At the core of Christianity—at the core of everything—there is God, uniquely revealed in Jesus Christ. From the earth-bound, human perspective, Christianity is primarily about being in a right relationship with God through Christ. This is a many-faceted relationship involving reconciliation with God, experiencing his forgiveness and intimate love, learning his character and living consistently with his ways, studying his works, reflecting his creativity through our own expressiveness, and more.
Wrapped around in all of this is worship.
I suspect that’s a concept that seems foreign, even a little weird, to non-Christian readers. (It’s hard enough for us believers to grasp!) If I could present a good non-religious analogue to worship it would help, but I’m not sure there is one, especially in egalitarian America. The closest parallel I can think of is the historic regard with which kings and queens have been treated by their subjects, but even with that there are problems. First, among American readers there is the instant gut reaction, “But all men are created equal!” (Women too, but I was quoting the Declaration of Independence.) We can’t bring ourselves to believe it’s right to bow the knee to another person. Second, in spite of differences in station, it’s true: we are all of equal worth, so it really isn’t right to bow before another.
So then who is God that we should bow the knee to him? Is he any different? The question seems ludicrous on its face, yet we’ve gotten it wrong. It was the quest to be like God, to be independent of him, that was the downfall of the first humans (Genesis 3; especially Genesis 3:5; see also Ezekiel 28:1-19, which most commentators believe also refers to the fall of Lucifer). It’s a mistake that has been at the core of all our problems since then. The same desire for independence from God runs rampant still.
True worship begins in seeing God for who he is, and ourselves for who we are: the unfathomable distance between Creator and created, Infinite and small, Holy and sinful, Self-existent and contingent (we derive all that we are from him, while he is who he is necessarily and of himself). Worship in other words is a natural response to seeing the Supernatural, recognizing its infinite and personal reality.
It is moreover a love response to a loving God, who gave himself for us so that we could be brought near to him. As we read in Colossians 1:13-14:
He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
To worship is to take a stance of submission, of yieldedness to God. A professor I had in college, himself an atheist, related something an Episcopal priest had said to him. It was a cute yet very appropriate twist on a familiar phrase: You worship God your way, and I’ll worship him his. For how could anyone say, “I’ll worship God my way,” and be thinking of anything remotely like real worship? It would be like saying, “God, I acknowledge your great majesty and supremacy, how marvelous and loving and awesome you are; and yet if you don’t mind, sire, I’ll decide for myself how I think I ought to follow you, because I think I can figure you out for myself..”
I’m not saying Christians have it all figured out how to worship God in the way that pleases him most. What I’m saying is that this is our goal, our quest, our intention. We believe God knows himself truly and has revealed himself truly, and that to some extent we can truly know him and grow in that knowledge. We seek to understand God for who he is, not for who we may think him to be. We know that such understanding is given to us not through our wisdom but by his grace.
Worship, then, is based in our relationship with God and in experiential knowledge of who he is. Churches often speak of having a “worship time,” meaning a time of singing and praying together. That’s fine as long as we don’t misunderstand: true worship is expressed through the whole life. We practice it through the gladness of song, yes, but also through the bodily expressions of submission (one word for worship in the Bible means literally “to bend the knee”), the intimacy of prayer, the view we have of God in fellow believers, and the regular disciplines of seeking to know him better and follow him more fully.
Back to the core again, then: God is at the center. Worship is about recognizing that reality, and expressing it through all that we are and all we do.