Rev. Joshua Scheer of Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bagley, MN has this article available as a PDF file on his church website; we’ve posted several similar to this in the past, but wanted to make it available to any new readers or to continue the discussion on what Worship is.
O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. – Psalm 51:15 (NKJV)
Just what is it that we gather in a church for? Is it just fellowship, fun, and social interaction? How about to catch up on news, or to enjoy donuts and coffee? No, those things are only in addition to the real reason to come to Church. We come to church to worship. But what is worship? Whose work is it?
The real meaning of worship is that it is God’s work first, and we come in a very far second. That is sometimes confused as we view church as a time to be active in singing, praying, and speaking. But don’t let all of that activity fool you, worship is passive, worship is receiving from God those things that He gives.
I chose the opening verse of this article for a couple of reasons. First, some of you may recognize it as the beginning of a few services, were the pastor reads (or chants) the first half, and the congregation responds with the second part. The liturgy is built on top of the Scriptures. It is not boring, dull, or dusty because it is made of the very Word of God. Secondly, and most importantly, the passage emphasizes that worship is primarily God’s work. God is the one who opens our lips to declare His praise.
God acts first. Our worship should reflect salvation, where God acted first. The Scriptures teach that while we were still trapped in sin, Christ died for us. God took action. We couldn’t do it. Our worship should reflect that reliance on God’s action.
How does this work? Well, we hear from God first, He speaks, we listen. His Word gives what it says. Faith is created from that Word of God, and the heart acknowledges the gifts of God that have been received with eager thankfulness and praise. Out of this, we sing hymns, which are a natural way to praise God, who has acted first.
Hymns make up a good portion of our part in worship. Through our song, we declare His praise. Our hymns should not be chosen by chance, but should reflect a focus on the work of God. Hymns do not try to create the right atmosphere or mood for worship, but they serve as a vehicle for the Spirit-filled Word of God. Hymns are never entertainment, but proclamation (declaring His praise). Hymns are shaped by an understanding based upon the cross of Christ. Hymns do not have to be exact quotes from Scripture, but instead are based upon Scripture, interpreted in reference to Christ. Hymns are not bound to any culture except the culture of the universal church of all times and places.
What we sing on Sunday morning should reflect these points, otherwise we are just playing and singing to ourselves. Church should not be entertaining, but should serve you with the gifts of God. Again, the focus is on God and His work in Christ Jesus. Even what we sing about should be about God’s work. A good way to analyze what you are singing is to ask “who is doing the verbs?” That means that you look at the verses of a hymn, or lyrics of a song and ask who is the focus, who is the one doing the action of what you are singing? If the answer is anything but God, then maybe the song should be saved for our local radio stations and kept away from the sanctuary.
In the Lutheran tradition, our worship services are often called “Divine Service”. This name reflects exactly what I have been talking about. It is God’s service. And what happens in church is for us. God does not need anything from us, but He does have a lot of things to give to us. These gifts of God are very important, and our Divine Service or worship serves as a time to receive from God.
I often encounter people who are intrigued about the work of a pastor who leads worship. They often think very highly of such work, and rightly so. It is a humbling thing to lead God’s saints in receiving His gifts. But I would suggest that the most precious place in any sanctuary is the pew, where you can sit, stand, kneel and receive from God freely. Pastors serve as Christ’s servant to bring those gifts to you in an orderly way.
Our Lord speaks and we listen. God acts first. We respond by speaking back to God the Words He has given us to speak. This is worship. It reflects the God we have, the God of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the God of our salvation, who acted first while we were still dead in sins and trespasses. Blessings as you seek out worship this week.
Sources: “Lutheran Worship” Introduction
“Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing: An Apology for Lutheran Hymnody” by Chad Bird