Making Worship Meaningful – Part 1 of 2

Making Worship Meaningful – Part 1 of 2 January 16, 2024

Practical Spirituality series

While blame and speculation abound, this series seeks to shift the focus toward finding genuine meaning in worship. It can be done. I’ve seen it done. I’ve done it.

The enigma of meaningless worship

Generation Z, many Millennials, and many older Christians find little of value in worship services. Speculation abounds regarding the reasons. Much of the speculation is blame of other’s lack of faith, or self-serving attitudes toward the basic message of Jesus heard to the point of boredom, and other things that are way off target. Many compelling reasons exist for lacking meaning. Are there better ways? Definitely.

Reassessing expectations

Pastors strive to engage us with thought-provoking sermons and provide homilies on moral topics. Or maybe just drown us in doctrine. Musicians and song leaders labor to engage us emotionally with rhythms and praise. Greeters engage us with big smiles and friendly conversation. They all put together a show meant to capture our hearts and minds. Why don’t we find this meaningful? Maybe none of these are a problem. Have we missed something practical?

Man Worshiping God, on Pickpic
Man Worshiping God, on Pickpic

Scriptural insight

Let’s turn to the scriptures for insight. Jesus said, “But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go work today in the vineyard.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he regretted it and went. The man came to the second and said the same thing; and he answered, ‘I will, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you.” -Matthew 21: 28-31 (NASB)

From this biblical passage, we can consider what it means to do the will of God. If we’re not doing the will of God, then how can we worship? How can we bake a delicious cake if we leave out the essential ingredients? This scriptural perspective lays the foundation for understanding the essence of meaningful worship.

Are we the person who refuses to serve but eats the meals on the table, relying on the grace of our father in heaven? That’s not a good approach because it means God will not recognize you, according to Matthew 7:21.

Are we people who ignore the needs of others and only do tasks that are pleasing to us, such as attending church to be with others? That’s a social club. Or are we the person who does the arduous task? The Bible often encourages us not to complain, but if we have to complain we should at least do the task.

Another writer, in the article The Problem With “Meaningful” Worship, delves into this issue, prompting us to reconsider our approach to worship.

For many years I was puzzled about what worship was supposed to be about and did research at that time, getting into true worship. I touch on it in this post, but more about that in Part 2.

Decoding worship: language and perception

What does it mean to worship God? Does it mean singing songs and hearing about how we do wrong, which is a kind of 20th Century formulation? Or maybe it means listening for what we want our neighbors to hear. (Smiley face.) Judge for yourself.

We paint God and Jesus as perfect. Is this why we worship them? If we found a painting or a song that was perfect, and was a perfect example of creativity, should we worship it? Is worship about nothing more than being in awe of God and receiving God’s good will?

Perhaps looking at the language will help us understand. The Hebrew word used by the ancient Jews for worship is avodah (עֲבוֹדָה), literally means “work, worship, and service.” In Judaism, avodah means serving God.

Another aspect of worship is to deeply respect and adore. In the Catholic Vulgate translation, the Hebrew word shâchâh is translated as “adore” in Ezekiel 46:2-9. In more common terms this means special honor or respect, bowing in respect, deep respect.

Serve or adore? navigating the dichotomy

A clue might be found in what Woodrow Wilson said: “In the Lord’s Prayer, the first petition is for daily bread. No one can worship God or love his neighbor on an empty stomach.”

Maybe this is why Christians love to eat in church. But have we set a place at our table for the stranger who may happen by?

Feeding the stranger: a service of worship

Is feeding the stranger service? While we may emphasize different things, the needy are always at our mercy. If we don’t have mercy (love) then we don’t reflect God, according to the Apostle Paul.

Across all denominations, helping the needy is considered essential to being Christian for the majority of Christians, as per Pew Research.

A final note on language. Jesus spoke Aramaic which is similar to Hebrew (same base). The Greek has limitations for passing along the same ideas in many instances. The Greek word for worship doesn’t convey the idea of service like the Hebrew and Aramaic do, so leads to potential errors in meaning. Is this a problem? No. Jesus’ emphasis was on love which conveys the idea of service to God and others.

