What is Worship For?

[September 18, 2013]

A pastor in the UK wrote me asking, “What is worship for?” He said that his denomination was encouraging pastors to make worship more “user-friendly” in order to attract new members, and that this initially seemed to him a reasonable evangelistic strategy. A scripture cited in support of this approach was Acts 15:19, “We should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God.” But as he read this scripture in context, it looked to him like it was written of people who were already Christian believers, and would not be required to accept Jewish practices. It didn’t address the case of people entirely outside the faith. He wrote to ask, “Who are church services for? Believers or unbelievers?”

I replied:

It sounds like you are already approaching the answer, that in the Scriptures (and through church history) worship was intended to be worship. It was aimed at God, in adoration and supplication, not at attracting non-believers, or even at giving fellow-worshippers a good worship experience. This focus on God was the case until very recently; now our immersion in a consumer economy has led us to think of everything in terms of appealing to potential customers. We are so mentally saturated in advertising that we have come to think of ourselves and our faith as products that need to be persuasively sold.

That’s how worship gets redirected from the Lord to outsiders, who have no ability yet to understand or respect Him. The church becomes an organization that is primarily occupied with planning a billboard, because the most important goal is to capture non-believers’ attention. When someone responds to a billboard and becomes a member of the community, he discovers that he has joined an organization that — is planning a billboard. The main goal of members of a church is to attract more members to the church. It’s like Ponzi scheme.

In the Scriptures worship is directed to God, not to anyone on earth, not even to other worshippers. It is certainly not directed to people who don’t yet love and respect our Lord; in fact it should be expected that our worship will be unfamiliar, perplexing, and mysterious to them. In worship we focus on Him, and those who don’t yet see Him just won’t be able to grasp it. It’s appropriate that outsiders not understand what is going on. It’s appropriate that they don’t immediately get it. But they can see that the worshippers take it very seriously, and that they really believe God is present and hearing their prayers. That kind of worship is in itself powerfully compelling, and has its own magnetic pull.

This strikes a very different note than what we experience in our daily lives, which is so thoroughly devoted to attracting consumers, and desperately obsequious and silly in that pursuit. This seriousness of purpose strikes a very different note, and the fact that non-believers can’t immediately grasp what’s going on communicates a truth in itself.

Even for us worshippers, the focus is still on God, not each other. It is like a circle of friends who make up a string quartet. The four of them might come together in a living room for an evening to play the music they love. The bond between them is strong, and their community is a beautiful thing. But they don’t focus on each other, or the community they share, and there is no outside audience. They are focused on the music; they are trying to make the most beautiful music they can.

In this analogy you can see how the false division often cited about worship, that it is either casual or formal, falls away. Though they greatly enjoy playing this music, they don’t do it in a casual way; they take seriously the work involved, and strive to do their best. On the other hand, they don’t behave in a fussy and formal way, either. They aren’t self-conscious, as if they were trying to impress a human audience. It’s not a performance. Their whole heart and attention is directly engaged with the goal of creating beautiful music.

Worship ought to be as beautiful as we can make it, for God gave Moses very demanding instructions for worship, with very expensive elements: gold, jewels, embroidery, and incense. These were extravagant requirements for people who were refugees, wandering in the desert and living in tents. But even then the beauty of worship was a priority. Beauty affects us in ways we barely recognize. It opens our hearts. God required, and deserves, the greatest beauty we can create. But in the midst of beautiful worship we don’t have to be stiff and self-conscious. Great beauty and natural, joyous behavior are not opposites; we experience how they go together when we attend a wedding reception, or a big family dinner on Christmas.

Of course, the analogy to the quartet breaks down in that they are focused on the music, but worshippers’ focus is not on worship, but on God. Worship is not a performance. It is not entertainment. It is not advertising. Worship is work, as the Bible-Greek word leit-ourgia, liturgy, shows; it is “the work of the people.” We undertake this work as members of a vast community, going back to those instructions to Moses thousands of years go. We are responsible to continue that worship and pass it on with all the seriousness and beauty it deserves. We offer this worship as transitory place-holders, striving to doing it as well as those before us did, and those after us will do. Our eyes are fixed on the Lord who receives our worship.

