Chapter One. What Is Worship?

Worship is an end in itself, not a means to something else. Karl Barth has appropriately declared that the "church's worship is the opus Dei, the work of God, which is carried out for its own sake." When we try to worship for the sake of certain benefits that we may receive, the act ceases to be worship; for then it attempts to use God as a means to something else. We worship God purely for the sake of worshipping God.

To worship is:

Why do we worship? Because we cannot help worshipping. Worship is not a human invention; rather, it is a divine offering. God offers himself in a personal relationship, and we respond. God's offer of love elicits our response in worship. A vision of God demands a worship response because God is worthy of worship. We discover that when we seek God, God has already found us.

Defining worship is difficult; however, a study of historic words closely related to our term worship can assist in the interpretation of worship.

Preliminary Terminology

The English word worship is derived from the Anglo-Saxon weorthscipe—"worth" and "ship"—meaning one "worthy of reverence and honor." When we worship, we are declaring God's worth. The angels sang, "'Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered,'" and every creature answered, "'To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!' And the four living creatures said, 'Amen!' and the elders fell down and worshipped" (Rev. 5:12-14).

The biblical term glory is often attributed to God as God is worshipped. The Hebrew term kabod, translated "glory," means the "honor" or "weight" of God. When Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up, he declared, "the whole earth is full of his glory" (Isa. 6:3). The New Testament term doxa, translated "glory," expresses that God is worthy of praise and honor. At the birth of Jesus, the angels sang, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" (Luke 2:14).

The principle Old Testament term translated "worship" is shachah, which means to "bow down" or to "prostrate" oneself. When the people of Israel heard that God had spoken to Moses, they believed and "bowed down and worshiped" (Exod. 4:31).

The Greek term most often indicating worship in the New Testament is proskuneo, meaning literally to "kiss the hand towards one" or to "prostrate oneself" before another in reverence. Jesus used this word when he said to the woman of Sychar, "God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:24).

The term liturgy is derived from the Greek leitourgia, translated "ministry" or "service." In the New Testament, liturgy does not occur in connection with ceremonial affairs. Liturgy denoted the work of the priestly office under the old covenant (cf. Luke 1:23; Heb. 9:21), the ministry of Christ (Heb. 8:6), and the worship of the church (Acts 13:2). Literally, leitourgia means an "action of the people" and more particularly the service which the Christian renders to God in faith and obedience.

For Paul the true leitourgia of God is a life of faith that shows forth fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Worship is meant in Paul's exhortation, "I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship [leitourgia]" (Rom. 12:1). In later centuries the term liturgy came to mean the order of worship in the churches.

Without a clear concept of the meaning of service, worship is difficult to understand. Although the term cult in English often has a negative meaning, its meaning in Latin and Romance languages such as French and Italian is much more positive. According to James F. White:

Its origin is the Latin colere, an agriculture term meaning to cultivate. Both the French le culte, and the Italian il culto, preserve this Latin word as the usual term for worship. It is a rich term, far richer than the English word "worship," for it catches the mutuality of responsibility between the farmer and his land or animals. If I do not feed and water my chickens, I know there will be no eggs; unless I weed my garden, there will be no vegetables. It is a relationship of mutual dependence.... It is a measure of giving and receiving, certainly not in equal measure, but by being bound to each other. Unfortunately, the English language does not readily make the obvious connection between cultivate and worship that we find in the Romance languages.

Describing Worship

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 reflecting 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.

Mystery. 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.

Celebration. 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."

Life. 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.

Dialogue. 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! This 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.

Offering. 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.

Eschatological fulfillment. 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.

Reality in Worship

The church has no possibility of being Christian without worship. The essence of worship is the self-portrayal of the congregation, whom God has called to be his people in the world. In fact, worship is the power from God that enables the church to be the church. The most important function of the church is not evangelism or nurture but worship. Worship forms the center from which all other priorities of the church revolve. If God is to be the priority of our lives, individual and corporate, then the activity that acknowledges God's supremacy, worship, must be at the core of all the church does.

People too often attend church with the mistaken idea that when they worship they leave the "real world" behind. However, in no place are we more real; for when we relate to God, we are our most real selves. God's truth shines in our lives, illuminating the realities of our true selves.

The term reality, to be intelligible, must have certain points of reference. Religious experience is a real experience. There are at least three essential points of reference: (1) To Christian philosophy the ultimate reality is personal, and to Christian theology and experience the ultimate expression of the personal is God's manifestation of himself. Worship is in the realm of the personal. (2) Another point of reference is historical manifestation. Christian worship is related to the acts of God in history. These acts are observable in time and place. The experience of God in history verifies the reality of divine revelation, especially in the person of Jesus Christ. (3) Worship may also be judged by the reality of its dynamic effects. Serious dialogue with God produces transforming results. A clear vision of God brings a realistic picture of a person's needs and a desire for God's cleansing and forgiveness. Life is most real when a person finds his or her true self in Christ.


To reiterate, definitions and descriptions cannot adequately delineate the experience of worship, for worship is an act of faith. Worship is the lifting up of the heart in willing response.

Worship is not a mere preparation for action. It is the opus Dei, the adoration of God as humankind's highest privilege. God will be served for God's glory alone, not as a means to an end.

Such a utilitarian approach is not valid even if the end is as admirable as service to the community; building the morale of a nation; or the making of individuals with greater integrity, health, or sensitivity. While genuine worship may cause persons to be drawn into a church's fellowship, worship—not church growth—must be the church's priority. At all costs churches must resist the temptation to embrace cultural norms and innovative worship forms without first considering how God will be honored. Worship used for any purpose other than God's glory is not true worship. God must be worshipped for God's own glory, or worship is idolatry, however worthy its motivations.