By Ken E. Read
“Want to see the next trend in worship?”
It was a decade ago. My daughter started the video halfway through the song, with the camera sweeping across the crowd. They were certainly enthusiastic (“filled with God”), raising their arms and swaying as they pressed up near the stage and sang along with the contemporary band. Thousands of people in the crowd were singing full-voiced, their faces turned upward, arms extended skyward, and waving in united praise, their eyes gazing off into space while they sang.
The camera changed to show the performers on the stage. I didn’t recognize the band. They were musically tight. Then there was a close-up of the frenetic worship leader. Wait a second! He’s no worship leader; this was a secular rock concert. And whatever the crowd was doing, it certainly was not “worship”!
Up to that moment, I had thought believers in recent years had been rediscovering biblical expressions of worship. I thought some had taken seriously the mandate of Scripture to “make a joyful noise,” “lift up your hands,” “shout unto God,” and “sing to one another.” I had thought their actions were signs of worship renewal in our generation. Now I was disappointed to find those actions were simply this culture’s way of participating in a concert.
So, I guess they weren’t worshipping, after all.
Or, now that I think of it, maybe it’s the other way around.
Maybe they really were worshipping. Maybe it’s built in us to worship. Maybe we don’t choose whether or not to worship, but only whom we will worship.
We were created to worship, after all. As with the rest of creation, we glorify our maker by our very existence. The trees clap their hands in worship. The seas, the skies, and everything that has breath bring glory to the designer simply by doing what they were designed to do. But God created humans in his image so we could consciously give back to him a higher, more conscious, level of praise.1
So, maybe we always worship. Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we get it oh so wrong. But we are always honoring someone, even if that someone is . . . no one. From God’s perspective, we cannot refuse to worship any more than we can refuse to have a pulse or a brainwave. By living our lives under a common grace, we glorify the creator. We even glorify him in our rebellion. As a poet once said, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28)2.
The most convinced of infidels may declare otherwise, adamantly trumpeting that there is no god. But even while doing so, he is using his intellect, reason, and rhetoric, all of which are borrowed from another source. As William Earnest Henley’s poem “Invictus” declares, “I thank whatever gods may be, for my unconquerable soul.”3
Even in the claim of autonomy and independence, Henley stops to thank . . . something. After all, none of us has made himself or herself. We come from somewhere.
Let me pursue this just one theological step further. Is it biblically possible to “refuse to worship?” To be sure, there are many references to “unbelievers.” Some people are “unrighteous” or even “ungodly.”4 But are there “unworshippers?”
As the apostle Paul wrote about the unrighteous, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him” (Romans 1:21). Does that mean they did not worship? No. He goes on to say they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:23). Their worship is misplaced idolatry, but it is not “anti-worship.”
Please understand I am not discussing participation in corporate worship. For many reasons, some folks do not sing, or read, or even pray when the church gathers. They may choose not to participate actively, and they may even be opposed to every tenet of the faith. But worship is a state, not just an act. Worship is around the clock, conscious and subconscious and unconscious. Liturgy is a lifestyle. We all have an altar. Who or what is on the altar?
We all know the Ten Commandments are mostly filled with “thou shalt not’s.”5 Did you notice there is no positive command about worship? God never has to say, “Thou shalt worship.” Rather, he tells us how NOT to worship. No other gods. No graven images. Do not take his name in vain.
Why did God focus so much on directions for worship? Because God knew history before it happened.
God knew Israel would be drawn to build high places, to defame the altar, to follow the local god Baal, and to sacrifice their children to Molech. He knew the primary issue in the heart of mankind is not whether or not to worship, but, instead, to worship the wrong object. Consider that John concluded his first epistle by writing, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).
It has been said there are two kinds of people in the world: believers and unbelievers. But perhaps it is more accurate to say the two kinds of people in the world are true believers and idolaters. Even atheists worship someone, even if that someone is humanistic self. In the words of the great theologian Bob Dylan, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
Everyone Wants to Worship
On the other hand, it is fair to say most people actually consciously choose to worship. Even those who do not hold to Christian (or any) belief still feel a need to praise, and to pray. The evidence is abundant.
Psychology tells us that, unlike other earthly creatures, humans have self-awareness and imaginations that can visualize other times, places, and viewpoints. Only humans are capable of prayer. You might say worship is what makes us human.
Sociology tells us every society in every culture has some sort of art as a collective expression of worship. You might say worship is culturally universal, just as surely as “art is ubiquitous . . . precisely because you have art, therefore you have culture or civilization.”6
Grammatical conventions cause us to refer to the Big Bang with a proper noun. Somehow it becomes not just personified, but deified.
Our language betrays us. We receive unexpected good news and say, “Thank my lucky stars!” We turn to something beyond ourselves. In the words of Andrew Peterson, “Don’t you want to thank someone?”7
Likewise, when we are shocked by devastating news, many people exclaim, “Oh, my god!” Our need makes believers of us all.
Many people don’t pray, but they still send “positive thoughts” for one another. Many don’t believe in God, yet they still meditate and reflect on the meaning of life. At sporting events, fans are united in a common song for a common cause. In local bars, friends share in story and drink to one another.
Sounds a bit like church, doesn’t it?
So, who is copying whom?
Atheistic churches called The Sunday Assembly have been in the news lately. That’s right. People who do not believe in God are planting churches, modeled after successful Christian megachurches. Why? Because they recognize that even people who have no god still want community and tradition, and some form of worship and structure and sense.
Gillian Flaccus, writing for the Huffington Post8, describes one of their gatherings as
. . . a boisterous service filled with live music, moments of reflection and an “inspirational talk,” and some stand-up comedy by [Sanderson] Jones, the movement’s co-founder.
During the service, attendees stomped their feet, clapped their hands and cheered as Jones and [co-founder Pippa] Evans led the group through rousing renditions of “Lean on Me,” “Here Comes the Sun” and other hits that took the place of gospel songs. Congregants dissolved into laughter at a get-to-know-you game that involved clapping and slapping the hands of the person next to them and applauded as members of the audience spoke about community service projects they had started in LA.
At the end, volunteers passed cardboard boxes for donations as attendees mingled over coffee and pastries and children played on the floor.
God Wants Everyone to Worship
The kingdom of Heaven is among us. The kingdom is at hand. All are drowning in a sea of common grace. Some pray to a god who is not a god at all. As Paul told the Athenians, “I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23, New International Version).
The Bible describes several times when God has communicated to and through unbelievers. Dreams disturbed Pharaoh in the days of Joseph and Nebuchadnezzar in the days of Daniel. The wise men after Jesus’ birth and Pilate’s wife before Jesus’ death had dreams involving danger to Jesus. Cornelius, a pious unimmersed man, and Saul, an antichrist, both had clear communication from God. Wicked-hearted Balaam was given a prophecy, and even his donkey spoke prophetically!
So, I guess it’s not a matter of whether or not you or your neighbors worship. It is a matter of whether that worship is acceptable or unacceptable. The father is not seeking worshippers, but a certain kind of worshippers; those who will worship him in spirit and in truth, “for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks” (John 4:23, NIV).
1Ken Read, Created to Worship (Joplin: College Press, 2002).
2Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version, except where noted.
3William Earnest Henley, Book of Verse (1875).
4We have even invented the term “unchurched.”
5Except for honoring father and mother. Apparently that does not come naturally!
6Bruce Ellis Benson, Liturgy As a Way of Life (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013).
7“Don’t You Want to Thank Someone,” Words and Music by Andrew Peterson, 2012 Jakedog Music.
Ken Read is department chair in music and worship at Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University. He is a worship leader, worship consultant, and author of Created to Worship (College Press 2002).