God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth (John 4:24 ESV).
How does one truly worship God? How does a whole congregation?
I came across the verse above in a book I was reading tonight, and I was really struck by it. I guess I haven’t really thought of this verse in terms of corporate worship in church before. Yes, I know that worship extends beyond an hour or two on Sundays, but let’s think about that hour or two for a few moments.
I have been to churches that seem to emphasize the “experience” of worship, where what really matters is that you feel God close to you. You are overwhelmed by His marvelous love for you, and you get that tingling feeling that you suspect might be the Holy Spirit.
I’ve also been to churches that seem to make the doctrine contained in the lyrics of the songs we sang all that matters, irrespective of the feelings of the congregation. Usually this meant singing hymns from many years ago or tried-and-true contemporary worship songs. If you pay careful attention and meditate on what the songs are saying, you can often be reminded of a lot of comforting or convicting truths about the Lord, while at the same time glorifying Him through the public proclamation of these truths.
Is one kind of worship service better than the other? Over the last few years I would have answered this question by pointing in the direction of the second kind of worship service described above: the one that emphasizes doctrinally sound lyrics. I still would point in that direction, but with the following thoughts to clarify.
In the verse mentioned above, Jesus is clearly saying that true worship involves the heart and the head. It’s not either/or. It’s not 1) The songs can say whatever, as long as I “experience” God while singing at church; and it’s also not 2) It doesn’t matter what I feel in worship as long as the words are doctrinally sound.
Worship that truly pleases God includes your heart and your head. I’ll address those in reverse order. Yes, the worship songs you sing must be doctrinally sound. They cannot contain any statements that are false. For “those who worship Him must worship … in truth.” If the song you sing as a congregation has any statements in it that do not conform in principle to Scripture, the person who leads worship should be throwing it out and not having it sung in church. I believe this may include songs whose words are technically correct, but misleading in their emphasis and prone to give worshippers a misunderstanding about the nature of God or of themselves. The danger of these kind of songs is too great to justify including them in your order of worship, even if they sound great or are popular in evangelical churches across the nation. Ultimately, popularity, or the entertaining sound of songs, mean nothing in comparison to whether the words sung are true. God cares deeply whether what you proclaim about Him and His creation through song is accurate.
On the other hand, the songs that you sing as a congregation can be the most doctrinally sound as is possible, but if your singing of them lacks the involvement of a humble heart before God, you are not truly worshiping Him as Jesus taught in the verse above. For “those who worship Him must worship in spirit.” I think of the verses in the Old Testament that essentially say that what God really wanted wasn’t sacrifices, but humble hearts ready to serve Him in visible ways. As we worship God corporately, we should feel something. We should feel His nearness to us, along with His grandness. His love for and grace toward us should fill our hearts with inexpressible joy. We should feel compelled to live out the implications of the lyrics as they relate to us. We should never define sound doctrine in such a way that it has no implications on our affections. Because truly sound doctrine always ought to lead to doxology, i.e. worship (see Romans 11:33-36 as an example in the life of Paul after he had written a long doctrinal treatise in chapters 9-11). In short, corporate worship should always involve glorifying God through truthful lyrics that inspire God-centered, Christ-exalting feelings.
Now, all of us at times will not worship the way we ought. It’s not as if Jesus doesn’t love us in those moments, or that He accepts us less. Far from it. His cross-enduring, wrath-of-God-bearing love for us covers over all of our worship mishaps. Even the really big ones. So, take heart that Jesus loves you even on a Sunday morning when you got little sleep and you struggle to hold back a yawn (or two) during the sermon or singing time. You are as precious to Him on that morning as on the morning when your heart explodes with joy and your mind soaks up the message of the sermon. He loves you!
Because of His great love for us, let us do all that we can to worship Him with a humble heart proclaiming Gospel-centered truths through song. Laziness has no place for the Christ worshipper. He demands and deserves all of our worship. Let’s give Him our best, by His grace. And that means experiencing Him while we sing biblically truthful words. To God be the glory.