There is no shortage of good books (and bad!) on the theology of worship. The best is David Peterson’s Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship (IVP, 1992). Peterson’s book is not a practical how-to on worship planning, but rather an in-depth, exegetical look at the biblical understanding of worship.
Worship, according to Peterson, is first of all a whole life lived to the glory of God.
Throughout the Bible, acceptable worship means approaching or engaging with God on the terms he proposes and in the manner that he makes possible. It involves honouring, serving and respecting him, abandoning any loyalty or devotion that hinders an exclusive relationship with him. Although some of Scripture’s terms for worship may refer to specific gestures of homage, rituals of priestly ministrations, worship is more fundamentally faith expressing itself in obedience and adoration. Consequently, in both Testaments it is often shown to be a personal and moral fellowship with God relevant to every sphere of life.
While he argues throughout the book that all of life is worship, Peterson also recognizes that the New Testament speaks of the corporate gathering as a specific kind of all-of-life worship. Peterson makes several helpful points with regards to corporate worship.
First, the starting point for reflection is the conviction “that God fully and finally manifested himself in the person of his Son. Jesus Christ is at the center of New Testament thinking about worship.” He is the mediator between God and man. He is the procurer of salvation and blessing for the nations. He is the new temple in which and around which all true believers gather. Christ draws us to himself in worship and through him a new relationship with the Father is made possible.
Second, true worship is gospel-centered. The gospel–Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection–is what makes worship possible. The gospel is what we proclaim in worship. The gospel is what we sing in worship. The gospel is what calls a people together in worship, arouses a people to praise in worship, and sends a people out in a life of worship. Some churches ignore the gospel. Others reject the gospel. Many churches only touch the gospel tangentially, focusing on nebulous truths like relationships or connecting with God or acceptance or love. But in the best churches, never does a Sunday go by when God’s people don’t sing about the cross or glory in our Redeemer or marvel at substitutionary atonement.
Third, “Jesus removes the need for a cultic approach to God in the traditional sense.” Cultic doesn’t refer to cults, but to the ritualized worship of Israel. Because of the uniqueness and completeness of Christ’s work, there is no longer a need for a human priesthood, no need for a sacrificial system, and no sacred buildings and implements. The heavily symbolized, strictly regulated approach to worship in the Old Testament has been abrogated. Hebrews 8 and 9 make clear that the regulations of the first covenant have been fulfilled and superseded in Christ.
So, the pastor matters in the church service, but not as a priest. The architecture matters, but not as sacred space. The Lord’s Supper matters, but not as a sacrifice. Christ is our High Priest, our Temple, and our Sacrifice. What matters is that we worship him in spirit and truth (John 4:24). For these reasons, we are probably not quite right when we speak of “entering into worship” or “lingering in his presence.” Through Christ, we are already in God’s presence. Through Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, we have already come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God and to the heavenly assembly (Heb. 12:22-24).
Fourth, corporate worship is set apart from all-of-life worship in its focus on edification. Because of this focus, there are many activities that are appropriate for the Christian in all of life that aren’t appropriate in a worship service. I can change diapers to the glory of God, but changing diapers in front of the gathered congregation would be considerably less appropriate because it does not edify like preaching, praying, and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
Fifth, corporate worship is meant to be an anticipation of the heavenly gathering of God’s people. The grand scenes of heavenly worship in Revelation are both present and future, and they are meant to be mirrored on earth. Like the saints and angels in Revelation, we too should direct all our attention to the throne. We too should sing of Christ’s work. We too should be earnest and uncompromising in our devotion to God. Our weekly gatherings–sometimes small, sometimes clumsy, sometimes forgettable–are meant to be a sweet foretaste of the heavenly worship we will one day experience for ages unending.