What does worship look like?

By Esther Lee

Within the church, worship has looked like many things – it can be the cause for someone leaving a church, or for whole denominations to be birthed. There are a whole mixture of reasons for this, from pride and preference to the desire to protect pure worship. Rather than weighing church traditions and styles against each other, I would like to engage the beautiful attributes of these traditions. I have a strong belief that if something is fruitful, God is blessing it, and if God is blessing it, I should learn from and bless what he’s blessing, rather than critique. This mindset adds arrows to our sheath as Christians; we gain more tools to understand the facets of God and life in his kingdom.

Creativity & worship

One of the first attributes we see of God is that he is a creator. As such, we are also creative by nature. This creativity can be expressed through arts, literature, music, dance, but also through problem-solving, through logic, ideas and invention, through experimentation. Creativity isn’t a personality type for solely artistic people, creativity is a God-given gift to every person which we can (and should) engage, honing it as an expression of worship to him.

In the previous article, we discussed how our whole lives are worship – our work, chores, relationships, mundane actions and spiritual devotions. Below are some other expressions of practical worship, collected from across a range of different church traditions and eras. As you engage with them, consider ways that you can creatively express your worship to God – perhaps writing a poem or letter, maybe doodling or painting, perhaps sketching something in your surroundings, maybe buy some clay and begin to mould it, bake some bread, construct something from Lego! This isn’t about art, but artistic expression can help us loosen and relax into creativity without fear of failure.

We will use Psalm 8 as a starting point for this activity. Perhaps as you read, consider trying a range of the methods below that feel significantly different from your usual traditions in worship. I’ve often found I encounter an aspect of God’s nature I’ve not seen before when I explore beyond the walls of my own traditions and norms.

1. Silence & Solitude

“[Silence] enables us to step aside from the noise and hurry and crowds of modern life … [it] creates in us an open, empty space where we are enabled to become attentive to God.” (Richard Foster; ‘Understanding Solitude’)

If possible, put aside 30 minutes to be alone. If this is difficult, then begin with what you have: 5 minutes still blesses God’s heart.

Consider going alone for a walk in nature; taking a chair to sit outside in the late evening; lighting a candle in a quiet place at home; opening a window and listening to the sounds outside; getting up at dawn one day; assigning a particular chair in your house that means “alone time.”

Consciously engage with your surroundings – what do you hear? Feel? Smell? Notice your breathing, the sensation of your feet on the ground and your limbs as they rest. Allow yourself to slow to a rhythm of attentive stillness.

Read Psalm 8.

Ask God to show you something of himself in your surroundings – perhaps a small detail you hadn’t noticed, or a feeling, or an image coming to mind.
If you feel confident, ask him what it means or if there’s more he’d like to show you.
Allow your heart and mind to engage with the calm of His company, the peace of his Spirit as you linger in this moment.
Allow yourself to slow to his rhythm and pace and notice something of his character that you can dwell on. Linger here; if your mind wanders to the things of the day then give those things to God and still yourself again, perhaps using the psalm to help focus.

Continue this practice over a few days, perhaps make a commitment not to leave that place each day until you’ve become aware of God’s peace and stillness. If it helps, write down how you find this process of worship.

2. Contemplation & Liturgy

“Meditation means to let the word descend from our minds into our hearts and thus to become indwelled by God.” (Henri Nouwen; ‘Spiritual Direction: Wisdom For the Long Walk of Faith’)

Find somewhere to sit where you won’t be disturbed. Take a deep breath to help calm and steady your body and mind from the things of the day.

Read Psalm 8 once through; how does this initially make you feel?
Read it again, this time focusing on each word. Are there specific words or images that linger in your mind? Write them down.
Now read the psalm again, perhaps in a few different translations.
Choose 1-2 verses to focus on further. Read those verses a few times, allowing yourself to notice feelings that arise, words that jump out, images that come to mind.
Write these words, feelings and images down, perhaps looking up definitions of the words you especially noticed. Are there any themes or patterns? Do they remind you of other Bible passages?
Ask God what it is about these images, words or feelings that he wants to draw to your attention – if you feel comfortable, write down what you feel he is responding, even if just one word.

