The Meaning of Worship: Getting Back to the Heart of it All

Stepping into the auditorium of a well-known church, I was taken aback by the theatrics of the worship service. I don’t mean simply the music, but rather the entire service, from parking the car until the time I drove away for lunch. In substitution of singing were shows, in place of preaching were political programs, and in berth of Bibles were beverages. What set my heart to tears was during the songs of praise to God. Not knowing the songs, I chose not to sing, but instead meditate on the words in order to direct them towards God in prayers of adoration. The lyrics seemed to be quite good actually, with a right focus on God and not man. However, in the midst of this I began to look around at the other 4,000 people and in my immediate vicinity I could not find one person singing – at least their lips were not moving. Is it possible that, like me, they chose not to sing because they too did not know the words or maybe had other, valid reasons for not singing? Possible, yes; probable, no. Many were enjoying their coffee, some were talking to their neighbors, and even more were on their phones texting, surfing the internet, and whatever else was to their pleasing. Having visited this particular church only once, I don’t think it is fair to name the church or criticize it, because this may not be the norm. However, this experience did cause me to pause and ponder, “Is this the norm for our churches across the United States?”

I think that the evidence of spiritual depth of the American ‘churches’ would easily support me in saying yes. Maybe the form looks different; instead of replacing Bibles with beverages, it could be that the preaching God’s declarations has been replaced with pronouncements of man’s discourses, or worse, maybe we have replaced the sacrifice of Christ with the self-reliance of man.

John 4:20-24 says, “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship Him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”[1]

Dr. Greg Harris of the Master’s Seminary defines biblical worship as, “a response to the attributes and/or activities of God in spirit and truth.”[2] As I look into Scripture, seeking to determine what worship is, all the verses verify this as a biblically accurate definition. So where has the church gone wrong? The very fact that Jesus refers to true worshipers in these verses indicates that there must also be false worshipers. Without going into all of the theological details in these verses, I want to call on churches and church leaders to examine themselves in the mirror of God’s Word and ask, “Are we true worshipers of Him, or false worshipers?” John 4:20-24 gives three clear distinctives of what makes a true worshiper.

The first is a correct knowledge. Verse 22 indicates that true worshipers worship what they know. If one does not know Jesus, why would that person worship Him? We would say it is foolishness to worship something/someone we don’t know. Knowledge is not the mere head knowledge as some would suggest either. Knowledge only comes from the Lord through a reverential fear of Him, which develops as you have a relationship with Him (Proverbs 1:7, 9:10). One cannot respond to the attributes, actions, and authority of God if one does not know them! True, biblical worship does not happen without correct knowledge.

Second, true worship is centered on God. Verse 23 says true worshipers will worship the Father and that He is seeking people to worship Him. Worship has become about a self-ascribed experience in which individuals seek to ‘feel the presence of God.’ Yet, there is nothing in there that refers to worship being about men! It is not about our emotions or our experiences. What worship needs to be is an intellectual heart attitude based on a relationship with Him. What that means is that worship is a person’s response to God based on intellectually knowing who He is, and having a heart attitude that is reverent toward Him based on that intellectual understanding of God’s attributes and activities.

Finally, biblical worship must be contained in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24). The word ‘contained’ may sound as though I am putting worship in a box, but it is important to understand that worship without spirit and truth is not true worship! In these verses alone, spirit and worship are mentioned twice, thus emphasizing their importance. Likewise, they are mentioned together. The conjunction ‘and’ ties them together indicating that both must be present at the same time for worship to be true. You cannot have one and not the other. Another thing to note is that in this section of John, God is referred to as spirit. We also know according to John 14:6 that Christ is truth….once again it is centered around God, and done so in His entirety. John Calvin best sums up this point in saying, “for the truth of the worship of God consists in the Spirit.”[3]

If God is worthy to be worshiped, then we should worship Him! But we should do so rightly. Worshiping God (in whatever form it may be, from singing and preaching to counseling and exhortation) must be less about us and more about Him! It should be a genuine love response to who He is! Worship should be with the correct knowledge, centered on God, and contained by spirit and truth. These define a true worshiper.


[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version, 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

[2] Dr. Greg Harris is a professor of Bible exposition at The Master’s Seminary, senior pastor of Lake Hills Community Church in Castaic, CA. He is also the author of several books, including The Cup and the Glory. I had the privilege of sitting under his teaching in a worship and wisdom class at The Master’s College, July 2013, and this is the standard definition that he gives to his students regarding biblical worship.

[3] Calvin, John and Pringle, William. Commentary on the Gospel According to John. Bellingham: Logos Bible Software, 2010.

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