A few months ago, while traveling in Kentucky, I visited a church with a friend. It was different from the churches I typically attend for a few reasons. It was much smaller. It didn’t start on time. It was a different denomination. And the demographics—race, social class, age—varied greatly, and I was not in the majority.
The friend I was with sat by me and explained that while this church does have a Sunday morning service, church really happens here 24/7. The service is just a small part of it, and not the central event like it is for most congregations.
The members here minister to the homeless every day, he told me. The building is strategically located to be close to that community. They make sandwiches after service and pass them out to people on the street and spend time with them. Their lives reflect Jesus in their interactions with people from all neighborhoods and backgrounds. They worship God outside the church building more than they worship Him inside of it.
As he explained this to me, I began to feel that uncomfortable feeling of conviction. Everything about this church appeared wrong to me. The production was poor. The worship was mediocre. People a few pews over were being disruptive and passing around someone’s newborn baby. But somehow everything about the church felt right.
The conviction I felt during this church service stemmed from the reality of what I have allowed worship, to become for me: an experience that makes me feel good.
I like churches with amazing worship bands—they make me feel good. I like churches where my friends go—they make me feel good. I like church to be entertaining and the sermon to be engaging—this makes me feel good.
I had to stop and ask myself, since when was worship about making me feel good?
R.C. Sproul says, “As fallen creatures, it is one of our most basic and fundamental inclinations to worship something, or someone, other than the true God.”
Could it be that, sometimes, the thing we are drawn to worship apart from God is worship itself? The act of it as it takes place in our church services? The music, the dark lighting, the instruments playing behind the prayer? Is this what I crave more than God?
I do not believe the elements of a worship service are wrong or bad, but I do believe we can begin to worship our worship experience over the almighty God, and this is not true worship.
Throughout the Old Testament and in the Gospels of the New Testament, the most common word used for worship is “proskuneo” in Greek, or “hishtahvah” in Hebrew. Both words refer to bowing down before God in reverence, an act done in the temple.
An interesting shift happens with this word when we get to the epistles in the New Testament, where Paul and the others are instructing the Church. Instead of using proskuneo, these writers begin to use the Greek word “latreia,” which means indirect worship in the form of the spiritual service rendered to fellow humans and to God.
According to John Piper, “This is the form of worship commanded in the New Testament: to act in a way that reflects the value of the glory of God. In the New Testament, there is a stunning indifference to the outward forms and places of worship. And there is, at the same time, a radical intensification of worship as an … experience that has no bounds and pervades all of life.”
Again and again in the epistles, we are instructed to live a life of worship more than we are instructed to gather for our weekly service:
“Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father” (Colossians 3:17).
“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service” (Romans 12:1).
Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
These verses tell us that worship is active. More active than I want it to be, if I’m honest.
I like music. I like sitting and listening and singing. This is comfortable. This is easy, but it is often more comforting than it is worshipping. If I stand and sing “Oceans” with a thousand other people in a church building, but I leave feeling unchanged, with no desire to reach out to my neighbors or spread the Gospel further than my own heart, have I truly worshipped God, or have I simply worshipped an experience?
I am beginning to think real worship, the latreia type of worship, is what leads congregants to gather after service and make sandwiches for the homeless. It’s what limits my worship experience to only a small part of my worshipping life, and upholds serving God with my actions as the bigger part. If my heart longs to serve, I am probably in true worship. If my heart longs to feel emotional after a song, I may need to ask what I’m worshipping.
As Augustine says in City of God, “To love his neighbor bids him to do all he can to bring his neighbor to love God. This is the worship of God; this is true religion; this is the right kind of devotion; this is the service which is owed to God alone.”
I wonder how our faith would grow and how our relationships with God would deepen if all churches looked like the small one I visited in Kentucky?
What if they were a little smaller and didn’t start on time and only had three people in the band, but on nights, weekends and weekdays the congregants scoured the streets of their cities and served people who haven’t seen kindness or felt grace in their entire lives?
What if the Sunday morning service was OK, but the Monday through Saturday service was life-changing? What if the center of the church was Christ, and on the edges was the worship band and the order of events on Sundays? What if instead of worshipping our worship experience, we worshipped God?