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“As the music plays, let us close our eyes and just worship the Lord.”
Have you heard a worship leader say this? I have, and every time I hear this I say, sometimes out loud, no, no no. Why? Because it reduces worship to a private, personal, emotional, mystical experience which is as much inspired by the music as it is by the Holy Spirit. Ok, I know that we worship the Lord with our emotions which are a key component of being human, and music has always featured strongly in biblical worship. So what’s my beef? Two at least.
Firstly, Christian corporate worship is communal. We worship as ‘the church gathered’. Otherwise we might as well save money and time and worship in the comfort of our homes, plugged into a worship service we watch online. But we worship as family. The early church was 30–40 people meeting in a home and worship was highly participatory (1 Corinthians 14:26–33). Most of our worship services today are held in halls. The congregations can be huge in some churches. That means participation by the congregation is minimal. I take whatever participation I can get — singing, praying, passing the peace, giving, receiving the elements, etc., together with my church family. To shut my eyes may help me to focus on God but I can do that alone at home. When I worship with the church gathered, I want to do it with eyes open conscious of the fact that I am worshipping in community.
But my greatest concern about exhortations to close my eyes to worship God is the message that this experience defines worship. Worship is equated with something that you feel. In truth, in worship we respond to who God is and what He has done, by honouring Him with our whole lives. As Paul reminds us in Romans 12:1–2, we are to offer our lives unto the Lord. All we do must honour God. We worship God when we help the poor. We worship God when we speak up for those who can’t speak up for themselves. We worship God when we care for a new-born child, or ageing parents. We worship God when we bring biblical values into all we do. We worship God when we share the gospel. We worship God when we refrain from corruption and from sexual sin. We worship God with all our lives and with eyes wide open.
I am not against closing our eyes and focusing on God during corporate worship but I must never forget that what God desires is the worship of my whole life. Worship began before I entered the worship hall and continues after I leave. It is not restricted to those few moments when I close my eyes and feel something. Listen to what the Lord says through the prophet Isaiah:
Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood!
Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.
(Isaiah 1:13–17 NIV)
The message is clear. Elaborate corporate worship is not acceptable to God if it is offered by those who do not worship God with their lives. While none of us is ever good enough to come before a holy God — we come because of the finished work of the Lamb — we must still remember that God desires that we worship Him with our lives.
We put so much effort into our corporate worship. In fact a whole industry has grown up to support it. But if it means that we understand worship to mean only or primarily our experiences of corporate worship, experiences that are not linked to lives of holiness and service, we have not understood how the Lord defines worship. So don’t ask me if I enjoyed a worship experience. It’s not about us. It’s about our love for God and neighbour — in response to His love for us.
Last Wednesday evening Bernice and I were part of a small worship service. The technical aspects of the service were simple, amateurish even. But this was a group of people who sacrificially give themselves to mission work in very difficult mission fields in Asia, sometimes at considerable risk to their lives. We have no hesitation to affirm that God was pleased with their worship.