The following is an excerpt from Honest Worship: From False Self to True Praise, InterVarsity Press. Check out the book for more.
A number of years ago, I did an unscientific but exhaustive poll. I asked everyone around me, perhaps a hundred people, the simple question, “What is your definition of good worship? How do you know the worship was good?” I found that there’s an unspoken but widely held notion that worship can be measured by how you feel during the worship time. Usually people say something like “I was really moved by the worship.” Or “I really felt God this morning.” Or “I felt like I forgot all of my problems.” Or “I really liked the music.”
All of these answers may have some validity and appropriateness. And all of them seem sincere and heartfelt. But imbedded in them is an insidious recurring theme: the word I. Narcissism has infiltrated even the way we worship God. We now measure how good the worship is based on how good it makes us feel.
But worship isn’t about me as the center. Worship is about God. So perhaps a truer measure of worship isn’t how we feel but how we make God feel. God is at the center of our worship. Maybe the answer to what makes “good” worship requires the question, “Was God pleased by our worship?” And we know what pleases God: a humble and pure heart, giving worship without agenda or reservation. The psalmist declared,
“Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not trust in an idol or swear by a false god. They will receive blessing from the Lord and vindication from God their Savior.” (Psalm 24:3-5)
At one point in my life, I felt called to help lead a large church that was experiencing a worship war. Two camps—one traditional and the other contemporary—were in conflict over stylistic preferences. A church split was in the balance. Emotions were high and opinions were zealous. Because I was the new worship pastor, people were looking to see on which side of the fence I stood. I truly felt that both sides were, to varying degrees, missing the point of worship, which is primarily to love God and one another. So I helped convince the senior pastor to bring the traditional and contemporary services together, so we could begin the process of healing and fostering hearts of worship.
As you can imagine, every Sunday I felt like there was a target painted on my back. But time and loving perseverance eventually got us to the place where both sides were cordial, which made me hopeful for them. After one service, some older folks approached me to thank me for being true to the hymns I was leading. I expressed my appreciation for their support, but then added, “You know, I’m not playing the hymns for you. I’m playing the hymns because the younger generations need to learn how to worship God with them.” With that, they wholeheartedly agreed. But before their smiles disappeared, I added kindly, “And the reason I’m playing the modern worship songs is so you can learn how to worship God with them too.”
Because a narcissistic worldview has become so imbedded in us, we have inadvertently created unspoken criteria for worship, and then appointed ourselves the judges of it. But this is not the way of the kingdom. So the next time you want to rate the worship on a Sunday morning, I encourage you not to look at the band or the song selection or the style or quality of music. Look into yourself. Ask, “Did I come with a pure and humble heart? Did I give my worship freely to God? Did I come prepared and motivated to worship? Did I put aside my own tendencies to be a consumer of worship? Did I love God today?”
These other-centric questions may be a truer measure of whether the worship was good or not. How we feel is not the product of worship. How we feel is a byproduct of worship.
Perhaps Augustine puts this in a more hopeful light. In his Confessions, he earnestly writes, “You have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.” God does not want us to be unhappy and discomforted in our worship. Quite the contrary. He desires to meet our truest desires, desires that are much deeper and more mysterious than we can describe. But this requires surrender—of our own petty preferences, our comfort zones, our wills. Ultimately we must rid ourselves of the need to meet God on our terms.
In those times of surrender we might find God waiting for us, ready to fulfill our deepest need.