RPM, Volume 12, Number 15, April 11 to April 17 2010

Worship Worthy of the Name

Worship is Seeing what God is Worth
and Giving Him What He's Worth

From the book:

Changing Lives
Through Preaching and Worship
Copyright © 1995

Christianity Today International

Reprinted by Permission of
The Gospel Coalition

By Tim Keller

Senior Pastor of
Redeemer Presbyterian Church
Manhattan, NY

Dan Wakefield, a writer who moved to New York in the 1950s, was originally from Indiana. When he arrived in New York, he completely overturned his Baptist roots and became a bohemian. In one of his books, he describes how he wanted nothing to do with the values of middle America. He completely rid himself of religion.

Now, however, he's near 60 years old, ostensibly needing spiritual meaning, and attends a liturgical church. Why? Probably because to him, the church feels safe, it's connected with history, it doesn't feel like a fly-by-night operation, and it is more satisfying aesthetically.

Historic liturgy often appeals to a certain kind of person. It opens doors to the heart that the art of pop culture—drums and guitars—can't.

Personally, I like both. Each form of art opens different doors into my soul. But each form must have at its core true worship. It all begins with this question: What is true worship?

Instinct Run Amok

At our deepest level, we were created for worship. But this instinct has gone awry.

Jonathan Edwards spoke of religious affections—that core of our being that orients our mind, will, and emotions toward an object. Sin has caused our affections to stray, propelling us to worship relationships, achievement, work—everything but God. Alfred Adler would say we gravitate toward control or power or comfort or approval.

We obsess about those things, comfort ourselves with them, fantasize about them. Biblically speaking, those things are idols. Worship is pulling our affections off our idols and putting them on God.

The word worship comes from an Old English word meaning "worth-ship." I define worship as a private act that has two parts: seeing what God is worth and giving him what he's worth.

Job says, "I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread." When I treasure something, I longingly look at it, for example, in the store window and think about how great it would be to own it. I ponder its virtues, talk to my friends about how great it is. Then I go out and buy it.

Worship is treasuring God: I ponder his worth and then do something about it—I give him what he's worth. Every approach to worship must have those two elements.

Harnessed Worship

The only difference between private and public worship is that in public worship, individuals are doing it in concert with others. In a team of six horses, each horse is affected by the speed and direction of the other five. The same is true of corporate worship—it's individuals worshiping God in harness.

If the minister is talking about the holiness of God, for example, I'm seeing God's holiness in concert with the congregation. Together, God's people are in harness, letting the worship leader guide them so they can respond to God individually by giving him what he is worth.

Scripture readings, exhortations, and sermons show people what God is worth. The offering, prayers of repentance and thanksgiving, and times of confession allow people to respond to God.

In order for us to worship, our mind, will, and emotions have to be moved. They're all organically connected.

Merely learning a truth about God is intellectual education, not worship. For example, I can know intellectually that God is good but still be worried silly about something that's coming up this week. If the morning's sermon is on the sovereignty and goodness of God, I haven't worshiped unless that truth descends from my mind and touches my emotions and my will.

I worship, then, when I realize I've been trusting in my own abilities, not the sovereignty and goodness of God. When I pull my affections off the other things I've been trusting in—which is why I'm anxious—and put them on God, I will be touched emotionally. I may cry; I may not. It depends on what kind of personality I have. But the truth will affect my emotions.

My will is also affected when I decide to change the way I handle that threat next week.

Worship is grasping a truth about God and then letting that truth strike you in the center of your being. It thrills you, comforts you. That's when the truth has moved from left to right brain—from mind to heart. On the spot, it will change the way you feel. The whole brain, the whole person, is affected.

Mistaken Emotions

Not everything we feel Sunday morning can be labeled true worship. Several emotions can be mistakenly associated with true worship.

Nostalgia. Some people are moved to tears by listening to "The Old Rugged Cross" and others by "The Wind Beneath My Wings." But those feelings are not necessarily worship. They could also be merely a sentimental connection; the song reminds people of a warm memory. This is one reason why people will say, "I can't worship if I don't sit in my pew," or "I can't worship because you rearranged the furniture," or "I can't worship if I don't know the hymns."

That's nostalgia, a fond sentiment that people often need because everything else in life is changing. But that feeling isn't worship, and there is no resulting impact on their whole lives.

