I was once asked “are there activities practiced by your congregation that are not worship? If so, what?”
If you were to ask me today, I would respond with a question: “What is it that you mean by worship?” Etymologically, worship is commonly understood to mean “to ascribe worth or value to something or someone.” In the context of the question, the someone is God.
That leads me to the question, “do you mean worship as in Sunday morning hour?” If yes, I might then ask, “is an hour on Sunday all there is to worship?”
Scripture paints a much richer picture. In Exodus 4-10, eight times there is the command “let my people go so that they might worship me.” In bondage to Pharaoh, it appears that the people of Israel could not worship God. But does that mean those in bondage cannot worship? What about the prisoner of war or the battered wife? Perhaps it’s not that one cannot worship God while in captivity, but that release from captivity demands response to God’s saving act. Perhaps, then, worship is a response: “you shall worship the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”
Then there’s Job. At the loss of his wealth, children and health, Job fell on his face and worshiped God. To his enraged wife, Job posed his own question, “shall we receive the good at the hand of God and not receive the bad?”
What happens when God’s activity in our lives or on our behalf seems designed to knock us on our backsides? Is God no longer worship worthy? Do we worship God only for what we can get out of God? Is worship a mere consumer exchange, a quid pro quo? Or is there more to worship of God?
Scripture tells us that as we “ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name,” we should “bring an offering and come before God.” So worship also involves bringing something to God. David insists we should “not offer … to God that which costs us nothing.” Worship involves bringing to God something of value, that which has cost us something. What we offer speaks to our understanding of God’s worth.
Still, all of these outward expressions are not sufficient alone to be true worship. More is expected than mere outward signs: “I appeal to you … present your bodies as a living sacrifice holy and acceptable to God … be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God.”
But for the constraints of space, I would have questions about music, sacraments and more. Perhaps the most telling expression of worship is our lives — both corporate and individual. Eugene Peterson writes that “in worship God gathers his people to himself as center…we worship so that we live in response to and from [a bit like breathing] this center, the living God.” Is our “everyday, ordinary life — our sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking around life — placed before God as an offering?”
If not, can any of those commonly identified elements of worship truly be characterized as worship?