Thursday, August 17, 2006

Paul Manuel: Worship

Erroneous Assumptions and Essential Attitudes about Worship

My wife and I have different views on breakfast preparation. She does not like soggy cereal and waits until the very last moment to add the milk. I, on the other hand, am not nearly as fussy and do not mind if the cereal has lost a little of its crunch. Hence, whenever I offer to fix a bowl for her, she declines with visible disgust. Because cereal is one of my two culinary specialties (the other being PB&J), I take every opportunity to offer her the benefit of my expertise. Alas, her response is always the same: "Yuck!"

As you might imagine, such persistent rejection eventually takes its toll on an already fragile self-image. One day, after yet another rebuff, I asked her, "How can you turn down something that I prepare for you with such loving care? What difference does it make if it's a little soggy?" Wholly unmoved by my emotional plea, she callously replied, "If you loved and cared, you'd do a better job."

Sometimes…often, people's approach to worship is like my approach to cereal preparation. They put something together, such as a service or an anthem, and assume that as long as they present it in love, it does not matter that the hymns and scripture have little connection or that two of the choir's voices have never really gotten their parts right. "What difference does it make if it's a little soggy?" What we fail to hear is God's reply: "If you loved and cared, you'd do a better job."

There are two common assumptions that shape (and distort) people's view of worship. The first assumption many Christians have is that…
  • Worship is everything we do.
On Sabbath morning, this includes the songs we sing, the sermon we hear, the prayers we offer, and the SS lesson we study-everything that happens in church (1).

While we should be conscious of God's presence at all times and should cultivate a reverent demeanor in all activity, such a diffuse understanding obscures the much narrower definition of worship that scripture presents as the model for our worship. Of the many words biblical authors use to describe worship (e.g., praise, bless, laud, extol), there is one Hebrew (and one corresponding Greek) term that occurs with greatest frequency, the same term English translations generally render as "worship." It entails the cessation of all activity, the concentration of all attention, and the communication of all adoration to God alone (2).

In other words, worship, in the primary biblical sense, is not something we do while doing other things, no matter how worthy they may be in their own right. It is our singular focus on the person of God. Worship is also not about meeting our needs. It is not about making us feel good or loved or appreciated. It is not at all about us; it is all about God (3).

While we can and should be conscious of Him in everything we do, especially on the Sabbath, neither the sermon, which concerns exhortation (to right behavior), nor the SS lesson, which concerns education (to right thinking), matches the biblical definition of the term. To generalize the connotation of worship-by implying that all manner of activity, when done with reverence, fulfills God's expectation-is to trivialize the commandment to worship (4). Although believers should always be aware of God's presence, being generally conscious of Him is not the same as concentrating exclusively on Him, which is the essence of biblical worship.

The second assumption many Christians have is that…
  • Worship is anything we do (regardless of the quality).
According to this notion, it does not matter how we express our devotion, only that we are earnest and honest. The argument is that God is not particular as long as we are vocal, joyful, and sincere. This approach is evident in how we prepare for worship and in what we present as worship.
  • What does it matter that the choir anthem is not as polished as it could be? People will appreciate whatever the group presents.
  • What does it matter that the hymns do not relate to anything in particular or even to each other? People just want to sing familiar pieces (5).
  • What does it matter that the pastoral prayer does more asking God (petition) than adoring God (praise)? People have many needs.
  • What does it matter that the choruses are repetitive and vapid? People (especially young people) say it puts them in the mood (6).
  • What does it matter that we spend more time listening to ourselves (in conversation) than listening to our Lord (in meditation)? People are uncomfortable with periods of silence.
In such ways as these (7), we demonstrate our priorities in worship, that we care more about pleasing ourselves than about pleasing God.

We also demonstrate our assumption that God has no particular opinion on the matter, as long as our heart is right. If God does not care how His people worship, only that they worship, then…
  • The animal sacrifices would not have had to be perfect,
  • The Levitical musicians would not have had to practice, and
  • The priestly services would not have had to be precise.
But God does care how His people worship, which is why…
  • The animal sacrifices did have to be perfect (8),
  • The Levitical musicians did have to practice (9), and
  • The priestly services did have to be precise (10).
As Jeremiah says, "A curse on him who is lax in doing the LORD's work!" (Jer 48:10). God cares about our attitude, but He is not indifferent to our actions (11). Biblical worship demands the highest level of our ability, the best we have to offer (12). Anything less is not worthy of Him (13)!


(1) Some Christians, not limiting this concept to what goes on in church, think that everything one does can and should be an act of worship. Whether mundane or sublime, profane or sacred, all of life is an opportunity, yea, a responsibility to express devotion to God. As Paul says, "whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" (1 Cor 10:31). While it is always appropriate to maintain a reverent awareness of God, that exercise constitutes worship only in its most elemental and unfocused form. The biblical use of the term is far more specific.

(2) Although often translated as "worship," the Hebrew (and Greek) word actually denotes the physical act of prostration and emphasizes the contrast in the relative positions of a liege and his lord (Ps 99:5; 138:2). The secular use of the term is similar. When one goes before an earthly king, the subject gives undivided attention to his sovereign (2 Sam 14:4; 1 Kgs 1:16).
There are two extended accounts of worship services, describing the practice before and after the exile. In the pre-exilic instance (2 Chr 29:27-30), the focus of attention is clearly on the Lord. While the priests are offering sacrifices to God, the congregation gives its attention to God (v. 28). After the priests have offered sacrifices, the royal court gives its attention to God (v. 29). As they sing, the musicians give their attention to God (v. 30). In the post-exilic instance (Neh 9:3-8), the people distinguish between the sermon and the service (v. 3; cf. 8:8). In worship, and regardless of their posture (v. 5), all their attention is on God, on His actions (vv. 6-7) and attributes (v. 8). NT uses of the term, most common in the last book, also illustrate the singular focus of worship (Rev 4:10-11; 5:13-14; 7:11-12; 11:16-17; 19:4).

