- We have before us an urgent call to discover what our Teacher, Jesus, would show us if he were among us today. If we could watch him or hear him, what would we learn about worship? I imagine it might turn a few things upside down. Worship, as we have come to know it today, may even come unhinged. That’s okay. Maybe it needs to.
By Dr. Constance M. Cherry
WWJD or HWJW?
A number of years ago, an acronym became popular among some Christian groups. It appeared on wristbands, necklaces, bumper stickers, and posters. WWJD: What would Jesus do? The idea was that Christians should consider what Jesus would likely do in any given circumstance and then try to imitate him in their response. It was clever and no doubt helpful; but some folks had their questions. Could we positively know what Jesus would do in every situation? Is it possible to do the right actions without having the right heart? Should we focus on doing or being? Questions aside, the movement was well intentioned. WWJD bracelets are still around.
But what if we focused on a different acronym—HWJW: How would Jesus worship? Have you ever thought about Jesus as a worshiper? How did Jesus worship? What were his patterns and priorities? What does he teach us through his actions related to worship? If we had only Jesus’s life of worship to observe, what would we gain in our own worship discipleship? Here we have more concrete things to go on than mere speculation. We’re not really left wondering what Jesus would do in worship; we can see what he did by reading the Gospel accounts of his life of worship while he was among us as one of us. And while it’s possible to follow Jesus’ worship patterns and do so without complete understanding at first, worship will form us as we continue in its discipline.
If our goal is to follow Jesus as his disciples in worship, we must ask this most important question: How did Jesus worship?
Worshiping Like Jesus: Discovering What Jesus Did and Taught
Jesus was a worshiper. And if discipleship is a matter of following the model and teachings of the Master, the starting place is to discover what the Master modeled and taught. We must understand the role worship played in his life so that we can follow his lead. He is our role model and mentor for discovering and practicing the essential aspects of worship as he lived them every day. It is incredibly important to examine Jesus’ own life of worship so that we may answer these questions:
What did Jesus do as a worshiper?
What did Jesus teach about worship?
What may we conclude was important to Jesus as a worshiper?
What are the implications for Jesus’ followers today as they worship?
What Jesus did and what he taught concerning worship is essential to know as Christ-followers. For how can we worship in ways that are pleasing to God unless we follow our Teacher in his ways of worship?
What did Jesus do as a worshiper? The four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) present Jesus as someone who modeled a devoted and disciplined life of worship in community. He was a worshiper from birth who consistently, even daily, worshiped at the Temple and the synagogue, kept the Sabbath, spent much time in prayer, participated in the regular worship rituals, worshiped God in defiance of Satan, read the Scriptures in the synagogue service, cleansed the Temple, celebrated the Jewish annual festivals of worship, pronounced blessings upon people, sang the liturgy, preached, and taught in the Temple and synagogue. It is truly amazing to discover what was significant to Jesus when it came to public worship.
What did Jesus teach about worship? Again, with the Gospels as our source, we discover that Jesus provided oral instruction to his disciples. In so doing, he often challenged the status quo. He taught that the Father seeks worshipers, that worship is offered in spirit and in truth, that he was Lord even of the Sabbath, that there is an important connection between the sacrifices one presents to God and the kind of life one lives, that reconciliation has a lot to do with worship that is pleasing to God, that there are certain rules for public prayer, that sacrificial giving is pleasing to God, and that justice and mercy are the fruits of true worship. The Rabbi had some things to say about worship!
“From the beginning of the church and occurring through many centuries, new Christians were discipled first as worshipers.”
We have before us an urgent call to discover what our Teacher, Jesus, would show us if he were among us today. If we could watch him or hear him, what would we learn about worship? I imagine it might turn a few things upside down. Worship, as we have come to know it today, may even come unhinged. That’s okay. Maybe it needs to.
When someone comes to faith in Christ, discipleship is the next step. Most discipleship programs have concentrated on questions like these: “How does a new believer learn to pray, read the Bible, share their faith, and serve others?” Few discipleship plans have explicitly addressed the question, “How does a new believer learn to worship God?” Yet this is the most urgent question, for worship lies at the heart of our relationship with God and the church. In fact, worship is the eternal point; it is the evidence that the mission of God has been completed when the new heaven and the new earth become the temple of God (Rev. 21:1-5; 22). Ultimately, worship is the mission of God.
Unfortunately, discipling worshipers is often overlooked. Somewhere along the line we assumed that new believers would just catch on to proper worship by attending church. However, the risk of that approach is to assume that most people who attend church have been intentionally taught to worship God when they likely have not. Over time, without effective worship discipleship, it is possible to reproduce improper worship without meaning to do so.
