worship: what? why? how?

Matte Downey, May 8, 2018, 10:17 PM
Matte Downey

A significant portion of our gathering as a church community is spent in what we call worship. It is usually a time when we sing songs together. For the most part, we assume that people know what to do during these times of worship. We encourage people to engage, to be present, to participate, but we say very little about what that might look like. In some ways, worship is natural; we easily attribute worth and value to those things which we admire and love. But the expression of those beliefs or feelings needs to be cultivated, developed, and practised. Worshipping God is something we need to learn how to do.

Worship, what is it?
Worship is closely related to love. In fact, sometimes I find it helpful to substitute the word "love" for "worship." Worship is demonstrating love and devotion to someone or something (worth-ship). Worship is an expression that comes out of our deepest convictions, feelings, and desires. It is the heart in full bloom. Worship is both personal and communal. Like any loving relationship, both intimate and public expressions are important. If all you have are public expressions of love, it is a shallow love, lacking intimacy. If all you have are private expressions, it is a stunted and perhaps fearful love. Private worship spills over into public worship and public worship energizes private worship. Faithfulness in public and private expressions of love, all through the many different seasons of life, makes a relationship strong and vibrant.

Worship is best as a verb. It is not meant to be a static noun or an add-on adjective. In 1 Chronicles 16 we find a public song of praise sung by the Levites when the ark of God was brought back into Jerusalem after roughly 20 years. The ark, which represented the presence of God, had been captured by the Philistines. After seven months, they returned it and it was stored at Kiriath-Jearim, nine miles outside of Jerusalem. During this time, the public worship associated with the ark and presence of God was neglected. It is no surprise that a grand, celebratory song was sung and recorded on the momentous occasion when the ark was returned to the tabernacle. Note the verbs found in this public song of praise: give thanks, call on his name, make known his deeds, sing, tell of his wonderful works, glory in his holy name, seek the Lord, rejoice, seek his presence, remember his wonderful works, sing to the Lord, tell of his salvation, declare his glory, praise, revere, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength, bring an offering, come before him, worship the Lord, tremble before him, be glad, rejoice, say, "The Lord is King!", roar, exult, sing for joy, give thanks. Worship is a very animated endeavour.

In the biblical text, we find a variety of action words for worship. Halal means to make a show, to boast and be clamourously foolish. This is what David was doing when he danced in his underwear. Thillah means laudation, praise, commendation, a hymn or song of praise. We engage in this most weeks in our faith communities. Shachah means to bow down, to prostrate, to fall down flat and show reverence. This is an act which both signifies humility on our part and honour for another. Yahad means to hold out the hand, to extend hands. It is used in confessing sins, surrender, or giving thanks. When we lift our hands or hold them out in worship, we are surrendering, giving thanks, and perhaps even confessing. This lifting of hands is an act of worship even without music. Try it! Towdah means loud expressions of approval. If you have ever yelled at a sports event, you know what this is about. Some Christian traditions regularly practice loud shouting in their times of worship. Barak means to kneel, to serve. 'Abad means to work, to serve. Humble service like washing feet, cleaning toilets, and setting up chairs can be acts of worship. In Greek, epainos means to put on top. When we declare that Jesus is Lord, the highest, the greatest, the one above all, we are announcing that nothing takes priority over God. Both words and actions reflect that we put God on top. The decisions we make and the way we use our resources (time, energy, money) can be acts of worship. What a glorious variety of actions and postures we can practice in expressing our love for the God who loves us!

Worship, why do we do it?
In essence, worship is a response to God's presence. In 1 Chronicles 16, people celebrated and sacrificed and sang and ate and danced because the presence (ark) of God was once again in their midst. The presence of the loving Creator invites a response, and that response is worship. Worship also allows us to express all of human experience in the presence of God. Read the Psalms (songs sung in public worship) and you will find joy, thanksgiving, exultation, lament, love, suffering, longing, cries for justice, pleas for forgiveness, repentance, faith, doubt, painful questions, and much more. The presence of God is spacious enough to hold the whole of human experience. We also worship because we are made to love, to appreciate beauty, to ascribe value and worth to those things which are worthy, to acknowledge that we are not alone, and to express that we are loved and that we are lovers. In worship, we surrender and let go. We release control of our lives and loves and give them over to the God of life and love. We do not worship in order to gain anything (that would not be worship nor love) but in loving God and expressing that love, we find ourselves coming alive and being transformed. Worship has great side effects!

Worship, how do we do it?
As mentioned earlier, worship requires practice! Sometimes it comes naturally and easily, but just as often, it needs to be cultivated. Love is expressed differently by different people, so we are free to bring our own unique expressions to worship, both in private and in public. However, there is something powerful and theologically profound in acts of worship that we do together. These communal acts are significant to our faith journey and inform our theology. Only when we worship together do we reflect the very nature of the triune God, a community diverse and unified at the same time.

Here are some acts of worship we can practice and do together.
1. Sing. There are many references to singing in the Bible and we can all practice and do this, no matter what our skill level. If you think you are particularly bad at singing, take a few voice lessons.
2. Dance. There are multiple references to dancing before God and we can all practice and do this. If you feel out of touch with your body, start hanging out with children and do what they do. Or you might consider taking a few dance lessons.
3. Shout. There are many references to shouting in praise to the Lord and we can all practice and do this. When we think about God's goodness and gracious mercy in our lives, how can we not give a shout of joy?
4. Be Silent. "The Lord is in his holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before him" (Habakkuk 2:20). There are times for silence before God, both personal and communal, and we can all practice and do this. Silence is not the absence of noise, but something that we create or make through attentive listening. Silence is an action.
5. Sacrifice. In the Hebrew Bible, worship of God revolved around making sacrifices. Though we no longer bring animals (which represented a person's livelihood and provision for their family) to the altar, we can all practice making sacrifices in the presence of God, bringing what is valuable and important to us and giving it to God.
6. Come. We can all practice being present to God and to each other. We can all practice being in community instead of immersed in our own private world of activity, worry, and need. We can all practice engaging (with God and with others) with our whole heart.

The next time you are coming to worship together with the people of God, you might want to consider these questions:
1. Observe the words, the music, the movement, the harmony, the rhythm, the visuals, the group dynamics. What story are we telling together?
2. What do I bring to the communal expression of worship?
3. How do I usually interact with God? What are some new ways of interacting that I might explore?
4. How do I usually interact with the community of God? What are some new ways of interaction that I might explore?