What Is the Biblical Character of Worship at Church?

What should worship look like, biblically, in a church service? What are its component parts? Is the church today imbalanced by omitting some things? Included here is a teaching about prayer and intercession, based on the Lord’s Prayer.

I borrow heavily, but with modifications, from the ideas of Renewal theologian J. Rodman Williams (d. 2008). He was a longstanding Renewalist or Charismatic who loved to worship with his hands raised and swaying to the music and listening to student prophecies and other charismatic displays in the 1970s at our monthly Saturday evening charismatic potlucks and gatherings at Melodyland School of Theology (long ago defunct). He loved the charismatic gifts. I was a lowly undergraduate, and he did not know me because he taught the graduate students (we said hello only a few times). He has the authority of age and experience and biblical insight. He was rightfully a leader in the Charismatic Renewal. Therefore, we should heed his words.

In this post, the proclamation of the Word is covered in another post, under the category Church Mattters. Instead, the focus here is on the elements or component parts and attitudes of worship in church services.

1.. Reverence and awe

“True worship is suffused with a spirit of reverence and awe” (Williams, vol. 3, p. 91). In today’s atmosphere of leaping and bouncing—which is a joy to see—we must not forget these two biblical, Spirit-inspired virtues.

Heb. 12:28-29 says that the people of God should offer acceptable worship to God with reverence and awe, for God is a consuming fire. God will burn off the wood, hay and stubble from our lives right here and now, or at judgment (1 Cor. 3:10-15).

Heb. 12:22 says that we come spiritually to Mt. Zion in the presence of God, the consuming fire.

Deut. 4:24 also says that God is a consuming fire and will burn away idolatry.

Exod. 3:5 teaches us that Moses approached the burning bush that did not consume itself, and it was God speaking in the bush—the preincarnate Son of God. Moses was commanded to take off his sandals. Holiness and awe.

Exod. 19:16-19 says:

On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning with a thick cloud over the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain, Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him (Exod. 19:16-19, NIV).

It is true that we no longer approach fearsome Mt. Sinai (Heb. 12:18-24; Gal. 4:24-25), because we are under the New Covenant, but the awesomeness of God has never diminished, and we need to worship in reverence and awe.

When the Philistines took the ark of the covenant, which housed the two stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written, their god, Dagon, fell and broke before the ark’s presence (1 Sam. 5:4). This is a picture of God’s awesomeness ultimately defeating Satan.

When the ark was offered back to the Israelites at the town of Beth Shemesh, because the Philistines were being afflicted by God for sheltering it, God followed the Sinai Covenant which contains his wrath (Rom. 4:15) and eliminated seventy Israelites who peeked inside it. The people of the town cried out, “Who can stand in the presence of the LORD, the holy God?” (1 Sam. 6:20). Once again, we do not live under the old Sinai Covenant, but God has never lost his holiness and awesomeness.

Is. 6 teaches us that Isaiah saw the LORD high and lifted up, and he felt impure, living among a people with impurities. The seraphim cried, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty, the whole earth is filled with his glory” (v. 3). If the seraphim worship in awe and reverence, so should we.

1 Kings 8:11 says that at the dedication of the temple, the priests were unable to perform their duties. Why not? Here’s why: “And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the temple.” We can experience that today—or let’s pray we can.

Rev. 4:8 says that the four living creatures cried before the throne, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.” Why aren’t we doing that? God’s holiness, reverence and awe.

Myriads of angels proclaimed, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev. 5:12). Every creature in heaven and earth and sea also cried out, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever.” The twenty-four elders fell down and worshipped (Rev. 5:8-14). They guide us on how we too should worship, unreservedly. Falling down and prostrating oneself is the first step in worship in fear and awe.

Rev. 14:7 signifies how we should be in God’s presence: We must fear God and give him glory, for the hour of judgment has come, and we must worship him who made the heaven and earth and sea and fountains of water. Fearing and glorifying him is a good balance to celebrating him with unrestrained joy. Both components are needed.

Matt. 6:9 says that we should call God our Father, in a family relationship, but then Jesus said we need to praise his holy name or make it set apart or sanctify it with our words and in our minds. “Hallowed be thy name.” “Name” is God’s character and his being and himself. We approach God with both familiarity and reverence.

