Exploring Biblical Worship

By Knofel Staton

Worship in the New Testament significantly challenges worship in the new millennium. There are seven different Greek words for worship in the New Testament, but none specially identifies music, a worship leader, or worship teams with “worship.” However, one thing is common among all seven words. Humble service and a total life submitted to God, honoring him with what he values—this is the essence of true worship.

It is an oxymoron to claim we are worshiping God if our worship devalues what he values. What God considers worthy and what captures his concerns are directly related to his eternal triune nature.

Unity Amid Diversity

When God is named in the Old Testament, the word most commonly used is Elohim, which is a plural word that refers to Trinity. God is relational, and has always lived in communion as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is essentially a fellowship of persons who respect and love one another—relational unity amid diversity.

God created people to mirror the kind of inner communion that exists among the Trinity, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (Genesis 1:26, New Revised Standard Version. Bold print mine).

The God we worship values community, which is harmonious unity amid diversity. God’s statement that it was not good for the man to be alone (Genesis 2:18) was a reference to the relatedness God wants and values on earth. When God asked Adam, “Where are you?” he was not asking about Adam’s location, but about his relationships: “Where are you in relationship to me, to yourself, and to your mate?” When God asked Cain, “Where is your brother?” he answered, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). God wants us to answer, “Absolutely yes!” to that third question. If we are not our brother’s keeper, we may be our brother’s killer by neglect or murder.

God has always valued people’s proper relationship to him, to self, and to the environment. Authentic worship reflects unity amid the diversity that exists within life’s relational realities. In the Old Testament, God did not accept worship that ritually “honored” him but relationally neglected people. God sought unity amid diversity: “Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).

To another group, God announced, “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. . . . Though you bring choice . . . offerings, I will have no regard for them.” He was not impressed with their music: “Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river” (Amos 5:21-24). The Hebrew word for justice referred to including all kinds of people—neglecting none.

Jesus criticized the Pharisees for being ritually right, but relationally wrong, “You give a tenth of your spices. . . . But you have neglected the more important matters . . . —justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former” (Matthew 23:23).

God does not want worship that includes him, but intentionally or unintentionally excludes a certain category of people. What is happening on the platform that includes or excludes people in the pews? Whom we exclude in the sanctuary, we will eventually ignore in the streets.

Keeping Balance

Each congregation is God’s personal vehicle for transporting his Trinitarian nature and interpersonal relationship within the Trinity to others. Every aspect of the early church’s worship in the New Testament enhanced unity amid diversity. Early Christians were devoted to the apostles’ teaching, which stresses unity amid diversity; to fellowship, which is sharing partnership with others in spite of diversity; to breaking of bread, a meal of unity; to prayer for one another; to generosity that crosses economical differences (Acts 2:42-45); and to baptism that incorporates diverse people into God’s new community. Here are some New Testament truths about worship to integrate into our services:

1. Corporate worship is to be God-focused and people-oriented. God and people are not to be separated in worship.

2. Corporate praise and thanking God is to be balanced with preaching and teaching people. “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:19-21).

3. Corporate worship should not only lift up God, but also strengthen, encourage, comfort, and build up the worshipers (1 Corinthians 14:3, 12).

4. Corporate worship is for outsiders (evangelism), not just for insiders (1 Co-rinthians 14:23, 24).

5. Corporate worship is to tighten the fellowship of Christians to one another as well as to God. Even the Lord’s Supper is for that twofold purpose (1 Corinthians 11:17-33).

6. Corporate worship needs to use a variety of musical styles in order to reach and keep a diversity of people. It is not accidental that the Colossian text mentioned three different kinds of music: psalms—Bible verses put to music, hymns—the kind we have in hymnbooks, and spiritual songs—which we can compare to contemporary choruses. Taken together, the three categories describe the full range of music for the full range of church members and nonmembers in the community (see also Ephesians 5:15-21).

Corporate worship can be guilty of reducing worship to only when we are gathered together; reducing corporate worship more to rituals than to relationships; and reducing music to only one style. Corporate worship should not be reductionistic, for to do that is to devalue what God values.

Corporate worship in the New Testament church was revelational, and so should ours be as we:

1. Reveal our communion with the triune God.

2. Reveal unity amid diversity by drawing different worship expressions from different kinds of people—young and old, seekers and mature Christians, baby boomers and their parents.

3. Reveal information in the content of our worship for the formation of Christians toward Christlikeness.

Our corporate worship should characterize God’s new kind of community by integrating, not segregating, brothers and sisters in Christ. Worship leaders, worship selections, and worship gatherings can feed sectarianism within Christianity. We may be driven by our culture that uses marketing strategies to target only certain kinds of people. If so, commercialization more than Christ will frame our worship and vision. Within the same membership we will develop sects that will not worship with one another because of different styles of worship. This lessens and weakens all the other “one anothers” in the New Testament.

It is an oxymoron to stress being God-centered while drawing attention to ourselves as worship leaders. It is an oxymoron to stress love to all kinds of people as God does while insisting on only one style of worship, which destroys the functionality of equality.

New Decisions

Instead, let us challenge our decisions about worship in several ways.

First, to realize that revelation in worship is more helpful than repetition of the same words over and over again.

Second, to plan a balanced diversity in worship that includes different styles of music, different instruments, periods for silence as well as for sounds, for prayers as well as for preaching, and so on. Failing to apply balance from the platform is to freeze worshipers to their own kind. But as soon as the benediction is over we enter into a mixed world. Surely a balanced worship can help equip and mature us to be God’s representatives relating to and reconciling a diverse, and at times, a divisive and hate-filled world to God through Christ and to one another in Christ.

Third, to keep the present generation connected to its historical past by including the faith of our fathers expressed in hymns and liturgy. As the Air Force band played hymns for over an hour at President Reagan’s Library while his body was en route, I thought, How many youth and new Christians in the church I attend would know those were hymns? If all their corporate worship in the past 10 years were in this church, they would not have heard many, if any, of those hymns. What a loss of our connection to the faith of our forefathers and of the theological depth in many of those hymns.

Perhaps we should apply Jesus’ words to corporate worship when he said those who have really been instructed about the kingdom of Heaven should share something new and something old (Matthew 13:52). Will we so love the diversity God created and values that we give up our preferences in order to target the diversity of people all around us for whom God sent Christ to live and die?

Surely we can give up our preferences for God’s preferences. For God, out of his Trinitarian nature, yearns to draw all kinds of people into his new community, the church, and then enjoys observing them in communion with one another.

Knofel Staton is professor of biblical studies at Hope International University, Fullerton, California.

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