How shall we worship?

We all worship in one way or another. Even those who do not believe in religion, worship. They worship sports icons, music idols, or money. We are created for worship. God's creation of Adam and Eve on the sixth day, the day preceding the Sabbath, has a deep significance, both theologically and sociologically. The Creator intended that, in the lives of human beings, worship must take priority over any other human activity. It is this priority that demands of God's followers that they not only worship, but also worship in the right way. The fact and manner of worship cannot be taken for granted.

What is the right form of worship? Is there only one correct form or style? Have worship forms changed over time? Who decides which form or format is appropriate? Setting aside personal opinions and preferences, we need to discover the answer from God's Word.

The meaning of worship

The Scriptures provide us various models of worship. One of the clearest is in Isaiah 6:1-8 where the prophet relates his vision of a heavenly worship scene. This passage presents us with a program of worship, even an order of worship.

The chapter opens with a vision of God on His heavenly throne, a vision of beauty, power, majesty, and reverence. Here we learn first why we come to worship: to respond to God's presence and His call for worship.

The Psalms--Israel's traditional worship and praise texts--help us find out how to worship: in joy and reverence. The theme runs through the Psalms and is expressed in phrases such as, "Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord...Come, let us bow down in worship" (Psalms 95:1, 6, NIV).

To balance between joyfulness and reverence presents a challenge. In worship services, we often practice one to the exclusion of the other, and somehow cannot find a way to combine the two. It seems difficult to be reverent and at the same time to be joyful. But this is what God's Word tells us to do in worship.

The Bible also presents worship as a wholistic activity. Worshipers are to approach God through their entire being. Biblical worship involves the spirit, mind, and physical senses. Isaiah 6 speaks of worship as involving the four senses of seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching.

Worship is also a corporate act: We come to God as a body of believers. This involves both vertical and horizontal dimensions. Often in worship, we interact with people around us to a limited degree, but true worship must bring us closer not only to God but also to the body of worshipers. Because our churches are more and more multi-cultural and multi-generational, the horizontal dimension has become a challenge. Each of the different groups aspires to express worship in its own way.

Further, when we come to worship, we need to find out whom we worship. Worship is not something we do for ourselves. Worship is meant to be done for God and to God. It is a God-centered activity, entirely focused on Him (see Psalms 9:1, 2). We do not come to worship primarily to get blessings, to learn something, or to have fellowship. The main purpose of worship is to come to God, to give Him glory, and to speak about His deeds.

Worship, then, is a partnership experience: God, on one hand, initiates the call to worship, and the worshiper responds to this call.

For worship to take place it must be meaningful to both partners. Meaningful worship is pleasing to God. Psalm 19 is clear on this point: "May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight" (Psalms 19:14, NIV). Yet, how often we have endeavored to please the congregation when we put together a worship service!

Motivation determines our thinking and organization regarding worship. The first concern we need to harbor in our hearts whenever we deal with forms and formats of worship is: "Is this going to please the Lord?" When we want to please someone, we attempt to find out what the person is like: "What is his or her character? What does this person like to do? How does this person relate to us?" We need to ask the same questions to find out what will please God. Answers discovered will address our quest for appropriateness in worship.

But worship must also be meaningful to the worshiper. It is important to find out whether the worship service is relevant to our congregation, i.e., whether our congregation will find meaning in the worship service. This brings us to the importance of symbols. Meaning in worship is conveyed through symbols, such as the Lord's Supper, baptism, Scripture reading, prayer, music, architecture, etc. They all are "signs" meant to convey the meaning of worship and should help worship come alive and be relevant.

This is a difficult task. And it is even more difficult to combine the two, appropriateness and relevance. How can worship be pleasing to God, and at the same time relevant to the congregation? How can we combine the divine element of call and the human element of response in our worship experience?

The forms of worship

The worship service belongs to the entire congregation, not just the pastor. On this we need to educate our congregations as well as our pastors, worship leaders, and music leaders. Our worship and music leaders often come to serve the congregation with their talents and their good intent. Musicians, especially trained in particular skills, need to remember that worship is a very special moment. In worship you do not just "make music." In worship you do not just "interact" with the congregation. In worship you do not just "read a text." You do all these things in the presence of God, and for God.