Hab. 2:20 says that the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him. The church is on the earth, so we too should have moments of reverential silence.

Williams insightfully writes:

Protestant churches [I assume he means charismatic Protestant churches] especially often lack a spirit of reverence in worship. The main gathering place for worship is frequently viewed as an auditorium (a place to hear) rather than a sanctuary (a holy meeting place). There is little to no room to kneel, and so the psalmist’s call “Let us kneel before the LORD our maker!” (Ps. 95:6) is neither heeded nor practically possible. Moreover, the people often gather to talk first with one another rather than to look expectantly to God. How many churches need to recover a sense of worship and awe!” (vol. 3, p. 92)

2.. Praise and thanksgiving and joy

Let’s not always and permanently remain in a state of reverence and awe. Let’s leave room for exuberance and exultation.

Williams says that praise should take priority because “because it is the worship of God Himself” (p. 92). Apparently, thanksgiving is about God’s mighty acts.

Ps. 150 says, “Let everything that breathes praise the LORD! Praise the Lord!” (v. 6). Now our focus is off the self and on God, where it belongs. No matter what your trial, praise the LORD!

Holy, holy, Holy, quoted in the previous section, expresses the triune God. Then the author says “is the Lord Almighty.” This turns the focus on God. Our revelation of the true nature of God is clearer than that of the psalmist, though the Hebrew Bible nowhere denies the Triunity.

Eph. 5:18-20 says we need to be filled with the Spirit and to keep on being filled. Why? We speak to one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs from the Spirit. “Spiritual songs” speaks of singing in the Spirit or Spirit-inspired languages (commonly and archaically called “tongues”). We do this in church and in our prayer closet, as we sing and make music in our hearts to the Lord. So worship is public and private. The goal is to give “thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 20). So this passage combines praising God with hymns and thanksgiving.

Ps. 95:2 says we should enter his presence with thanksgiving and into his courts with praise. We must make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise. Never discount the fact that the house of God, set apart to him, is a place of his presence. In the previous section, reverence and awe were the important components, but praise and thanksgiving and joy are the other side of the worship coin.

Pss. 107 and 136 begin with “O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, and his steadfast love endures forever.” Even when God does not appear to be good in your tiny mind, he still is.

In the New Covenant, our deliverance is Spirit-inspired and permanent through Christ. God expresses his love through his Son, and Paul writes: “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift” (2 Cor. 9:15).

Col. 3:16-17 says, “… As you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” This is a parallel to Eph. 5:18-20, but here it is public worship, so we should not sing in our Spirit-inspired languages, formerly and archaically called “tongues,” to one another because people would not understand it (1 Cor. 14:8-17).

In Luke 1:46-55 Mary magnifies the Lord for the announcement of the birth of her Son. It is called “Mary’s Song.”

In Luke 1:68-79 Zechariah’s tongue was released when his son John (the future Baptist) was born, and he began his song “Praise be to the Lord.”

Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms and praised God with poetry (Luke 2:28-32).

3.. Humility and contrition and repentance

Is. 57:15 the LORD, who dwells in the high and holy place, will also dwell with those who have a contrite and humble spirit. God will take up residence in your life if you show contrition and humility. God does not like arrogance. He specializes in humbling people, but for a purpose, so they can give their lives to him and follow his lead.

David prayed that the acceptable sacrifice to God is a broken spirit and a broken and contrite heart (51:17). God will not despise us or turn his back on us when we have it. When you stand before a holy God, you tremble—or should tremble. When we see him in part after we die, we will fall on our faces, like the twenty-four elders did (Rev. 5:8-14).

In Is. 6, Isaiah the holy prophet felt he was ruined when he caught a glimpse, a vision, of God. “Woe is me!” (v. 5). In God’s holy presence, there is a deep sense of unholiness in us. Now at this point I could say that Christ is our holiness, and that’s true (1 Cor. 1:30), and we can come boldly before the throne of grace (Heb. 4:16). But we miss something if we strut into God’s throne room.

One doctrine and reality in our lives is repentance. It means a “change of place or condition.” It denotes a radical and profound moral turn of the whole person from sin to God. Repentance goes together with the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3; 24:7). Sins are blotted out in repentance (Acts 3:19; 5:31; 11:18; 21:21).

See my post about Repentance:

What Is Repentance?

