“We need to discover all over again that worship is natural to the Christian, as it was to the godly Israelites who wrote the psalms, and that the habit of celebrating the greatness and graciousness of God yields an endless flow of thankfulness, joy, and zeal.” -J.I. Packer.
Often, I find myself getting so caught up in trying to worship correctly that I fail to truly enter into worship at all. Whether it’s wondering why no one is moving and where the electric guitar is, or whether you’re spending each song working up the courage to raise your hands—most people understand what it’s like to feel out of place and distracted during corporate worship. Sadly, too many of us have fallen prey to the belief that we ought to judge a person’s faithfulness by their outward expression of worship.
Worship can be a tricky topic in today’s Christian culture. In the past I have done things like tune out of a worship service because I thought the music was poor, and I’ve even judged myself for not being as into the worship as the person next to me. I often let worship get in the way of, well, worship. But it wasn’t until recently, when I experienced worship in a different denomination, that my eyes were opened to the true purpose of worship.
What does it mean to worship?
For the past few weeks I have been traveling through the UK as part of my university’s summer study abroad program. One Wednesday evening, I had the opportunity to attend a choral worship service called Evensong at King’s College in Cambridge, England.
The contrast between this experience and my usual evangelical worship experience at home was massive—just Google a picture of King’s College Chapel and you’ll understand. The sculpted ceilings of this historic building were of a height almost too high to comprehend. The delicate woodwork and the breathtaking stained glass were like nothing I had ever seen before. The environment alone was enough to set this worship experience far apart from anything I had experienced at home. Then, the choir emerged and began to sing. The airy voices of the choir were literally angelic and heavenly.
The combination of all these factors must have generated the most worshipful feeling that I have ever experienced, right? Well, not quite.
How we have been trained to worship
As I looked around at the faces of the others, I saw deep reverence and a respectful solemnity—rarities at most evangelical church services I have attended in America. But I also saw expressions of distraction, blank stares, wonder, and even sadness.
After my feelings of awe had calmed down, the next thing I thought was, “Why isn’t anyone raising their hands?”
I realized that my worship history had trained me to think that a real expression of worship was a person standing and singing with their eyes closed and their arms raised—all of which would have been extremely inappropriate in this alternate setting.
So, if the standard of worship isn’t closed eyes and raised hands, and if it isn’t solemnly staring at architectural features…then what is it?
The crux of true worship
The crux of true worship has nothing to do with one’s physical body at all. Worship is an internal matter of the heart and soul. One’s outward manifestations of “worship” are merely the contextualization of this internal state as he or she participates in a congregational ceremony influenced by a certain culture. Judging the worshipful state of a person’s soul by critiquing their performance during congregational worship is like placing the Holy Spirit under the constraints of society.
And when did it become our job to judge one another’s worship in the first place?
1 Samuel 16:7 says, “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (ESV)
Cultivating sincerity in worship
Because so much of a person’s church experience is influenced by the social graces and customs of a specific culture, there must be something more to true worship than just acing a performance. That “something more,” in my opinion, is sincerity. Only I know whether my worshipful actions are simply me “going through the motions” of another church service, or whether they are truly an expression of my heart’s condition.
Focusing on sincerity is one way in which we can cultivate an environment that promotes truer and more authentic worship among believers in our churches. If that means refraining from singing along to a worship song and instead quietly praying, then do that. If that means lifting you hands in praise although you may be the only one to do so, then do that.
John 4:24 says, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (ESV)
Rather than concerning yourself with the actions of others, try to quiet your mind and listen to the stirrings of God’s Spirit within you. Worship is and act inspired by God and offered to God; thus, He is the best, and only, guide that we ought to seek when discerning how we are called to worship Him.