Worship is not in the Bible
Did you know that the English word for worship is not in the bible?
The definition of the word worship – to give worth – comes from an old Anglo-Saxon word deriving from weorth + -scip. It’s not at all the same as biblical worship. At best, the definition could be used to generalize all things worship.
For example, my wife and I are raising a 4 year old…
I suppose his name is also English, Wayne Rooney, the English Soccer player. Being the only “child”, Rooney gets a lot of attention, I’ll admit, probably too much. You could easily say that I “give worth” to Rooney in many ways: food, toys, time and attention… maybe the occasional Halloween costume (haters gonna hate).
So, in effect, I worship Rooney, right? I give worth to my cat.
Do I really worship my cat?
By the English definition, YES!
If worship is defined this way, then anything to which we give worth is something we worship. In which case, you might be unintentionally worshiping all kinds of stranger things too… Stranger Things 2… I digress.
Truthfully, none of us use the word “worship” by its old English definition. Today, we let Google define everything for us.
Thank you Google. I could not have made it through college without you... much less to the nearest Papa Johns.
This puts me at ease. While I’m very grateful for Rooney, I don’t consider him a deity (he still thinks he’s god, though).
Worship is more complex than simply giving worth. But, is that all that worship is? Is it something we feel or do to tell God something He already knows about Himself?
We still need to look at how Scripture defines worship.
How does scripture define worship?
When we read the scriptures to define worship, there are all sorts of words translated from the original Hebrew and Greek to mean worship, and none of these words fit perfectly into the English definition.
This means that the English word for worship functions more like a junk-drawer word for all things related to worship. Its definition is way too broad.
The scriptures are specific. As a starting point, I’m going to use a summary from Chris Jack. Here are 3 of the most common words you’ll see as worship, or translated into worship, in your bible:
To fear - yare in Hebrew, similar to sebomai in Greek.
To bow - hawah from hishtahawah in Hebrew. Similar to proskuneo in Greek.
To serve - abad in Hebrew, similar to latreuo and leitourgeo in Greek.
These words have a lot of different uses and themes and they’re complex in the original language. You could consequently translate them in different ways, for example; reverence, submission and ministry … or to be in awe, to pay honor and to work for.
I’ll let you nerd out on your own time. But for our purposes, let’s see what these words look like in action. Here’s some very popular verses we’ll need to reconsider.
On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”
Chronologically, this is the first place the English word “worship” pops up in our bibles. It’s the monumental passage where Abraham goes to sacrifice his son Isaac. Crazy.
Most of you know how the story ends and like me, you’ve heard some pretty extravagant teachings from this passage advocating for worship music as sacrifice. Unfortunately, the word “worship” here is actually that word hawah - to bow face down, submit, or pay honor - but probably to just “bow down.” So, yeah, they were worshiping, but not like how we often do it today. When Abraham and Isaac went to worship, they actually got down on their knees.
There’s a concept! Bowing to worship is worship. How often do we ever bow when we gather to worship as a church?
Let’s be really honest, how many times have we sung something like Hillsong’s I Surrender, “Here I am, down on my knees again, surrendering all,” and yet when you look around there’s a bunch of people standing around with their hands in their pockets, staring at the lyrics on the projection screen?
I’m guilty too.
What’s worse, I find in many churches, the chairs are set up so closely together that it’s nearly impossible to find room to bow down in worship. That’s maybe something to stop and consider if you’re a leader.
Let’s look at another example, probably the most quoted verse by worship (music) leaders today is Romans 12:1:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.
There’s that word again, but what does it mean this time? At its core, it’s the Greek word for service – latreuo - which makes perfect sense! Paul wasn’t encouraging the Romans to sacrifice through song, but rather that they serve one another in order to be unified.
Read in context - how Paul builds up to chapter 12. It’s actually really beautiful. The kind of worship that speaks Gods love language is being willing to sacrifice our life, or comforts and preferences, in order to love others.
Again, I think if we’re really honest with ourselves, we’d rather sing 100 songs about God’s love, mercy and sacrifice before ever having to put our own lives and comforts on the line for another person. Biblical worship is way more demanding of us. It goes directly against our self-indulging comfort zones.
How do we change that?
This is just the beginning. We’ve only discussed 3 words that fit into the larger category of worship, and we’ve only explored a few examples of how that plays out in scripture. So before you start picking yourself or others apart on the semantics of worship, let’s just pause and consider how we might make some practical changes today, given this new information.