Those three Spirit-inspired virtues are not gingered up by self-effort. In the old days, people forced themselves to show contrition and humility and repentance, as if they are spiritual works that come by willpower. The only point is what Williams writes:

There are many churches that in worship have a fine season [time of worship in a church service] of praise and thanksgiving—everything from psalms and hymns and spiritual songs—but almost totally lack in the matter of confession. This ought not to be. The God who is high and lifted up, indeed “enthroned upon the praises of his people” (Ps. 22:3), is a holy God, so that the more we become aware of His awesome presence, the more we must also sense a need for humility and contrition, confession and forgiveness. (p. 95)

4.. Supplication, prayer, and intercession

Praying in a church service is as equally important as singing.

1 Tim. 2:1-2 says that Paul urges Timothy and the Ephesian church to make petitions, intercession and thanksgiving for all peoples, particularly for kings and all those in authority, so that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good and pleases God our Savior. Prayers and supplications are wide ranging in subjects, while intercession stands in for someone else. Recall that Moses interceded for the disobedient children of Israel, so that God would not wipe them out (Exod. 33:12-23).

The Lord’s Prayer involve six basic petitions (Matt. 6:9-13). The first three are hallowing God’s name, praying for his kingdom to come, and asking for his will to be done: God’s holiness, his kingdom and his will (vv. 9-10). These three petitions are not about getting our needs met, but are about God.

The second group of three petitions are about the needs of those praying: daily bread, forgiveness of debts (sins), and deliverance from evil or the evil one (vv. 11-13).

So now let’s apply the Lord’s Prayer. The church first humbly offers an acknowledgement that God is holy, set apart from all other beings in the universe; that God is to rule and reign in the earth before it implodes. This involves praying for the worldwide proclamation of the gospel. Then it humbly acknowledges that God’s will would be extended to every corner of the globe, which includes acts of mercy and justice by the church.

Then the church can turn to praying for the needs of the congregation. The first prayer is for the needs of the body—daily bread, which in today’s world includes a good job. Jesus said our Father in heaven will give good things to those who ask (Matt. 7:11). Good things are not limited to a good job, but health in body and relationships. You have to ask and pray.

Let’s do a short study on prayer. It is the very common noun proseuchē (pronounced pross-yew-khay) and is used 36 times in the whole NT. Its verb proseuchomai (pronounced pross-yew-khoh-my) appears 85 times in the NT, so they are the most common words for “prayer” and “to pray.” They are combined with the preposition pros, which means, among other things, “towards,” and euchē, which means a prayer, vow and even a mere wish. But Christians took over the word and directed it towards the living God. I like to believe that they leaned in toward him and prayed their requests fully expecting an answer. It is not a mere wish or heartfelt prayer to a pagan deity.

Prayer flows out of confidence before God that he will answer because we no longer have an uncondemned heart (1 John 3:19-24; Rom. 8:1); and we know him so intimately that we find out from him what is his will is and then we pray according to it (1 John 5:14-15); we pray with our Spirit-inspired languages and our native languages (1 Cor. 14:15-16). But that’s what all believers should do; however, too often theory outruns practice. Pray!

The other two petitions—forgiveness and deliverance from evil—express concern for all believers. It is important to ask God to forgive us, daily. Some Renewalists, particularly those in the Grace Revolution, teach that God has already forgiven us our sins, so we don’t need to keep asking him. No, we don’t need to ask him every second because we have become sin conscious and not God conscious, but Jesus did say that the Lord’s Prayer is the guideline, and we should pray it often. Therefore, asking for the forgiveness of our own sins must be done regularly—sometimes many times a day—in faith, not anxiety, knowing that God gladly offers forgiveness. He never turns away a repentant sinner or sinning believer. Additionally, recall that Mark 11:25 says that when we ask for forgiveness from God, we must forgive those who hurt us, so that God would then forgive us. It would be inconsistent to ask God to forgive you, when you refuse to forgive others!

We must pray for deliverance from evil and the evil one. Satan is always seeking to oppress believers. Personally, I had to self-deliver. Satan harassed me mercilessly in one area of my life. I did not see it until I got revelations about it, and then I just started praying Eph. 6:16, which says that we should lift up a shield of faith, which quenches the fiery arrows or darts of the enemy. It works. Jesus quotes the Scripture to push back Satan during his great temptation (Matt. 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13), and so should we. The other major point is that we must submit to God (Jas. 4:7). I had not surrendered this area of my life to him, and Satan manipulated me relentlessly.