True worship, in its essence and its forms, starts with learning and teaching about it. Education, role modeling, mentoring, and preparation of leaders and the congregation are all ingredients in this learning process.

Learning about worship raises important questions: Is there a particular style or format that God likes best? Is there one best way to worship? Is there one way for everybody around the world to worship? Scripture makes it clear that it is not so much the style or format of worship per se that matters to God. What God is looking for is the condition and attitude of the worshiper's heart. The highest expectation in worship, in the eyes of God, is "a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart" (Psalms 51:17). God does not like our sacrifices, our forms of worship, when we do not walk the talk "to act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with [Him]" (Micah 6:8, NIV).

It is, therefore, the genuine transformation of the heart that will guarantee a genuine format of worship. Whatever format we use, if we do not come with a changed heart, it will be meaningless. In a global, multicultural body such as the Adventist Church, wherever we worship, the same principles must guide our understanding of what worship is. Derived from the Word of God, they are unchangeable and eternal, independent of time or place. Where we diverge is in our expressions of worship, in how we worship. We need to determine what attitudes, shaped by our culture, will best express reverence. Here, the real question is: "Will this particular mode of expression within a given culture truly be understood as expressing reverence to God?"

The same is true for joyfulness. There are different ways of being joyful. Some jump and shout, others are quietly joyful. Whatever culture we live in, we need to discover the most truthful way to express the joy that comes from biblical worship. What kind of joy should we expect to experience in worship? Is there a difference between the kind of joy we experience in worship and the celebration we experience at a football game or music event? The joy that comes from worship is very special and not common. It is in some way similar to our human joys, but it is also very different. Nehemiah's account of the dedication of the walls of Jerusalem after Israel's return from the exile says that they were "rejoicing because God had given them great joy" (Nehemiah 12:43, NIV). Thus joyfulness in worship is a God-given joy, the result of our encounter with Him and of what He has done for us. Our quest for this God-given joy is very important because it will shape our expressions of worship: the way we behave during worship, the music we do, and how we do that music.

Form and content go hand in hand, in worship as well as in every art form. Just as in art, so in worship: If the message transmitted by the form is not the same as that carried by the content, we will end up in false art or false worship. The image of pipe and water illustrates the issue of cultural expression. While pipes may be of different materials--metal, plastic, cement--they all can convey water. Similarly, different cultural expressions can convey a particular truth. One thing, however, is important: We must ensure that when the water comes down to us and when we drink of it, it is still the pure, unadulterated water, the truth. If this water changes in its chemical composition, it can become a poison. Certain channels or pipes can change the nature of the water. If I use a lead pipe to transport my water, the water will ultimately pick up enough lead to make me sick. The essential of life can become a cause of sickness. If our form of worship in some way adulterates the message we want to convey, it is not an appropriate form of worship and we need to change it. On the other hand, if it conveys truthfully the message of worship, even if it is not the traditional form, then it is an appropriate form for worship.

One of the difficult realities of worship is that it comes with a tension, as we have noted: between the human partner and the divine partner in worship; between expressions of joy and reverence; and between appropriateness and relevance. It is a healthy tension because it constantly challenges us in our worship. This tension requires that we spare no effort to find a sound balance between the two elements. This task cannot be done by one person alone; it takes the entire congregation to ensure that our worship is pleasing to God.

In the perspective of this tension, any discussion about forms and formats of worship takes on a new direction. The issue is no longer to choose between styles--which would mean that there are some styles better than others--but to make choices within a given style. A multiplicity of styles is available for proper worship, and within each style we must choose those elements that appropriately convey true worship values.

The questions are not: Is it O.K. to clap in worship? Is this style of music acceptable? Should we use drama in worship? Should we kneel or stand for prayer? Forms and formats of worship are not the goal or purpose of worship. They are now results and consequences of our reflection on worship. At this point, new questions will arise and govern our quest for true worship:

We need to relearn how to worship. The secret to achieve this is to relearn how to connect with God on a personal level. Corporate worship starts on the level of personal worship. As we learn to know Him better, and how to come closer to Him, as we learn how to address ourselves to Him and how to relate to our fellow worshipers, we will discover how to make our worship services more meaningful.

Lilianne Doukhan (Ph.D., Michigan State University) teaches musicology and Music and Worship at Andrews University, in Berrien Springs, Michigan. She is currently working on a book on worship and music. Her e-mail: