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Defining Worship

Can it really be defined in a few words? I’m inviting anybody to contribute their definitions or any that they like….Here is a starter. Someone (source?) has said that

“Worship is to 1/quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, 2/feed the mind by the truth of God, 3/purge the imagination with the beauty of God, 4/open the heart to the love of God, and 5/devote the will to the purpose of God.”


10 Responses

  1. This is a great question and one that I have been poring over for several years. I recently wrote an essay on the subject. It seems to me that in all of my reading on the subject, most definitions of worship are not clearly biblical. Such as the definition that you posted, they all sound good, but have no clear Scriptural foundation.

    While formulating my own definition, I really tried to make it expressly biblical. I’ll outline the process that I went through and then cite my definition.

    The most common word translated “worship” in the Old Testament is shachah. This word emphasizes the physical response involved in Old Testament worship. I looked up instances of this word, and in every case there is some kind of response (often physical) to a presentation of biblical truth. For instance, in 2 Chronicles 20:18, Jehoshaphat and the people fall down in worship before the Lord because of the message they had received from Him. In Nehemiah 8:6, the people bow down in worship after Ezra reads the Word of the Lord to them.

    In every instance, the response of worship is directly related to an understanding of truth about God.

    In the Septuagint, shachah is translated with the Greek word, proskuneo, which means virtually the same thing as its Hebraic counterpart. This word happens to be the most common word translated “worship” in the Gospels and revelation. It emphasizes the physical response involved in worship. Again, in every instance of this word, the response is due to a presentation of some kind of truth about God. For instance when the disciples were confronted with the risen Lord, the bowed down before Him in worship.

    What is interested is that this word, proskuneo, disappears in Acts and the Epistles (at least in reference to Christian worship). I think the reason for this is found in John 4:20-24, which also helps us to hone down our definition of what worship truly is.

    I think it is clear from Jesus conversations with the woman at the well, that the essence of worship is not anything physical or visible. The woman was challenging the Jews’ view that worship could take place only at Jerusalem. Jesus did not defend the Jewish view as might be expected. Instead he insisted that the time had come when God would be pleased only with worship in spirit and truth. In other words, worship is not physical in its essence. It is a spiritual, inward response (spirit) to biblical truth.

    I think the reasons for this apparent change in the Church Age are several. In the Old Testament and Gospels, worship was localized in the Temple. However, now believers are “temples” (1 Corinthians 6:19) and furthermore describes local church congregations as “temples” (Ephesians 2:21-22, 1 Corinthians 3:9, 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 1 Peter 2:5, 9).

    So worship is no more localized, nor is the physical response involved anymore emphasized. Instead, all of life is described as worship. What remains the same, however, is the essence. Worship is always a response to truth. For instance, Romans 12:1-2 admonishes believers to present their bodies as spiritual sacrifices of worship which is a direct response to Romans 1-11 (notice the “Therefore”).

    All of this study led me to define worship this way: Worship is a spiritual response to God resulting from an understanding of biblical truth about God.

    I expand this definition biblical in the essay that I wrote, but I have really tried to be biblical in defining worship, and have attempted to pass everything I do in my life and every element of our congregational worship at First Baptist through the sieve of this biblical definition and its implications.

  2. Pastor Bixby and Mr. Aniol:

    Thank you for your insightful comments. To worship is to honor or pay proper service to something–to reverence. Hence, in Cranmer’s marriage ceremony, he includes the phrase “with my body I thee worship.” “Worship” or “serve” fits proskuneo and latreuo, and Our Lord and St. Paul tell us (as you pointed out) that true worship of God is not confined to ceremony or place, but is “in spirit and truth,” made manifest in the “living sacrifice” of Romans 12:1.

    Spirit and truth being inseperable (it is “in spirit and truth,” not “in spirit and in truth”), we must ask what these words mean together. Christ contrasts “spirit” with the temple cults of both the Jews and the Samaritans. It is the expression of the new man, born of water and the Holy Spirit. And this cannot be apart from the Truth not merely (or nakedly) of God, but of the Incarnate Son, crucified for our sins. This is the context both of the woman at the well (“I am He”) and Romans 12:1 (“And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins.”)

    Hence, to honor God is to believe on His Son. If any man doesn’t believe on the Son, he dishonors God, calling Him a liar. No amount of outward prostrations can mask before God an unbelieving heart. And, though we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, it is a faith that is never alone, but abounds in good works, a living sacrifice. Thus, spirit-truth worship does not exclude outward expressions, whether bowing on the knees to pray or giving alms to the poor. But it does not consist of these things. And, if faith itself is spirit-truth worship, then we know that true worship itself does not originate in ourselves, “it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.”

    A question arises: Is the assembly of believers properly called a “worship service”? Scripture doesn’t address it in this manner. It is called “the assembly,” and St. Paul refers to it as the time when the assembly gathers together to receive the Lord’s Supper. We are also told that it is a time of preaching and that we are to teach one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Here, then, is the Word. There is no doubt that, as Christians hear the Word, the response is worship–faith, which abounds in good works–but that is not the purpose of the assembly. The purpose is to gather around the Word (I would add, “and Sacraments” 🙂 ) so that faith might be created and nourished. And that Word is the Gospel, which is focused on Christ Incarnate, crucified, and risen, concerning which St. Paul exults near the end of Romans 11: “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!”

  3. Great thoughts. I want to comment on both as soon as possible. In the meantime, here is a defintion from the Puritan Stephen Charnock – “Worship is an act of the understanding, applying itself to the knowledge of the excellence of God and actual thoughts of his majesty; recognizing him as the supreme Lord and Governor of the world, which is natural knkowledge; beholding the glory of his attributes in the Redeemer, which is evangelical knowledge.”

  4. I think Scott is right on the mark. I have often used this definition: “Worship is a response of all that I am to all that God has revealed Himself to be.” It seems that true worship always followed the revelation of God. Sometimes, I wonder how our traditional service accomplishes that today. Perhaps we should have preaching first in services and then respond with confession, praise, offering, and the like. The notion of “preparing people’s hearts for the message” doesn’t seem to be rooted in the Scripture.

  5. Great thoughts from all of you. I’ll keep thinking/praying through this.

    Pastor Bixby, I was surprised by your original quote because I had just read it in my notes a few days ago. It is by William Temple, a former Archbishop of Canterberry.

  6. micah – thanks so much for passing that along!
    a thought:
    so if Wm Temple was
    Archbishop of Canterbury,
    was he RC? and how would
    his theology affect his “take”
    on biblical worship?

  7. Brian,

    I agree with your observation about putting truth content first in worship services to facilitate true response to truth.

    We have actually thrown around the idea of putting the sermon more toward the beginning of the service for that very reason. For a number of reasons, we decided to do it a little differently, however.

    What I’ve done is created two “packages” of truth and response in our services. The very beginning of the service is primarily truth based (doctrinal hymns, Scripture reading, doctrinal readings, special music with especially strong doctrinal content, etc.) then we have a section of response to that truth (offering, hymns of praise/adoration/consecration, special music with response content, etc.). Following that is the preaching (another truth section) followed by a hymn of consecration and a hymn of praise to conclude the service.

    With this format, where the choir and other special music fits into the service varies from week to week depending on what the content of the song is.

    We actually have all this printed clearly in our bulletin so our people can consciously follow what’s going on. Here is a sample from last week’s bulletin:

    Psalm 143
    Be Thou My Vision


    Prayer of Confession & Invocation

    Call to Worship
    Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven – Hymn 2

    Affirmation of Truth
    Doctrinal Reading – The Church
    God Moves in a Mysterious Way – Hymn 55

    Scripture Reading
    1 Peter 2:1-12

    Ministry of Intercession

    Response of Praise & Thanks
    Sing Praise to God – Hymn 60
    O Give the Lord Wholehearted Praise – Choir

    Response of Giving
    Give of Your Best to the Master – Hymn 538

    Response of Consecration
    Lord, How Delightful – Hymn 726

    The Ministry From God
    Abstaining From Fleshly Desires – Pastor Scott Aniol
    1 Peter 2:11-12

    Response of Contemplation & Confession

    Response of Consecration
    Wash Me, O Lamb of God – Hymn 558

    Response of Praise
    Jesus Shall Reign – Hymn 51


    We’ve been accused of formalism by some because of how we do things here, but we’ve carefully taught through this with our people, and I definitely see more thoughtful worship taking place!

