What Is Authentic Worship? Why Is It Important?

One of the most significant statements on worship in our sacred writings can be found in Jesus’ conversation with the woman of Samaria in John’s Gospel. The Father seeks, says Jesus, those who worship him “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23).

What does that involve?

Worship “in spirit,” I take to mean, is worship that engages the spirit, that taps into the best part of us. We are to bring a certain vitality and energy into our worship. On the one hand, this calls for a focused discipline and practice; on the other hand, this involves flexibility and fluidity—because after all, we are dealing with “living water.”

“Living water” is the image John’s Jesus utilizes in the conversation to speak of the divine-human encounter/relationship. Living water is always moving, changing, surging; it eludes manipulation. We can’t control or confine the Divine Spirit who is the initiator of the spiritual life. Living water requires living worship.   

I heard about a pastor who took his Boy Scout Troop on a tour of his church where they met for their meetings, explaining the meaning of the stain glass windows and some of the symbols. One of the scouts asked about a plaque that hung in the foyer displaying a long list of names. The pastor told him that this was a rooster of names of church members that had died in the service of the church. The boy asked what seemed to him to be the next logical question: “Was it in the early service or the late service?” Living water calls for living worship.

Worship “in truth” is worship that nurtures a true connection with the Divine—a healthy, holistic relationship with God. Truth here is not factual or propositional or creedal or doctrinal, it is relational. To worship in truth is to worship sincerely, honestly, humbly, genuinely.

We worship not because God needs to be praised; but because we need to praise God. Worship is what we need to do in order to cultivate a relationship with the Divine. Worship, I believe, is a human need, not a Divine need.

Soren Kierkegaard, the famous 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian, compared the church of his day to a barnyard full of large, overweight geese that had lost their ability to fly. But once a week they would waddle over to one corner of the barnyard where the biggest goose among them would stand on a stump and proclaim the glory of being geese. Occasionally, while this goose would be sermonizing they would hear the honking of wild geese overhead, flying above them so high they could hardly be seen. In a hushed silence, the barnyard geese would pause for a moment until the honking could no longer be heard, then the sermon would resume extolling the joys of being geese.

It seems to me that worship is intended for the wild geese among us who fly high, take risks, and live out there where it is dangerous.

When we gather for worship, the assumption should be that we gather after a time of engagement and ministry, of embodying and representing Christ at home, work, and play. As we live out our discipleship to Jesus in a rough and tumble world, it is not unlikely that we come to worship wounded and broken in need of God’s healing touch, thirsty for living water, hungry for a living word to sustain us on our journey.

I don’t believe for one minute that we worship because God needs to see us bow down or hear our praises. We worship because we need to make the connection with God; because we thirst for the living water and hunger for the bread of heaven. We worship because we need divine power to live a fully human life that incarnates grace and truth, love and compassion, justice and peace.  


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