Conscience clearing. Some people feel guilty because they haven't gone to church for a while, or they haven't been praying, or whatever. So because they're in church, singing a hymn and putting something in the offering plate, they feel better. Their consciences are clear. Perhaps that feeling is better than the sentimental feeling, but it's still not worship.

Aesthetic experiences. Other people may have only an aesthetic experience, which is still not worship. Even people hostile to the gospel can weep while listening to Handel's Messiah. C. S. Lewis said that his imagination was baptized when he was still an atheist because of excellent Christian art.

Our emotions become a legitimate part of worship when, in response to a truth about God, we give something back to God: our money, our sin, our praise. Again, the three elements must be there: mind, will, emotion.

As it relates to worship, I'd rather use the word moved than the word emotion. If we don't find that our affections have been moved from earthly idols toward God, we haven't worshiped. Our affections are more than just our emotions.

Some of us, myself included, are not emotionally expressive. That's just who I am. However, if I leave Sunday morning having had no emotional connection whatsoever, I haven't worshiped. I must allow my heart to be touched to worship.

Baptized Art

In recent years, churches have emphasized excellence in worship, especially in seeking to reach non-Christians. In general, churches that focus on excellence tend to attract more non-Christians.

Non-Christians are attracted to the art of a tight-sounding worship band or string quartet. They are not, in general, attracted to the special music of Brother Joe's seventh-grade nephew, who gets up and plays "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" on his clarinet. That music is meaningful for the members of Brother Joe's church, who know and love the nephew, and who know and love the truth. But those who don't have the relationship already are only made uncomfortable by the lack of excellence.

Aesthetics is a movement from the right brain to the left. Consequently, art is often a back door to truth. Clearly, people are brought to faith through great aesthetics. The power of the art draws people to behold it. After a while they begin to wonder if the ideas that inspired it are true.

As a general rule, the larger the church, the more important worship aesthetics become. It can be compared to the difference between two restaurants, both of which have great food. One restaurant is a dive, tucked away in a hard-to-find basement; its patrons are proud of the fact that not many people eat there. It attracts few new customers because nobody knows where it is unless you're told by an insider.

The other restaurant, however, places a premium on good advertising and a pleasant ambiance. It's easy to find, warm and friendly. Everything about the restaurant communicates, "Why don't you try our food?" I would go so far as to say that when planting a church, you determine its future size in part by the importance you place on aesthetics in worship.

But it's important to keep worship aesthetics in perspective. Frankly, I doubt that to God there's much difference between the classically trained soloist and Brother Joe's nephew. God is the one we want to please, and I doubt he judges on the basis of aesthetics.

Easy Access

Contemporary pop music is not the only art that attracts non-Christians, however. I'm always puzzled when I hear pastors suggest this.

Our largest service at Redeemer is not the one we started with the contemporary band (though that could change). It's the one with traditional hymns and string quartets playing classical music. Perhaps that's because New York faces Europe more than the rest of the country. I've found the people of Manhattan like formality. They're used to cathedrals, art museums, symphonies. Many non-Christians feel safe in a liturgical service because they know what's happening next. There are no surprises.

I've also found that many who come back to the faith often choose a liturgical church. These people tend to be intellectuals: professors, writers, musicians.


The pressure on a pastor to create a good worship service each week can cause me to react wrongly when a service doesn't come off the way I think it should. I'm a detail person, and occasionally, I cringe when a vocalist blows it or the microphone system goes haywire. That's not good. It indicates an overemphasis on aesthetics.

Yet, just as people can have an aesthetic experience and not worship, they can also worship without good aesthetics. I need to remember that. I'm committed to excellence but don't want to make it a nonnegotiable. Aesthetics are negotiable; truth is not.

Neither is the authenticity of the worship leader. Before Sunday, I must be worshiping God throughout the week. I use daily Martin Luther's scheme of "garland" meditation, which he describes in a letter. I meditate until some thought of Scripture catches fire in my heart. I collect those thoughts, which stay radioactive all week, and use them in my worship leading the next Sunday.

This prepares me to worship in concert with the congregation. My people can sense whether I am worshiping or not. I believe the church needs to see me worship, to see my affections being moved by the truth of God.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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