This article was written by Dr. Sam Storms. He is the Lead Pastor for Preaching and Vision at Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City, OK.
God-centered, Christ-exalting, Spirit-empowered worship happens whenever the mind is filled with deep, robust, expansive, biblical thoughts about who God is and what he has done, which in turn awaken and inflame heart-felt and passionate affections for God such as joy, gladness, delight, gratitude, admiration, love, fear, zeal, and deep satisfaction in all that he is for us in Jesus Christ.
You will notice that I said nothing about the kind of songs we sing. One can genuinely worship God with a medieval hymn, a contemporary chorus, or in spoken prose. Nothing was said in my definition about physical posture. One can genuinely worship God sitting, standing, kneeling, lying prostrate on the ground, dancing, with hands raised, with hands in pockets, with hands clapping, with tears flowing or a wide smile. I said nothing about the presence or absence of musical instruments. One can genuinely worship God by singing a cappella or with musical accompaniment, both by the human voice alone or with a symphony orchestra. I said nothing about the freedom, form, or style in which worship is expressed. One can genuinely worship God through centuries-old structured liturgy or Spirit-prompted spontaneity, both through pre-written confessions of faith or impromptu shouts of praise.
The mistake many make is in conceiving worship as if it’s all about “thoughts” or all about “affections” when the Bible insists it must be about both. Listen again to what Jesus said in two critically important texts about true worship.
The first one occurred in his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. As soon as Jesus exposed her sexually immoral lifestyle she tried to change the subject: “Uh, tell me Jesus, where is the proper place to worship? You Jews say it is in Jerusalem, whereas we who are Samaritans worship on another mountain.” Nice try, lady, but Jesus isn’t so easily put off the scent of your sin! Still, though, he takes up her question and says something of profound importance:
“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” (John 4:21-24).
True worship has nothing to do with geography! It has nothing to do with where you are but rather what you believe and feel about the one true God. God couldn’t care less which mountain top you choose. In fact, it matters nothing at all to him whether your worship is on a mountain, in the valley, in this country or in another. What matters is that you worship in the power of the Spirit and in accordance with truth. That is to say, your worship must be both theologically informed and spiritually empowered, both an expression of your mind and your spirit, both true and passionate, both thoughtful and affectionate.
Jesus said much the same thing in Matthew 15:7-9. There he spoke to the religious leaders of his day:
“You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
You can say and sing all the right things and never truly worship God! You can quote Scripture, join in the corporate confession of sin, recite early church creeds, and never truly worship God. You can walk into an auditorium every Sunday morning with every song we sing memorized so that you never have to look at the screen or even open your eyes and still not truly worship God. You can move your lips, raise your hands, sit, sway, dance, or kneel, and never truly worship God.
What makes worship real and genuine and Christ-exalting? Jesus says it is the engagement of the heart! By this I think he means the totality of who we are: our thoughts and especially our affections and feelings for God. That is why I said earlier that true worship, worship that hits the mark, worship that is on target spiritually, always requires both exalted thoughts about God and passionate affections for God. One without the other is a disaster.
Countless churches have gathered today filled with people who are passionate and emotional and energetic and excited and tears are flowing and laughter fills the air and dancers are everywhere and the music is loud and hands are raised and God is offended. Why? Because they do not worship “in truth.” They worship a pre-fabricated “god” of their own making, a product of their own imaginations, a “god” who bears little to no resemblance to the God of the Bible. They come to church because they love the euphoric feeling of the music and the elevated emotions of the atmosphere and the sheer fun of celebrating with other people.
But they have very little grasp of who is being celebrated. Their affections and feelings and the physical sensations that course through their bodies are unrelated to anything in the mind and their thoughts about God are distorted and wrong-headed.
Some of them are even afraid of biblical truth, believing that thinking is a Spirit-quenching endeavor. To be fair, they aren’t opposed to the Bible; they’re just careless and even a bit indifferent about it. If they feel elevated emotions and their bodies shake and there is a tangible warmth and a complete freedom to move about and shout, all is well.
And there are just as many churches today where people are thinking in perfect harmony with what the Bible says about God. Their theology is spot on accurate. They wouldn’t be caught dead entertaining the slightest heretical thought about God. They can quote Scripture accurately. They can debate anyone on any doctrinal issue, and win.
But according to Jesus, their “hearts” are far from him. They feel nothing for him. God is little more than a big idea in their minds.
They believe they have successfully worshiped if they were able to bring their thoughts in line with Scripture, if their ideas about God corresponded perfectly with the Bible. After its over they can say confidently: “I did it right!” They revel in mental satisfaction. But they don’t really love the God about whom they’ve been singing. They don’t rejoice and delight in him. The feel no zeal or longing for him. They accurately recite God’s Word but do not tremble at it. There is no awe or fear or sorrow for sinning against him. Theirs is a cold-hearted intellectualism.
It terrifies me to think that we would build a spiritual culture at Bridgeway in which anyone could “honor” God with their lips while their heart remains unaffected, lifeless, joyless, and distant from him. God forbid! We can’t forbid or prevent you from doing that, but we want to make it extremely painful and uncomfortable for you should that be your choice. And if you are the sort who soars, being caught up in an ecstatic rush of emotional euphoria, unrelated to biblical truth, we will do everything we can to grab you by the feet and pull you back to earth and tie your affections to the written Word of God.
Listen to me: God is not honored by heartless orthodoxy. Nor is he honored by joyful heresy. It isn’t enough to think correctly or to feel passionately. To worship God truly we must have BOTH our heads atuned to truth AND our hearts on fire with love and joy inexpressible and full of glory! Only then shall we worship in a way that honors God and brings spiritual enrichment to our own souls.