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. Proskuneo implies a position of prostration in which the one who is worshipping lies down with body and face flat to the floor before the one who is being worshipped, 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 it’s 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 claimed that God didn’t see it. They said that they humbled themselves to honor God, but again, they claimed that God didn’t notice.
The 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.
This is the kind of worship that the Lord requires of us.
“I will tell you the kind of fast I want: Free the people you have put in prison unfairly and undo their chains. Free those to whom you are unfair and stop their hard labor. Share your food with the hungry and bring poor, homeless people into your own homes. When you see someone who has no clothes, give him yours, and don’t refuse to help your own relatives. Then your light will shine like the dawn, and your wounds will quickly heal. Your God will walk before you, and the glory of the LORD will protect you from behind.”
The kind of worship that God wants frees the imprisoned, cares for the laborers, tends to the sick, feeds the hungry, clothes the poor, and works toward the reconciliation, peace, and healing in all relationships.
In what kind of worship do you participate within your Church community? Is it the kind of worship that leads to individual, relational, and communal transformation? Or, is it the kind of worship that is more focused the form or shape and how well it pleases us or how well we think it pleases God?
What changes do you need to make in how you worship as an individual? What changes does your Church need to make in how it guides people in worship?
Additional Readings: Romans 12, Isaiah 1, Isaiah 58
My good friend Nick Morrow, a worship pastor and musician, has been working on an amazing project since the beginning of the year called 50 Songs. He is writing an original song each week and as he puts it, “not just a melody or a few lines, but a full song. Verses, chorus, pre-chorus, bridge, super chorus, whatever. And then demo the songs for people to hear.” He wonders if he could be, in his words, “disciplined enough to actually write and demo fifty [good] songs in one year.”
The other day Nick reached out to me and asked if I had a blog that focused on Isaiah 58, which happens to be one of my favorite chapters of the Bible. He asked me because I introduced this chapter to him five or six years ago and he wanted to reference my blog when he posts his new song, which is rooted in Isaiah 58.
Believe it or not, while I have talked and preached extensively on this passage, I have never written about it!
This post is my first written attempt at sharing my heart for worship and my love for Isaiah 58.