Worship is not a lifestyle.

There, I said it. Someone needed to say it.

Although I formerly subscribed to the idea that worship is a lifestyle, I don’t any longer. It’s not a lifestyle. In fact, it’s not even the acts of kindness or generosity that we do toward others. Worship is always – from a biblical perspective – an act directed toward God. It’s a deliberate, vertical action that is intentionally fixed on God to honor Him.

Many years ago I was Managing Editor of Psalmist Magazine. It was the premier magazine regarding contemporary worship issues. The Editor and Publisher was a man named Kent Henry. Kent was the worship leader on several of the early Integrity Hosanna! Music recordings.

While I was with Psalmist, we received a letter from a man who lived in Poland. He had obtained one of those live recordings that Kent was involved with. That cassette tape had proven to be a significant blessing in the man’s life. The point of his letter was that he wanted Kent to consider traveling to Poland to minister.

Although it was obvious that this man had some understanding of the English language, it was also obvious that he did not fully understand every word he wrote. In the letter, he was trying to say that if Kent would come to Poland, they would show him hospitality. Instead, though, what he actually said was that if Kent came to Poland, they would hospitalize him.   🙂

The man thought he had the right word, but definitely didn’t. He thought he understood the meaning of the word he was using, but he clearly did not understand it.

I believe that many people do the same thing with the word worship. They think they know what it means, but they don’t really. Their understanding often has little – if any – basis in Scripture.

Today, many Christians would tell you that worship is a lifestyle. And although I used to believe this, I don’t any longer. I will say that I do think that worship should be part of life. But a lifestyle? No.

When I was in seminary, one of the professors had us conduct a word study on the word worship in the Scriptures. We were to look up in our English Bibles all the times that worship appears, and see what the original Hebrew and Greek words meant. Based on this research, we were then to come to some sort of conclusion about what worship really is from a biblical perspective.

When the project was complete and we all shared our findings, I was astounded at the results. Almost everyone in the class came to pretty much the same conclusions: (1) worship honors God, (2) it is directed toward God and (3) it requires involvement on the part of the worshiper. Just a cursory look at worship in the Bible – even apart from the original languages – will show this concept to be true.

  • …all the people of Judah and Jerusalem fell down in worship before the LORD (2 Chronicles 20:18).
  • Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground (Nehemiah 8:6).
  • Come, let us bow down in worship (Psalm 95:6).
  • They came to him [Jesus], clasped His feet and worshiped him (Matthew 28:9).
  • …offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship (Romans 12:1).
  • So he [an unbeliever] will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!” (1 Corinthians 14:25).
  • …the twenty-four elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and worship Him… (Revelation 4:10).

Allow me a few moments to briefly unpack this idea.

Worship honors God. There are occasions in Scripture where people rail against God. There are times when some lament the Lord’s seeming lack of involvement in the affairs of His people. There are even places where some folks weep and mourn, crying out to God. All of these may be prayer, but it is not even suggested in the Bible that these are worship. Why not? Because they are not intended to honor God. To truly be called worship, it must be honoring to Him.

And please understand that I am not suggesting that any of these other things are wrong. I am saying that if they don’t honor God, they are not worship.

The original English word that has since been shortened to worship was worthship (actually worthscipe in the Old English vernacular). It was used to address or describe someone worthy of respect or honor. Worship is to honor. In the biblical sense, it is to honor God.

My late pastor once said that we act as if the worship service is supposed to be a production done in our royal honor. But it’s not. Worship honors God.

Worship is directed toward God. Let’s be perfectly clear: Unless the act is directed toward God, from a biblical perspective it cannot truly be called worship. Worship has God as the focal point, not us.

A few years ago I attended a conference where one of the speakers shared a powerful story. He had been in another city on business with a friend. Since they were there over the weekend, they decided to attend a church on Sunday morning. They found a nearby congregation and went to the service. As they left the church building that day, the friend turned to the man and said, “You know, I really enjoyed the sermon there this morning, but I didn’t get much out of the worship time.” The man thought for a moment, then looked at his friend and asked, “Have you ever considered what that’s got to do with anything?”

What he was saying was, “Who is the worship for?” Worship is not for us. Worship – in it’s truest sense – is directed toward God. It is not for the worshiper. It is for the One being worshiped. To truly be called worship, it must be directed toward God.

Worship requires involvement on the part of the worshiper. Yes, I am aware that there is one time in Scripture when Jacob leaned on his staff and worshiped. (Genesis 47:31) However, that is clearly the exception! The overwhelming majority of times the Bible talks about things like singing, speaking forth words of praise, clapping, shouting, giving, kneeling, and raising our hands.

Years ago the late Dr. Robert Webber wrote a book entitled Worship is a Verb. That title makes the point well. There is an involvement that is necessary in true, biblical worship.

 

So, if we talk about worship as lifestyle, it’s that second element – worship is directed toward God – that concerns me. See, my question is: Is everything you do honestly directed toward God? You and I both know the answer to that question: Of course it’s not.

