What is real worship?

Several years ago, I joined a local business organization. Their stated intention was to help business people do their job better; a kind of coaching through semi-monthly seminars.

At the opening and close of each session, we sang a song that went something like this: “Yes, I can do it; Yes, I can do it; I have a positive frame of mind.” (I kid you not—truth is stranger than fiction.) By the end of the evening, every face was aglow with expectation; and two weeks later, everybody needed another face-lift.

I also found their teachings to be less substance and more selling. Instead of nourishing tips on handling angry clients, I received frothy, double-shot lattes of motivational, positive thinking. The talks were inspiring but insubstantial; caffeine without fruit or vegetables. Or protein.

Then I began to wonder how close my worship-music experience paralleled that seminar jingle feeling; maybe a boost to my spirits to face another week, but mostly just a jolt of java.

Bear with me. Worshipful music is wonderful. But I began to examine the nature of worship. I asked myself, “What is the essence of worship? Does worship require music?”

I tried an experiment: I took a six month sabbatical from any form of worship music—personal prayer time, worship CD’s, and even singing during a church service—and I found I love it.

Song-free worship taught me how to worship better.

Because real worship changes us

Real worship is a two-way street. The English word, “worship,” comes from the Old English phrase, “worth-shape.” The worth of our subject shapes our souls. Everyone worships something—fame, wealth, or a good family—and the value we give it drives our lives.

Psalm 115 says the gods of the peoples have unseeing eyes, unhearing ears, and unfeeling hands. Then it claims, “Those who make them become like them, and so do all who worship them” (vs. 8). It says that the act of worship re-forms us in the image of the thing we worship.

If we worship success, we become arrogant (or depressed) and if we worship people-pleasing, the fear of rejection rules our behavior. Our object of worship controls our lives.

If we examine our biggest problems—our anger, deepest sadness, anxieties, or most uncontrollable behaviors—we will always find an object of worship cracking its whip. Our problem in life is that we functionally worship other gods, taskmasters with whips in hand.

So what is worship?

Real worship is more than singing praises; it is the act of giving away our hearts. Worship is attributing ultimate value to something; it thinks, “If I had that I’d be happy;” it is a deep belief of the heart that says, “That is all I need.”

Worship is what we most deeply value. It’s not just the times we set aside to sing praise songs. We are constantly worshipping. Moment-by-moment, we live for something. “Where our treasure is, there will our hearts and minds be also.”

Archbishop William Temple wrote, “Your religion is what you do with your solitude.” What do we think about when we wait in line or drive to work? Where does our mind naturally drift when no external force (like TV, work, or screaming kids) engages it?

Our minds drift to what we most deeply believe we need. It imagines kids on the honor roll, our names in lights, bank accounts full, a different spouse, our bosses serving us, or our ministries suddenly exploding in success. Something deep down inside us believes that is our greatest need; that “that” will make us happy.

This is worship.

What do we do?

We need a change of mind; we need a vision of God that destroys the earthly religion of what we do in our solitude. We need an intense focus (of heart, mind, soul and strength) on the beauty of God. It means looking, gazing, meditating, and reflecting on the majesty of God

We can reform our worship by a conscious decisions to attribute ultimate value to the Ultimate Being who is ultimately beyond us; and yet who sits beside us on our front porch and lives within us as we wash the dishes. It is a decision to think and meditate on God. It’s worship.

Singing can be an act of worship, but it isn’t worship itself. It is ever-so-possible (and we’ve all probably done it), to sing a half-hour of godly worship songs—and even temporarily be inspired—and then return to our “normal” lives where we grasp for appreciation, praise, health, or financial peace.

Real worship, instead, is an inner vision of the reality of God, and giving all our hearts to him.

And worship music can open the rusty doors of our heart to spiritually see what the dust of the world obscures. The gods of this world constantly tempt us in Superbowl commercials and the success of others around us. Singing truths reminds us of how reality really works.

It is in the truth of the songs—which the music unveils—that changes us forever. We come to see the amazing God through singing of his Amazing Grace; and that sight shifts the deep song in our hearts to a new rhythm that remains. Even when the emotional high dissipates.

Substance over hype

That seminar jingle, “Yes, I can do it; I have a positive frame of mind,” was vapor-ware, a sales pitch to myself based on nothing but smoke and mirrors.

Worship of the real God reveals rock-solid truths to my heart: that he is all I need, that hehas done it, and I’ll never be the same. Only worship of the real God will really satisfying.

I’m glad I’m singing about God once more. It comes from a real positive frame of mind.


When I was growing up, my dad taught me to sail our small Sunfish sailboat. We took month-long summer vacations, and we always camped on lakes. So we could ride the wind every day.

