When you hear the word worship, what comes to mind? Do you picture a cantor and a hymnal? Or perhaps an organ? Maybe you picture a hearty Gospel choir, clapping and singing with such deep and resonant tones that heaven’s angels get a little jealous. Or perhaps it’s the sensation of heart-pounding drumbeats in a dimly lit room, interspersed with brightly-lit LEDs and the distorted melodies of an electric guitar.
Perhaps for you, worship has nothing to do with music. Perhaps for you, worship brings to mind dancing, painting with water colors, or finishing that two-thousand-foot vertical ascent, only to be robbed of your breath by the view.
In the modern Church, worship has come to mean a lot of things for a lot of people. There’s just one problem: of all the things worship has come to mean for so many, none of them come close to encompassing what worship means in the Bible.
So, what is worship?
In both the Hebrew and the Greek text, there are two words that are translated as worship in our English Bibles. The first word, λατρεία (pronounced “lä-try-ä”; its Hebrew equivalent is עָבַד, or “`âbad”) means devoting oneself or one’s actions in service to God. For all you Lord of the Rings fans out there, think of when Pippin devotes himself to the service of Lord Denethor II of Gondor in The Return of the King, in gratitude for Boromir (Denethor’s son) saving his life. In biblical terms, Pippin “worshipped” Denethor (and Gandalf calls him a fool for doing so).
It is this first word that encompasses the old temple services of ancient Israel, and it’s because this word encompasses those ancient rituals that our modern rendition of those services, complete with music and a message, has come to be called worship. But what λατρεία has in mind is much, much bigger than what most churches do on a Sunday morning. To understand what that is, though, we need to take a look at the second word.
The second word translated as worship in our modern Bibles is the Greek word προσκυνέω (pronounced “pros-kü-ne’-oh”; its Hebrew equivalent is שָׁחָה, or “shâchâh”). If either of these two words were to cause us confusion when we stumbled upon them in our Bibles, it’s this word. It occurs in passages like Matthew 28:17: “When they say him, they worshiped him…”
Let me be clear: Matthew is not saying that when the eleven disciples met Jesus on a mountainside in Galilee to be commissioned as apostles, they busted out a guitar and started singing How Great Is Our God…but it would be so easy to think that’s what he meant, given how we talk about worship in the modern church.
The word προσκυνέω, though, conveys a very concrete and distinct action on the part of the subject. It means to bow before someone or something, sometimes as low as full prostration, out of respect and/or reverence for that person or thing.
So, what do these two words have in common? Why are they both translated as worship? Well, it’s important to remember the nerdy example I gave you earlier for understanding λατρεία (Pippin giving himself in service to Denethor II). Although the meaning of λατρεία is somewhat lost on us today, in a world where monarchies are rare and usually just symbolic, the act described by λατρεία was an all-too-familiar practice in ancient and medieval times, when kings and queens ruled countries instead of legislatures, presidents, and courts. The word λατρεία and the word προσκυνέω (to bow), then, both have one thing in common: they both denote actions that were done for a sovereign, particularly for a king.
Worship in the Bible is not about music, or dancing, or hiking. Worship in the Bible is all about sovereignty. Worship is the act of acknowledging Christ as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and it can be as simple as a prayer: “Here am I.” (See Isaiah 6:8; Exodus 3:4; 1 Samuel 3:4, cf. 3:10; Genesis 46:2. Also, see Romans 12:1-2.)
One of the troubling trends I’ve noticed among those I’ve pastored is that, for many of them, Jesus is their friend, their teacher, their “homeboy,” their savior…he is everything but their king. I cannot help but wonder how much of this is due to this pervasive misconception about what worship really is, and what it truly means to follow Christ as his disciple, to worship him. In particular, I’m bothered that worship in the Church has become about how we feel, instead of Christ’s sovereignty. Too often, we come to “worship” at Church looking to get, instead of give; we come looking for an emotional experience to top us off for the week, instead of coming to offer ourselves wholeheartedly in service to our King.
One of the things we emphasize at our church is that everyone (and we mean everyone) is welcome to join us on this journey with Jesus, wherever they may find themselves on that journey. I believe this value is biblical: Jesus didn’t present his disciples with a doctrinal checklist before inviting them to follow; he simply invited them to follow. And while I believe this value is biblical, I think that because of how we talk about worship in the modern Church, people have missed the point of the invitation.
I distinctly remember one conversation I had with a guy who was in his thirties. He’d been coming to our church for something like seven years, and in the course of our conversation, something got my attention. I asked him, “Is Jesus your teacher, or your king?” He said that Jesus was his teacher, and it broke my heart. No wonder he wasn’t getting it.
The modern Church is rife with people who have journeyed with Jesus for years, even decades, and who really aren’t any different than when they first started. Sure, they come, they serve, they sing songs and feel better afterward, having got their weekly pick-me-up; but they don’t change—really change—because if they’re only journeying with Jesus as teacher, or friend, or even savior—if they haven’t been journeying with Jesus as King—if they haven’t died to themselves so that they might live for him, then they’re missing the life he has to offer.
If we want to see real change in the modern Church, if we want the Church to be a force to be reckoned with in today’s world, a world that so desperately needs it, then we must begin by understanding what worship is really all about.