Where will we go?
Worship Arts Coordinator (QLD)
This year, I’m making a New Year’s revolution.
Recently, I read an article suggesting careful examination of the past year could be more helpful than making promises about the next.1 Posts, tweets, and even sermons challenge us to reevaluate before “returning to normal.” Let’s face it: there is precious little “normal” at present, and “new normal” seems to be a moveable feast which transforms as quickly as it is glimpsed.
For Christians, one “normal” continually discussed is the whole area of worship. Looking back, what have I learned about worship in this turbulent year? Are there unshakable worship principles that apply despite pandemic, isolation, technology, and the thousand challenges bombarding us? What does this mean for God’s people as worshippers, and for me personally?
Is it time to worship? Undoubtedly.
Is it time to worship differently? Perhaps.
I think it is time to worship as Jesus recommended.
In John 4: 4-42, there is a fascinating account of Jesus’ meeting with a Samaritan woman. Their conversation is remarkable in many ways. For me, it contains powerful lessons about the nature of worship, the vital elements of true worship, and the impact of personal revolution.
Firstly, like the Samaritan, I find I’ve begun with the wrong question: where will we go? How many similar conversations have we experienced recently? If this dialogue occurred lately, we might ask, “Some say go back to church! Some say stay home! Some say gather online! Which is the right way, Jesus?”
Jesus swiftly clarifies such factors as relatively unimportant. He invites a change of focus from externals to worship’s intrinsic meaning and purpose, as He also reminded the Pharisees on various occasions.2 One application of this is that no physical pre-requisites for worship means physical limitations need not stop us worshipping. This is especially good news when so many customary worship practices are currently disrupted. Whether we gather in person, via technology or hybrids thereof, in groups large or small, any opportunity where God’s people meet allows us to glorify God together. Matthew 18:20 reminds us, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
Worship is both a corporate and individual practice, or as expressed by Sam & Sara Hargreaves, both gathered and scattered worship.3 As Scripture makes plain in Romans 12:1, our very lives are acts of worship. Hebrews 13:15-16 and Colossians 3:16-17 also describe this fusion of expressed and lived praise.
But if the location and context of my worship are not particularly important, what aspects are? How can I be sure my worship is true worship?
Jesus illuminated this for the Samaritan (and us) by answering the unasked questions of greater importance - who and how? He defines true worship as worshipping the Father in spirit and in truth. This establishes the only worship non-negotiables: it must be rightly directed to God, rightly engaged by God’s Spirit, and rightly formed by God’s Word.
These non-negotiable elements apply to all individual and corporate worship practice, and all parts of our lives – for all worship begins, continues, and ends with God:
“One of the greatest discoveries of my Christian pilgrimage has come with the realization that the primary importance in worship is not what I do, but what God is doing. In worship, God is present, speaking to me, and acting upon me.”4
This doesn’t dismiss our worship practices as unimportant (the next article in this series will further explore the richness of Worship Acts). In fact, keeping our focus God-centric enables us to better utilize them by asking who and how before presuming what, where, when. Let’s consider how each non-negotiable can help us rightly focus and reflect on our worship practice.
It might seem obvious that true worship is directed to God, yet worship drift can be alarmingly easy. Are our practices becoming a means to an end other than proclaiming God’s greatness?
Worship’s focus must be lasered on God and God’s narrative – it’s in His reflection we make sense of our experiences, share our stories, and serve others.
Is our worship genuinely preoccupied with God, filled with reverence and wonder? Or has it become familiar, comfortable, unthinking, unamazed? This is what Jesus was referring to as the Samaritans worshipping without understanding - while they worshipped Yahweh, they viewed Him in effect as a local deity, inherited with the territory, like other nations of the time.5 Jesus’ challenge to us, as to His listener, was to shun lip service, actively pursuing relationship with God – for through Jesus we are privileged to know Almighty God personally.
Helpful refocusing questions might be: Who (or what) is holding my attention in this moment of worship? On whom (or what) does this shine the spotlight? Who is God to me?
Secondly, God initiates worship connection by the Holy Spirit, and He actively seeks our engagement with Him through the Spirit. This authentic engagement does not rely on us doing the “correct” things to connect spiritually, but on recognizing God is already present and inviting us to participate. “True worship is the intersection of God’s Spirit with our spirit,” 6 therefore physical, habitual, and practical elements employed for worship must continually be surrendered to the Spirit’s direction. Worship practices, including leading worship, help us experience and hear from God, but the Holy Spirit must always be in the driving seat.7 Good questions for right engagement might be:
Thirdly, our worship must be formed by God’s truth – consistent with God’s character revealed in the Bible and in the person of Jesus. It is not enough to merely experience and enjoy worship practices – they are a crucible where God forms and re-forms us.
Our gatherings and interactions should also demonstrate integrity. Does our worship embody the fruit of the Spirit and similar Biblical teaching? Are we kind, patient, inclusive, generous, polite? Is our worship without pretense? In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus made it plain that honesty and humility before God pleases Him more than fancy words; in John 13:34-35, He instructed His disciples that their key identifier must be love. Sadly, these hallmarks have been glaringly absent from many public interactions among Christians, to the extent of potentially contributing to church
Good questions to explore truthful worship might be:
Finally, how does this instruct me personally, as a worship leader and worshipper? My revelation from this Scripture was a revolution – a turn-around: it’s time to leave behind my water-pot and reconnect with the true source of Living Water.
For the Samaritan, leaving her waterpot and running back to her community represented a total personal revolution of heart and mind. Where once she avoided interaction, coming to the well in midday heat, she now sought to share the message that was transforming her.
As worship leaders, we cannot lead others where we have not been. How do we personally practice true worship so that we can better help God’s people worship in the year ahead? I believe we need to set aside vessels of self-reliance and self-provision. We need not fear our limited capacity when we draw constantly from the unlimited Source.
In 2021, we may need to leave waterpot routines that have become meaningless, allowing the Living Water to flow more spontaneously. Or perhaps, leave behind waterpots of inconsistency and allow the Living Water to fuel helpful habits. What about the waterpot of people pleasing? That’s a good one to discard.
No doubt, at some point the Samaritan needed more physical water; but having encountered Living Water, she was no longer afraid to turn up with her waterpot, engaging with whoever she met at the well. The waterpot became simply a vessel fit for purpose, not a symbol of her isolation and shame.
Maybe this is not unlike our love/hate relationship with masks, or church online. There may well be use for these in 2021, but let them be simply vessels, not symbols of isolation and fear. We can worship anyway, whether our village well is virtual or actual – and more than ever, we need to seize every opportunity to embrace true worship.
Why not here? Why not now? Why not any and everywhere?
It’s time to worship our God in Spirit and in truth.
1 End Your Year Intentionally with These 10 Questions’, Daisy U,
2 Matthew 12:1-14; Mark 7:1-13; Luke 14:1-14
3 Whole Life Worship, Sam & Sara Hargreaves, Intervarsity Press, 20-21.
4 Worship is A Verb, Robert Webber, Hendrickson Publishers, 66.
5 Commentary, Matthew Henry,
6 Worship Like Jesus, Constance M. Cherry, Abingdon Press, 74.
7 1 Corinthians 14:1-33; John 14:26; Acts 2:1-4
8 ‘New Exodus? 4 Reasons So Many People (Including Christians) Have Suddenly Left The Church’,
9 How to Lead Worship Without Being a Rock Star, Dan Wilt, Wild Pear/Worship Training.com, 17.