I probably sailed with him for a hundred hours before I faced the wind on my own. During those hours, my dad would have me either manage the sail or handle the rudder. Of the hundred hours sailing, I bet his actual instruction time totaled one hour. Two at the most.

He might say, “Pull in the sail a bit,” or, “Turn a little more to the left” (yeah, I know, starboard and port, but my dad didn’t care much about proper terminology). Those short comments took mere moments to say, and he didn’t make them often. Mostly we just sailed together. For hours and hours. And bit by bit, gust by gust, wave by wave, I learned seamanship.

Instead of lessons, we mostly just chatted.

He would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up. I’d say, “Be a pirate” (of course) and he’d heartily agree (“Yo, ho, ho”). He’d ask why I had yelled at my sister, and I’d ask why he got angry at my mom. We’d talk about books we were reading, sermons he was preparing, what girls I was interested in, and what it would be like to sail across the ocean.

Our relationship with God can be like that. Conversational.

Would we want it any other way?

When we imagine “hearing God,” we mostly picture God telling us what to do. We ask for guidance—directional answers—but it means we’re asking for lectures: Do this and don’t do that. God wants conversations with us far more than he wants lo lecture.

Jesus once said, “If you earthly fathers, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your kids, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him! (Matt. 7:11).

Think of your fondest memories of your fathers. How many of those memories are the times your dad lectured? Why do we think a good relationship with God would be any different?

My earthly father made boatloads of mistakes, but he also did tons of things right. My favorite memories of him are discussions around the dinner table, phone calls, and sailing.

He did give advice, and occasionally (albeit rarely) I even asked for advice; but he always loved to talk with me. About life. About ANYTHING: movies, friends, spiritual quandaries, and jokes.

If our best memories of our earthly fathers are conversations not sermons, why do we think our heavenly Father (who is better than the best earthly father) wants mostly to lecture? “Will not our heavenly Father give good things to us when we ask?” Would we want it any other way?

We most frequently seek God’s voice during times of crisis. “I’m in trouble; I need direction!” The thing is, until we have learned to recognize his quiet voice in the humdrum of life, what chance do we have of distinguishing his voice in the maelstrom of crisis?

Let’s learn to sail our boats in a gentle breeze before raising our sails in a hurricane. We think we mostly need guidance, but mostly we need conversation.

Besides, the best guidance is in conversation

My dad did teach me sailing, but I never felt our sailing adventures were classroom instructions. I doubt if one percent of my discussions with dad—one hour amidst one hundred—was directional. Directions did come (“Let out the sail a bit, I see a squall coming”), but they were gusts in the winds of conversations, punctuation marks in the midst of chapters.

My ability to sail grew through persistent conversations, sometimes boring sometimes exciting. My dad and I went through life on the seas together. It was in those communal adventures that he taught me to navigate. He never once used a whiteboard, flipchart, or PowerPoint to abstractly teach me seamanship. He taught me through a shared daily life on the waves.

On our trips together, I’d make mistakes (as would he), and the boat would capsize. We’d right it together, we’d laugh (most of the time), and we’d drag our soaking wet bodies back onboard, to match our wits against the wind and waves once more.

Through it all, I learned to sail. His guidance was vital but mostly unnoticed. Within a year—at eleven years of age—I was sailing the Great Lakes alone, beyond sight of land, amidst the wake of freighters, capsizing, righting, laughing, and testing my strength and courage.

Even now, when I sail as an adult, his conversational guidance is with me when I face a squall.

So how do we have a conversational relationship with God?

It’s perfectly normal to talk about “normal” stuff with our friends; why not with God? He isn’t less of a person, he’s more of a person. He isn’t less interested, he’s more interested.

And he has a better attention span.

I set aside a daily time for prayer and study, but my best conversations with God take place throughout the day, when driving home from an appointment, waiting in line at the supermarket, or thinking of how to express a point in the blog. I say to God,

  • My last lunch meeting didn’t go well. I said something more harshly than I meant to. Why do you think I said it that way? What is going on in me to explode like that?
  • I’m tired. I feel like my daily mantra is: Too much to do, too little time to do it. What will it take for me to let go of my life? What does it mean to be satisfied in you alone?
  • God, I felt alive when I gave that talk on friendship. How can I help others find friends? How can I walk in a friendship with you?

The best relationships with God are conversational. Yes, he wants our petitions and praises, but mostly he wants relational exchange. In the Garden of Eden, we know very little of Adam and Eve’s relationship with God. Except this: he walked with them in the cool of the evening.

Which is a Hebrew metaphor for God having a conversation with friends.


[This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Hearing God, to be released in April 2015.]

Aenean vel dignissim lorem. Maecenas vehicula vitae neque at tristique. Morbi facilisis felis at eleifend condimentum.