Examples of Worship Discipleship
Worship discipleship is nothing new. It was a major theme throughout the Old Testament. For example, Moses insisted that Israel’s elders intentionally instruct their children throughout all generations as to the meaning of the most profound worship event in their history—the Passover. Even before God’s people had left Egypt, God instituted an annual worship ritual for every household to observe perpetually. The community was advised to take worship discipleship seriously:
“You should observe this ritual as a regulation for all time for you and your children…And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ritual mean to you?’ you will say, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for the Lord passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt. When he struck down the Egyptians, he spared our houses’” (Ex. 12:24, 26-27).
The emphasis upon worship discipleship in the Jewish faith is seen often throughout the Old Testament.1
Later on, during the early centuries of Christianity, the church developed a detailed plan to systematically disciple new believers in the Christian faith. A significant part of the program included educating believers as to the meaning of worship and instructing them in how to fulfill their very important role as a participant in worship. Their instruction included guidance in how to pray within the community, how to hear and receive the word of God preached, the meaning of one’s baptism, the meaning of partaking of the Lord’s Table, and the relationship between worship and living lives of integrity and service.
In this ancient process worship discipleship occurred as much through imitation as oral instruction. Students would imitate the actions and the attitudes of their teachers in worship; they would then engage with the oral instruction in order to form their understanding. Imitation was followed by explanation; understanding followed action. This approach to discipleship is at the core of the early Christian model. Thus, the church carefully and systematically transmitted the teachings of the faith concerning worship (and other topics) as a means of Christian discipleship. In fact, discipleship was the very term preferred by the church fathers for this process.2 From the beginning of the church and occurring through many centuries, new Christians were discipled first as worshipers.
All Christian disciples are formed in worship by worship. The Scriptures we hear, the songs we sing, the prayers we pray, the sermons we heed, the offerings we give, the Communion elements we share, the sense of love we feel from fellow worshipers—all of this and more unites in the power of the Spirit to change us toward Christlikeness. Worship is a highly transforming event. It is such a formational force that it is sometimes referred to as “primary theology”—the most significant occasion from which our understanding of God originates.
To be honest, for many years I had not considered how corporate worship is formational in nature. I had the idea that I formed worship; I have since discovered that worship forms me. I misunderstood the purposes of worship, thinking that it consisted largely of a service that people created in order to express themselves to God and to be inspired to live better Christian lives. It didn’t occur to me that participating in the worship event is, in itself, an act of intentional spiritual formation. I have come to see that when worshipers participate faithfully and devotionally in the liturgy of their worship service (every church has its liturgy), they become deeply formed by what is said and done. Worship is a primary means through which our view of God and the world is reshaped in an ongoing way. But not only our view is changed. More importantly, through true worship our affections—that which/who we come to love—are amended. Corporate worship disciples us in patterns of faith and patterns of love. The way of worship discipleship can be summarized this way: Do as I do, come to believe what I believe, love what I love.
Worship in local churches today has changed a great deal over time, and most especially in the last fifty years in North America. In many places, worship would be virtually unrecognizable from that which took place even just a few years ago. Change can be good. Every generation must reconsider certain critical variables as they seek to worship God in their own time and place. But the question emerges, who/what are we imitating when we adapt our practices of worship? Do worship practices find their source in the Teacher’s way of worship? Or do we imitate another master?
“If Jesus were present today, how would he worship?”
In many churches, practices continue to migrate toward the latest cultural trends. Trends themselves are neither good nor bad until they are evaluated in terms of God’s expectations for worship. However, it is wise to be cautious because we can inadvertently discover that we have chosen to imitate a person or a procedure or a product before asking, How would Jesus worship (HWJW)? Often people will ask me, “What’s next in worship?” That very question suggests that we are trend-thirsty. Too often we ask, “What’s popular in worship today?” or “What would you like to see in worship?” or “What are the larger churches doing?”
I think it’s time to ask the more relevant question: How would Jesus worship (HWJW)? If Jesus were present today, how would he worship? The answer to this question is not found through speculation; it is not found by forcing Jesus’s practices into our contemporary molds. Instead, the answer is discovered by immersing ourselves in the ways of worship that Jesus modeled and taught. If our heartfelt desire is to worship like Jesus, we will simply follow him in his worship of the Father. When we do, our worship will never be the same.
1 See Deuteronomy 4:9-10, 4:39-40, 6:5-9 and Psalm 78:1-8.
2 Pasquato Ottorino, “Catechmenate—Discipleship,” in Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity, ed. Thomas C. Oden and Joel C. Elowsky (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014) 1:458.
Excerpt from: Worship Like Jesus: A Guide for Every Follower (Abingdon Press, 2019, ISBN: 978-1-5018-8147-3)
I like to think of those of us who have responsibilities for planning and leading worship as “worship architects.” I am called to equip present and future generations of worship architects. I do this through conference speaking, teaching in various academic settings, webinars, writing books, composing music, and producing a variety of worship resources of all types.