the shape of leadership

More Than Music

Returning to a biblical understanding of corporate worship

Vinnie Zarletti on November 10, 2023

A Google image search for the word “worship” yields multiple photos of people in dim, foggy rooms with their hands lifted high. In the background, a blurry outline of a group on stage is sometimes visible.

Meanwhile, a dictionary search for “worship” offers several definitions relating to honor, reverence, and devotion — with no mention of stages.

So, what is worship? Is it arms outstretched in the dark, somewhere near a stage? Or does it involve something more?

Christians know neither stock images nor dictionaries can fully capture the biblical concept of worship.

However, if you asked churchgoers about their most recent worship experiences, many would describe something similar to the internet images. They might remark on song selection, musical style, or even the volume of the band. Some might mention the presence of God, but even those comments would likely be within the context of music.

You see, those blurry figures on the stage are musicians — singers and instrumentalists. We often refer to the band as a worship team and the lead singer as a worship leader.

No wonder churchgoers often regard music and worship as synonymous. Certainly, singing and musical instruments are part of corporate worship, but it is reductionistic to think of worship only in these terms.

Biblical worship is much broader than musical expressions. Words translated “worship” appear frequently in both the Old and New Testaments. And in most instances outside of Psalms, there is no mention of music.

Todd Marshall is worship arts director for the Assemblies of God Minnesota District, author of Worship Is Life, and founder of a ministry by the same name. He says biblical worship is about interacting with God relationally.

“Our music time has been labeled ‘worship’ because the mystery of music combined with the songs we sing (lyrics and content) is a wonderful and easy way to draw us into the pattern of how God does relationship (revelation and response),” Marshall says.

As a music minister and educator, I have found this explanation helpful. Authentic Christian worship is responding appropriately to God through a life of obedience and devotion to Him.

Romans 12:1 sums it up succinctly: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God — this is your true and proper worship.” In other words, worship goes beyond playing instruments and singing. It is a lifestyle.

This is not to diminish musical worship, which is a passion of mine. Praising and worshipping the Lord through music is biblical.

Psalms is an ancient songbook of sorts, which explains why music is a frequent theme. There are psalms encouraging singing (57:7; 95:1; 105:2), playing instruments (33:1–3; 98:5–6; 150:3–5), and even dancing before the Lord (30:11; 149:3; 150:4).

The Old Testament practice of worshipping through music carried over to the Early Church. The apostle Paul gave musical instructions for the churches in Ephesus and Colossae, telling them to sing “psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16).

Authentic Christian worship is responding appropriately to
God through a life
of obedience and devotion to Him.

Jesus himself led others in song. At the conclusion of the Last Supper, the Lord took time to sing a hymn with His disciples (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26).

Calling musical worship expressions worship is not the problem. The issue is that some churchgoers wrongly assume music is the sum total of all worship. This should concern lead pastors and music ministers alike.

Music can warm the heart and serve as a corporate expression of love and adoration to the Lord. Singing can awaken gratitude, convey joy, express lament, and contribute to a sense of congregational unity. But music is — and always has been — only part of the corporate worship experience.

Throughout Church history, Christians have often anticipated the Lord’s presence in other elements of worship. For example, believers in various times and places have pointed to Communion, the preaching of the Word, and prayer as primary moments for encounters with the Holy Spirit.

This makes sense, considering the first mention of Early Church gatherings after Pentecost says the believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). Noticeably, there is no reference to music in this passage.

Those of us who believe the Holy Spirit is present and active in our corporate gatherings can acknowledge prayer, preaching, Communion, baptisms, testimonies, and even offerings and announcements as worship.

As church leaders, we understand the Lord moves throughout our time together. However, if we continue to equate music alone with worship, what are we implying about the rest of a service? If we aren’t intentional about identifying other moments as worshipful, we risk diminishing the meaning of worship.

When we pray together, we seek God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. When we communicate and hear the gospel, we encounter the transformative truths of Scripture. When we take Communion, we remember Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and soon return. And when we sing, we join believers around the world and through time, lifting our voices in highest praise.

During each of these sacred moments, we can experience the presence of the Holy Spirit — and engage in corporate worship.

We don’t need to disassociate music and worship. We just need to reassociate worship with the many other moments of encounter and formation in our services. I suggest starting with two simple changes.


Inclusive Language

Helping people expand their view of worship begins with the language we use. For example, instead of referring to the singing portion of a service as worship, consider calling it “musical worship” or “worshipping God through music.”

When it’s time to pray, invite congregants to worship through prayer. Likewise, an offering is an opportunity to remind people they can worship through giving.

As the service transitions to communication of God’s Word, don’t suggest worship is over. Instead, acknowledge that preaching is a continuation of worship, as are response and altar times.


Increased Communion Focus

Offer Communion more frequently during worship gatherings. This time together is an important reminder that we are part of the body of Christ and that our faith is something to experience together, not in isolation.

For Christians with more liturgical backgrounds, worship seems incomplete without the bread and cup.

What if we prioritized Communion in the same way as singing, preaching and corporate prayer? Why not take the time to experience God’s story through Communion weekly? Perhaps this would help people recognize corporate worship extends beyond times of congregational music.

In the end, we don’t need to stop singing in our worship. We just need to continue worshipping when we stop singing.


This article appears in the Fall 2023 issue of Influence magazine.

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