June / July 2018 - Vol. 98
Gate of Heaven painting by
                  Baruch Maayan
Jacob said,"How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God and gate of heaven" Genesis 28:17
What Makes for Good Worship?
Why focusing on worship may not be the most direct route to improving it

by Mark Kinzer

The worship was excellent!"

I have sometimes heard that comment after a church service or prayer meeting and wondered to myself, "What did he actually mean by that statement?” Was the person referring to the eloquence of the sermon, the performance of the choir, the selection of hymns? Or was he speaking of how inspired he was by the service as a whole?

What do we mean by "worship," and how do we think its "excellence" can be judged?

Such questions do not represent nit-picking conceptual analysis. If I as a pastoral leader want to see my congregation or community growing and deepening in worship, I must know what worship is and how to assess our progress in it.

There are two Greek words in the New Testament that are often translated "worship." One of the words, latreuo, means literally "to serve” (Acts 24:14; Phil. 3:3; Rev. 7:15). The other, proskuneo, means "to bow in respect or submission” (Matt. 2:11; 4:9-10; John 4:20-24; Rev. 7:11). Both words are drawn from the ceremonial of royal courts, where they are used to describe the proper expressions of honor and respect shown to a human king.

This way of speaking is rooted in Old Testament usage. The priests and levites are the special attendants and ministers of the Lord, the king of glory (1 Chron. 23:2-22; Psalm 134:1), and they serve in his "temple," a word which in other contexts is translated "palace." They serve and honor the Lord by presenting him with gifts (sacrifices), proclaiming his praise, and doing his work. They respect and submit to the Lord by bowing, kneeling, and other such postures; by confessing sin and asking forgiveness; and by laying before him their various needs and requests.

As already indicated, neither of these words for worship was exclusively religious in ordinary use. For us, such terms as "worship," "minister to," and "kneel before" are only part of our religious vocabulary. But this was not so in biblical times. People knew what it meant to wait on someone in authority and to honor and fear him (1 Chron. 29:20). Our lack of familiarity in this regard makes it difficult for us to grasp fully the meaning of these biblical terms for worship.

From this biblical background we can see two important features of worship that are often not fully appreciated: worship is both relational and expressive.

As a servant attends to his king, as a son honors his father, so we worship our king, who is the king of kings, our Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.

Worship is directed toward Someone. We worship God because of who he is and what he has done for us. We worship him because of the relationship we now have with him in Christ. He loves us, saves us, forgives us, provides for us; we owe him our full loyalty and obedience, we owe him our very lives. In our worship we express the fact that we belong to him fully, that we offer our lives to him without reservation (Rom. 12:1).

This means that our worship is not primarily directed to meeting our needs, producing spiritual feelings, or conveying a particular experience. The right worship of God will affect us deeply, but this is neither its goal nor its orientation. In worship we focus on God rather than on ourselves.

The relational nature of worship has another implication: right worship is founded upon a right relationship with God. This sounds rather elementary. But I have often seen this truth ignored, at considerable loss.

I once visited a Christian institution run by men who genuinely sought to live a dedicated Christian life and who also sought to help others live such a life. In one corner of their building I found a little book shop. On the racks were some good Christian books. However, side by side with these books I noticed many volumes of dubious value-a mixture of Eastern religions, transcendental meditation, and self-help psychology. As I talked with the man who was minding the shop, it became clear to me that these Christian men thought that the key to helping others grow spiritually was instruction in proper spiritual techniques. The techniques they taught focused especially on producing a certain type of experience, a certain "state of consciousness." Thus, by disregarding the central issue of relationship to God, these men were in the regrettable position of marketing spiritual techniques for prayer that could lead people away from loyalty to Christ.

Of course, there is much to learn about Christian worship. There are many helpful practical tools and methods, and, as already mentioned, one of the fruits of their practice should be a heightened awareness of the presence of God. However, the first and most fundamental fact about Christian worship is that it is Christian - it is founded on a relationship with God available to us through our union with Christ in the Holy Spirit, a relationship possible only because of Christ's incarnate life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection.

Our worship of God expresses our relationship with him. In order to know how to worship him, we need to understand our relationship with him. We must understand who he is-his holiness, his greatness, his glory, his steadfast love and compassion. We must understand how he has redeemed us in Christ, how he now lives in us corporately and individually through the Holy Spirit, making us a new temple for his praise. We need to understand the honor and love that are due to him as our God and savior, the reverence and humility with which we must approach him. Our worship of God flows from these realities.

Therefore the key to better worship in a congregation is not necessarily more teaching on worship but clearer proclamation of who God is and what he has done for us in Christ, and teaching about our response-conversion, repentance, faith, and a deepening of Christian commitment.

