Worship Theology 101: What’s in a Word?

The most commonly cited definition of the word “worship” is based on the etymology of the English word: “Worship” is derived from the Old English word “woerthship.” So, when we worship God, we are proclaiming (or giving him back) his worth.

The variety of individuals who use this as their functional definition of “worship” is staggering. When I searched for blogs on the topic of worship, the most common title I came across was “Worship Is…” and nearly all of these blog entries finished that sentence (eventually) with “giving God his worth.” Plenty of worship practitioners use this definition. Most “theology of worship” books make reference to it. Even N.T. Wright, in his book “For All God’s Worth” uses it.

In some ways an etymology-based definition can be a helpful start. God’s worth is infinite, so we can never give back enough – a fact that leads us toward the glimmer of a biblical (rather than etymological) definition: a life given in service of God.

The study of the history of words, however, can only get us so far as we strive to understand what it means to worship a triune God. It might be a good place to begin, but leaving the definition of “worship” in the old English is, at best, problematic for both understanding and practice.

Yes, “worth-ship” can lead us toward the glimmer of a biblical understanding. It does so, however, without reference to any biblical text, and therefore cannot answer any of the questions the definition raises: how do we know that God is worthy; assuming that he is, what is his worth; and what is the appropriate way to give it back to him? Old English, beautiful as it may be, can only stare at these questions blankly.

Not only does this definition fail to answer the questions it raises, it also fails to add much at all to our understanding of the word. Most of us have already been reading the word “worship” with tacit understanding of the word as “giving honour and praise to God.” I’m not sure the phrase “giving God his worth” adds anything at all to that meaning; it’s simply a trendier way of phrasing it. The word honour, at its root, means glory, dignity or reputation; the difference between giving God honour and giving him worth, therefore, seems at most a very short hop. I can give him what is due his dignity, reputation, or glory; or I can give him what is due his worth. Surely, in the case of a God who abhors dishonesty, these amount to the same thing. I have a hunch that our fascination with “worth-ship,” then, is nothing more than the search for a fresh pat-answer; a quick and shallow understanding that doesn’t take much effort, but allows us to feel like we’re getting a big pay-off.

Not only is it a shallow and unbiblical definition but, if we actually take the etymology seriously, we discover that it is also a stagnant definition. Worth-ship is a state of being (like friend-ship). When we apply the word “worship” to God, we simply affirm that he is of worth. There is no sense of movement, of interaction, of relationship with God. There is no sense of the narrative that underlies scripture; of the call and answer that enriches our lives before God; of the patterns and forms of approach that God has set in place. It’s a definition that would easily lend itself to a deist stance: my worship of God admits to his existence and his worth, but does not really infer any interaction between us. God might have set things in motion, but he has now stepped away, and I can admire him from a distance.

Furthermore, what does it mean to say that God is worthy? Worth is usually determined in relation to function. A vase, for example, is considered worthy if it holds water, displays flowers to advantage, and has a pleasing shape, form, and colour. None of these virtues would cause you to proclaim a colander worthy. So it is useless to talk about “giving God his worth,” unless we are able to first articulate what makes God worthy. Some who use the definition take the time to biblically examine the character and person of God in an effort to understand what it means to “give God his worth,” but many more do not.

So, if this definition of worship is as woefully inadequate as I paint it, where should we turn for a better one? I would suggest that we begin with biblical languages, admittedly not my strongest skill-set, but no less essential because of that.

In Hebrew, there are a myriad of words used to describe the act of worship. Besides multiple words for dancing and singing, and various other rejoicing and mourning-type movements and noises, there are at least ten other words that are frequently translated worship. These ten words carry the following connotations: bowing down, falling down, service, labour, making, inquiring, seeking, fear, awe, ministering, and supplicating. Do you notice anything? Every single one of these words has a very physical, very active meaning. There is no “state of being” in this definition, but a very real and visceral description of the ways in which we are to act toward God. These words infer movement, action, interaction, and relationship.

The Greek is similar. Again there are multiple words devoted to rejoicing and mourning-type movements and noises. In addition, there are about thirteen words that are translated as “worship,” most of them indicating the following actions: bowing or prostrating oneself; ritual service; and acts of service toward God. Again, there is a physicality here (although less so than in the Hebrew) that specifies not just our attitude toward God or a vague understanding of him, but our actual day-to-day movements. And this doesn’t even include the countless subtle references to Hebrew worship that are woven through the New Testament text.

I hope it is apparent that even this over-simplified biblical word-study yields us more fruit than that of English etymology. But even in-depth Hebrew and Greek word studies, while they help, will not get us to a full biblical definition of worship. Scripture communicates far too actively for that. It is narrative, poetry, prophesy and rhetoric that we need to study in order to push aside stagnant, shallow, and unbiblical definitions and move toward the full knowledge of what it means to worship a triune God. I have only begun to move toward this type of definition. I could study for fifty years and still say I had only begun. But, with your help and company, I would like to continue to (in the words of C.S. Lewis) move “further up and further in.”

Why another worship blog?

A friend once asked me if I thought it was absolutely necessary to add my own words to the repository of books – short and long, hard cover and soft, good, middling, and awful – in the world. Weren’t there enough books out there already; did I really have anything new to say?

The same question could be asked of me now: why add my own voice to the throbbing millions pushing to be heard in the blogosphere?

I have yet to write the books I was discussing with my friend – but I still intend to do so. Yes, there are a lot of books out there already, but no, there are not enough. Yes, I have something new to say, several new things to say in fact. Yes, I am vain enough to believe that it is important for me to say them, and vain enough to believe that people (at least a few) will read them. I feel the same way about this blog.

As I considered whether or not to begin my own worship blog, I decided to research other blogs on the topic. Here’s what I found

  • set-lists
  • “Sunday evening ramblings”
  • tips for worship in a certain style
  • music advice
  • presentations of new songs/music
  • advice on the use of various technologies
  • arguments for the adoption of various trends
  • post after post after post entitled “worship is…” containing a vague list of personal opinions about the nature of worship, usually making no reference to scripture and almost entirely dependent on the etymology of the English word “worship”

Some of the above I read with interest. Some of the above I found quite helpful. Some of the above made me extremely nervous. Some of the above made me want to tear my hair out. None of the above addressed theology of worship.

I’m not saying there is no place for practical worship blogs that explore the real challenges of leading worship, including all the technical elements involved. I’m not saying that there are no hard-hitting theology of worship blogs out there (if you know of any good ones, please let me know!).

I am saying that there seems to be a need for a blog that bridges theology and practice. J.I. Packer says, at the start of every theology course that he teaches (and sometimes, if he forgets he said it already, at the start of every class!), “all good theology leads to doxology.” The two are to be inextricably linked. Worship is tied to every aspect of theology, and therefore good and careful theology should under-gird every act of worship.

You can read more about my perspective on worship in the church on the Thinking Worship page of this blog. I hope you will. And if you feel I’m off track, I hope you’ll let me know. And if you feel I’m on to something, I hope you’ll join in the discussion.

Warmly,

Stacey Gleddiesmith