(The following thoughtsare taken from two different messages I presented, both to our student ministry, and our entire church. The thoughts still stir me, even as I continue to wrestle with their meaning. There are a few additions here than what I taught in both of those venues, too. Nevertheless, I wanted to share them with you, dear reader, so you can wrestle with me.)
Hearing the word “worship” sends us into an immediate defense. We each have our own definition of worship, so to even begin some discussion about it requires a degree of clarity.
The idea of “worship,” to each of us, is very, very different. You may believe worship is the captured moment of childhood memories, on a pew filled with family members of multiple generations, always followed by a large Sunday spread at the dinner table. Or, worship could just be the “good old days,” before times began to change without your permission, with the leaders you knew, and trusted, and believed.
Or, worship could be hardened memories, frightful memories of hard teaching and sweaty preachers, and required obeisance to a system that scared you.
Or, worship, to you, may be sold-out arenas, with dazzling lights, and beautiful stages, with songs you can download, and with book vendors in the lobby. Or, worship, to you, could be exactly what you experience every time you grace the doors of the church of your choice.
Or, worship could be defined as something different from the above. And even if that is true, then my point is proven.
So, to be true to the idea of clarity, I will offer a simple definition of worship.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, sings an amazing song of praise, upon the full realization that she is the mother of the Messiah. The gospel of Luke records the first line of her song: “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
Upon that line, then, I think we find the clearest definition of worship. Worship is the act of magnifying God. When you magnify something, you make it bigger, so then, worship is the act of making God bigger in your life.
That is a simple thought, but also a thought that requires a tremendous amount of self-reflection, because you immediately have to determine what, or who, is magnified most in your life.
Let’s continue, though, to clarify this definition. To do so, then, may be easier to define and discover what worship is not.
Worship is not about personality. And true worship of God cannot be about a personality. Paul writes an interesting statement, in his first letter to the Corinthian church — a church engaged in their own form of hero-worship. There were divisions in the church, factions, congregating around the people they admired the most, and Paul was one of the two being celebrated. In the third chapter of that letter, Paul defends his position in the kingdom as simply a servant in the house of God — a house both built and owned by God. When we make worship about personality, about whom you like, and whom you do not like, then you are magnifying your preferences, and not God.
If you are tempted with this idea, remember, you are saying that any one person is more important, and more essential, than any other in the total sovereignty of God. Even Paul, with his tremendous amount of experience, and teaching, and ministry, felt this dangerous, even when he could have accepted their praise.
Worship is not about comfort. I believe, though, that it is the most tempting idea of worship. A “comfortable” idea of worship tends to defend against ideas of “change” in worship, and “change” can be an incredibly offensive word.
Current research is beginning to show that change is difficult for one primary reason. Chip Heath and Dan Heath, in their book Switch, cites this research with this summation:
When people try to change things, they’re usually tinkering with behaviors that have become automatic [i.e., comfortable], and changing those behaviors requires careful [self-] supervision. The bigger the change … the more it will sap people’s self-control.
And when people exhaust their self-control, what they’re exhausting are the mental muscles needed to think creatively, to focus, to inhibit their impulses, and to persist in the face of frustration or failure. In other words, they’re exhausting the mental muscles needed to make a big change.
So when you hear people say that change is hard because people are lazy or resistant, that’s just flat wrong. In fact, the opposite is true: Change is hard because people wear themselves out.
And this is how this idea applies to worship: comfort in worship is appealing because it doesn’t require us to use the flexibility needed to survive in the fluid and changing world of our careers and our relatioships. We are instictively attracted to the very things which require the least flexibility to change, which, for you, is probably the place where you tithe and listen and sing and serve.
But, defining truth, and worship, by your level of comfort is a dangerous thing.
Jesus was tempted to define his worship by comfort. In Luke 22, as he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, fully aware of his role in human salvation, he asked God for any other avenue by which to save humanity, other than his own personal crucifixion. His anxiety was at its height, with drops of blood mingling with his sweat. Plainly speaking, it would have been far more comfortable for him to forgo such a death.
But had Jesus defined his worship by comfort, then you and I would both be lost. Do you see then, how dangerous this idea of “comfort” can be?
Jesus knew, though, that true worship of God disregards comfort entirely, because God disregards comfort when considering truth. Jonah was angry. Saul was stricken with blindness. John the Baptist was beheaded. Moses was not allowed to enter the promised land of the Israelites.
When you define worship by your level of comfort, then, you are essentially magnifying your desires. And not magnifying God.
Worship is not about style. Our world is completely personalized, and this contraction of brands and neighborhoods and music and entertainment leads us to believe that our worship should even be personalized to our liking. As a worship leader, that is never more apparent to me every week, as I pray and wrestle with song choices that mirror the styles of an eclectic church.
But style does not define worship. Worship is not a personalized commodity, even as music is made and offered to the liking of our ears.
Consider the prophet Hosea, and the prophecies he recounts to the people of Israel for God. A heartbreaking book it is, filled with misery and hurt, as it mirrors the weighty marriage of the prophet to a known prostitute — a marriage then used to portray how God feels about His chosen people.
And in the most heartbreaking moments, in the sixth chapter, God tells His people this:
What can I do with you, Ephraim? What can I do with you, Judah? Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears. Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets, I killed you with the words of my mouth; my judgments flashed like lightning upon you. For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
The very style of worship God initiated, the style of sacrifices, was never what He wanted, nor what He intended. He discards the very style He created, for true heart worship. He desires mercy, not sacrifice. He desires the heart, and not the style.
When we make worship about style, then we are magnifying our own opinions. And not magnifying God.
There is nothing more challenging than displaying your life as a testament of worship. It requires a complete, wholesale change few are willing to endure. But I believe that a wholesale change begins with a solid definition of what we are being asked, and encouraged, to do.
Let these thoughts, then, challenge you as they have challenged me.