This is our fifth and last in a series of articles dealing with downward trends in contemporary worship services. Previously we considered the neglect of scripture reading, the decline of corporate prayer, downward trends in music, and the rush toward pragmatism. In this article we will be dealing with a subtle shift in terminology from the word “worship” to “celebration”.
The dominant English word used in relation to the adoration of believers for God is “worship.” This wonderful word, rich in meaning, comes from the old English word “worthship,” a word that expresses the worthiness of the one receiving special honour, devotion and allegiance.
The Hebrew and Greek words translated into the English word “worship” are used over 150 times in the Old and New Testaments.
In the Old Testament the most common word is shachah, meaning to bow down, fall down prostrate, humbly beseech, do reverence, worship.
In the New Testament a number of words are used for worship. The least common is doxa, meaning dignity, honour, praise, worship. Sebomai is also used infrequently and means to revere, adore, to worship devoutly. Latreuo, also used infrequently, means to minister (to God), to render religious homage, to serve, worship.
However, the most common word translated worship in the New Testament is proskuneo meaning to kiss, like a dog licking his master’s hand, fawn or crouch, prostrate oneself in homage, revere, adore, worship.
From the earliest days of the New Testament church recorded in the book of Acts, Christians gathered together regularly to adore God, to humbly and reverently worship him. It was believed that if God was worshipped in a manner pleasing to him, unbelievers, through the working of the Spirit, would be drawn to him. The unsaved never set the agenda for worship. Rather, Christians would come to worship God so that they might be revitalised to go out into the world and make disciples.
Almost two millennia later, many churches now assemble for what they are calling “celebration” services. Why have they switched from the word “worship” to the word “celebration”, especially when celebration services contain (albeit in a diluted form) all the elements of earlier worship services? Why abandon an extremely good word that faithfully reflects the heart of the original language? Am I making too fine a point even by raising these questions, or is the switch in terminology truly significant when considered in the light of other changes we are witnessing in church services—the neglect of Scripture reading, the decline in corporate prayer, the abandoning of hymns in favour of choruses, the push for pragmatism over faithfulness to biblical method, and so forth?Perhaps it is a fine point, but a critical one none-the-less.
The word celebration is used frequently in the Old Testament, normally in connection with God’s defeat of enemies, or in connection with festivals and feasts such as the Passover and Feast of Tabernacles.
In the New Testament the word celebration is used only on a handful of occasions. One instance deals with the keeping of the Passover (Matt 26:18). Four instances deal with rejoicing and making merry over the return of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:23, 24, 29, & 32). The final instance is in relation to the unsaved gloating over the death of the Two Witnesses (Revelation 11:10).
When defining the activities of the people of God when they assemble together, worship is a far richer and more descriptive word than celebration. Worship conveys the idea of one who is worthy of adoration, whom we pay homage to, honour, praise, bow before, adore and revere. Worship conveys the idea of God’s superiority—he is the Creator and we are his workmanship. Worship is a word that is directed toward God rather than the worshipper.
Celebration, on the other hand, is only one aspect of worship. Worship should be characterised by celebration, by joy and thanksgiving based on God’s redemptive work in Christ. But there is far more to worship than celebration. True worship also involves confession of sin, contriteness, intercession, supplication, scripture reading, Bible study and preaching, elements that cannot be encompassed by the word celebration.
More than that, celebration seems to focus primarily on the person, while worship focuses squarely on God. Could the word celebration have been chosen to replace the word worship because in current language and thinking it is often connected with parties, partying, rejoicing and being merry? Because it has more appeal to non-Christians than the word worship? Because it sounds like fun, while worship sounds like a humbling experience?
This subtle shift in wording may shed light on what is taking place in some churches. Rather than lifting the congregation in true worship to the throne of God, they reduce the majesty of worship to an orchestrated earthly celebration.
Many services are becoming increasingly shallow and trivial. We live in an age of triviality, and this has washed over into our churches. Mindless television fails to teach, but merely entertains. It conveys the idea that the chief end of man is to be entertained. How can people whose minds are filled day after day with hours of brainless babble, soaps, sitcoms, sex and violence on television have anything but trivial thoughts when they come to “celebrate” on Sundays?
So, rather than confronting the times and teaching believers the art of biblical worship, some modern churches attempt to meet their audience where they are at. This condescension to self-absorbed seekers has seriously distorted church services. Much of the evangelical church today has become, according to James Montgomery Boice, “sadly, even treasonously, self centred.”
Pastor R. Kent Hughes, senior minister of the CollegeChurch in Wheaton, is correct when he says, “The unspoken but increasingly common assumption of today’s Christendom is that worship is primarily for us—to meet our needs. Such worship services are entertainment focused, and worshippers are uncommitted spectators who are silently grading the performance.”
As D. G. Hart has put it, “Indeed, contemporary worship—and church life for that matter—depends increasingly on the products of pop culture. . . . Rather than growing up and adopting the broader range of experiences that characterizes adulthood, evangelicals . . . want to recover and perpetuate the experiences of adolescence.”
The loss of God-centred worship in our services is lamentable. “It is this loss that allows us to transform worship into entertainment, gospel preaching into marketing, believing into technique, being good into feeling good about ourselves, and faithfulness into being successful” (The Cambridge Declaration).
We desperately need to return to simple Christianity as unfolded for us in Scripture. The temptation will always be to transform the church into something else—a social club, a centre for entertainment and so on. But the task of the church lies in worship, education, equipping the saints, pastoral care, and evangelism. If the church commits itself to these tasks, then and only then, will its redemptive influence be mightily felt in the world.