When it comes to Christian worship, no shortage of images come to mind. Scenes both somber and vibrant. Sounds that can range from choral melodies to enthusiastic folk rhythms, depending on the stream of Christian tradition. All of these can emerge when the Church gathers together for worship—and that’s just in regards to music, much less other worship practices. For me, all of this brings up a larger question: what exactly is worship?
This is a question that has received a variety of responses. Therefore, it isn’t too surprising to find Andrew McGowan explain in Ancient Christian Worship that worship often means different things to different people in many Christian churches today (2014, p.2). For some, it refers to things like “communal prayer and ritual,” while for others it expresses something more like a deeply personal feeling of belief and inward orientation towards life. For still others, worship basically denotes a kind of Christian music (p.2).
Regardless of which meaning one gravitates toward, I think it’s safe to say that worship is hard to define, despite being—and having always been—close to the heart of the Christian life. Each of these answers contains some measure of truth, but I’d like to suggest that subscribing to just one of them will likely cause us to miss out on important parts of what it means to worship. Specifically, we’re going to see in this essay that while worship is more than specific communal practices or music styles, it is certainly not less. For Christians, worship is both unavoidably personal and deeply communal. It is also formational.
Communion, baptism, prayer, and the singing of hymns, along with other activities have remained central to worship and Christian identity across the centuries for good reasons. The thrust of what I’m hoping to get across in this essay about worship is captured well by Andrew McGowan in another part of his book on the early Church’s worship practices:
“Worship” was not one sort of weekly corporate activity but the devotion to God that filled the whole of life. This included particular bodily expressions of that devotion, performed privately or communally from day to day, as well as the deepest dispositions of heart and mind expressed in some moments of conscious adoration or thanksgiving; worship took shape in such particular events but was not limited to them. (p.184)
Worship is Both Personal and Communal
So, returning to our overarching question, what is worship? In Simply Christian, the English theologian N.T. Wright tells us that at its most basic level, worship means “acknowledging the worth of something or someone” (2006, p.144). Whether we do this as a gathered community or in solitude, this suggests that worship has to do with acknowledging God and praising Him for who He is and what He’s done. In A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson highlights the fact that healthy worship doesn’t merely acknowledge God’s worth while leaving us unchanged—it forms our character and deepens our love for God. (2000, p.54). In Peterson’s words, “When we obey the command to praise God in worship, our deep, essential need to be in relationship with God is nurtured” (p.54). Consequently, healthy worship practices are deeply personal, without being individualistic.
If worship is oriented towards who God is and what God has done, then it makes sense that worship also contains an important corporate dimension. After all, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself (2nd Corinthians 5:19), redeeming creation and forming by the power of the Spirit a forgiven, redeemed people. This corporate dimension of salvation can be seen in the words of the Apostle Peter when he describes the Church as “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Peter 2:9, NRSV). It can also be seen in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, where he uses language that is both participatory and communal:
For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. (12:13-14, NRSV)
Those of us in Christ are on a life-long pilgrimage, and we need each other. Like any other kind of pilgrim, though, we can get tired out and become parched with thirst. When this happens, what we most need is—to borrow a phrase from Kevin Vanhoozer in his book, Pictures at a Theological Exhibition—a drink from the “Trinitarian well” (2016, p.122). He goes on to say that “corporate worship provides a gathering place to refresh pilgrims along their Christian way” (2016, p.122). When we consider corporate worship, it’s important that we don’t limit our imaginations to the singing of songs. The witness of the Scriptures, as well as much of Church history, shows that other practices like prayer, charity, and fasting, among other things, also deserve to be seen as communal expressions of worship. Again, does this mean that worship lacks a deeply personal character? Of course not. The Psalms are nothing if not insistently personal. It seems to me that the healthiest streams of Christian spirituality makes space for solitary worship practices without forgetting that these things are generally meant to be done alongside other more communal expressions of praise and gratitude to God.
Worship is Formational
Regardless of whether the context is private or corporate, worship practices are meant to be formational, molding us into mature followers of Christ. Because of this, we can see that worship isn’t divorced from theology. In fact, both are involved in each other; theology is meant to lead to doxology. Kevin Vanhoozer puts it well when he tells us that “the way we worship shapes the way we believe” (2016, p.118). Wright says much the same thing:
You become what you worship. When you gaze in awe, admiration, and wonder at something or someone, you begin to take on something of the character of the object of your worship… So what happens when you worship the creator God whose plan to rescue the world and put it to rights has been accomplished by the Lamb who was slain?… because you were made in God’s image, worship makes you more truly human. (2006, p.148)
Origen, the famous (and sometimes controversial) Alexandrian theologian, saw prayer as a potentially constant activity, not something to be done once a day or only when in distress (McGowan, 2014, p.195). Origen wrote, “For we can only accept the saying ‘pray without ceasing’ as possible if we may speak of the whole life of a saint as one great continuous prayer” (On Prayer 12.2). Commenting on these words, Christopher Hall writes in Worshiping with the Church Fathers that when one embodies the ideal described by Origen, then “Specific times of prayer… become part of this greater whole, a life immersed in continual communion with God” (2009, p.141).
If this can be said of prayer specifically, then it can also be said of worship practices in general. Describing worship as an inward orientation towards life captures this, but also allowing for specific times of gathered worship to possess significance in their own right keeps us from erring by forgetting the distinctively formational nature of communal worship. The spiritual formation that occurs during our rhythms of private and communal worship is meant to spill over into the rest of life.
So what does a life of worship really look like? It surely includes singing, but it doesn’t stop there (Colossians 3:15-17). Worship is expressed through both “high church” chanting and “low church” prayer hours. Worship practices can also include following the church calendar and giving generously. I think one of the best ways we can bring this essay to a close is by turning to the New Testament Book of Hebrews, which has more to say about the scope of worship practices than we might at first think. After first telling his audience to “be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe” (12:28, NRSV), the author goes on to tell his readers:
Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have (13:1-13:5, NRSV)
A friend of mine was giving a talk recently, and he pointed out that one way to look at the author’s admonitions regarding loving one another, showing hospitality, avoiding immorality, and living in simplicity is to understand them as giving a picture of what it looks like to fully “worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.” If we follow this line of interpretation, then we see in these verses a broad conception of worship that encompasses nearly all of life, and I think that’s largely correct.
Yes, the most central acts of worship occur when Christians gather together to sing hymns, be fed by the Word, and celebrate the Eucharist. But I am also convinced that worshiping God can be reflected in the way we live all of life. This is a vision of life that is both rich and challenging. It makes me glad to be part of the body of Christ so that by the Spirit’s empowering work, through worship and other means, I can better love and serve those around me, witnessing to the love and service shown by Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection.
Hall, Christopher A. Worshiping with the Church Fathers. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009.
McGowan, Andrew B. Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014.
Peterson, Eugene. A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society. 2nd ed. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2000.
Vanhoozer, Kevin. Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the Church’s Worship, Witness and Wisdom. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016.
Wright, N.T. Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2006.