by Bob Wheeler
What does it mean to worship God? Different churches have different ideas on the subject. Some have very elaborate formal liturgical “services.” Some are more informal and emotionally expressive, with raised hands, shouting and hand clapping. And in some churches nowadays the “worship service” is virtually a rock concert. But what does God think about all of this?
The apostle Paul gives us a clue in Ephesians 5:18-21 (and in a parallel passage in Col. 3:14-17). He tells the believers in Ephesus not to be drunk with wine, “but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ . . .” (Eph. 5:18-20; NKJV).
To understand this passage it is necessary to know the context. We today think we know what worship it, based on our own experience. But the church experience of First Century Christians was very different from ours. In fact, if we could go back in time to the First Century and sit in one of their meetings we would hardly recognize it.
For one thing, there were no church buildings per se. There was no professional clergy, no choirs and organs, and no Sunday schools. How did they manage to function, then? “So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and sincerity of heart” (Acts 2:46). This suggests that First Century church life functioned on two levels. First, there were large public gatherings where unbelievers might be present – this may be what is described in I Corinthians 14; and secondly there were smaller gatherings in private homes. It is in these small home groups that the Lord’s Table was observed, perhaps on the model of the Jewish Passover meal (cf. I Cor. 11). Thus church life tended to be less formal and more intimate that what we are accustomed to today.
What, then, does Paul say about worship? First of all, it is fundamentally an act of praise directed towards God Himself. The object is to be “giving thank always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . (Eph. 5:20). A hymn should be a kind of prayer addressed to God, and when we gather for worship we should be consciously entering into the presence of God to praise Him and thank Him for all that He is and all that He has done. Worship is not supposed to be a form of entertainment, in which the congregation sits passively in the pews and listens to someone else sing to them. Rather, they are to be actively engaged in praising God.
But what should the congregation sing? According to Paul it is “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (v. 19; cf. Col. 3:16). Exactly how Paul meant to distinguish the three is not exactly clear. However “psalms” certainly includes the psalms of the Old Testament. But it is entirely possible that the “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” include songs with a specifically Christian content, and suggestions have been made that there are fragments of such hymns scattered throughout the New Testament (e.g., Eph. 5:14; Col. 1:15-20; I Tim 3:16 and II Tim. 2:11-13). And it is even possible that some of the songs used in early Christian worship were ecstatic utterances immediately inspired by the Holy Spirit (cf. I Cor. 14:26).
The important thing, however, is that worshippers should be singing from the heart, “singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (v. 19). Too often we dishonor God through our listless, half-hearted “worship.”
“. . . these people draw near with their mouths
And honor Me with their lips,
But have removed their hearts far from Me,
And their fear toward Me is taught by the
commandment of men . . .”
Rather, God expects us to “make a joyful shout to the Lord . . .” (Ps. 100:1). When we worship, we should act like we are genuinely grateful for what God has done for us. Sometimes we insult God through faint praise.
But most importantly, our worship should be driven by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Eph. 5:18-21 forms a single sentence, and the main thought in the sentence is “be filled with the Spirit” – the main verb being “be filled” (v. 18); all the rest of the sentence elaborates on what it means to be “filled with the Spirit.” In what way? By “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Worship is supposed to a spiritual activity driven and motivated by the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, giving us a sense of God’s awesome majesty, His unapproachable holiness, and His condescending love.
But what about musical style? How should the music be performed? We must be careful here – historically the church has employed everything from Gregorian chant to shaped-note hymns to rock bands. Perhaps the biggest failure in both traditional and contemporary styles of worship is the lack of artistic expression. Too often every song sounds alike. The musicians sometimes act as if they were not thinking about what they are singing. Christian music should reflect the whole range of Christian experience, and that should be reflected in the way the music is performed. The music should express the content of the words.
And what about Christian rock music? I want to be cautious here, but Christian music, if it is genuinely Christian, should reflect Christian values. In other words, it should be marked by the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. If our music comes across to outsiders as “in-your-face” and “head-banging” it is conveying the wrong message.
To worship God, then, is to
“Enter into His gates with thanksgiving,
And into His courts with praise.
Be thankful to Him, and bless His name.
For the Lord is good;
His mercy is everlasting,]
And His truth endures to all generations.”