What makes Christian worship Worship?

Might a person maintain correct doctrine, perform the appropriate actions, and still not actually worship? Is sincerity enough, or is there worship that God will not accept, though it be directed toward him and meant to honor him.[1] Ron Allen surmises, “Only when right action is coupled with a right heart may one then sense God’s pleasure. Anything less is not biblical worship.”[2] I suggest three requirement necessary to transform Christian activity into Christian worship: attention, intention, and worship in Spirit and truth.

Attention vs. Attendance

One distinctive of true Christian worship is attentiveness, or focus. It is not sufficient to simply go through the motions; God demands wholehearted worship. Saliers believes that Christian response is different from rote prayers and actions, and that authentic response is characterized by “wholehearted attentiveness or attunement to God in and through the utterances.”[3] Allen warns that half-hearted participation in community worship leaves one under the “sad judgment of a disappointed God,” referencing “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me” (Mark 7:6).[4] One such example of half-hearted worship is the Church at Laodicea, which was chastised not for incorrect doctrine, but for halfhearted devotion (Rev 3:15-16). Additionally, the act of pretending to give wholeheartedly, while actually holding back, was enough to cause Ananias and his wife Sapphira to forfeit their lives (Acts 5:1-4).

When a person or a church has sound doctrine but halfhearted worship, they are in danger of slipping back into a medieval understanding of piety, wherein the practice of ex opere operato (done in the doing) effectively separated heart from belief. The Roman Catholic Church has gone to great lengths recently to reverse this mishandling of worship. The Vatican II council (1962-1965) issued the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which now calls for “full, conscious, active participation” in the rites.[5]

Half-hearted worship is not a Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox problem, but is, rather, a human problem to be strongly resisted. King David declares “I will not . . . offer a burnt offering which costs me nothing” (1 Chr 21:24). Worship is costly. Professor Borchert notes that worship costs nothing is “worth just about that much.”[6] The costly response to God’s mercy represented in Romans 12:1 is the offering of self as a living sacrifice. It has been mentioned herein that living sacrifices tend to crawl off the altar. Christians, therefore, must be vigilant to offer wholehearted worship, and to attend to God as both Subject and Object of worship.[7]

Intention vs. Indolence

A second ingredient that transforms Christian activity into Christian worship is the intentional participation in the cycle of revelation and response. I submit that revelation makes the action Christian, but response makes the action worship. Luther says of Christian worship “that nothing else be done in it than that our dear Lord himself talk to us through his holy word and that we, in turn, talk to him in prayer and song of praise.”[8] Orthodox theologian George Florovsky states “Christian worship is the response of men to the Divine call, to the ‘mighty deeds’ of God culminating in the redemptive act of Christ.”[9] Christian action becomes Christian worship when Christians take up the dance of revelation and response.

Paul’s letter to the Colossians binds the revelation of God to the response of gathered believers. It says “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God (Col 3:16).” Commentator David Garland observes that “The ‘word of Christ’ refers to the message about Christ”[10] and that “worship is our response to what Christ has done and continues to do.”[11] Garland further proposes that Scripture-centered worship will produce a more mature faith.[12] Commenting on the same verse, Ralph Martin alleges that, while singing and gratitude are featured in corporate worship, hymnody must be subordinated to the ministry of teaching and exhortation.[13] The assertion that song is subordinated to the Word of God is an important principle, and its acceptance could have a major impact on the order of the Evangelical worship service. The sequence of revelation and response is in keeping with both theological and historical precedent, and will be further examined in a following section on worship service structure.

In Spirit and Truth

A third distinctive of worship is most clearly addressed by Jesus himself: “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). Historian James White interprets this duality as the revelation and response cycle, adding that it must be empowered by the Holy Spirit.[14] Tozer notes that true worship requires both spirit and truth, because spirit without truth is helpless, and truth without spirit is “theology without a fire.”[15] This comment on worship comes in the context of Christ’s discussion with a Samaritan woman. If Jesus is responding to the women’s question of worship location, He may have meant that, since God is spirit, the location of worship is no longer relevant. If He was responding to the woman’s attempt to disguise her sin, Jesus may have been referring to the need to be authentic and honest.

In an effort to further understand this central tenant of worship, an examination of the two key words may be helpful. Regarding “spirit,” many have noticed a Scriptural relationship between the spirit and water. The water metaphor is employed as the Spirit is received at salvation (Jn 4:14), released in living (Jn 7:38-39), and returned to its source in worship (Eph 5:18-20). The word “truth” has several designations. Jesus claimed to be the truth (Jn 14:6), but also said that the Word (logos) is truth (Jn 17:17). To worship in truth implies sincerity (sincere means “without wax”). It comes from the art of sculpting, wherein the sculptor would use wax and plaster to cover a mistake. Truth in worship, then, means to be authentic and sincere; the real deal.

Though John 4:24 is interpreted in various ways, it functions in all circumstances as a continuum that helps the worshiper maintain balance, so that one falls into neither license nor legalism. The Christian must embrace this fusion of spirit and truth in worship. Pastor and author Steve Brown addressed the dangers in overemphasizing either spirit or truth by developing the following grid.[16]


Worship Focus


Total Truth

Total Form

Legalism; Bondage; Dead Orthodoxy

Total Spirit

Total Freedom

Idolatry; License; Superstition

Spirit & Truth

Form & Freedom

Balance in Worship

The exclusive focus on truth and form (and the resulting dead orthodoxy) hearkens back to the Enlightenment mindset of knowledge over experience. Conversely, the overemphasis of spirit and freedom (and the resulting license) may be a warning to our Postmodern tendencies to value experience over substance. Christ’s imperative to worship in both spirit and truth must drive both worshipers and worship leaders toward a convergence of both form and freedom, and the resulting symmetry this balance delivers.


As generous as it seems to make sincerity Love’s only requirement, there are distinctive boundaries and ingredients that define participation in Christian worship. Orthodox Christian worship must recognize God as Triune, and must center on the accomplished and continuing work of Christ. Though God is not limited by anyone or anything, only a redeemed person is able to offer out-and-out Christian adoration. Christian worship also demands the full attention and intention of a worshiper, rather than passive acquiescence. Finally, it must find its center on the fulcrum of spirit and truth. Like marriage, Christian worship may be expressed in a variety of ways, but these distinctives both define and demarcate the tenets of orthodox Christian worship.

[1] Tozer, Whatever Happened To Worship, 38.

[2] Allen, Wonder of Worship, 88.

[3] Saliers, Worship As Theology, 87.

[4] Allen, Wonder of Worship, 55.

[5] The Constitution On The Sacred Liturgy, (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 4 December, 1963), paragraph 14; accessed May 7, 2007; <www.rc.net/rcchurch/vatican2/liturgy.asc>.

[6] Borchert, Responding To Mystery, 77.

[7] Marva Dawn, Reaching Out without Dumbing Down (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 80.

[8] White, A Brief History of Christian Worship, 22.

[9] White, A Brief History of Christian Worship, 23, quoting George Florovsky, “Worship and Everyday Life: An Eastern Orthodox View,” Studia Liturgica 2 (December 1963), 268.

[10] David E. Garland, Colossians and Philemon in NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 212.

[11] ibid., 234.

[12] ibid., 236

[13] Ralph P. Martin, Colossians: The Church’s Lord and the Christian’s Liberty (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972), 115.

[14] White, Introduction To Christian Worship, 23.

[15] Tozer, Whatever Happened to Worship?, 46.

[16] Steve Brown presented this grid during his keynote address to the North American Baptist Conference in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada in July, 1987.

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