Everyone is in ripped jeans, little dresses, and oversized tops. They huddle to one side of the room as the band walks on stage. Lights strobe and turn from blue to green and back to blue again. The beat pushes through their chests as the music quickens. Hands launch into the air, feet hop up and down as each person sings and dances.

What is this?

This is not a concert, club, or hipster band practice. In fact, this scene describes a typical church youth group’s worship service. Despite positive intentions, many churches have subconsciously equivocated worship with praise. This phenomenon, caused by attempts to reach a postmodern nation, shifts worship culture away from Biblical intentions. This article seeks to expose the reductionism in worship culture and clarify misunderstandings about Biblical worship for church youth groups.

Worship does not require a band., a Christian leader advice site, presents a list of 8 steps necessary to have a successful worship team, including tips like, “Provide opportunities for music training.” The Christian community identifies worship with music.

But here’s the secret: worship does not require a band. In fact, it doesn’t require any music at all. The Church has forgotten the dichotomy between praise and worship. We use the words so interchangeably that many forget there is even a difference at all.

To praise is to “express one’s respect and gratitude toward (a deity), especially in song.” (New Oxford American Dictionary) Praise is an expression. It’s primarily verbal. As Psalms 138:1 declares, “I will praise you, LORD, with all my heart; before the ‘gods’ I will sing your praise.” (See also Judges 5:3, 2 Samuel 22:50, Psalms 35:28, Psalms 92:1, Psalms 101:1, and Psalms 138:1)

To worship is to “to honor or reverence as a divine being or supernatural power.” (Merriam Webster’s Dictionary) Worship is reverence, action and heart-based. Romans 12:1 clarifies this principle, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” (NIV)

Music can be an act of worship, however, worship is simply not limited to song. Picture a worship service. There’s the student body, the worship band, and the youth pastor. While students face the stage, the band faces the students, elevated on a stage. And it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid the ideology of perform-and-react. The band performs for us, and we respond, causing the specific ambience. We’re reactors and receivers. Where is the worship happening? Here, the Church misses the holistic experience.

Sermons, tithes, offerings, and even praise: It’s all collective unified worship of God. Praise is a part of worship, but worship is a broader concept. Like love, it’s more than a feeling. It’s the whole.

As Christians, we should be in a constant state of worship not contented to a time or place.

There’s no such thing as a “worship experience.” 

The idea that you experience a particular feeling when you worship is a myth.

As Relevant Magazine put it, “worship our worship experience.” Worship is no longer the heart beyond an action but instead has become a genre of music and passionate hand-raising. This can quickly become self-focused. If worship is only about feeling good, then what are we really worshiping? A holy God or a flippant emotion?

This is the postmodern problem. Today’s culture emphasizes the individual and holds to the principle that, if it feels right then it is. Postmodern values affect worship culture by replacing God-focused reverence with self-focused feeling, and therefore subject worship to non-Biblical and dangerous standards.

When worship becomes identified purely as the music and the corresponding feelings, then we have dumbed down an essential part of the faith. I’ve heard students joke about getting “high on Jesus.” Is this the Biblical view of worshiping our Lord and Savior? I beg to differ.

In response to worship culture, the Lutheran World Federation organized their third international dialogue in Nairobi, Kenya, in January 1996. Their project sought to reconcile Scripture’s original intent with contemporary society and culture. The Study Team, representing five continents, concluded with the Nairobi Statement on Worship and Culture. It begins:

Worship is the heart and pulse of the Christian Church. In worship we celebrate together God’s gracious gifts of creation and salvation, and are strengthened to live in response to God’s grace. Worship always involves actions, not merely words. To consider worship is to consider music, art, and architecture, as well as liturgy and preaching.

Worship is the action, mindset, or lifestyle directly intended to further the Kingdom of God, glorify the Lord, and use one’s gifts to exemplify Christ’s love for us. It is understanding your place in the presence of majesty, recognizing your own insignificance compared to the one who made you. It is acknowledging your depravity and depending upon your Creator for all things. It is honor, respect. Deep admiration. Worship is the demonstration of gratitude with genuine solemnity.

The only experience related to worship is the overwhelming desire to serve the Lord because of His immense glory; that desire bleeds into every activity in life.

Depending on emotions for worship causes the youth camp high…and eventual drop.

It’s the classic story. Kid attends youth camp. Kid meets friends. Kid hears passionate speaker, has amazing worship experience, and returns with the promise to change everything and evangelize to everyone they know.

Then life happens. And somehow all the excitement dies down as the flood of deadlines fills the air and suffocates the zeal.

On the outside, youth groups and camps thrive on the worship experience, but the longterm results say otherwise. When youth groups feed off of the postmodern-affected view of worship, students translate emotion as spiritual renewal or life transformation when in fact their hearts — and therefore their lifestyles — have no guarantee of change. If worship is only emotion, then when the emotion is drained so is the faith.

Emotion based worship is like sugar. There’s the sugar high and crash without longterm satisfaction. Similarly, we value worship based on emotional high, and, like sugar, you have to experience more and more emotion to get the worship high.

