In both the Old and the New Testament the vocabulary of worship centers on words originally designating a more general kind of service (Hebrew ‘aḇôḏâ, Greek latreia). Throughout Scripture there is an emphasis on the importance of congregational worship, involving words and acts, whether formal or spontaneous, in which the worshiper gives expression to his relationship with God. Worship must involve more than regular formal, “liturgical” services and ceremonies; the believer presents himself, soul and body, in the service of the Lord, as his spiritual worship (Rom. 12:1).

However, just as there is danger that in saying “one’s whole life should be a witness” one will neglect the specific acts of testimony necessary to communicate the Gospel, there is danger of neglecting set times and patterns of worship on the excuse that “the Christian’s whole life is worship.” Indeed, it should be so, but even a life committed to the service of God must be brought into specific acts of community worship.

“Worship,” writes Evelyn Underhill, “in all its grades and kinds, is the response of the creature to the Eternal” (Worship, Harper, 1936, p. 3). But what if the creature does not know there is an Eternal, or deliberately turns his back on Him? What place is there for worship then?

This was the situation in which many theologians and churchmen thought they found themselves by the mid-1960s. Some thinkers proclaimed that modern man had “come of age” and wanted to live only in his “secular city.” And so worship was expected to decline. After all, as Underhill says, “Worship is an acknowledgment of Transcendence; that is to say, of a Reality independent of the worshipper … and which is there first.” And thus the liturgical revival that characterized the early postwar years—resulting in such unlikely transmogrifications as Unitarian ministers sporting clerical collars—was somewhat diminished.

While the churches and clergy that admired the views of Bishop J. A. T. Robinson and his fellow sophisticates had to downgrade worship for the very good reason that they doubted the existence, or at least the relevance, of God as a “Reality independent of the worshipper … and there first,” evangelicals often did little to keep worship alive, even though they never doubted God. Unfortunately, in many human activities that are not peculiar to evangelical Christianity, conservative believers often oppose the trends of the world in principle but gradually conform to them in practice. And this is what seems to have happened in many places concerning worship. Even some sanctuaries of Bible-believing congregations showed a marked tendency to decline into mere lecture halls, where sound doctrine was proclaimed, defended, and expounded, but God’s majesty was honored more by rhetoric than by reverence. Although evangelicals, in contrast to most liberals, defended worship in principle, they too allowed it to diminish in practice.

Article continues below

Following this, almost the whole of Christendom (from fervent believers to those fellow travelers who think a little religion can do no harm) has now been caught short by the unmistakable reemergence of a basic human desire and need to “respond to the Eternal.” And so where reverence for the living God of biblical Christianity was in decline, whether as a matter of skeptical principle or of grudging evangelical accommodation to prevailing worldly trends, other kinds of “reverence” have surfaced in its place. Without revelation, as scholars like Underhill and R. C. Zaehner have shown, man almost instinctively turns to a kind of nature-mysticism, worshiping the “depth of being” in all its manifold manifestations in nature. As conservationism has turned into the current ecological mania, it is clear that a certain quasi-religious frenzy is associated with some of its otherwise very sober and perfectly scriptural concerns. Hence it is no accident that a number of ecologists have attacked Christianity and biblical revelation—not really for the reason they give, namely, that in the Bible God tells man to “subdue the earth, and have dominion over it,” but because biblical Christianity is personal theism, and thus fundamentally hostile to the pantheistic nature-mysticism underlying much ecomania.

But nature-mysticism is not the only resort of those whose need to respond to a transcendent reality is frustrated by the shriveling of Christian worship: there is also the realm of superstition, the occult, demons, and even the devil. And all these things have rushed in to fill the empty heart of many modern men who thought that they had come of age in the secular city. As the enigmatic German poet Stefan George warned decades ago in a prophetic vision of the consequences of modern man’s faith in his own progress, that faith

will not rest

In torrid frenzy running, till all venal

And base alike, instead of God’s red blood,

The pus of idols courses in your veins [Poems,

translated by C. Valhope and E. Morwitz, Pantheon, 1943, p. 191].

Within biblical Christianity, then, it is not enough to defend doctrines about worship of the personal God of the Bible, for there is some danger that sound, spiritually and intellectually satisfying doctrine may be outflanked and overrun by a surge of undisciplined mysticism. Indeed, although we have specifically mentioned only non-Christian nature-mysticism and occultism, there is also a resurgence of mystical-emotional-enthusiastic worship that started within Christianity but lacks guidance and direction and might well give place to a kind of spirituality in which numinous experience takes precedence over biblical authenticity.

Article continues below

To avoid various forms of idolatrous worship, or even misdirected worship within the general Christian frame of reference, evangelicals would be well advised to cultivate again their own practice—not merely theory—of worship and reverence for God—motivated not negatively, simply to avoid excesses, but positively, acknowledging what is said to God in Scripture: “Thou art worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and majesty” (Rev. 4:11). And indeed the Reformers, Calvinist as well as Lutheran, although they abolished much of the form of medieval worship, intended, as Underhill says, “more, not less devotion than had commonly prevailed.” Significantly, both Luther and Calvin sought a revitalization of the Lord’s Supper, and Calvin tried (unsuccessfully) to make it a regular part of each Lord’s Day worship in Geneva.

Within the Protestant tradition, even amidst the austerity of Puritanism, there is a much richer and deeper heritage of corporate worship than our information-and relevance-centered age realizes. When God is only dimly and erroneously apprehended, as in the religions of natural man, there is still an instinctive human desire to respond to him in fitting worship. How much more should this be the case when he is truly manifested to us in the Word made flesh. Fitting is a key word, because only that which is in accord with his relevation is fitting for the worship of God. But once this qualification has been observed, the lesson of our day should be obvious to all: when fitting worship declines, what replaces it, in the long run, is not indifference but idolatry. The Lord’s service involves a fully developed discipleship, indeed, and both man’s nature and God’s honor require that this discipleship include a seemly attention to “divine service” in corporate worship.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.