Write these verses down somewhere visible – perhaps a post-it on the fridge or a reminder on your phone, and try to memorise them in the next few days.

Over the following week, use those verses and this prayer of Teresa of Avila to shape your thoughts, perhaps reading them each morning and evening:

“May today there be peace within. May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be. May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith. May you use those gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you. May you be content knowing you are a child of God. Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love. It is there for each and every one of us.” 

3. Praise & Celebration

“Put it this way: if your idea of God, if your idea of the salvation offered in Christ, is vague or remote, your idea of worship will be fuzzy and ill-formed. The closer you get to the truth, the clearer becomes the beauty, and the more you will find worship welling up within you. That’s why theology and worship belong together. The one isn’t just a headtrip; the other isn’t just emotion.” – N.T. Wright

You will need access to a digital device with speakers for this practice.

First, find somewhere you can be yourself without feeling self-conscious or disturbed.
Listen to the songs suggested at the end of the section; as you listen, consciously ask God to meet with you and give him the things on your mind. Invite him to give you his thoughts and emotions.

Initially don’t sing along, but close your eyes and allow your mind and body to slow down to the rhythm of God’s presence – engage with his peace, still your busy thoughts, begin to notice the deeper thoughts and emotions that perhaps you haven’t considered for a while.

Read through Psalm 8 as you listen to the music.
Allow the words of the psalm and the songs to start shaping your thoughts and emotions.

Now consciously focus your thoughts on God; on an aspect of his character, perhaps the wonder of Jesus, the beauty of his creation, the awe of the cross, the majesty & kingship of Jesus. Picture the throne room; perhaps read about it in Revelation 1.
Notice how your feelings begin to change as you dwell on these thoughts. Perhaps a sense of lightness or peace; joy welling up; tearful emotion; quiet wonder.

Relax into how you’re feeling and allow yourself to partner with the emotions God is highlighting: if you feel tearful, then let yourself cry. If you feel joy bursting up then let yourself laugh or jump! If you feel calm stillness, then rest in that place.

If you’re finding it hard to engage or begin to feel distracted, consider physically responding to God. You could kneel; close your eyes; maybe raise your hands as an expression of awe and surrender; sometimes jumping can be a physical expression of shaking off the things of the day – maybe even physically wipe yourself down as a symbol of loosening from the clutter and busyness of the day.

Worship is the perfect place to be vulnerable, to act like little children before God, maybe even to feel foolish. It’s here that our hearts intentionally come face-to-face with the God who knows us intimately. Remember, David danced in his underwear before the Lord! (1 Chronicles 15). Worship isn’t about self-consciousness or our pride – perhaps jumping around and feeling silly can help to remind ourselves.

Finally, thank God that he is a God of our whole beings: body, emotions, thoughts, will. 

Suggested songs:
How Great Thou Art 
Holy – Matt Redman
So Will I – Hillsong
Indescribable – Chris Tomlin
Wonder – Amanda Cook 
Is He Worthy? – Andrew Peterson
Beautiful Saviour – Stuart Townsend
Worth of it all – IHOP
Alpha & Omega – Israel Houghton

I hope, in at least one of these practices, you found you were able to encounter something of God that shaped a deeper understanding of him and of who he has made you to be. Perhaps commit to engaging one of these methods for a week or so to observe how they affect your thought life and spiritual health.

Worship isn’t a musical or literary genre for a particular personality type who belongs to a certain denomination; it is our highest honour and deepest purpose as humans. Let us intentionally then, shape a lifestyle of worshipful perspective, gratitude, awe and holy fascination with the God who made us to encounter him.

To finish, here is a poem written by Lois McIntosh as another example of worshipful expression:

Getting Personal 

Not a map, but the Guide. 
Not a prescription, but the Healer. 
Not a wage packet, but the Provider.
Not a textbook, but the Teacher. 
Not a letter, but the Author. 
Not a care package, but the Shepherd. 

Utterly reliant 
dependents. 

Beloved little children. 
Trustingly walking with the one who loved  
and gave  
Himself. 

Not present in flesh, but here by the Spirit 

Not sacrificial rituals, but the risen Son