Friday, May 25, 2007

What does It Mean?

What does the word worship mean to you? As a church musician I have had to explore what it means to worship and what I have found was surprising.

Let me preface my remarks by saying the last thing I want to do is criticize the way someone relates to God. My personal relationship with the Almighty has gone through (and goes through) some difficult times. I guess a better way to ask the question is what does the Bible mean when it says "worship."

Is it a musical genre? Is it our lifestyle? Is it something we do as a community? I have found that worship is something we are commanded to do, but it is also something we cannot do for ourselves.

One of the authors I have read makes the point that worship is our response to God's action - both his action in Christ through redemption, his action through the church and in our lives. God is the one who initiates worship; we are the responders.

But back to the fundamental question: what is worship. The dictionary definition is "reverent honor and homage paid to God or a sacred personage, or to any object regarded as sacred. Also, adoring reverence or regard."

In the Bible, there are a variety of words translated "worship" but the main Hebrew word is shachah while the number one Greek word translated worship in the New Testament is proskuneo . Both of them carry a similar meaning - to bow down. Literally, to put your forehead on the ground as a sign of reverence.

According to one lexicon, shachah means "to bow down, to prostrate oneself before a superior in homage; to bow down before God in worship." Out of 166 times this word is used in the Old Testament, it is translated "worship" 99 times.

As for proskuneo it is defined as "to kiss the hand towards one, in token of reverence. Among Orientals, esp. Persians, to fall on the knees and touch the ground with the forehead as an expression of profound reverence. In the NT, by kneeling or prostration to do homage (to one) or make obeisance, whether in order to express respect or to make supplication."prostration

One interesting side note about proskuneo, it can mean literally to lick or kiss the hand, like a dog does his master. I used to find that insulting until I learned something about dogs (thank you Cesar Milan, aka, "The Dog Whisperer"). When a dog licks its masters' face or hand, it is not a simple sign of affection; it is an acknowledgement that you are above him, that you are higher in the pack than he is. So the meaning of "proskuneo" took on a new light for me; worship is a way of acknowledging that we are not God, that He is higher than we are.

But this kind of worship is not something we can cook up, no matter how many Chris Tomlin songs we sing. It is a response to God's action. As Richard Foster wrote in The Celebration of Discipline:

"Worship is our responding to the overtures of love from the heart of the Father. Its central reality is found "in spirit and truth." This is kindled within us only when the Spirit of God touches our human spirit. Forms and rituals do not produce worship, nor does the formal disuse of forms and rituals. We can use all the right techniques and methods, we can have the best possible liturgy, but we have not worshiped the Lord until Spirit touches spirit ....singing, praying, praising, all may lead to worship, but worship is more than any of them. Our spirit must be ignited by divine fire."
WOW Worship Aqua
But be advised, that kind of worship is dangerous - dangerous to our selfishness and complacency. As Mark Labberton wrote in The Dangerous Act of Worship,

"When worship is our response to the One who alone is worthy of it - Jesus Christ - then our lives are on their way to being turned inside out. Every dimension of self-centered living becomes endangered as we come to share God's self-giving heart. Worship exposes our cultural and even spiritual complacency toward a world of suffering and injustice . . . Worship sets us free from ourselves to be free for God and God's purposes in the world."

Next time, I want to look at another question: "Who is the Worship Leader?" I welcome your comments.

(Images courtesy of New York Surveillance players,, pixelperfectonline, and Wow worship.)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Is it Art, Service or Both?

hydraulis mosaicIs worship a performance? Is it a service or is it a mixture of both? Part of what I have been doing recently is reviewing some of the materials I studied on the way to my Masters from Regent.

One of those materials is The New Worship: Straight Talk on Music and the Church by Barry Liesch. He asks some tough questions and makes some good points about worship in the church. One of the questions he asks is "Should the word 'performance' be avoided in the pulpit?" I don't think so, but I believe it should be qualified.

One of the struggles I have as a musician is the difference between giving - and being satisfied with - a good performance, versus entering into intimate worship of God. When I am playing a church service, my main focus tends to be on getting the notes right, making sure my instrument is in tune and not too loud (or is loud enough!) and blending in with the other performers on the stage.

