When Is a Worship Service Not a Worship Service?

By John Sloper

Most of our churches refer to Sunday morning services as worship services. The styles differ from region to region, but the name remains the same. Some are formal, while others are more free.

But do we really know what it means to worship God?

Do we worship God by attending church regularly, teaching Sunday school, or serving on various committees? Perhaps, but let’s take a look at a few different words used in the Bible that are translated worship and see what they mean.

Old Testament

There are three different Hebrew words that are translated worship in the Old Testament, but one is dominant. The word shacha means to depress, to prostrate, to bow down.

In Genesis 24 is the account of Abraham’s servant going to find a wife for Isaac. Three times in the chapter the servant “bowed down and worshiped the Lord,” as he realized how God was at work in the process.

In Nehemiah 8:6, after Ezra opened the Word of God before the people, they all lifted their hands in praise to God; then “they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.”

In Job 1:20, after receiving news that his family and wealth had been decimated, Job “got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship.”

The implication is that a physical aspect of worship signifies a condition of the heart. If in worship one literally bows down before God, he must first bow his will to him. All three examples from the Old Testament show there is more involved in worship than passive observation of a service in a church.

New Testament

In the New Testament, a half-dozen or so words are translated worship, but here again, one word dominates: the word proskuneo means to prostrate, to kneel in homage or respect. Again, a physical action is involved in the act of worship.

Revelation 11:16 says, “And the twenty-four elders, who were seated on their thrones before God, fell on their faces and worshiped God.”

Revelation 7:11 says, “All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God.”

These two passages depict worship in Heaven and the physical act of prostration that accompanied it. If the references in Revelation are more than symbolic (and I believe they are), they give more credence to the physicality of worship.

Satan’s third temptation of Jesus in the desert centers on this issue. “All this I will give you . . . if you will bow down and worship me” (Matthew 4:9). Satan seems to realize worship requires something more than passive observation or intellectual assent to a group of facts.

Our Responsibility and God’s Response

The church seems to have lost what it means to worship the God of the universe. We sit in our pews, nicely dressed and well fed, often looking at the clock, hoping the preacher won’t go past noon so we can go home and watch our football or basketball games. We have lost what it means to be in the presence of the Almighty.

Psalm 100:1, 2 and 4 indicate we should be joyful in his presence, but verse 3 gives us the reason: we are his. “It is he who made us and we are his”! He is our ruler, our King, the only one who truly controls our destiny.

In today’s world, we chafe at anything that claims rights over us, and we dislike the idea of bowing down before anyone. But true worship must acknowledge our low estate before God. Any act of so-called worship backed by an attitude of self-reliance is not worship; instead, it falls under Isaiah’s condemnation of “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). Peter said, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time” (1 Peter 5:6). That sentiment is echoed in James 4:10.

Our responsibility is to come before God with an attitude of humility, a heart bowed before him. It might be necessary for some to fall prostrate in order to teach themselves the heart attitude. But, as we humble ourselves, God’s response is to lift us up and give us the joy mentioned in Psalm 100 (“shout for joy to the Lord”) and other places.

It’s Not About Us

The direction of worship is also important. Our songs and prayers often center on what God has done for us. This is not a problem, if our focus does not remain there. It is good that we declare what God has done, but true worship declares the glory of God, not stopping at the personal results of salvation.

Looking again to Psalm 100, we are told to “shout for joy to the Lord” (v. 1) and to “come before him with joyful songs” (v. 2). Then we are to “know that the Lord is God” (v. 3). Why? “It is he who made us, and we are his” (v. 3). We recognize that he is the Creator. This is what I call declarative worship—declaring God’s greatness. The focus needs to be upwards, on the One who deserves our praise.

I am not advocating a particular form of worship (liturgical, contemporary, traditional, or whatever). The form of worship is not important, but the heart of the individual is. If the individual is not approaching God with a broken, humble spirit, fully recognizing the greatness and majesty of God, the form is irrelevant and that person cannot worship.

So, when is a worship service not a WORSHIP service? When those who are attending have not prepared themselves to come before a holy and righteous God with humble and contrite hearts, seeking to praise him for his love, faithfulness, and mercy. When we come before him, humbly declaring his majesty and submitting ourselves completely to his will, then we can truly say that our worship service is a WORSHIP service.

John Sloper serves as computer support for Hospitality Solutions International in Scottsdale, Arizona. He is a former minister and Bible teacher. John and his wife of 25 years have three children.

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