What is Worship?

“In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.”
– Judges 21:25 RSV

As a teenager who had been raised Catholic, one of the things that first drew me to Evangelicalism was how laid back it seemed – especially with the contemporary worship music as well as how the youth pastors prayed to Jesus as though he was talking to a longtime BFF. These non-traditional approaches to Christian worship seemed directly in contrast to the so-called vain repetition of traditional liturgy.

What also drew me to Evangelicalism was how they seemingly removed the ‘religious’ aspect from Christianity and made Jesus a more relatable God – like a close friend as opposed to a wrathful bearded man in the sky. Given this mindset, it was easy for me to view traditional rules and rituals as ungodly, undesirable or cultish. By their standards, worship seemed to be defined as more of an individualistic preference to approaching God – or maybe even an attempt at making God Himself more approachable.

The church denomination I had been attending at the time had two different Sunday services: traditional and contemporary. I usually attended the contemporary one since I had always felt somewhat out of place at the former. As I involved myself in the music teams, we were taught that there was a certain ethic we had to practice when leading the worship teams…

We are playing for Jesus, not ourselves.

We are leading the congregation into worship, not trying to ‘out-perform’ them.

We are not up there to show off.

As a musician who had been involved in few rock bands, I’ve always felt good being on stage. I’m sure some of the other members of our music teams must have felt that way, too. The temptation to wrap myself up into the performance aspect of musical worship was quite strong. Part of me wanted to give my best quality performance just like Abel had given the best offering of his flock to the Lord, but the other part of me did not give a single thought about the quality of the heart behind the performances.

There were also times when we would try different ‘styles’ once in a while, such as adding different instruments or creating some kind of fancy guitar riff to add to the feel of the song. I usually enjoyed adding light distortion to my guitar, but it was often frowned upon for being too ‘aggressive.’

Image result for hillsong united church
Hillsong UNITED is a contemporary worship band associated with Hillsong Church in Sydney, Australia.

With that in mind, I always felt a desire to create a heavy-metal worship service to draw in the ‘unchurched’ so they can worship Jesus in the form of banging their heads and losing themselves in the mosh pit. But over time I realized, how would such an experience set itself apart from going to a typical rock concert anywhere else? Would I be isolating a whole demographic of other people who don’t enjoy that type of music by creating such an outlet?

Over the years as I acquired more friendships with people of different walks of life, I realized that individualistic forms of worship weren’t exclusive to what I experienced in Evangelical Christianity. Some friends of mine who were into New Age practices used to say they felt closer to the divine through recreational drug use, engaging in passionate sex and listening to their favorite music. At first, I was caught off guard upon hearing this. As a Christian, I had always believed sex and music were gifts from God and not something inherently evil, but I wasn’t too sure about drug use. With that in mind, it somehow seemed to make sense to me that these gifts can be used to glorify God – but does it actually matter how we use these gifts?

I had not realized it at the time, but during my time as a musician at church I had been making worship performance all about my own image and not about Christ. I realized how I had been treating worship was similar to how the Israelites had been acting at the end of the book of Judges. Perhaps I had been trying to create God in my own image by worshiping in a way that was right within my own eyes?

As an Evangelical, I found myself becoming disillusioned with what I considered to be ‘contemporary Christianity.’ I often wondered how the Early Church might have worshiped while living in persecution under the Roman Empire. One of the questions that has always lingered in my mind was,

What is worship?

What does it mean to worship?

Is there a right and a wrong way to worship?

I remember when a Messianic Jew did a presentation one evening at the church I was attending. I was in awe at how he recited the Passover meal and talked about the connections between what we knew as Holy Communion and the Jewish Passover. But what struck a chord within me was how he recited the traditional Passover meal in such a liturgical fashion that reminded me so much of what I had grown up seeing countless times in a Catholic Mass!

Image result for eucharistic adoration
Eucharistic Adoration is an act of worship observed by Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and some Orthodox Christians.

What also really changed my perspective on worship was after the first time I attended Eucharistic Adoration at a local Catholic Church. There were no theatrical light shows, no flashy video screens, no loud cheering, dancing, jumping or raising of hands. Just silence. Deafening silence that was only broken by a reading of Scripture or chanting of hymns heard from the choir off to the side. Dozens of candles illuminated the room. All eyes were fixated upon the Eucharist displayed upon the Altar at the very epicenter.

While some would consider this a form of idolatry, it is worth noting that Communion was at the forefront of Christian worship even in the days of the Early Church. Catholics and Orthodox Christians may differ theologically from Lutherans and Anglicans regarding Communion, but they all acknowledge a Real Presence of God in the Sacred Passover we now call the Eucharist.

