Before we can decide whether certain worship styles are unbiblical, we need to define worship. Worship is usually defined as “the act of showing reverence and adoration for a deity by honoring that deity with religious rites.” But worship can go even deeper than that. Worship can be more accurately defined as “the art of losing oneself in the adoration of another.” By this definition, many acts of worship have nothing to do with God or even a presumed deity. People worship rock stars, athletes, and other celebrities. They lose themselves in the adoration of wealth, fame, and power. So there are many worship styles and practices that are idolatrous and therefore unbiblical.
Throughout the Bible, people express godly worship in a variety of ways, from building altars and offering burnt sacrifices to praying and singing. The worship of God or gods was often equated with regular service. In fact, God used the phrase “worship and serve” when He referred to a people’s allegiance to Him or to an idol (Deuteronomy 5:9; 11:16; Jeremiah 25:6; Luke 4:8). For the Israelites, worshiping God meant obeying His commands. True godly worship is a lifestyle connected to service, not a single act confined to a building, event, or action.
Many people today equate worship with going to church. Corporate worship does occur when the Body of Christ gathers, but is not necessarily the case every time. We know from Acts 2:42–47 that those in the early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” So those four elements need to be present to have well-rounded worship service. But, because tradition and cultures vary, worship services across the globe can look very different. Some practices, if not closely monitored, can take the focus off of God and onto the worship itself, making those worship styles unbiblical. Some of those practices are listed below:
1. Music. Some Christians equate worship with the musical portion of the church service. While music is a vital part of expressing our hearts to God (Psalm 96:1;149:1; Exodus 15:1; Ephesians 5:19), the music itself can become the object of our worship. When sensational music is the sum total of the worship experience, we must ask, “What exactly is being worshiped?” When musical style and performance become more important than seeking or glorifying God, music has become a negative. We are no longer worshiping God, but worshiping the experience. If the beat, lyrics, arrangement, or performer takes center stage during a time dedicated to worship, then Jesus is not the one being exalted—our soulish satisfaction has become the star.
2. Personal freedom. In some churches, freedom of expression can become an unbiblical worship style. When those in attendance are more focused upon their own outward manifestations of “worship,” such as running around the room, screaming, or wild flailing of limbs, the corporate gathering has shifted from the worship of God to a contest between uninhibited attendees. Scripture never endorses chaos as part of a corporate gathering. In fact, Paul chastises the Corinthians for allowing their services to get out of control (1 Corinthians 14:26–33). Instead, he reminds the church that everything, including personal freedom of worship, must be done “decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40).
3. Lack of joy. On the opposite end of the spectrum, many churches have adopted an unbiblical worship style by creating a dull, somber atmosphere, devoid of any emotion. Many in attendance believe they have done their duty to God by enduring an hour of dry orthodoxy once a week, but where were their hearts? They may call this worship, but it is far from it. Jesus rebuked this kind of joyless legalism when He quoted the prophet Isaiah: “These people worship me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Matthew 15:8; cf. Isaiah 29:13). Going through the motions of honoring God while secretly wishing the time away is not worship at all. He takes no pleasure in our joyless offerings (2 Corinthians 9:7).
4. Tradition. Man-made tradition has been the bane of true worship since before Jesus walked the earth. He rebuked it then, and He rebukes it now (Mark 7:7–8; Colossians 2:8). What we sometimes call “worship” is nothing more than a feel-good exercise filled with comfortable practices handed down to us from our parents and grandparents. Many people consider themselves part of a certain religious group simply because that is how they were raised. They never think to question the unbiblical traditions, rites, or exercises this church adheres to because the practices are so familiar. Many times these extra-biblical practices actually contradict scriptural truths but are excused because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
Any worship style can be unbiblical if it is not coming from the heart. The Samaritan woman asked Jesus a technicality about worship, and His answer is one we must all follow. He said, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). When we are exalting the truth of Scripture, when we are personally losing ourselves in the adoration of God, we can engage in true worship whether in a crowded cathedral or alone in the desert. When our lives are dedicated to honoring God in all we do, we are living a lifestyle of worship.