Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Let My people go, so they may worship Me.”
Exodus 8:1 (NIV)
A recent issue with someone on a group about worship has gotten me thinking about worship and what it means to worship God. As the issue intensified, I could only remember one verse: Exodus 8:1, the one above. Those words were spoken to Pharaoh right before the Exodus out of Egypt. Pharaoh obviously represents bondage, something that holds a person or a group back from coming into where they should be in the Lord. The worship of God represents freedom in Him. That is a freedom worth examining: it is a freedom of spiritual expression. Yet I wonder…have we become accustom to declare ‘worship’ something other than what it really is? We see the word “worship” on CD labels, we have attributed it to a certain genre of music, we have assigned it to a portion of the services we attend, and yet…are we missing something? Are we missing what “worship” is?
Years ago, I wrote a blog in which I spoke about worship and the challenge it was for me to come into a place of worship as a new believer. I grew up in the Catholic Church. To us, “worship” wasn’t a word we used a lot. When we did use it, it wasn’t used to describe anything near where what it is used to describe in my understanding today. The word we heard a lot was the word “liturgy,” which was a reference to the scripted service we used in the church. They would tell us that we “gathered” for worship on Sunday mornings when we attended what Catholics call the “mass.” It was a rigid, formal service week after week in which we said the same things at the same time, adopted the same postures, and even read the same things over and over again. Most people who have any experience with the Catholic Church – even those who are members, and this includes myself when I still was one – do not think of the word “worship” in connection with the mass. The mass was something we went to, an obligation we met. We knew what to expect: we would sing the same five or six songs all the time, half the church would be throwing the books in the book holders by the end of the first verse (very much to the chagrin of the priest), we’d respond when we should, sit when we should, kneel when we should, stand when we should, listen to the priest talk a lot, and do what we thought we had to until it was time to leave. The Catholic mass is quiet, a stark contrast to more modern groups. Noise is regarded as disrespectful. It was a time to be quiet, unless it was time to recite whatever words were appropriate at that moment.
When I first became a Christian I had a total aversion to all things “worship.” I had been Catholic all my life and told to be quiet in church. I thought worship meant having to not talk. I didn’t like the slower songs because they were, well…slow. I wanted something to get me moving. I didn’t want to have to sit down. I did not understand, nor have any comprehension, of what worship was or that my attitude was based on the exterior versus the interior. God had to do a work within me to understand what worship was and how vital it was. Worship wasn’t about what I wanted to do, what I liked or disliked, or how much I could dance to the song. Worship is about our honest connection to Him. In worship, we recognize Him as our Creator, our Savior, our Sustainer; we know and acknowledge His presence in full in our lives. In worship, we empty ourselves of ourselves and totally devote ourselves to Him. This can be accomplished with or without music; it can be accomplished whether a song is fast or slow; it can be accomplished whether we are in church or not. It is accomplished through song, dance, movement, quiet, teaching, praise, prayer honor, glory, and power. It is the most powerful form of unity we can have with our Lord this side of heaven. We leave the world behind and all that is associated with it as worship is the meeting of heaven and earth.
How do we regard worship? Do we only use the songs we personally like or prefer? Do we have an understanding of worship worldwide? Are we judging a worship song or experience based on our personal tastes? If we are, we need to step back and consider the worship experience we are not creating in our lives. If we are basing everything around ourselves, we are not getting what we need out of worship. We will always have preferences and we are most certainly entitled to have personal tastes, likes, and dislikes about worship styles. We have a variety of them because we have a wide variety of people in the world and God has called all of us into communion with Him. I certainly would admit that there are certain artists, styles, and groups that I prefer over others; however, that does not make any of the others inferior, boring, or invalid. Whether it aligns with my tastes or not, it is still a worship offering and that makes it holy. The people aren’t singing to me, they are singing to God, and that makes what they offer acceptable to Him as they do it with right heart and motive. We need to be careful when being so quick to voice what we dislike for this reason: because it is not about us. Reducing worship to personal opinion is dangerous ground and makes the opinions we may have about things a vicious weapon. Voicing something on these lines could make the difference between someone who feels comfortable offering before the Lord and someone who shrinks back in fear. If true worship is in Spirit and in Truth, every offering made in Spirit and Truth unto the Lord is acceptable worship (John 4:24).
Today most churchgoers who have not been taught properly about worship are under the impression that worship is about being entertained. The lights, the stage show, the drama makes them think worship is a presentation that we should enjoy. As a result, much of the church misunderstands the importance of having a right heart in worship and thinks it is about enjoyment. If worship isn’t entertaining enough or doesn’t fit with our personal style, we judge it. We call it names and decide it’s not genuine or it’s less than interesting. We don’t have the right to do this! The Bible tells us God wants the entire world to praise Him (Psalm 22:29, Psalm 86:9, Psalm 96:9, John 4:23-24). This means that in the expressions of worship music, we are creating an atmosphere to enter into this presence. Because every nation, kindred, tongue, tribe, and people are invited to this process, there are a great variety of worship styles, expressions, and facets. All of them are equal in the sight of God and even though we may not understand all of them or relate to all of them, we still have to respect all of them because they are an honor to the Living God. It is that individual or group’s connection to the Living God, and that makes it sacred. The Spirit unites us in a common language, and that means that whenever someone enters into worship, we connect in that Spirit no matter what we may think of the style.
I take judgments made against the worship of others very seriously, as should we all. Legalism is legalism in no matter what form it comes. If we define worship needs to be a certain way that is out of God’s definition for what it is, we are making a rule. If we are branding something in a certain way based on our own personal opinions, we need to seek God about our own personal pride and judgments. Stop playing Pharaoh! Worship is not about us or our opinions! We need to let the people of God go so they can worship God, in any way which they are so led, that they may bring forth their offering unto Him. We need to realize that what we may not like may just be what someone else needs to enter into God’s presence, and stand with holiness before their Lord. Doing so allows us to see the universal nature that calls upon God, loves Him, and makes church less of a social club for entertainment and more of His universal body of believers.
I so long to see the church come to a deeper understanding of the Lord. We won’t get the presence of Him that we seek until we start to seek worship in a deeper way: less about us, and more about Him. Here’s to the freedom that only worship can bring.
(c) 2011 Lee Ann B. Marino. All rights reserved.