How does this change our worship?
As we learned from part 1 & 2, the English word worship functions more like a junk-drawer word for all things related to worship. The definition is way too broad to communicate a specific action of worship.
For example, telling someone in church, “let’s worship,” would be similar to telling an athlete, “let’s play sports.” It’s extremely vague. And let’s admit, a little awkward.
Just like any athlete would want more clarity - “What kind of sport? Football, rugby, golf, tennis, ping pong?” any worshiper should want the same - “How should we worship? In reverence, bowing, serving, giving, reading scripture, praying, sacrificing, obeying God, working justice into the world?” (See? More examples).
My point is simple. Worship does not equal music.
So, how can we change?
Well for one, let’s stop using worship to mean solely music. Worship cannot be a synonym for music. While music is one way to worship God, it’s not the only way. It’s a fraction, at best.
We need to be clearer in conversation and publication and especially from the stage.
I hear others say all the time, “let’s worship now,” as a transition from the teaching or prayer. Consequently, worship gets equated with the music portion of the gathering. And whatever else we were doing (or going to do) was not worship.
So I’ve learned to shift my language a little, “Let’s continue to worship through music”.
Simple as that.
Try it out next time you lead. Commit yourself on and off stage, towards clarifying what context you intend to lead others in worship. You can see how this will eventually (and indirectly) shape the culture around you.
Remember, as the leaders go, so go the people.
Yes, it will get messy for a little while. Habits tend to die slow. But eventually you and those around you will benefit. I guarantee you, It’s so worth it!
You will be literally starting a worship revival at your church without making any changes to the music.
Now still, some of you might be wondering - is changing our language really going to have that big of an impact?
Yes! I’ve seen it happen.
WHO ARE THE WORSHIP LEADERS?
Now going a little further. At my current church, we don’t even use worship as a title anymore. As in, “worship pastor,” or “worship director.” That is, unless the person actually over-sees everything about the Sunday gathering (typically the Lead Pastor). Instead, we adopted the title: Music Pastor and Music Director. Plenty of other titles could work, as well.
This has proven to be hugely beneficial to our people, especially the staff and musicians. For the musicians (speaking frankly), it keeps our role in perspective. Leading music is just one expression of worship to Jesus, not an exalted position. Therefore, our musicianship doesn’t define us as worshipers of Jesus.
Let that sink in.
I'm not the guitar player...
I'm not the drummer...
the bass player...
I'm a worshiper of Jesus.
This is a huge identity shift. But the overall encouragement is always towards a holistic devotion to Jesus. I’ve watched this reality transform our musician’s hearts as worshipers on and off stage. Notice, their talent isn't necessarily the problem, however their identity is.
As image bearers of God, our talent gives glory to God. Therefore, if our identity (worshiper of Jesus) is in place, our talents will naturally be used for that purpose.
For the staff, the transformation is equally impacting. We realize that we all play a part as worship leaders, without ever needing to pick up a guitar, learn piano, or to be blunt, sing in tune. Instead, we can lead others with reverence towards God, bowing in prayer, and serving one another.
Here’s one last idea. Earlier I gave the example of bowing and service as acts of worship form the scriptures. So what if this week you invite your church to do one of those things?
Here’s how I would suggest saying it:
“During this next song, I want to invite you, if you’re willing and able, to bow on your knees for the first part of this song. We’re going to bow to Jesus Christ our king, as an act of worship”.
Or if you want to challenge your church to serve one another better, try this:
“Serving one another is essential to how we please God in worship. Awareness and prayer is a great first step. So while the band keeps playing some music, I want you to turn to your neighbor and simply ask, ‘what do you want Jesus to do for you today?’ and then take a moment to pray with that person.”
Easy stuff, right?
If it feels risky, talk to another leader about it first. Or feel free to comment / ask about what to do in your specific situation.
There’s still more, but I think these initial thoughts are a great starting point to lead you down the path of true worship.
In the meantime, let’s continue to discover all the ways we can worship without music. Let’s hear and act on the warnings of the prophets, no longer giving “lip service,” but upholding justice and righteousness (Amos 5:21-24).
Let’s respond well to the prophets today! Let’s bring God “more than a song” (Heart Of Worship by Matt Redman).