If Eucharistic Adoration is considered idolatry by those willing to replace it with an upbeat worship band, I’ve come to believe that contemporary Christianity has lost all credibility.

Considering where I was at in my walk with Christ, returning to Catholicism was probably the best step I could have taken. But what I did not expect was to find out that the Catholic Church has it’s own internal problems of disunity – most often between modernists and traditionalists.

Before the Second Vatican Council of the 1960’s, all Catholic Masses were recited in Latin, but have since been done in the local language of wherever the parishes resided. I had the privilege to attend a Latin Mass in my own city for the first time this year. It was very beautiful and very reverent, especially with how the tabernacle was at the center upstage directly behind the altar. For most of the service, the priest was facing towards the tabernacle (ad orientum) so the focus of the entire congregation was directed towards the Eucharist itself. This seemed like a far more reverent practice of worship than what I was used to, yet my only grievance was I had no idea what was going on due to everything being in Latin except for the homily. Oddly enough, it seemed to add a level of mysteriousness to the liturgy.

Earlier this year, I also attended a Byzantine Mass at a local Ukrainian Catholic Church for the first time. As a Roman Catholic, I was deeply moved by the beauty of the liturgy and the brilliant iconography that accommodated it. Unlike what I’ve seen in most parishes under the Roman rite, they seemed to recite things in patterns of three – including the sign of the cross. Like the Latin Mass, the priest also faced ‘ad orientum’ for almost the entire service. Unlike the typical bread wafer I usually received at a Roman-rite parish, they distributed their Communion in the form of cubes of bread that were dipped in the chalice of wine and used a small spoon to toss it in our mouths as we approached in the lineup down the aisle. It seemed like a much more sanitary procedure as opposed to drinking from the same chalice like what Roman Catholics usually do.

I feel as though all these qualities I found so attractive in these other Catholic traditions should be readopted into the usual Catholic liturgy. One can only wonder that a movement within Catholicism would gain such widespread attention would be because of people like myself who feel a desire to return to orthodoxy out of a sheer disdain for contemporary worship.

On the other hand, my heart that was so shaped by my formative Evangelical years breaks for those who would show up at these traditional services feeling completely unwelcome. As mysterious and intimidating as God may be, I believe He desires all to become members of His Church. While I see nothing wrong with the Traditional Latin Mass, I’m a firm believer that the Gospel ought to be shared in a language that is easy to understand.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with contemporary worship music either. If anything, it definitely has value in bringing people to Christianity, just as it did for me when I was attending youth group. Contemporary worship music can certainly be effective in evangelizing during a youth group or concert-type event, but I believe there is an appropriate time and place for it.

An artist’s depiction of the unseen spiritual happenings when the Eucharist is consecrated during a Catholic Mass.

If God truly is all-powerful, it seems as though God doesn’t actually need our worship, but we do it out of a desire through faith to please Him. It benefits us more than it would for Him. Granted this, perhaps there is some merit as for making worship more of a personal expression?

Worship is worship, right?

Some would argue that a person isn’t harming anyone by worshiping however way they prefer to. With this in mind, I think it’s worthwhile to ask ourselves whether we are unknowingly doing more harm to Christian unity by elevating individualistic worship above the needs of corporate worship? Does pandering to individuality actually benefit people collectively, or are we causing more division in the Body of Christ by compartmentalizing believers into how they prefer to worship?

I think many people who search for a church community to fulfill their emotional and spiritual needs often settle with what piques their interests – just as I have done in my past church-hopping experiences. It’s common to hear people say, ‘What may be fulfilling to you may not be fulfilling to me!’ In my finite understanding, preferential worship style seems to be a by-product of moral relativism in today’s post-modern society.

Oftentimes, what we desire in a relationship with God might not always align with what our souls are truly in need of. It’s easy to give up on Christianity when an aspect of church life fails to meet our expectations. A quote that has resonated with me seems to sum it up quite well…

“Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” – G.K. Chesterton

I’ve often heard fellow Christians compare God to a doctor, and us as His patients. In order for us to be cured from a sickness, it is important to trust the physician and take his advice on how we ought to receive treatment. If we try to alter the prescription ourselves, we open ourselves to other risks that may include worsening our symptoms, overdosing on our medication or worse. In many ways, I think trivializing our approach to how we worship God in our own preference can potentially be spiritually harmful.

Do we risk indulging in sin when worshiping the divine through our own subjective desires?

It’s an interesting thought, I find – especially when considering how the Bible reveals how God told mankind how He wanted to be worshiped from the beginning.

It seems as though we are free to choose whether to worship God or not, but the right to how we worship Him is not truly ours to claim.

And as the cliché says – if you wouldn’t do it at Calvary, you probably shouldn’t do it at church.

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