Many Christians think of worship as primarily a subjective experience, the goal of worship being to cultivate a certain spiritual or emotional state, to work up feelings of love, gratitude, and awe toward God. A time of worship is evaluated according to whether it succeeds in producing such a condition.

This is not the biblical view of worship. In scripture worship is something expressed, given, shown. Worship displays honor and devotion, respect and submission. The worship of God by his people expresses in words and actions the relationship they have with their king.

The scripture presents a wide range of expressions of worship. Sacrifices were offered, as a kind of material gift to God (Psalm 96:8). Prayer and praise were offered, as a kind of verbal gift to God (Psalm 141:2). There was vocal and instrumental music (Psalms 149, 150). There was shouting the acclamation (Psalm 47:1,5), a custom also found in the courts of Eastern kings.

We see various postures in worship: prostration (Neh. 8:6), kneeling (2 Chron. 6:13), lifting up hands (Psalm 134:2; 2 Chron. 6:12-13), clapping (Psalm 47:1), dancing (2 Sam. 6:14-16; Psalm 149:3). The most common posture was standing (Psalm 134:1), as a servant stood before his king.

The Bible takes pains to emphasize that worship must proceed from a heart that is humble and submitted to God. Mere external actions mean nothing if the underlying attitude and overall way of life are not right (Psalm 51:6-17; Isa. 58:1-12). The heart, however, does not refer to the seat of the emotions but to the basic decision making faculty, what we would call the mind or the will (Heb. 4:12). Worship is meant to express a mind and will that is yielded to God, seeking to serve, honor, and obey him.

Worship does involve a direct encounter with God that is to be experienced (2 Chron. 7:1-3; Acts 4:31; Heb. 6:4-5). Our awareness of God's presence and our attentiveness and responsiveness to his word should increase as our worship deepens. However, this does not mean that in order to worship God we must be experiencing him strongly at the time; not does it mean that worship consists essentially of such an experience. Worship is something we express to God, and though it must come from a rightly disposed heart, it need not always produce or be accompanied by a powerful experience.

Because worship is by nature expressive, right worship requires appropriate, concrete human expressions. Unfortunately, modern Western societies, especially American society, suffer from an impoverishment in the dimensions of human relationships where building blocks for worship are normally found. We are poor in expressing love and honor, fear and respect, rejoicing and mourning.

When we have guests at our homes we lack a strong cultural instinct for honoring them with personal service in a way that would be second nature in a more traditional culture. Those present in a courtroom still rise at the entrance of a judge, but children and adults rarely rise when their parents, grandparents, or pastors enter the room.

Even when our intentions are good, we may find ourselves uncomfortable-or even inept. A friend of mine once told me how his coworkers honored him at his retirement party. Many of those present amused their hearers with narratives of incidents in which my friend had handled himself in a foolish or unconventional manner. To laugh at him was the only way they knew to express their affection and esteem for him.

Because worship is a human expression of our relationship with God, our cultural poverty in expressions of honor and respect restricts our ability to worship. Even Christians who appreciate the types of worship described in the Psalms or in the book of Revelation tend to treat those forms as special religious actions and have lost the sense of how they express a relationship. They may bow or kneel, but because such postures no longer play any role in our human relationships, they tend to think of them as pious acts rather than as natural expressions of relationship with God.

This leads to the conclusion that renewal of corporate worship in the Western world waits on a corresponding renewal of suitable cultural forms of expressing honor, love, hospitality, reverence, submission, rejoicing, and mourning in ordinary life, outside the actual context of worship. A recovery of the cultural language through which we speak in word and act to one another would enlarge our capacity to worship God.

The fundamental issues in renewal of worship are thus not directly matters of worship. They concern spiritual renewal (proclamation, repentance, conversion, faith, deepening commitment) and an enrichment of our cultural language. Yet these priorities often escape those who are most concerned about worship. The tendency is to focus on worship as an activity in isolation from the participants individual and corporate Christian life.

But it is crucial to see worship as part of the bigger picture. Worship is only one part-albeit a crucial part-of our relationship with God and our life together as his people. No amount of tinkering with the activity of worship can substitute for renewal in these fundamental spiritual and cultural dimensions.

Although we must attend to the broader concerns of conversion, commitment, and cultural modes of expressing honor, we do also have to deal directly with worship itself. What approaches are helpful?

My main recommendation is simply that we should learn from Christian traditions of the past and from various spiritual renewal movements of our own day. Here are examples of the resources we may find:

1.    Jewish tradition. The roots of Christian tradition extend back into the Jewish way of life practiced by Jesus and the apostles. The Jewish approach to worship had a shaping impact on New Testament teaching and church life.
One of the most prominent features of Jewish worship is its integration into all aspects of life. Sometimes in our concern for the renewal of worship we focus exclusively on weekly church services or prayer meetings. Though the solemn gathering of believers has special importance, our goal should be to build worship into every part of our life, rather than leaving it as an isolated religious act performed once a week.

