I was 16 years old, with a guitar in my hands, playing and singing in a Church in the heart of Managua, Nicaragua. Playing alongside three other guys from the youth band back home, we didn’t know many songs in Spanish, but the Nicaraguan Christians didn’t seem to care. Even when they did not understand all the words being sung, they were there to praise God, and they were not going to miss an opportunity to express it.
I remember seeing many heartfelt faces with hands raised high and even some dancing and shouting for joy. Since it was my first cross-cultural worship experience, a lot was going through my mind, but to be honest, it kind of made me wonder what these poor people had that we didn’t have back home.
It seems that a lot of questions arise in the church regarding worship. “Am I supposed to clap?” “I’ve seen those crazy people dancing in church, isn’t that distracting?” “How many hymns should we do and how often?”
We always seem to ask questions that deal with the outward expression of what we do in Church on Sunday morning; however, when we think about it, none of these are the questions we should be asking. The question we should be asking is, “What is worship?”
When we hear the word “worship,” most of us think of the songs we sing every Sunday morning. But we need to understand one thing: In and of itself, music has nothing to do with worship. Romans 12:1 says, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.” We can be listening to and singing songs (even Christian songs) all day long and be partaking in nothing that resembles worship to God.
We also think that music has a way of jump-starting our worship to God, which also is not really true. Music is not the beginning of worship, it is the end of it. When we sing to God and play music to Him, it is merely the expression of the worship that is already in our hearts.
So when we come on Sunday morning to worship God, it’s not what we do that’s important—it’s our hearts. Isaiah 29:13 says, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” What we sing and what we do matter far less in comparison with where our hearts are. Are we worshiping God with our hearts?
However, this leaves question of how we express this heart worship. It is foolish for us to think that we can be worshiping God with our hearts and our emotions will remain unaffected. It is clear when you read scripture, especially the Psalms, that our emotions are part of our worship.
If you want to know how to express those emotions, look to the words of David. Time and again, he pleads with Israel to “clap your hands!” and “shout to God with a voice of triumph!” He tells us to “dance with joy before the Lord” and to “praise Him with the tambourine and lyre.” You can almost feel a holy frustration in his writing where he cries out to his people saying, “Don’t you guys know who God is? Shout to Him! Sing to Him! Dance for Him! Praise Him, praise Him, praise Him!”
The fact of the matter is that we are emotional beings and, although our emotions can be misleading if we rely on them entirely, they can be amazing expressions of our worship to God. When we truly understand the Gospel and are dwelling on true and Biblically sound thoughts of God, our hearts will respond to those thoughts with feelings, as well.
But it’s important to remember that an emotional expression of worship is only godly when it is rooted in a proper understanding of who God is.
This, in my mind, is the most important part of worship and the part that will make many of these questions disappear quickly if we understand it. The focus of our worship is not in where we worship, or how we worship; the focus of our worship is in who we worship.
When we understand the greatness of God, the stability of His character, the perfection of His justice, the depth of His grace, the limitless nature of His love, the wonder of His holiness, and the sacrifice of His Son, it should not be difficult for us to be moved greatly in our desire to worship God, and worship Him passionately.
As a worship leader, I understand that everyone worships differently. Some people just aren’t that emotional, and there’s no problem with that. There is no specific ways we must show emotions during worship. In fact, saying you should or shouldn’t raise your hands, dance, clap or whatever else, goes against what the very purpose of worship is; however, I do hope that we come to a place where we care more about loving, desiring, and worshiping God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength than we do about anything else. After all, it was for this reason we were created.
An earlier version of this post appeared at younganddevoted.com