(3) For this reason, congregational applause after a music (or dramatic) presentation in the service is inappropriate, because it directs attention away from God and to the performer(s). When biblical writers mention clapping, it is only in appreciation for what God has done, never for what man has done (Ps 47:1; 98:8; Isa 55:12).

(4) The imperative occurs both to enjoin the act and to ensure the object (i.e., God alone; Ps 29:2; 97:7; 99:5, 9; Rev 14:7; 19:10; 22:9).

(5) A related problem is that hymns are generally more about us (horizontal) than about Him (vertical). What kind of music did the Levites perform? It was not just any song, and it was not just a religious song.

The trumpeters and singers joined in unison, as with one voice, to give praise and thanks to the LORD. Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals and other instruments, they raised their voices in praise to the LORD and sang: "He is good; his love endures forever." (2 Chr 5:13)
The music of worship possesses two essential characteristics:

  • It is "to the LORD," something the author states twice in this verse, and
  • It is about the LORD, in praise of His attributes and actions.
(6) Many choruses, if they are not about me-what I think, what I feel, what I want-limit their purview to me and God.

(7) Other, seemingly mundane matters, might include: Is the sanctuary dirty, cluttered, or in disarray? Does the bulletin have numerous grammatical or typographical errors? However accustomed regular attendees are to such things, what impression do they give to others (visitors) about the congregation's reverence for God?

(8) Only unblemished sacrifices were acceptable to God (Lev 22:20; Deut 15:21; 17:1; Mal 1:8). Produce offerings also had to be of the highest quality (Exod 23:19; Num 18:29).

(9) Only those with training could be temple musicians (1 Chr 15:22; 25:7; 2 Chr 5:13; 23:13; Neh 12:42; Ps 33:3).

(10) The preeminent example is Yom Kippur (Lev 16:2-3).

(11) NT believers did not approach the Lord differently from OT believers. Jesus' atonement did not lower God's expectations of His people and signal that He would, henceforth, accept mediocre expressions of devotion as long as they were sincere. So Paul exhorts Timothy, "Do your best to present yourself to God" (2 Tim 2:15).

(12) Several common hymns speak about the importance of giving our best to God.

  • "Give him the best that you have" (Give of Your Best to the Master, vv. 1-3)
  • "Merits my soul's best songs" (Love Lifted Me, v. 2)
  • "May we give thee of our best" (Praise to God, Immortal Praise, v. 4)
  • "Unto him is due our best" (Our Best, refrain)
(13) Equally important, we may discover that mediocrity is not only unacceptable to Him but detrimental to us (Heb 12:28-29).
[This article is by Dr. Paul Manuel, originally posted on Wednesday, Aug. 16. Having messed up his formatting, I have tried to compensate. Standfast]


  1. C.S. Lewis made a distinction between "looking along" something and "looking at" it. In the context of worship, it's the difference between enjoying a show, [i.e. being in an audience, appreciating the performance] or seeing [praising,loving, fearing] God.

    A friend who studied drama once told me that the actors had failed if you sat there marveling at the skill of their acting. They had succeeded only if you became caught up in the story. Likewise, an artist or a musician doesn't want you to see the technique - the technique is a vehicle through which they direct you to an experience. One reason to do things well is that, if you don't, the audience notices how you are doing what you are doing rather than the ideas and/or experience you want them to have.

    Those who lead worship should try their best, not to impress you with themselves, not to help you have a good time, but to help you direct all your attention to the object of worship - God Himself.

  2. Anonymous1:01 PM

    Just a quick note. Barbara often tells her choirs and others that participate in the service that they are "prompters in the act of worship." Musicians, readers, sermonizers, all have one obligation, to help people worship
    God. It doesn't always work, but it certainly is worth the try. I recall, too, an old axiom: "When the worship is over, the service begins." Herb

  3. Thanks for you comment on hymn texts being more about us than God. You aren’t the first to notice that problem. However, the problem, while found in essentially all Seventh Day Baptist churches, isn’t as widespread as you might think. And it’s really quite easily (though not inexpensively) remedied.

    Our problem is our hymnals. While there is not a denominational hymnal, most Seventh Day Baptist hymnals include an overabundance of hymn texts written from 1850-1950. Leaf through your hymnal. I think you’ll be surprised to find that that vast majority of texts were written then. It was during this time (and I’m sure others can elaborate on this) that many churches’ focus shifted, from God to the individual.

    If one is concerned about the subjective texts and focus on the worshiper, I would suggest replacing your hymnal. Martin Luther texts are usually excellent. (How many are in your hymnal?) Make sure your hymnal has enough texts written before 1800.

    However, the grim reality (as I see it) is that this “theology” is characteristic of Baptists. Baptists thrive on it. Each Baptist likes to feel special, that he or she matters. But regardless of our traditions (even though they may only be 150 years old), we need to be Christ-centered, rather than individually centered.

    If you want to give this a try, I have a hymnal I would suggest, but I doubt it will fly. Few will want to spend $20 apiece for a bunch of new hymns that won’t appeal to the fogies entrenched in their tradition and won’t appeal to the under-30 group because they’re not inanely entertaining and don’t make them “feel good.”

    Let me know how it goes and good luck on turning the tide in this perpetual shift of focus from Christ to the individual.


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