I hate jargon. I’m not sure why. But I’m usually a late adopter, and always an early deserter. Some phrases flit in and out of fashion so quickly that I barely get a chance to try them on; they fly off the shelves before I can look myself in the mirror to see how they fit.

But some slang sticks. I’m talking of words with depth and meaning, words that have stood the test of time; the modern patois with the persistence of the pyramids. Someday, thousands of years from now, verbal-archeologists will be guiding awe-struck tourists through the hidden chambers of twentieth century idiomatic treasures.

For example, can any modern jargon match the multi-pillared, monumental endurance of the word, “Cool!”? I heard it first as a fourth grader. I immediately knew it to be the vernacular discovery of the century, comparable to unearthing King Tut’s tomb.

Cool” had the legs of a fine wine. I sniffed its bouquet and sipped of its liquid resolve. I rolled it about in my mouth. I knew it to be vintage vocabulary.

A ten year old friend asked what I thought of the Beatles’ latest album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I had the perfect answer. I could express the harmonies, lyrics, and rhythm, all with one flawless, monolithic motif.

“It’s cool,” I said.

The self-conscious pretender

We think that our advances in technology mean we can improve anything. Like expressions of greatness. Let’s just admit that “Cool” is king.  We can’t improve upon its excellence.

But we try. We tinker with verbal-sparkplugs and install slang-turbochargers, but some things were just born perfect. Sometimes we need to acknowledge that we have reached the apex of linguistic sophistication. No tinkering allowed. It isn’t cool

Take “groovy” for example. It flashed upon the world’s stage and tried to overthrow “cool.” The coup d’état failed because the would-be usurper “groovy” had a fatal flow. It is the catwalk-strutting fashion models that make clothes hip; chic clothes don’t make us supermodels.

I’ve met only one person who could say “groovy” naturally and make it work, my brother’s friend Kevin Ward. Because Kevin was born cool. All other users were self-conscious pretenders; “Groovy” didn’t praise an object as much as reveal the quality of the speaker.

I tried it once, choked, and spat it out. If, “cool” is vintage wine, “groovy” was tepid swamp water. I wasn’t cool enough; I couldn’t turn its water into wine. It needed a supermodel.

The exhausted pretender

Or take groovy’s modern day descendant, “awesome.” Please take it, dig a hole, and bury it. Give it a eulogy if you must. Just don’t describe its life as awesome. It wasn’t even groovy.

I’ve heard people attribute awesomeness to high thread-count sheets and earth-friendly shopping bags. I have news for you. They aren’t awesome. They aren’t even that cool. Though they might be considered nice. (Oh no, don’t get me started on “nice”.)

Awesome has its place. It should be revered. Like fine china, it should come out for high holidays, for those rare magnificent moments when even “cool” falls short.

But, alas; I too am stuck in the rut of “awesome” overuse. So maybe I’m groovy. If not cool.

Linguistic hyper-inflation

I know, I know; I unfairly point fingers out there, when I should be looking inside. One of my own verbal intensification abuses is, “really” as in, “If we really believed God loves us,” or “I really feel bad about….” What can I say in my defense? I really like the word.

I misuse “literally” too, as in, “He literally said groovy.” What I literally meant was, “Hereally said it.”

But enough about my linguistic shortcomings. Yours are more fun. We use these words—cool, groovy, awesome, and literally (let’s pardon, “really”)—in order to express the intensity of our experience. We wish to share the depth of our feelings with others. And sharing is cool.

The worst intensification offense of the modern era—I bet we all agree on this—is the excessive, abusive, depraved perversion of the simple word, “like,” as in,

“I was, like, going to the, like, bank, like fast, when, like out of nowhere, like crazy-like, I like forgot where I was, like, going; I got, like, lost.”

Let us clue you in. We were lost on the third “like.” There has only been one valid use of the intensifier, “like.” Born in the sixties, it’s enduring magnificence should be chiseled upon Stonehenge:

Like Wow, man!

The worst offender

Perhaps my greatest intolerance for jargon is the mumbo jumbo found in business lingo; it’s the over-used, hyper-inflation, ritual-language of flimflam. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • It’s time for a paradigm shift. This is usually the preamble to a bold, new vision.
  • A bold, new vision. They are seldom bold, never new, and rarely visionary. It normally means, Uh, we’re gonna try to do twice as much work with half as many people. Again.
  • Right-size. This is the gist of bold new visions. Someday I’d love to see the right-sizing of executive salaries. That might really be a bold, new vision. And cool. Awesome even.
  • Let’s think outside the box. This is coded language for, “Everything we’ve tried so far has failed. It’s time for a paradigm shift.”

I’m a jargon curmudgeon (/kərˈməjən/), a word that should never fade from style because curmudgeons are the coolest people on earth. They care not a whit for what is in vogue.

They think outside the box.