For instance, many of the most important Jewish customs of worship occur in the home. The sabbath meal is an important spiritual event, complete with ceremonies and prayers. The Passover seder is one of the main worship events of the year, yet it is conducted in the home rather than in the synagogue. The grace after meals and the lighting of the Chanukah candles are other examples of special family worship customs.

The Jewish approach to blessing (possibly alluded to by the apostle Paul in Ephesians 5:20), which encourages giving thanks to God throughout the day for his varied gifts, also makes worship a daily rather than a weekly affair. The ecumenical community to which I belong, The Sword of the Spirit, has tried to learn from these customs in order to promote a common way of worship that is integrated into the fabric of daily life.

2. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox tradition. The ancient traditions of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches have much to contribute to the worship of all Christians. These traditions are especially rich in helpful human expressions of worship in solemn settings. A variety of postures are used-kneeling, standing, bowing, prostration-and a reverent bearing is maintained.

The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox-and Anglican/Episcopal and Lutheran-emphasis on the centrality of the Lord's Supper in worship also has great value for all Christians. This emphasis aptly expresses the fact that all Christian worship is founded on the redeeming work of Jesus and his continuing intercession in the heavenly sanctuary.

3. Protestant tradition. The evangelical stress on the public reading of scripture, preaching, and the singing of hymns is also important and has been of great influence on all Christians. Christian worship is a response to what God has done for us and in us, and the reading and proclamation of God's word presents us with that which we need to respond to. The Protestant introduction of hymn singing into the Christian worship service has done much to engage the entire congregation in the act of worship. Many traditional evangelical hymns are especially good models of expressing Christian realities and truths in musical form-for example, the great hymns of Charles Wesley. Like the emphasis on the Lord's Supper in other traditions, hymns and preaching serve to center evangelical worship on the person and work of Christ.

4. Anabaptist tradition. Anabaptists (perhaps an unfortunate title, but the most easily recognizable one) stress the intimate connection between worship and common life. The Mennonites, the Hutterites, and similar groupings, such as the Moravians, have always had a strong emphasis on community and on the imitation of Christ. Following Jesus' instruction that one's gift should be left on the altar if a relationship with a brother needs to be made right (Matt. 5:23-24), Anabaptist tradition views right relationships and the life of discipleship as a precondition for corporate worship, and in some ways as a type of worship in itself (see also Ephesians 5:1-2). This is a helpful corrective for many of our modern churches which seek proper worship without a common life and a common discipline.

5. The Pentecostal-charismatic movement. This 20th-century movement has much to contribute to the whole Christian church in the area of worship. Rejoicing and celebration characterizes much charismatic worship, and this has been a neglected aspect of worship in other traditions. In fact, expressiveness is one of the most marked features of Pentecostal piety-dancing, singing, jumping, clapping, lifting of hands, kneeling.

Though worship in this movement does not center on experience, it nonetheless presumes a living, experiential relationship with God in which worship is a crucial element. The Pentecostal-charismatic movement has helped many Christians appropriate in their experience what they already believed in their theology. This renewal of the experiential dimension of Christian life can also contribute to the renewal and strengthening of worship.

The charismatic renewal movement also stresses the immediate presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit in worship, and this can center worship on our union with God through Christ in the Holy Spirit-the basic reality that is the foundation of all Christian prayer.

As in most other areas of church life, effective worship requires effective leadership. If we have pastoral responsibility for a group of Christians, then we also have responsibility for their common worship.

If we are to lead people into proper worship, then we must teach about worship. We must teach about who God is and how we should relate to him in worship-with honor and devotion, with reverence and submission. We must explain and demonstrate various worship postures, illustrating them from scripture and making clear their purposes.

One pastoral leader I know began leading his family into deeper worship by teaching them from the psalms. He especially focused on Psalm 95, which speaks of God as creator, savior, and shepherd and calls us to sing, make a joyful noise, bow down, and kneel to God. My friend demonstrated each of these expressions for his children. His family worship times improved dramatically as the members of the family understood what God expected of them and why.

As always, we must teach by actions as well as by word. We must model what we teach. Our brothers and sisters can learn how to worship expressively and reverently, with a focus on God himself rather than on themselves, if our own prayers and demeanor reflect what we are seeking to impart to them.

We can also lead people into worship by exhortation and encouragement: we can inspire them to worship. Many of the psalms begin with a fitting summons to worship, such as "O sing to the Lord a new song" (Psalms 96:1; 98:1; 149:1) or "Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good" (Psalms 107:1; 118:1; 136:1). As leaders of God's people we should call them to sing to God, to give him thanks, to honor him in a right and fitting manner.

