What Is Worship?

It’s difficult to have a productive conversation about something if you can’t even agree on what you’re talking about. This challenge is clearly evident in discussions about Christian worship. We often talk past each other because we’re assuming very different definitions of what we mean by “worship.” In an earlier edition of Best Practices for Adventist Worship, I mentioned our desire to facilitate online conversations in which we can learn from one another. Specifically, we want to discuss how we gather for worship, encounter God through the Word, respond, and are sent into the world. But we thought it would be best if we could at least provisionally agree on some closely overlapping definitions of worship—even if the composite picture remains incomplete.

Paul Waitmann Hoon makes a compelling argument that worship is a matter of divine revelation and human response. God’s action on our behalf and in our midst enables and inspires worship. For Hoon, the “deepest truth” for liturgy is the fact that “we love because God first loved us.”[1] And this human response to God’s work in Christ involves more than intellectually agreeing with important truths; it’s a communal and relational encounter with the divine. As Nathan Mitchell succinctly articulates, “Liturgy’s goal isn’t meaning but meeting . . . Christian worship is not doctrine disguised in ritual shorthand but action that draws us into the dynamic, hospitable, yet perilous space of God’s own life.”[2] Worship is, of course, meaningful, but because it necessarily involves meeting God and one another, it must be more than a mental practice. For this reason, I resonate with Todd Johnson’s succinct definition of worship as “an embodied attitude”[3]—a communal practice that embodies a realization of who God is, who we are, and what Christ has done to reconcile and welcome all people.

What language would you use to explain what worship is? 

[1] Paul Waitmann Hoon, The Integrity of Worship: Ecumenical and Pastoral Studies in Liturgical Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971), 344.

[2] Nathan D. Mitchell, Meeting Mystery (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006), 59.

[3] Todd Johnson proposed this definition of worship in a course at Fuller Theological Seminary.