How can we take the bold step of defining worship from a strictly musical perspective? What do we have before us in Scripture and behind us in experience that can help us either make a case for that definition or defeat it?
One of the first facets I have to grapple with is that there is a definite difference between worship and service, even in Scripture. Through the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord called the people of Judah and Jerusalem evil, “who follow the dictates of their hearts, and walk after other gods to serve them and worship them,” and proclaimed judgment upon them (see Jeremiah 13:9-10). Though there are passages in the prophets that show that God was displeased by the evil His people caused one to another, there is more evidence that His wrath arose because of idolatry.
The point of interest here is that God Himself made a clear distinction between service and worship. Service is certainly a byproduct of worship, but the opposite is not necessarily true. If it were, simply “performing” for God would be enough, or would at least lead us in the direction of what He desires from us. But time and again He told His people that He despised their feasts, that He rejected their offerings, and that He refused to hear their prayers. Therefore I am convinced that simply doing (whatever it may be that we are doing) for God or in His name is not the same thing as worship.
There are two biblical examples of this that should put a holy fear in us. One is the telling of the story of the seven sons of Sceva. Being Jewish evangelists themselves, they heard about the Jesus that Paul preached and that he cast out demons in Jesus’ name. As they were exorcising an evil spirit, they called it out “by the Jesus whom Paul preaches.” The evil spirit mocked them, saying, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” Soon they found themselves beaten and stripped, leaving the scene with a far different mindset than they arrived (see Acts 19:11-16).
The other example usually brings a bit of soul-searching to anyone who believes he or she works on behalf of Christ, solely for Christ. It is one of those passages that breeds a necessary and healthy fear of the Lord deep in my heart. As He wrapped up the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus would have known those whose hearts He had touched. He knew those who would follow Him, some because what He said resonated in their hearts, others because of what they thought He represented, and still others for personal gain. There would be those that lived what He taught, and those that wouldn’t. So before He checked His watch and prepared for the conclusion of His message, He spoke these words:
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7:21-23, nkjv)
I believe that one of the dangers we face when discussing worship is that if we label it as everything we do in life, we turn it into nothing of consequence. It’s going to work, playing with the kids, taking out the garbage and paying the bills, in addition to prayer, meditation, Bible reading, studying, and church services. By making worship everything, we make it nothing. “We’ve used and misused the word worship in so many ways that the meaning has become obscured. Like love and faith, the word worship has come to mean everything and nothing” (John Randall Dennis, Living Worship, 13). It loses its “oomph,” the part of it that makes it something special, and makes it something God wants from us only for Him.