship, transforms our vision, and leads us out of exile, and into the real Promised Land.

This leads me to suggest four practical guidelines for worship, not necessarily in order of importance.  Guideline Number One: Because our human identities are always different, to a lesser or greater degree, we will always disagree on how to worship.  As I said, I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with that.   Guideline Number Two: Because the One we worship is more important than the ones who do the worshipping, we need to exercise humility with regard to our own preferences, and tolerance (at the very least) with regard to those of others.  I think Paul’s words in Philippians 2:3-5 apply here: “In humility, regard others as better than yourself.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.   Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.  Guideline Number Three: We need to evaluate our worship, with all its various components, not according to whether we like it or get anything out of it, since these are by-products, but according to what it says about the character of God, about Christ, about the Kingdom.  His presence should be the criterion by which we determine the worth of our worship.  I think this applies not only to the theological content of our worship, but also to questions of style; who does the leading and how; whether it addresses heart, mind, spirit, and physical existence; and so on.  In every aspect, our worship must bear witness to the worth of the One who is already in our midst.  Guideline Number Four: Worship isn’t limited to “worship.”  Worship is more than words; it is a matter of life and lifestyle. 

One of the reasons this is all so important is that the destiny Christ has declared to be ours is life in the full presence of the living God, where we will worship for all eternity.   That more than anything helps us to put worship, and worship wars, into their proper perspective. In order to do this, we must hear again, and again, the words of the Apocalypse of John:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.  On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship  him;  they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.   And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.             [Revelation 22:1-5]

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