The Danger of Inviting God into Worship

Last week I wrote about why worship music is supposed to be horrible, which generated lots of comments here on the site and on Facebook. In the process of reading and responding to many of them, I found the conversation veering from music as a medium for worship (with its built-in limitations) to the act and purpose of worship itself. 

So let's talk about worship. 

We'll start with a statement most of us should agree on: worship is about God. Who he is. What he has done, is doing and will do. Worship is about recognizing our triviality in light of his grandeur. This leads many people to decry the use of first-person language in worship music. "It's not about what I feel, do or say," someone may argue. "It's not about me at all. It's about God." 

I agree that worship can be self-centered. But I disagree about how that self-centeredness finds expression. 

For starters, I don't think "I" language is necessarily a bad thing. We say worship is about God, but more precisely worship is an action on our part in response to God. It's reactive. When reacting to God, it makes sense that we reach for words that merely describe how we feel. Because something happens when we encounter a transcendent God: we realize the limitations of our language to capture it. 

Just look at these reactions to God in the Bible:

  • Job (my favorite): "My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6).
  • The Psalmist: "I will exalt you, my God the King; I will praise your name for ever and ever. Every day I will praise you and extol your name for ever and ever" (Ps. 145:1-2). 
  • Isaiah: “Woe is me! For I am undone, because I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5). 

If God is a glory too ferocious to behold, perhaps it's also difficult to capture it in words. I suggest that first-person language most often signifies our inability to absorb God rather than our self-absorption. 

The bigger danger, I think, is our preoccupation with encountering God in worship. This is where our self-centeredness finds its ugliest expression. 

I can imagine that many of you may have had experiences when the presence of God was palpable in worship and he met you in that moment in a special way. I certainly don't want to invalidate or rob you of those experiences at all. I've had them too. And because those experiences are so special, it makes sense that we would try to replicate them every time we worship. But this is dangerous.

The implicit, unspoken belief in many worship settings that I've seen is that experiencing God's presence is the primary purpose of worship. No longer is worship reactive, a response of awe and gratitude to God, but proactive, a request that he make himself more real to us. It's about us. It's something that we want.

I think this is more felt than said. How many times have we walked away from a worship service feeling underwhelmed? The words we sang were true. The sentiments expressed were genuine. We sang them in one voice. Yet something seemed to be missing. It didn't feel like the Spirit was moving.

This is proactive worship. We invite God into our service and if he doesn't show then it was a failure. Perhaps we didn't worship hard enough. Perhaps someone was "in sin." Proactive worship is merely the means to an end: feeling close to God. It's not the end itself. 

The swelling music, the trance-like repetition, the instructions to raise our hands...they've all become big red flags to me. We're either trying to coerce God to answer our beckoning, like some kind of holy rain dance, or we're trying to deceive ourselves by supplanting our emotions for a genuine spiritual experience. (On that last note, I loved the natural daylight flooding through the gym windows at my last church--not an immersive, theater-like experience, but a part of everyday life, refreshingly sober.) It's like a formula that we turn to in order to unlock God. 

The truth is, whether or not we feel God's presence is kind of beside the point. I don't think worship is a space that we invite God into. I think it's a space that God has invited us into. We might not (read: probably won't) feel him there. But feeling him there is not why we came. We didn't come to be rewarded with a feeling of his love; we came to reward him with an expression of our love. That's the difference between being reactive with worship, not proactive. It's the "wow" and "thanks" of our journey with God, not the "please."