Some people think that trying to define words is a waste of time, no more productive than solving crossword puzzles or struggling with the latest Sudoku. But I don’t agree. As we struggle – and sometimes it is a struggle – to define what we mean by a word, we can learn a great deal from our failures as well as from our successes.
This is certainly true of the word ‘worship’. It is very difficult to tie down what we do when we gather on a Sunday. We may be able to describe what we do – but can we define it? Can we sum up the essential nature of worship so as to help us to be better worshippers? Let’s try.
One way of defining ‘worship’ is to examine the history of the word. Of course, this only works in English as other languages will use words with different histories.
But the etymology of ‘worship’ takes us to the Anglo Saxon weorthscripe, meaning ‘giving honour and acknowledging worth’. When we speak of ‘his or her worship the mayor’ we are giving honour to a representative citizen and the community they symbolize.
When we worship God we acknowledge that only God is worthy of this activity of worship. All honour and praise are due to the one who is creator and redeemer. And we recognize that to worship anyone or anything else is to commit idolatry.
But although this gives us some clues, there is more to worship than simply honouring God. Some turn to the Shorter Westminster Catechism: ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.’ If we ignore the exclusive seventeenth century language we can see here a challenging vision of human life created in order to relate to God by glorifying God. Even more, it suggests that our glorifying God will be a delight, not simply a duty.
But this statement isn’t actually about worship, but the purpose of human existence. While we could argue that in worship we most adequately fulfil this purpose, the statement isn’t actually a definition of worship.
Fresh insights are offered by the Baptist New Testament scholar Ralph P. Martin who suggests: ‘Worship is the dramatic celebration of God in his supreme worth in such a manner that his ‘worthiness’ becomes the norm and inspiration of human living.’
This is helpful. First, it reminds us that worship can be dramatic and a real celebration of God’s goodness and salvation. Secondly, it shows us that when we truly worship we are changed and made more like the one we worship.
But something is missing. You can celebrate someone’s goodness without addressing them personally. We don’t want a ‘Does he take sugar?’ approach to worship where we talk about God rather than talk to God, so we need an element of encounter in our understanding of worship. So here’s my own attempt at a working definition:
‘Christian worship is a gathering of the church in the name of Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit in order to meet God through Scripture, prayer, proclamation and sacraments and to seek God’s Kingdom.’
This definition is in, in part, descriptive because it tells us what kind of event worship is: a gathering in which certain things are likely to happen – bible reading, singing, praying etc. But it also tells us about the purpose of worship – it is a gathering to meet God and to seek God’s kingdom.
Devotion is a vitally important part of worship – without the engagement of my heart, mind and will my worship of God will be empty and lifeless.
But the meeting with God is more than what I myself bring. God comes to us in majestic splendour and tender compassion. We will indeed bring our adoration – but we will also want to confess our sins, seek God’s help and be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Yet for this meeting to be authentic worship something else needs to happen. We need to seek God’s kingdom. If we truly love God then we will want what God wants. Our prayers, our actions and our inner longings will hunger for righteousness and justice, we will yearn for God’s love to be shed abroad and for God’s shalom to become a reality in places where at present there is no peace.
The horizon of this worship is far wider than my own personal concerns – it is the whole of creation and all that scripture reveals as God’s will for creation. Which leads me on to two final reflections.
First, we need to realize that worship is not only what happens when we gather as a congregation, but should be an attitude of life. Paul in Romans 12:1 appeals to his readers to offer their lives as a living sacrifice to God and then goes on to list a load of situations and relationships in which this can work itself out – including how we treat those who mistreat us.
This is the ‘double meaning of worship’ – the offering of everything to God as we live the lives we have been given and in which we are called to follow Jesus – as well as the focus and expression of this attitude of life in the things we do and say in the gathering of worship.
Secondly, while this attempt to define worship can be illuminating and helpful, there is a health warning. At its best, worship defines us – here we discover who we are and what we are called to be and do. That is scary and inspiring – as we meet God so God meets us. That’s worship.
Originally published in The Baptist Times