Sometimes correction is also fitting, either corporately or individually. Few pastors think that correction for irreverent behavior is either their responsibility or their right, since worship is viewed as a personal and subjective experience. However, once we understand worship as relational and expressive, a matter of proper honor and reverence, then correction for poorly expressed worship (for instance, hands in pockets, failure to sing, looking around distractedly) seems more evidently a matter of pastoral responsibility.

A prominent part of Christian leadership is to draw out the gifts of others and to enable them to use those gifts for the good of the whole body. Therefore, another way to lead people in worship is to discern and foster spiritual gifts.

In one weekly worship service in my own community, we have time for members to lead out in prayer and praise. Several months ago, those of us leading this service noticed that this participatory period of the service was not going well. We decided to contact those brothers and sisters in whom we discerned a special gift of leading out in prayer and praise, to urge them to take more initiative in using their gifts to inspire and strengthen the whole congregation. Over the following weeks these brothers and sisters exercised their gifts more, and the worship of the body was greatly enriched.

Our active role of leadership in worship should further corporate participation rather than stifle it. Worship services are not performances, pastors are not actors, music groups and choirs are not concert performers, and the worshiping body of Christ is not a band of spectators. Our leadership should have as a goal the calling forth of true and holy worship from the people of God.

As we seek to renew and strengthen Christian worship, we should not fail to utilize those inspired words of praise, thanksgiving, confession, and petition given to us in the book of Psalms. The Psalter is a school of prayer. We can learn how to relate to God in worship by observing and imitating the ways that the psalmists relate to God.

The Psalter is also the Christian prayer book. It provides not only instruction in prayer but also the very words of our prayer. If we want to lead people into deeper worship, then we should lead them to the book of Psalms, teach them its ways, and sing and pray its prayers together.

Of course, we must also learn how to pray the Psalms as they are fulfilled in the Messiah. We are not pre-first-century Jews worshiping in the Jerusalem temple, nor should we be 20th-century antiquarians pretending in prayer to live in a world of the past. We are instead those who have been redeemed by Jesus, the Messiah who fulfilled the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms (Luke 24:44). We are praying in the temple of the Messiah's earthly body, and our worship ascends as a pleasing sacrifice in the heavenly sanctuary.

As I stated at the beginning, the Hebrew and Greek words for worship refer to expressions of honor and reverence. New Testament faith proclaims that God has sanctified us in Christ, torn the veil preventing our entry into the Most Holy Place, and brought us as priests and as sons and daughters into his throne room. God is not inaccessible to us; we can now enter his presence with confidence (Heb. 10:19). Nevertheless, the one we stand before is still the creator of the universe, the Holy One of Israel, the Lord of hosts, and we are still exhorted to offer him "acceptable worship, with reverence and awe" (Heb. 12:28).

Reverence does not come naturally to those who have been born and raised in mid-20th-century America. We are most comfortable in casual and informal situations; if a relationship is supposed to be intimate, then we assume it is also relaxed and without rules of decorum. The father-son relationship in biblical times was intimate, but it was not lacking in reverence. Our relationship with God is intimate, but should we enter his throne room in our tattered blue jeans, pull up a chair for ourselves, greet him by his first name, and ask him how he's doing? Of course, we can worship and pray while we are doing anything; but we should not do just anything while we are worshiping and praying.

We need to recover expressed reverence for God. Such expressed reverence is at the very heart of worship. May God be patient with us as we seek to grow in offering him the worship that is worthy of his great honor and glory.

This article, copyright © 1987 by Mark Kinzer, was first published in Pastoral Renewal, October, 1987, Volume 12, Number 3, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. Used with permission.

Mark S. Kinzer is a Messianic Jew, theologian, and Rabbi of Congregation Zera Avraham in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and President Emeritus of Messianic Jewish Theological Institute. He has been involved in ecumenical work since the 1970s. He had an active teaching and leadership role for some 20 years with The Word of God and the Servants of the Word, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA and also with the wider network of international communities, called Sword of the Spirit. At its peak growth of 1400 people in the 1980s, The Word of God community comprised a diverse membership of Christians from many different traditions and denominations, including Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Pentecostals, and Messianic Jews.

Mark Kinzer has been a member of the Messianic Jewish – Roman Catholic Dialogue Group since its inception in 2000. He has written many articles and books, including 
Living With a Clear Conscience: A Christian Strategy for Overcoming Guilt and Self-Condemnation (1982), and Searching Her Own Mystery: Nostra Aetate, the Jewish People, and the Identity of the Church (2015), with a forward by Christoph Cardinal Schonborn.

top illustration, "Jacob's Dream" (c)  by Baruch Maayan 
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