If, instead, we focus on attracting outsiders, it will feel to them like every other advertising pitch they encounter. The church can never compete with the world when it comes to entertainment. The world can give them more enjoyable diversions than we can, and can do it without requiring them to leave the house on Sunday morning. If we are successful in attracting people to the church on the basis of fun and entertainment, we’re guilty of false advertising, for Christ promises us nothing in this life but a cross. But if we worship with whole-hearted focus on God, they will see something they encounter nowhere else in their lives. They may not at first see Christ, but they can see that we see something, and that gives them something to think about; that’s how faith begins.

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

Christian ApologeticsChristian LifeOrthodoxy


  1. Excellent.

    One of the results of placing too much emphasis on the newcomer is that it leads to discouragement when they don't come back. We get all excited when we look around and see new faces at church. We send the posse out to love-bomb them, and congratulate ourselves for the warm welcome. Then, it's puzzling when you realize that they've gone elsewhere, which leads to new meetings to come up with new strategies to do a better job. It's exhausting, and of course has nothing to do with our primary purpose on Sunday morning.

    Thanks for the hard hitting reminder!

  2. Thirty plus years ago a class asked me to teach on the subject of worship. It was a fun experience and we included a "lab session" as well as the class. Studying the subject ruined my life as a churchman. I became aware of things I'd never seriously contemplated before. It was also a joyous experience to discover what I was really created for.

    Your article is the best thing I've read on the subject in 30 years. I only wish that you had drawn out some principles for application, that we might improve our praxis. For example, for us as humans, a word of praise that is charming from a 5-year old may be utterly banal coming from a 35-year old. We should grow in our depth of understanding. Or again, which would you prefer to hear? "You're wonderful. You're wonderful. You're wonderful." Or, "your approach to the subject of worship reflects that you have thought deeply and seriously about what ought to be involved in our worship of God." And yet how much of our "worship" is more like the former and less like the latter?

    A superb article. Thank you very much.

    Thomas Lindholtz
    Elk Grove, CA

  3. A very good and thoughtful post. After leading worship in modern churches for several years, I became bothered by realizing I was enabling this consumeristic church culture. Fortunately, the Lord has brought me into the deep beauty of the Eastern Orthodox Church that I now call home.

  4. It is such a good subject. I think what I have come to understand is that, these seeker churches (only the ones that adhere to the truth) are like large outreach ministries. Within these ministries they also get to experience what those who already know Jesus do..worship. It is just a difference in the way you view who the church was intended for…The saved or the unsaved….I see both sides. IF I look back in scripture, the church started with people who became born again right from hearing the message. Today , sadly , even in our churches consisting of the "saved" we don't seem to have the power of God anointing our messages, or perhaps the increase of sin , and our culture has made some churches seek a different creative strategy from God to meet these challenges. I have been in both churches and see both are good.

    Also I think people get confused with what worship is , it has nothing to do with the kind of music, no particular kind of music is more holy than another. The idea behind choosing music which we worship WITH is to play that which can be a vehicle for worship. So the kind of music chosen should reflect who the people that come to that church are. IF the community its elderly, they would be drawn into the church if the music was organ based. If the community is young perhaps the music should be more contemporary. So the music is to bring people into the church not necessarily what defines worship. IF a church played hymns, used organs and pianos only, why would the same accusation of "being focused on the music" apply. Bringing people in and worship….two different issues.

    The Author is not understanding that perhaps the most important thing Jesus tells us to do is to reach the lost. How do we get them into the doors first? Side note for reflection:would your church welcome a prostitute dressed in revealing clothes to come into your worship? Would she feel welcomed? Would there be others like her there? Would the christians be more concerned about how the Men might be caused to stumble by their uncaptive thoughts, or about her soul needed to be set free? The problem with many churches in this culture is that the dying world believes they have to be righteous before they enter the doors of the church, if they even get to think about it.

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