I came across a church once whose mission statement on the billboard outside the church building was “You don’t have to stand, you don’t have to sing, you don’t have to give.” (Perhaps this sounds quite appealing at the end of a long week!) As a boy, I think I often equated worship with some kind of penance. I would atone for my bad behavior (particularly regarding my younger brother) through the penance of mind-numbingly long (“I’m so bored I could eat my own shoes”) liturgical services.
I recall first coming across some more contemporary worship music as an adult and it made me cringe. At the time, I found it was just altogether too enthusiastic and overly emotional. So if worship is either profoundly boring or overly emotional, then we have to ask ourselves the question of why the Lord would invite us to worship Him with all our hearts and with all our souls and with all our strength. Is God really that self-concerned that He needs all of that attention? Later I would learn that worship is as far from boring as you can get, that it has the power to engage our minds and our emotions, and was always part of the Lord’s gift to us.
To begin with, worship restores intimacy in our relationship with God. God does not need our worship but He does long for it. This is the longing of God that draws us into our longing for Him. The Psalmist wrote, “As the deer longs for streams of water, so I long for you, O God” (Psalm 42:1). Our longing for God comes as a response to His longing for us. So when we read “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, we are being exhorted to love God like this because this is exactly how He loves us.
Worship is a kind of a dance—a dance that is at the heart of the Trinity (the “perichoresis”: Father, Son and Holy Spirit)—and we are invited into that dance. As Sam Storms writes, “God created us so that the joy He has in Himself might be ours. God doesn’t simply think about Himself or talk to Himself. He enjoys Himself! He celebrates with infinite and eternal intensity the beauty of who He is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And we’ve been created to join the party!” This is intended to be an emotional experience as we are caught up in the dance. We are each going to express that emotion differently because we are all wired differently. I recall inviting a friend to a worship service once. His stony, glazed face rather suggested that I had done the wrong thing. I spent the entire service inwardly planning how I would try to fix this. Afterward, when we got into the car, I nervously asked him what he thought of the service. He answered, “That was the single most profound experience of my life!” All of the movement was on the inside. It really is a matter of the heart. It is about inclining our hearts toward God in the recovery of an intimate relationship with Him.
I have also come to see how worship reshapes us. The Apostle Paul writes, “God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son” (Romans 8:29-30). This is what happens in the throne room of God. We find ourselves transformed. We are remade and reshaped.
Have you ever noticed that you arrive at a service of worship with one attitude and leave with an entirely different attitude? Peace seeps in, mercy nudges itself past our own defenses, there is joy when there was not, there is healing where there was pain. And as we surrender more completely in worship, we are reshaped ever more deeply. This is not something that we do; this is something that God does in us. To allow our hearts to be unabashed and selfless in worship is not work but His gift to us. And this unencumbered worship is not just for Sunday, this is about offering all of our lives.”
We might imagine that the kind of wholehearted and “all in” worship described is a very distant thing. And yet many of us know someone who seems able to live with at least one foot in the heavenly chorus line. I had a close friend named Melanie. I met her when I remarked on the beauty of her singing voice from behind me in a worship service. She beamed, introduced herself and told me that she loved to worship God. Melanie also asked me if I would pray for her because, now in her early thirties, cancer had returned to her body. My wife and I got to know Melanie and her husband, Alex, really well. Over about six years we became close friends and we prayed with them often. We saw great breakthroughs in her health, but the cancer finally overcame her.
In all of this time, however, she never stopped worshipping. To visit her was always to have worship music playing somewhere in the house. At the very end, all Melanie could do was to lie with her hand open as the worship music played, swept up in a heavenly chorus that would lift her over the threshold and into throne room. It was as if she were already there. And in that posture, the Lord took her by the hand and led her home. A. W. Tozer wrote, “We must never rest until everything inside us worships God.”
Drew Williams is senior pastor at Trinity Church in Greenwich.