What is Worship? An Answer from the Old Testament

There’s a battle raging in many churches today over the concept and the content of worship. No…it’s not a war over musical selections, though conflicts of that ilk dot the ecclesiastical landscape too. But this is a deeper battle. It’s a fight for the very nature of worship. Here are the two sides:

  1. There are those who have redefined their idea of worship as a series of usually musical moments that begin each Sunday around 10:30 am at local churches. Worship is something we attend, something we participate end, something we rock out to. For these, worship is expression.
  2. There are those who insist on more biblical ideals. These use a term like worship to describe the life pattern of every disciple. Worship isn’t just Sunday mornings–if it is, then we will compartmentalize our relationship with God to such moments and likely end up with a worship routine that melts into occasionally meaningless expressions. Worship, these say, is every day and it’s a whole lot more than music. It’s obedience.

Now, most of us, when taking a step back to evaluate, would likely opt for group 2’s definition as the pure essence of worship, but we find ourselves living as though group 1 has found the core. Recently, over 100 pastors were interviewed on the subject of worship, and nearly every one of them focused their comments on the music experience they lead each Sunday.

What is worship…really?

Now, most of us don’t look to the Old Testament when planning worship experiences. After all, we traded zoo noises at church for our own joyful noises some time ago. But the idea of worship still rings from those ancient passages. Let’s take a look.

Israel’s worship centered on two principal activities–sacrifices and festivals. Through sacrifices, the people of Israel acknowledged their sinfulness, celebrated their harvests, and prioritized their obedience. Through festivals, often feasts, these same people rejoiced in their historical victories and the moments when God demonstrated His presence among them. In fact, every week was to end with a full day of such reflection and dependence on God–a day when a man’s self-provision must stop.

In the end, Old Testament worship targeted five focal points:

  1. Relationship with (obedience to) God
  2. Relationship with one another
  3. Rest
  4. Giving and serving
  5. Remembering and praising

Now, we may say that we’ve moved forward from their actions, but have we really shifted from these priorities? Have any of these foci been deemed irrelevant in the New Testament world? When I recently shared this list in a university setting, students were stunned that such an agenda undergirded those Old Testament moments. One student blurted, “that’s what I want to do too!”

Indeed, some things changed in the shift of testaments, but some things clearly didn’t. In Old Testament Israel, these were the priorities of worship, and they look a lot more like life than an order of service.

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