  8. Thanks for the source, Micah. I first heard it quoted by Mark Minnick in a series on the book of Malachi. William Temple would have been Anglican, Joy.

    I still like the quote. However, I do like/agree with Scott’s precision. Aaron said essentially the same thing. The Temple definition would really be better stated as an expression of worship rather than a defintion of worship.

    I agree with Brian’s (Welcome, Brian!) frustration with the “preparing people’s heart for the message” goal of music. However, I do think that that some have made an interesting case for preparatory elements of corporate worship.

    That said, it seems like it is almost impossible to talk about worship without blurring the lines between individual worship and corporate worship.

  9. My wife and I recently worshipped with Scott’s church and delighted very much in the experience. We do not choose to be as formal as our friends at First, but we do agree with and have practised for some time now intentional worship. Every song is carefully selected to fit with the message and overall goal of the service. From Sunday to Sunday there will be a lot of variety.

    I like formal, Scott. We probably should implement more of it. But, I’m inclined to think that corporate life as any relational life is spiced by variety. Thus, even in Scriptures we have “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” and the Psalms are varied in meter and difficulty. As dangerously heretical as this sounds, I think that corporate worship is rendered dynamic by a variety of forms: liturgical, formal, informal, and even spontaneous.

    I also agree with Scott that a key to unity and understanding is a careful training of your congregation on the intentions of your service.

    Finally, Scott. If you had only sent the outline to your message, I would have been fully prepared for Sunday! 🙂 Thanks for the input. Glad to have a brother like you in town.

  10. In the Lutheran church, we call our Sunday assembly “Gottesdienst”–“Divine Service.” This is a reflection of our confessional commitment to what, in some instances, is being described above: that true worship flows (only) from a response to the Word, specifically the Gospel. Therefore, for us, worship is virtually indistinguishable from faith. Thus, we assemble together not to serve or worship God but to be served by Him, to receive His gift of the forgiveness of sins/faith/a heart that worships the Triune God. The Law is proclaimed to kill the old man, and the Gospel is proclaimed to vivify the new.

    In Luther’s treatise on Christian liberty, he says:

    [T]he soul, in firmly believing the promises of God, holds Him to be true and righteous; and it can attribute to God no higher glory than the credit of being so. The highest worship of God is to ascribe to Him truth, righteousness, and whatever qualities we must ascribe to one in whom we believe. In doing this the soul shows itself prepared to do His whole will; in doing this it hallows His name, and gives itself up to be dealt with as it may please God. For it cleaves to His promises, and never doubts that He is true, just, and wise, and will do, dispose, and provide for all things in the best way. Is not such a soul, in this its faith, most obedient to God in all things? What commandment does there remain which has not been amply fulfilled by such an obedience? What fulfilment can be more full than universal obedience? Now this is not accomplished by works, but by faith alone.

    Btw, Archbishop Temple was indeed an Anglican, specifically of the Anglo-Catholic “Broad Church” tradition. He was an ecumenist yet clung to the notion of apostolic succession. Theologically, he was in the Barthian tradition, so, while he is ostensibly Christocentric, the “Christ” and “sin” to which he so often refers may not square with the one historically and infallibly revealed in Holy Scripture. For him, the “truth of God” which feeds the mind in worship may or may not be rooted and grounded in infallible, inerrant Scripture, though the “narrative” is true insofar as it reveals God’s will for man’s salvation.

    I say all of that to underscore the fact that one’s definition of worship flows immediately from one’s understanding of Christology/soteriology.

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