by Franklin M. Segler and Randall Bradley
Christian worship defies definition; worship can only be experienced. For the Christian, theology is an attempt to describe the experience of God’s grace applied in a redemptive relationship. A living experience may be analyzed, but it can never be completely contained in formulas, creeds, and liturgies.
Worshippers may identify with Paul: “I had such an experience that it cannot be told; in fact, it does not seem appropriate to speak about it” (see 2 Cor. 12:3–4). Certain experiences in worship are so intimate that the worshipper cannot share them. Although the majesty and holiness of God cannot be comprehended and the feeling of awe cannot be strictly defined, worshippers cannot help rejecting on the meaning of worship; therefore, the clearer our understanding of worship, the more meaningful will be our experience of worship.
Although the innate desire to worship is universal, the meaning and nature of worship is often confusing. While efforts at defining worship seem inadequate, certain aspects of worship need to be described. The following descriptions may help to clarify worship’s meaning.
Worship is both revelation and mystery. A worshipper experiences the presence of God in revelation and stands in awe of God in the face of mystery. God both reveals and withholds at the same time. While we can be conscious of God in our lives, we can never comprehend the ultimate meaning of God. In worship we experience both mystery (God’s transcendence) and revelation (God’s immanence).
Communion with God is a miracle, just as the revelation of Jesus Christ and the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in the church are miracles. According to Samuel Miller, the miracle of worship is the “sight of God seen through earthly circumstance; it is the glory of God shining through darkness; it is the power of God felt when all other strength fails; it is the eternal manifested in time.” Worship becomes more meaningful when churches approach worship with a sense of mystery, awe, and wonder. Worshippers can know God in worship, but they can never fully comprehend his nature or fathom the mystery of his ways.
Worship is essentially the celebration of the acts of God in history—God’s creation; God’s providence; God’s covenant of redemption; God’s redemptive revelation through Jesus Christ in the incarnation, the cross, and the resurrection; and the manifestation of God’s power through the coming of the Holy Spirit. Worship is indeed a celebration of the gospel.
Worshippers worship in appreciation for what God has done. We worship for sheer delight. A worship service is a celebration. Martin Luther said, “To have a God is to worship him.”
Worship is not limited to acts of devotion, rites, and ceremonies. For the Christian, worship is synonymous with life. In its broadest aspect worship is related to all aspects of life. As a part of God’s creation, humankind responds in gratitude to the Creator. Every area of life belongs to the kingdom of God; therefore, worship is practicing the presence of God in every experience of life.
We may think of the “whole life of the universe, seen and unseen,” as an act of worship, glorifying God as its Creator, Sustainer, and End. Paul claimed the whole universe for Christ—the world of things, the world of persons in time, and the world of the eternal (1 Cor. 3:21–23). Because Christ is the Lord of all life, he is to be worshipped in every sphere of life. Acts of worship are more meaningful if the whole of life is devoted to God.
Worshippers experience God in a conscious dialogue. Worship is both revelation and response. God takes the initiative in revelation, and humankind responds in worship. God is revealed to the worshipper’s spirit through the Bible, through persons in the fellowship of believers, through music, through symbols, through human actions, and through God’s Spirit. Humankind responds to God through words and music and acts of celebration and dedication.
Worship is more than conversation: it is also encounter. In this encounter God confronts and makes demands upon the worshipper. In his dream Jacob was conscious of God’s coming to him in the presence of angel messengers who were ascending and descending on the ladder. When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! is is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’” (Gen. 28:16–17). For the apostle Paul it was important to know God, but it was more important “to be known by God” (Gal. 4:9). Meaningful worship leads to decisive experiences with God.
The purpose of worship is not primarily to receive blessings from God but to make offerings to God. Ancient peoples presented offerings in the form of sacrifices. In the Bible the Hebrews made offerings in various ways. The psalmist exhorted, “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts” (Ps. 96:8).
The New Testament also emphasizes giving as central in worship. Worshippers are to offer their gifts in sincere faith and total obedience, as in the days of Abel and Cain (Heb. 11:4). The “holy priesthood,” the congregation of believers, is to “offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5). Worship is more than speech: it is action. Worship is acting on the Word of God in faith. As God has acted toward believers, so believers are to act toward God.
Worship is primarily the offering of our total selves to God—our intellects, our feelings, our attitudes, and our possessions. Our outward gifts are the result of our inward dedication. Paul saw the gifts of money from the Philippian church as “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (Phil. 4:18). The highest expression of giving is offering yourself, presenting “your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:1). What God wants is ourselves.
Worship is the eschatological function of the church. According to Delling, “It is, in its very essence, the continuing decisive working out of salvation in history, which ends in the eternal adoration of God.” The church is charged to continue its worship. Paul said, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). In worship we anticipate that coming time when we shall be gathered together around God’s throne in heaven.
Editor’s note: This is excerpted from Christian Worship: Its Theology and Practice.
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