Christian worship takes place in the context of a covenant relationship between us and God. It is vital that we remember the roles we each take in that relationship: He is the Lord, and we are the servants. Therefore, worship should be an extremely humbling act, reminding us of our own creatureliness. After all, the god we are most tempted to worship besides the living and true God is the god of self. But real worship reorients us and corrects that idolatrous impulse by making it primarily about God and what He desires.
Does the corporate worship we engage in on a weekly basis impress on us our status as servants of the living God? Or do we implicitly think that we are in control, that we can call the shots in this meeting with God? I think there are at least three things that we should ask to evaluate if our worship meets the biblical criteria of asserting the supremacy of our covenant King.
Who Talks First?
The first question is simply this: Who talks first? Is it us or God? It ought to be God—it must be God. Why? Because it’s God’s Word, not man’s, that has the power to constitute a relationship with Him. If we are to come and engage with Him—which is what is happening in worship—then He needs to call us. The Westminster divines explain, “The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part” (WCF 7.1). He is too great for us to grasp, unless He makes Himself available to us. This is why Reformed and Presbyterian churches have historically begun their worship services with a “call to worship.” The call to worship sets the stage and structures our services in such a way as to remind the worshipers that God is supreme, and we are His servants.
Who Talks Most?
The second question to ask is this: Who talks most? Is the service predominantly God speaking to us in the reading, singing, and preaching of the Scriptures, or is it us talking to Him? Both are important, but what are we implicitly saying if 75 percent—or even 50 percent—of a worship service is taken up with our words to God? Do we think what we have to say is more important than what God has to say?
Some U.K. readers will be familiar with the voice of Oswald Lawrence, though they likely do not know the name. Lawrence was a largely unsuccessful actor, albeit for one role: since the 1970s he was the voice of the London Underground, reminding commuters on the Northern Line to “mind the gap!” as they stepped off the tube. He served in that role until 2012, when the Underground phased out his voice in favor of an automated voice that would be used uniformly across the entire subway system. No one probably noticed, except for Lawrence’s dear widow, Margaret. After her husband died in 2007, Margaret found great comfort in hearing his voice every time she got off at her Embankment station. Distraught over the decision to remove his voice, Margaret made an appeal to the powers that be. Moved by her story, the London Underground reintroduced Lawrence’s voice at one station only: Embankment. His widow has shared how often she goes down to the platform just to sit, sometimes nearly for an hour, to hear the voice of her beloved.
Do we ever think of worship like that? Do we ever think of going to church as an opportunity for us to simply sit and hear the voice of our Beloved? And His Words are so much stronger and sweeter than a simple recording of three syllables—but often we are too busy speaking to listen. The default for a servant should be silence, not speaking. Remember the words of Samuel: “Speak, for your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:9).
Who Sets the Talking Points?
One final question we should ask to evaluate our worship services is this: Who sets the talking points? Or put another way, who determines what our worship looks like—us or God? Contrary to popular opinion, we are not permitted do whatever we want in worship. We must do what God wants, and He cares very much about how He is worshiped. He has high standards. Since religion and worship are very personal, people balk at this notion. But Scripture presents the activity of worship as something much more serious and far less flippant or subjective. In fact, worship is a matter of life or death, as several examples in Scripture indicate (see below). This is why the Preacher says that we are to “walk prudently” or “guard [our] steps” as we come into the presence of God (Eccl. 5:1). He is warning the people of God, “Be careful how you worship.” Worship is a serious business—God cares how we worship, and if we do not worship Him appropriately, we place ourselves in danger.
Now, maybe that doesn’t sound quite right or sit well with you. You may be thinking, “Surely God doesn’t care how we worship; He simply cares that we worship.” For many of us, our default setting is to think that as long as our heart is in it, God is happy with our worship. But there is arrogance in that way of thinking. It places us above God. It suggests something like this: “I am so great and important that God should be thrilled at the prospect of getting any of my attention. What a privilege for Him that I would worship Him. Surely He’s so attention starved that He’ll take whatever I give Him.”
Stories like that of Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10:1–3) should dissuade us of the notion that God doesn’t care how we worship, or that He leaves the decisions up to us. In The Necessity of Reforming the Church, John Calvin wrote:
There is a two-fold reason why the Lord, in condemning and prohibiting all fictitious worship, requires us to give obedience only to his own voice. First, it tends greatly to establish his authority that we do not follow our own pleasure, but depend entirely on his sovereignty; and secondly, such is our folly, that when we are left at liberty, all we are able to do is go astray. And then once we have turned aside from the right path, there is no end to our wanderings, until we get buried under a multitude of superstitions. Justly, therefore, does the Lord, in order to assert his full right of dominion, strictly enjoin what he wishes us to do, and at once reject all human devices which are at variance with his command. Justly, too, does he, in express terms, define our limits, that we may not, by fabricating perverse modes of worship, provoke his anger against us.1
What can we do to move our worship services in a God-centered direction—a worship that exalts Him and humbles us? Terry Johnson says: “The single most important step is to fill them with biblical content. Bible-filled services, services in which the songs, prayers, readings, and sermons are full of Scripture, will inevitably be filled with God as well.”2 This is to simply affirm that God calls the shots in worship. He sets the talking points. He is the Lord; we are the servants.
This Sunday, will you worship? The psalmist has taught us that to worship is simultaneously to “bow down” and “kneel before the Lord” (Ps. 95:6). It’s to take a humbling posture before the high and holy God. But the God we lay low before is the God of whom we say, “You save a humble people” (Ps. 18:27).
- John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church, trans. H. Beveridge (Dallas: Protestant Heritage, 1995), 17.
- Terry Johnson, Worshipping with Calvin (Darlington, England: Evangelical, 2014), 79.