Have you ever heard of the worship wars? This is a phrase that is used to describe conflict within churches over styles of worship music. It was more intense a number of decades ago but still exists to a certain extent today. Basically, there were people who felt that the traditional hymns were the only way to worship and there were others who felt that the newer songs were the only way to worship. It was a bitter conflict and people would leave the church if they didn’t get their own way. The irony is that long before this, there was another worship war back when hymns were introduced. Previously the church had only sung Psalms and many felt that the introduction of hymns was worldly and irreverent. There are still churches today who have not made the transition from Psalms to hymns and never intend to.
The problem with all of this is that I have read the Bible carefully to find the passages that say that worship is about satisfying our personal preferences and I have still not found them. Even though the impulse to keep worship as being about us is so strong, I cannot find any biblical support for that idea.
Who am I addressing here? Am I pointing fingers at people who want hymns or people who want newer songs? The answer is yes and even more specifically, I’m pointing my fingers at me.
Let me share two quick stories. I try to visit other churches on my Sundays off, so that I can find ideas to steal for our church. I visited one church that had only hymns and they were hymns that I was completely unfamiliar with. I can remember thinking during the service, “Well this is rather boring.” Another Sunday I went to a church that was completely opposite. They had an extremely good band of talented musicians. They were doing all new songs, so new that I did not know any of them. While respecting their musical ability, I found myself getting critical because the unfamiliarity was hindering me from entering into worship.
What was the problem with those two churches? The problem was that I was there and I had a bad attitude. I showed up looking for my desires to be met rather than to worship God.
The problem with the worship wars is that they are based on an assumption that worship is all about us rather than all about God. But that still leaves us with the question of what our worship is supposed to look like. If the problem with us-centred worship is that it is unbiblical, then we should turn to the Scriptures to find out what real worship is supposed to be like.
Spirit and Truth
Long before there was a battle over styles of music, there was another worship war. This war was between the Samaritans and Jews. The Jews believed the one place to worship God was the temple mount in Jerusalem. The Samaritans believed the one place to worship was Mount Gerazim. This worship war sometimes became literal, as the Jews eventually destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim. I suspect that the Samaritans didn’t shed too many tears when the Romans later destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.
It is in this context that we have a conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan woman. Jesus had been hitting a little too close to home as he been speaking to the woman on spiritual matters. It seems the woman became uncomfortable and tried to distract Jesus with a religious controversy. Jesus can’t get inside her heart if he is busy debating a controversial issue. Or can he?
The woman brings up the worship war of the day, the question of where the proper place was to worship. While Jesus admits that the Jews are technically right, he also states that all of that is being swept away. The worship that God is seeking is not about this mountain or that mountain. Instead, God is looking for people to worship in spirit and in truth. But what does that mean?
Worshiping in spirit is about moving beyond ritual and empty actions. Worship is not just about the words we say and the actions we take. Just singing a song or even taking communion is not worship by itself. Worshiping in spirit is about making a real connection with God. This is not to say that a more dynamic charismatic worship is more spiritual than a traditional liturgical style. I grew up in the Anglican church and for the majority of my Sundays growing up, the liturgy didn’t mean anything to me. But I remember coming to that same church after having had an experience with God and reciting that same liturgy and feeling like my eyes were open for the first time. God was real and the liturgy was saying beautiful things about God. In the same way, I have attended Pentecostal worship services where my heart was completely not in it. I was not interested and had no desire to connect with God. Worshiping in spirit is not about style, it is about attitude.
But we are not just to worship in spirit. We are to worship in truth as well. The idea of true statements about God may seem foreign to the idea of worship. But it isn’t. Do you remember the first time you fell in love with someone? You wanted to be around that person but you also wanted to learn about them. What did they like? What did they hate? What did you have in common?
Truth about God is vital to worship. We are not just worshiping a vague force out there. We are worshiping a God that has specific characteristics and knowing more about God will help us to worship. I have mentioned that Charles Wesley is my favourite hymn-writer. While I like the music of his hymns, I really appreciate the deep theological content of his lyrics. That doesn’t make all hymns better than all new songs. There are some old hymns with some pretty fluffy lyrics. There are also some new songs that are rather shallow. But some of the new songs are being written in the style of the hymn-writers like Wesley, and they make profound theological statements about God. What I look for in songs is not the date in which it was written or the book that it was found but rather if it will help us to worship in spirit and in truth.
How We Should Worship
We need to worship in spirit and in truth. That is good but perhaps we could use a bit more guidance as to what that looks like in a practical level. We need a model. What if our model was what Jesus taught as the greatest commandments?
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Matthew 22:37-39)
I see in this passage a set of priorities that should help us worship God in a biblical way.
The first priority is to love God. That is the number one reason for us to worship God. It is not to be entertained, it is not to have your preferences met. It is to praise and worship God. I know from my own temptations that I want it to be about me, but it is not. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have heard people complain about worship and how they didn’t get anything out of it. They had a set of expectations of what would make an enjoyable worship services and those expectations were not met. But where in the Bible does ever talk about worship being about making us feel entertained or even getting something out of it?
Do you know where the first mention of the word ‘worship’ is in the Bible? It is first mentioned in Genesis in the story of Abraham taking his son Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice him. Thankfully, God ended up providing a ram to be sacrificed instead, but Abraham didn’t know that at the time. Worship first appears, not as something for humans to get something out, but rather to sacrifice and give of that which was most precious. Worship is first foremost about God.
The second priority is about other people. You might think we should just end with the God part but worship is interconnected with our relationship with other people. Paul in Ephesians says this: “speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:19) In 1 Corinthians 14, we have the most extended teaching on what a Christian worship service is supposed to look like. While Paul admits that the personal connection between the individual and God is important, Paul makes is very clear that at a corporate worship gathering, what is far more important is how we are helping the people around us to worship and connect with God. So when we come to church, before we ever get to the point of asking, “Am I enjoying this?” we should be asking what can I do to help the people around me to worship connect with God? I once heard a story of a pastor asking a congregation what they would do to see their children and grandchildren know Jesus. He asked them if they would give up their lives? Most of them eagerly agreed that they would give up their lives for their children to know Jesus. He then asked if they would give up their music in church? Far fewer were ready to make that sacrifice. I would ask, how important is helping others to connect with God when it comes to worship?
None of this is to say that our personal tastes don’t matter. We are created with a certain personality and we have specific tastes and desires. Even the greatest commandments have a place for loving ourselves. So, if I announced that starting next Sunday, we were going to switch church musical styles to rap music or thrash metal, you could be excused for wanting to check out another church where connecting with God might be a possibility. The point is that our personal preferences come in third. When we come to church, we seek to worship God, putting God first. Then we seek to help others connect with God. Only then do our personal preferences come into play.
What do I want you to get out of this? If you get anything out of this, it is that worship is not about us. When I say that, I’m speaking to myself as much as anyone. I have tastes and preferences for worship music. I’m also self-aware enough to know that I want my needs met. I want to come to church to receive and not to give.
But that is not what the Bible teaches. Jesus tells us that worship is not about style or preferences but is about worshiping in spirit and truth. We can do this by worshiping according the model that Jesus gives us. We need to get our priorities together. The priorities are clear:
If we can orient ourselves to the biblical model, then we can become the worshipers that God is seeking.