See my post Deliverance:

Bible Basics about Deliverance

Williams concludes:

The worship activity of the church includes prayers of supplication and intercession. Intercession may be given the priority so that the assembled congregation first prays for others. This is good, because people can easily become so preoccupied with their own needs that they can scarcely reach out beyond themselves. Nonetheless, it is entirely proper and indeed necessary that people express their own needs—collectively as well as individually. God is always ready to hear the supplication of His people. So may we as a church be all the more encouraged to offer up continuing intercessions and supplications to the heaven Father. (p. 98)

5.. Consecration and dedication and offerings

The tithe—ten percent off gross or net pay—is rooted in an obsolete theocracy that used the resources to support an obsolete temple complex. Therefore the tithe no long applies today in the post-cross church life. Incidentally, Williams agrees with me (or I agree with him) on tithing no longer belonging to the New Testament church (p. 99).

See my post about tithing:

Why Tithing Does Not Apply to New Covenant Believers

However, at that link, I show that offerings and generosity are very much valid today. God loves cheerful givers (2 Cor. 9:7). Jesus praised the widow who gave two copper coins, over the givers who offered more than two copper coins. She gave everything she had, while they gave a mere surplus (Luke 21:1-4). If we sow sparingly, we will reap sparingly. People must consecrate their finances to God—set it apart to him—because he owns it all. Let him do with it what he wills. And then Mal. 3:10 promises that God will pour out blessings on us. Yes, that looks like prosperity, but so what? You can’t give what you don’t have. If all of God’s people were poor, then how can the gospel go around the globe? It takes money in the world today.

More than money, God wants his people’s hearts. They should be given an opportunity to offer their lives to him. This is done during ministry time. It is best if it comes at the end of the service, because the singing inspires people, and the Word instructs them. They hear about God and conclude they have fallen short of his glory. The pastor offers the call of salvation for nonbelievers and rededication for believers.

Two sections of Scripture clarify the matter. Is. 6, as noted, says that when Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up, he felt unclean. But a seraph put a coal of fire on his lips, and he was sanctified and consecrated at that moment. Then Isaiah heard the Lord say, “Who will go? Whom shall I send?” Isaiah replied, “Here I am! Send me!” (v. 8). Cleansing and sanctification and dedication come from encountering the Lord.

The second section of Scripture is found Rom. 12:1, which says that we must offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is our spiritual or reasonable act of worship. This sacrifice is total dedication or rededication of our lives. Christ sacrificed himself for us, and now we do the same for us, by the power of the Spirit, not our own willpower.

How does this post help me know God better?

J. Rodman Williams is right. He had high standing in the Charismatic and Renewal churches in his generation. His words ring true for our generation too. Churches need to incorporate more reverence and awe and consecration and dedication. Right now, the church is triumphant, and the worship leaders reflect this triumphalism by bouncing around and up and down and playing music extra-loud, and by the leaders using sweeping physical gestures. Intensity on steroids. There is nothing wrong with joy and celebration, which comes in under Williams’s second point. And there is nothing wrong with triumphalism—everything is right about it—because God is and will be triumphant. But some holy silence because God has entered his temple is a good thing, too.

As for the people who rarely come into the church (or who don’t go), let me address them directly.

You need to go to church regularly, with other believers. You won’t make it in life if you don’t go regularly. You are already drifting too far from God, the Creator of heaven and earth and the Creator of your soul. You need to connect with him, yes, by yourself in your prayers and nature walks, as you commune with him. But you need humans down here on earth, as well. The last two components of worship in the church teach us that God’s people will pray and intercede for you. They can also help you dedicate and rededicate your life to God. They can prevent you from drifting too far.

Please find a Spirit-filled, charismatic, Bible-believing and Bible-teaching church, and get plugged in. The presence of God as you worship him can inspire you to go deeper with him.


What Is Biblical Praise?

Bible Basics about Praise and Worship

Word Study on Praise and Worship

What Is Biblical Thanksgiving?

Balanced Worship in the Psalms

The Biblical Way of Worship in Church

What 1 Corinthians 14 Really Teaches


Works Cited

At that link, look for Williams, vol. 3, pp. 90-101.

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