But I have also read articles and sections of books that encourage leaders to pick people who shine, who reflect the joy of being in God's presence in their faces and actions. I don't know that my 'focusing' face does that; I'm more concerned with making sure I am in time with the rest of the band and I am not distracting the congregation by playing poorly.

Does that mean that focusing on performance is wrong? I don't think so. C.S. Lewis is quoted as saying "Boiling an egg is the same process whether you are a Christian or a Pagan." So making music is the same whether you are playing in church or in a stadium - you are doing something difficult in front of people and it needs to be done well. Otherwise you're not being honest.

What does a thready performance say? "I don't care enough to spend the time to practice to do this well?" "You people (the audience or the congregation) are not worth the time it takes to make sure this is done properly?" "God is not as great as we say because we offer Him something we threw together at the last minute instead of taking the time to prepare?"

But our acceptability to God is not based on what we can do; our acceptability to God is based on what He has done in the death and resurrection of Christ. So where does performance come in? Are we serving the people - the audience or the congregation - or are we serving God? Or are we serving both? More and more I am coming to see that we are doing both - serving God and the people.

I remember reading an article many years ago by John Michael Talbot, a monk who has released several albums and published several books on worship, mysticism, prayer and other topics including The Master Musician, The Joy of Music Ministry , and Come to the Quiet. He told of a time when he was struggling in his musical vocation. People were polite, they seemed responsive, but the power of God seemed absent; people did not seem to really worship in his services.

Ironically he got a fresh revelation from Barry McGuire - you know "The Eve of Destruction" guy from the 1960s? Barry told John that his problem was that he was trying to minister to the people instead of the Lord.

"Minister to the Lord," Barry said, "and let the Lord minister to the people." John tried that approach and saw wondrous responses of worship in his concerts. I also tried to employ this philosophy at a church where I was serving and I noticed more people responding as well.

And one thing I believe it is important to remember is that what we are doing - what we are performing - is something sacred. This is not your garage band playing "Sweet Home Alabama" or "Free Bird." This is a sacred employment. This is something holy; something special. It deserves to be done to the best of your ability, but the goal is to enter into the Holy Presence.

Paul Baloche, the writer of some of contemporary worship musics "big hits" like "Open the Eyes of My Heart" and "Above All" had something telling to say about this subject in an interview. When asked what he had learned about worship, Paul responded "That worship is a journey and God is always the goal." Singing, dancing, making music are expressions of the relationship we have with God.

I will have to chew on that for a while. I welcome your comments.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Now What?

I graduated from Regent University last week with a MA in Practical Theology. I used to tell people it was because I needed the practical help - a veiled reference to my own insecurity in living the Christian life.

The question is "Now What?"

I got an interesting insight into that question from two women - my systematic theology professor Estrelda Alexander and Oprah Winfrey. First Dr. Alexander.

She has degrees from Catholic University (PhD) Wesley Theological Seminary (M Div) Colombia (M.A.) and Howard (B.A.). She is also one of the most down-to-earth people I have ever met. And she is not afraid to tell it like it is. At the commissioning service we had last week, she asked me "so when are you going for your PhD?"

I was stunned. I kind of wanted to bask in the glow of my Masters for a little while before getting back into it. But Dr. A must have been asking for a good reason. She said I could be a good teacher, and that because I understood theology, I could help churches and other Christians avoid mistakes. It was a lot to think about.

Then today I saw Oprah Winfrey addressing Howard University's graduates here in DC. She said to never sell your integrity. To live from your heart, to serve others and to never forget that there are millions who do not have the privilege you do. It was moving, and it was "spiritually-based" - not really a sermon, but drawing from Oprah's religious background.

These two women reminded me of something that John Eldredge wrote in Wild at Heart . The quote went something like this:

"Don't ask what the world needs. Find what makes you truly come alive and go do that. What the world needs is people who are fully alive."

If our lives are part of a greater story - if we don't exist in a vacuum, where we are part of a tapestry and God has a special design for us, how should we live? What should come next?

I look forward to the adventure.