There has always been an overwhelming temptation for people of faith to fixate on and obsess over how we worship God rather than focusing on how our worship ought to change us.
We have fixated on the form of our worship rather than on how the form can be used by God to change us at the heart level and then, ultimately, how God can use our worship for the benefit of our relationships, our communities and the world.
And if you understand that essential truth then you have taken the first step toward understanding how misdirected and narrowly focused our churches have been in guiding our understanding and practice of worship.
I know there have been hundreds of pieces, even some I have written, that have talked about how music worship in the church has created a consumer mentality with styles and musical offerings that promise to delight every musical taste and persuasion.
And at the heart of these critical pieces was the same underlying truth concluding that we fixate so much on the actual form of worship in the church that we miss the sacrificial nature inherent in true worship.
Paul echoes this exact sentiment as he makes an appeal to the Roman church: “In view of (all) the mercies of God, make a decisive dedication of your bodies (present all your members and faculties) as a living sacrifice, holy (devoted, consecrated) and well pleasing to God, which is your reasonable (rational, intelligent) service and spiritual worship.”
Each one of us should dedicate every ounce of our being, everything we have and everything we are, as living sacrifices. That is the true and fundamental nature of our worship — becoming a living sacrifice, dying to ourselves so that Christ may live in and through us.
To build upon this idea, the predominate Greek word used for worship in the New Testament is proskuneo. It implies a position of prostration in which the one who is worshiping lies down with body and face flat to the floor before the one who is being worshiped, the one who is worthy.
In our proskuneo, our position of prostration before God, we become less and he becomes more, and has absolutely nothing to do with my wants, my needs, my desires or my preferences because I have set them aside for the one who is worthy.
The position of worship, no matter the form it takes, can be nothing less than a complete sacrifice of self. I become less so He can become more. Not to me Lord, but to you be all glory, honor and praise.
So in our every act of worship, whether it be taking communion or being baptized or singing songs or confession or fasting, our focus should never be on the form of worship as an end itself but rather on how it can be used as a means to lead us into self-sacrifice, heart change and then relational and communal transformation.
Simply put, no matter the shape or form that our worship takes, we become less and God becomes more. The way God sees the world becomes the way we see the world. The heart that God has for the world becomes the heart we have for the world. And the healing and restorative way of God works its way out through our lives.
Worship changes everything. It can change the individual. It can change our churches. And it is not too ambitious to say that our worship can change the world.
This is the heart and essence of Isaiah 58.
The people of God treated a form of worship, their fasting, as an end, rather than the means through which individual and communal transformation could take place.
They said that they honored God by having special days when they fasted, but they claim that God didn’t see it. They said that they humbled themselves to honor God, but again, they claimed that God didn’t notice.
Their purpose for which they fasted was not for their own heart change and transformation. It was an empty religious act done so that God would notice their religiosity.
But God’s response through Isaiah to the people perfectly captures the fundamental issue of making our worship a religious end, rather than the means through which heart transformation takes place:
“You wonder why the Lord pays no attention when you go without eating and act humble. But on those same days that you give up eating, you think only of yourselves and abuse your workers. You even get angry and ready to fight. No wonder God won’t listen to your prayers.”
Worship that is not sacrificial and does not lead to heart and life transformation becomes empty religious rituals.
But the opposite is even more true. And it is this truth that is absolutely profound and beautiful.
Worship that is self-sacrificial leads to heart and life transformation and then manifests outward in one’s life working toward the reconciliation and restoration of people, relationships and communities.
The kind of worship that God wants frees the imprisoned, cares for laborers, tends to the sick, feeds the hungry, clothes the poor and works toward the reconciliation, peace and healing in all relationships. Anything less and our worship is in vain.
How does this understanding of worship change your perspective during this Lenten season?
Brandon Andress of Columbus is a former local church leader and a contributor to the online Outside the Walls blog. He can be reached at his website andthentheendwillcome.com or brandonandress.com.