Several years ago, I read an article by James MacDonald. He’s the pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago. They have seven locations throughout the Chicagoland area, with more than 13,000 attendees. He’s also the head of “Walk in the Word” broadcast ministry, and author of nearly twenty books. MacDonald said this:

I’m not seeking to parse meanings with undue rigor, but we need to be precise in our definitions if we want to accurately embrace the very purpose for our existence. Worship is the actual act of ascribing worth directly to God. Worshipful actions [earlier in the article he mentions things like acts of kindness and generosity toward others, for example]  may do this indirectly, but when the Bible commands and commends worship as our highest expression, it is not talking about anything other than direct, intentional, vertical outpouring of adoration. While that does not have to be put to music, it does have to be direct in order to rise above the “worshipful” and actually attribute worth to God…1

MacDonald is spot on. I especially appreciated his assessment that worship is “direct, intentional, vertical…” Vertical. That sounds a lot like “directed toward God.”

We may do what James MacDonald calls “worshipful actions,” (I think I would have chosen a different wording there, just to make it perfectly clear) but when the Bible talks about worship, it is always in terms of the attention focused solely on God. It’s vertical. Worship is directed toward Him. Or, as MacDonald said it, “it does have to be direct… in order to attribute worth to God.”

I have examined the more than 100 times the word worship is used throughout the Old and New Testaments. Not once does Scripture give any indication that the word worship should be used in the sense of anything other than direct outpouring of adoration and reverence to God.

Many people who talk about worship as a lifestyle equate worship with serving, as though those two terms are synonymous. They say that we are worshiping God when we serve God or serve others. I would suggest that this is simply not true.

Think about it. If those two terms are, in fact, synonymous, then why does the Bible differentiate between them? Deuteronomy 11:16 says, “Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them.” The prophet Jeremiah made a similar distinction when he said, “Do not go after other gods to serve and worship them…” (Jeremiah 25:6) There are several other Old Testament passages that I could quote here, but even in the New Testament, Jesus indicated there was a difference between those two ideas when He said, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” (Matthew 4:10, Luke 4:8)

If worship is all we do, including serving, then why this distinction in Scripture between serving and worshiping? Two different terms are used because they are two different ideas. In other words, they are not the same.

Let me add here that I recognize that the meaning of words can change or shift over time. That’s why today the word wicked can mean good. Or cool is not necessarily about temperature.

But for a word that is as important as worship, we dare not simply tag along with the culture’s shifting thought process. It’s vital to understand God’s perspective on such a significant and weighty word.

If you had asked a Bible scholar – a theologian – forty or more years ago to define the word worship, you would never have heard anything about lifestyle. Instead, they would have used phrases like “pointed acts of obeisance,” “giving reverence to,” or “paying homage to…” They would have scoffed at the idea of worship as lifestyle.

Popular blogger and worship leader Kim Gentes said this:

Today, the word worship has become a euphemism for “everything.” This happened not because the Bible changed, but because we stopped using it as the central text to define the word. And with the popular movement of the last 30 years, we have co-opted the “worship” term for almost everything and anything… I have done it, others have done it, we’ve all done it. But we were wrong.2

My thinking actually started heading in the direction that worship is not a lifestyle long before I ever read the articles by James MacDonald or Kim Gentes, but their thoughts certainly helped propel me farther down that road. When I’m confronted by truth, I find it necessary to respond.

Some time ago I had a conversation with Chuck Fromm, Editor of Worship Leader Magazine. At one point in the conversation, he made a statement that has stuck with me ever since: “If worship is everything, then it is nothing.” In other words, if it is all-inclusive, then it has lost its meaning. If it’s everything we do, then we have no way to actually separate it from anything else we do. And he’s right. If worship is everything we do, then how could we even begin to differentiate between it and any other action we might take? We couldn’t.

But we can, because it’s not a lifestyle. It’s a deliberate, intentional, vertical action directed toward God to honor Him.

Now, I will be the first to admit that Scripture does tell us that we should do all that we do to the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31) There should be no question about that. All that we do should be done to the glory of God. But there is no indication that that is worship. It’s simply doing all to the glory of God. So, we dare not co-opt one idea – doing all to the glory of God – for the purpose of making a separate issue – worship – into a neat and tidy soundbite: Worship is a lifestyle. No, it’s not.

Worship is directed toward God. James MacDonald said it well when he declared that it “does not have to be put to music, [but] it does have to be direct.” If we’re going to use the word worship biblically, then we need to recognize that it is an intentional pouring out of adoration and reverence to God. It’s vertical.

So, let’s you and I intentionally direct our thoughts, hearts, and actions toward God to honor Him. That’s worship.


  1. James MacDonald, “Unashamed Adoration,” Worship Leader Magazine, November/December 2012, pg. 21
  2. Kim Gentes, “Why Worship Means Nothing,” http://www.kimgentes.com/thinkjump-journal/2013/2/18/why-worship-means-nothing-thinkjump-journal-83-with-kim-gent.html