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What is worship?

20 June 2009

In a comment on another post Roger Saner wonders “if Christianity is going to be split amongst those who believe the one true Gospel of Jesus (which is about repenting from your sins so that you’ll be saved from the coming judgement) and those who believe that G-d is at work restoring all of creation.”

Western Christianity has long been split over that; David Bosch called the two parties “evangelical” and “ecumenical”, and there have been other names. That particular split was one of the main reasons I left Western Christianity and became Orthodox. As Fr Alexander Schmemann  points out so convincingly in his book For the life of the world, it is surely both.

But there is another split that probably impedes communication between Christians of different backgrounds and traditions, and that is the understanding of worship.

The Internet Monk wrote recently:

Does anyone- I mean, really, seriously- have any idea what is actually happening within the worship culture of evangelicals?

We have, within a matter of 50 years, completely changed the entire concept of what is a worship service. We’ve adopted an approach that demands ridiculous levels of musical, technical and financial commitment and resources.

We have tied ourselves to the Christian music industry and its endless appetite for change and profit.

At the recent Amahoro conference there was an item on the programme labelled “worship”, but it somehow never seemed to happen. There was a band apparently practising in preparation for the worship, but the worship itself never seemed to actually take place. It was only later that I realised that, to the organisers of the event, what I took to be the band practising was the worship. It only really clicked when I saw this Stuff Christian Culture Likes: #85 Leading worship barefoot:

Every so often the worship team likes to go barefoot onstage.

… that I realised that the band was the “worship team”.

And, as the Internet Monk goes on to say:

The reformed- of all people- have led the way in this revolution. I attended a seminar last week where a room full of reformed were instructed in why the optimum worship leadership option was “the band.” Not the choir, the worship team, etc. But “the band.” Does anyone realize what that means for public worship?

Diversity, generational compatibility, even simplicity are all being blown up. Worship is now a major audience event, led by skilled entertainers, aimed at a demographic and judged by the audience reaction.

God? God has been moved around to be things like a reluctant Spirit we sing down with our songs or a divine innovator always blessing as much radical change as possible.

Apart from anything else, this creates a barrier of communication. I will now have to mentally translate “worship” into “musical entertainment” when I see it written or spoken by evangelical Protestants.

I can see how it happened.

Thirty or forty years ago in Western Christianity, as in the East, worship was accompanied by music. In the West instruments were often used – pipe organs, electronic organs, pianos and what-not. Sometimes guitars and drums. Sometimes a full orchestra. In the East, singing was, and still is a capellla (guess where the word capella comes from).

In evangelical services there was often a kind of pre-worship singsong, to get people warmed up. They sang favourite hymns and choruses, partly as a practice, partly as a community sing-song. When the charismatic movement burst on the scene, there was a new emphasis on praise and worship. In Anglican churches affected by the charismatic renewal there was a “time of praise and worship” at the beginning of services that could last from ten minutes to an hour or more, where people would spontaneously praise God, pray in tongues, sing in tongues, or someone would start a song and others would join in.

I’ve been absent from that scene for more than twenty years, so I missed the change. The name “worship” has stuck, but the actual element of worship has disappeared, and what has replaced it is a form of musical entertainment.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 20 June 2009 10:04 pm

    I would agree partly with your post. The western culture of worship (or more likely today called Contemporary Worship) has sometimes, in some cases, morphed into a form Christian entertainment that removes the reverence for God.

    The part I would disagree with is I myself, being man and not God, can not see or judge another mans heart as to his authenticity of worship in one form or another (I can have a preference though).

    When I took this photo you posted above, the worship leader here (one of the more devoted Believers I know) felt when in worship they were on Holy ground, and such removed his shoes. He also later put them back on so as not to just call attention to that aspect of himself over worship of God. But you either could have guessed that, didn’t know that, or didn’t think about it, because I highly doubt you know these people as well as I do, and they do indeed have a heavy heart for the Lord.

    That is what is amazing about worship, there are many different ways that worship is displayed all throughout the Bible and although I may disagree with much of what our current culture calls worship, the music being produced in God’s name today is no less worship than when David worshiped using cymbals and lyres. It is a heart issue, and too often we are focused on the people playing the instruments and not the God that gave them the ability.

    I have been to churches with extremely talented musicians all across the U.S. and sometimes I feel entertained and sometimes, most of the time, I feel a connection to God through worship. That doesn’t mean that is what the person sitting next to me feels, I just know my own heart. When I have visited traditional churches lately they seem and feel dead. No joy in the Lord, no excitement in the Lord, just another Sunday morning to check off the list.

    It may be that we are creating a generation of entertainment driven (and entertainment expectant) people. That is not what I want out of a local church, but that is the local church I go to because that is where God is moving and where people seem to be engaged for more than checking off Sunday morning and moving on without much notice of anything else.

    • 21 June 2009 7:10 am


      Thanks very much for your response.

      My main concern (in this post) is not so much with the authenticity of various forms of worship as with the understanding of the word “worship”, and communication between Christians of different backgrounds and traditions.

      The question of authenticity is a slightly different one. Within my own tradition (Orthodox) there are sometimes arguments about the place of music in worship. There are some who have pitied our poor mission congregations who have to put up with congregational singing, and they think we should look forward to the day when we can afford to have a paid professional choir, which they see as the ideal. There are some churches where all the singing is done by a single cantor (psalti) and the rest of the congregation are passive listeners.

      A Congregationalist minister friend of mine once said (referring to the Anglican practice of using prayer books) “I can’t worship with a book in my hand”. Looking at the kind of things you refer to in your blog as Christian culture, I get the impression that in that culture it would be difficult to worship without a musical instrument in hand.

      I once went to a neopentecostal megachurch (Christian City, in Elandsfontein). The pastor was Theo Wolmarans, and his wife was the worship leader (not a member of the band), and at one point, after some particularly loud singing, she said “now we’re really worshipping”, and I thought at the time that we weren’t really worshipping, we were just singing loudly.

      Looking back, I see that as the seed of what seems to have developed (in some Western Protestant circles) into the idea that the worship team is the band.

      Some years ago when my daughter was 11 years old we went to a service at a Dutch Reformed Church, where the husband of a work colleague of mine was being inducted as a youth minister. The service lasted exactly an hour, when when we got outside my daughter said, “Where was the worship? That wasn’t worship?”

      She wasn’t expecting a band. But what there was was the congregation singing four hymns (selected verses only). Everything else was done by the dominee (the “worship leader”). He did all the praying, and even said “Amen” to his own prayers, because no one else did. He read from the Bible and preached. When he prayed, the males stood and the females sat.

      I think in the DRC that is described as “erediens” (worship service), but to my daughter it wasn’t worship. It was instruction.

      So what I am querying is the understanding of the word. What do people mean when they speak of worship? It seems that some use it to refer to manward-directed activities, like instruction, edification or entertainment, and not to God-ward … well, worship. So when they hear the word or use the word they are thinking of different things.

  2. 25 June 2009 10:17 am

    This is the situation that some within the emerging / missional church are reacting against.

    • 25 June 2009 1:43 pm


      I thought so too, but perhaps that’s only in Oz.

  3. 25 June 2009 6:27 pm

    Seems to me that what is missing in all this performance is the sense of connection with the Divine.

    I rather like the story of the journalist who asked Mother Theresa what she said to God when she prayed. She said, “Nothing, I just listen.” So the journalist asked what God said. She replied, “Nothing, He just listens.”

    Now that is connection with the Divine. Hagia Hesychia.


  1. Ecclesiology and worship « Khanya
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