True worship involves less raising hands and more falling on one’s knees in awe of the Lord Almighty.

But this commentary is less of a critique and more of a caution. If we don’t instill the next generation the true meaning of worship, then what does that mean for the future of the church? Will we buy more and more into the relative standard of worship?

What is worship?

In City of God, St. Augustine of Hippo described, “To love his neighbor bids him to do all he can to bring his neighbor to love God. This is the worship of God.” To worship is to live in a manner that is pleasing to the one who first loved us. To worship is to focus on the Creator in all of His majesty. While sometimes emotion can seem to be the genuine manifestation of a true repentant heart, other times it’s loved for it’s own sake. And that is the central problem with the trendy worship culture.

Version 4

Guest Writer: Haley Horton is a freshman at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, where she will study Physics and Art. She received the National Academy of Future Scientists and Technologists’ Award of Excellence and helped represent her state as a Delegate to the Congress of Future Science and Technology Leaders. Having committed hours volunteering as a speech and debate coach, she is an Ambassador for the National Society of High School Scholars (NSHSS) as well as a Claes Nobel National Scholar, Ronald Reagan Student Leader, Disney Scholar, and Prudential Spirit of Community Award Honoree. She hopes to use her talents as acts of worship to further the Kingdom of God.


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Opinions expressed are solely the opinion of the author and do not necessarily express 
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  1. The main critique seems to be that people make synonymous musical praise with worship. That may be true, but what about the fact that youth groups are being made to feel like pop-concerts? Are some church’s efforts to appeal to children through culture justifiable? Is such seeker-friendly strategy that church is “cool” and “hip” teaching youth the right understanding of being in the body of Christ?

  2. Correct, this commentary focused primarily on praise versus worship. In response to your questions, although the concert ambience may seem efficient at first (like increasing attendance), it can seriously misguide the current students in the longterm. The question comes down to how efforts to reach nonbelievers should simplify Scripture at the expense of believers’ deep understanding of Scripture and worship. Do youth groups trust that the gospel is enough to reach the lost or do they believe they must mirror secular culture to do so?

  3. Really??? Are you also going to criticize Martin Luther for stealing bar songs and writing his hymn words over top of them?

    I’m now a grandmother and a long way down the road from being part of the youth culture. Personally, I think you should just go find something worthwhile criticizing. You have a different method for reaching the lost? Go for it! Nobody’s stopping you.I

  4. Delaine,
    I would like to first reflect back on my article and remind everyone that, “this commentary is less of a critique and more of a caution.” I do not seek to criticize the Church or church leaders, past or present, but instead hope to caution youth groups from a risky mindset. I have been part of youth culture, and I’ve seen firsthand how students react and can so easily fall into the wrong ideology.
    Regarding Martin Luther, I would like to note that there are many beliefs on his songs. Some say he borrowed the tunes from a folk song, and others say it was completely original. Regardless, there are many ways to reach the lost, and therefore God uses various means to reach different cultures (and different times) through His Church. It is my belief that, in today’s context, emphasizing the emotional experience of worship too much can mislead current believers, which would not further the Kingdom. That does not mean that we should never get excited to sing out praise to our Lord. Emotion is still there! We should simply ensure that we praise God as paramount, above the “worship experience.” It was out of my respect for the Church and desire to preserve Scripture’s original intent that I wrote this article.
    Thank you for taking the time to read this today. God Bless.

  5. I apologized that I am coming to this discussion so late, but I would first like to thank you for the article. I believe it is spot on, and perhaps even more could be said. I see at least two fundamental problems with this “worship experience” phenomena. The first being that often times that: “What you win them with, is what you win them too.” The average congregation running between 60 and 100 attenders on Sunday cannot replicate the youth conference worship experience. The music is done by professional musicians, and the sermons are done by speakers who have been told months in advance that they’ve been booked to do the conference, thus the speaker has had months, and maybe even more than a year to prepare the message(s), tweet it, rehearse it, etc… The youth attending come in, they have a wonderful, exciting, emotional experience, where everyone around them is engaging in vibrant activity, and a loss of inhibition that would rarely take place when mom and dad are present. But then they go back to “regular” church… and eventually they leave all together once they head off to college, because what initially drew them in, isn’t being replicated in the average Sunday service. However; it is being found at the concert, the collegiate sporting event, the club, etc… And thus, they truly have been won “too” the thing they were won “with”.
    Secondly; there is a huge problem in the postmodernist thinking that says, “We must make our worship services more appealing to the worldly, in order to cause them to seek Christ and draw them in.” And that problem is – “There are NONE who seek God, no not one.” The carnal mind is an enemy of God. Thus we must ask: Are these youth coming to these conferences to seek Christ? Not if we believe Scripture, they aren’t coming to seek Christ, they are coming for the experience of a concert like atmosphere with thousands of other like minded students. Might Christ save them there? Yes, in-spite of our attempts to undermine His means of grace. He is a wonderful Savior!


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