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worship is to bow down

Evangelical Christians are often confused about the nature and purpose of worship. Some of the young people that I encounter hear the word and their minds go to dark, crowded rooms with a praise band performing emotionally charged songs before a swooning audience. They imagine their own role in terms of conjuring up feelings of praise and then expressing those feelings through gestures such as raised hands and closed eyes. I know from many conversations with “worship leaders” that praise bands feed off of those gestures, often interpreting them to mean that God has shown up – the “Spirit” is moving. Worship is equated almost entirely with music and emotionally-laden praise in response to it. 

Even among christians who know better – who know for example that worship is a posture before God that extends to all of life – the concert image is powerful because it has become so dominant in 21st century evangelical culture. Congregational worship has been, to a significant degree, coopted by mass media and major recording studios. It’s too often designed to mimic the energy and emotional effect of a secular concert, and this is sometimes tragic. 

So what is worship really? And what should it look like when Christians gather together? 

SOME BASIC DEFINITIONS

In the Old and New Testaments, the most common words used to describe worship suggest the act of “bowing down” before God. For instance, when Moses encounters God on Mount Sinai, we are told in Exodus 34:8 that he “made haste to bow his head toward the earth, and worshipped.” Psalm 95:6, familiar to anyone who prays Morning Prayer from the BCP, says “Come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our maker.” There are hundreds of such uses in the Old and New Testament portrayals of worship. Consider the images below. The first image offers a visual chart of the occurrence of each Hebrew word that can be translated as worship. Notice that nearly 70% of the uses describe the act of “bowing” and humbling oneself. This screenshot captures just a few of the passages describing worship in the Old Testament.

Worship in the New Testament is no different. For example, the worship of God in heaven, depicted in Revelation 4:9–11, portrays the angels offering their praise to God by bowing before Him.

And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, “Worthy art thou, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for thou didst create all things, and by thy will they existed and were created.”

In more than half of the New Testament’s uses of the word “worship,” the overriding image is of “bowing” and humbling oneself before the one who is worthy. Again, the following image provides just a few of the many uses. 

Worship is indeed a posture. We worship God when we humble ourselves before him. As such, worship is not limited to Sundays or to a service with music or liturgy. Instead, worship can be characteristic of a life given over to God in all things. The Apostle Paul calls us to worship in Romans 12:1 when he says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” 

WORSHIP ON SUNDAYS AND HOLY DAYS

The whole point of bowing before God is to humbly acknowledge that He is worthy of all honor and glory and praise. Worship is a submission of oneself to God’s authority. It is to offer oneself a “living sacrifice.” 

It may be helpful to point out that the English word, “worship,” comes from a Middle English term “weorth-scipe” which means to “ascribe worth.” This is consistent with the act of bowing down, because our lives are given over to the things that we ascribe greatest worth to. For instance, if we ascribe the greatest worth to money, then our lives become a reflection of the fact that we worship money. If we ascribe great worth to success or fame or power or pleasure, or non-stop entertainment then our lives take on the character of those “idols.” Unless we lay all of these things at the feet of our savior, then we become their servants – we bow before them. And we are twisted and disordered by them. Churches must be very careful to avoid designing worship that appeals to contemporary idols – idols such as entertainment. Worship should be deep, beautiful, compelling, and Spirit-filled. However, we have to trust that the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God, which is featured prominently in the readings, hymns, and liturgies, will supply that depth and beauty. 

Every human being worships something – we all ascribe worth to something, and our lives are a reflection of those things which we worship. As Jamie Smith and others have said, we are “homo-liturgicus.” To be human is to worship. The question is not whether we worship. Rather, the question is, “what are we worshipping?” 

When the church gathers together on Sundays and on other Holy Days, Christians have an opportunity to repent of false worship and turn toward the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – in humble submission to his authority and power and glory. In doing so, we worship in truth and by the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Our worship gatherings correct, clarify, and order the worship of our every-day lives. 

So when you gather with Christians to worship, remember the idols that tempt you throughout the week. Take the opportunity to confess your sins before God and before your brothers and sisters in Christ. And be joyful when given the opportunity to worship which is to humble yourself, bowing down and joining the ancient chorus of Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven who forever sing praises to the Lord our God.

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