Respecting God: a closer look at worship

Shifting focus to the idea of worship as “respecting God,” we explore the definition of respect and its implications in our approach to worship.

What does it mean to “respect God.” Respect means to consider someone worthy of high regard. Respect, in some definitions, involves treating others with kindness, consideration, and understanding.

Respect and honoring are in the same family of ideas. Imagine dishonoring God by acting in ways that diss (disrespect) God’s wishes and the way Jesus showed us to live.

Ignoring how we are asked to live shows no respect for God. We don’t represent God when we do this, in fact, we misrepresent God.

Jesus called the leaders of his time snakes and hypocrites because they misrepresented God, living lives that misled the people.

The nature of worship

Perhaps we don’t understand the nature of worship. It isn’t sitting in pews. We go to church and go through all the right motions, listening and maybe even taking notes. Singing. Smiling and greeting others. Expressing concern. But are our hearts involved in it, or is it just a comforting tradition? Are we fully immersed in worship besides the intellectual and comfort part?

No. God is the example that we mimic, and through love, both God’s actions toward us and ours toward others, we become transformed. As the Buddha told his son, practice love.

If worship isn’t sitting in pews, singing, listening, and eating, what is it?

Praise and transformation are essential components

Praise is about recognizing what God has done for us and how God has transformed us. It’s about honoring God and is not an intellectual exercise. It’s about being aware of the work of God in our lives and telling others through praise. It’s about what salvation means. Praise is central to making this real and alive for others. There is nothing greater and more motivating than the transformation to becoming better people with live abundant in satisfaction.

Followers of the Way: living the teachings of Jesus

The earliest followers of Christ were predominantly Jews and called themselves “Followers of the Way.” (Acts 9:2, 22:4, 24:14.) They didn’t call themselves followers of Jesus. They followed the way of living that Jesus taught them. Today we should do the same thing.

Calling ourselves Christians and going to church doesn’t inherently make us followers of the way. We should follow the way of living that Jesus taught us. This is about how we conduct our lives in how we treat others and set God first. This is about loving others.

Avoiding noise: finding genuine meaning

We can run around telling others Bible passages until we’re blue in the face. We can talk about our idea of a Santa Claus God that endlessly gives to us like an ATM.  But if we don’t have anything to praise God about that reflects heartfelt change in us, then we’re just a lot of noise and probably counterproductive when talking to others.

Being noise is not the message of Jesus. Our lack of heartfelt meaning, and interest only in ourselves, radiates for all to see.

Conclusion: the path from love to worship

I never knew how to worship until I knew how to love. – Henry Ward Beecher

Jesus centers his way on love and the transformation of each person’s character.

Is the Hebrew idea of service to God (through serving or loving others) even in our vocabulary? Do we merely pay lip service to God and then walk out of the church and forget all about it, having a warm, fuzzy feeling of comfort and self-satisfaction? In Part 2 we’ll have a closer look at the prophets’ and Jesus’ message.

What does this mean to us?

If we’re numb in worship services, finding no meaning in them, it may be for many reasons. The pastoral message may not resonate with us or the songs might not feel personal. It all is just stale and repetitive, or we have not experienced any meaningful change. These are things we need to work on changing for ourselves and our congregation.

Probability and Potential Space

Transitioning to a broader perspective, we can consider other ideas to make worship more of an integral part of our lives.

A probability space is about an idea whose time has come. The moment is pregnant with possibility for a solution to happen. Think about this in terms of your spiritual growth. Do you feel that you have ceased growing? What would challenge you in new areas of loving others or in your career as an expression of spiritual growth? What new challenge resonates with you?

One example: Getting people engaged in the worship service is one way of getting their heart into it. What new ways can make worship more participatory?

The next post in this series includes many things for revitalizing the worship service and making them meaningful.

Potential Space

Revolutionary new ideas characterize a potential space. It allows for things not thought of before. It’s about being creative with God and the universe. What new thing do you think you or the church could do that would express love for others?

  • Dorian

Our answer is God. God’s answer is us. Together we make the world better.

About Dorian Scott Cole
Additional information about the author is on the About tab. You can read more about the author here.

Browse Our Archives