Many churches today put significant energy and emphasis into creating a “worship experience.” It’s not simply enough to choose appropriate songs that reinforce the point of the sermon. The lighting, staging, decoration, visuals, and even smoke machines all come together to create an elaborate aura for the worship experience. In that regard, cutting-edge church services are indistinguishable from concerts and stage plays.
But is that where the focus should be in the first place? Is true worship a function of all the stirring music, staging, and visual effects? Is the point of our praise to stimulate our senses and emotions? On the other hand, is it a purely mental exercise—is it rote and robotic? Or is its intended purpose somewhere in the middle?
We recently put those questions to John MacArthur. Here’s what he had to say:
“Worship is where the mind—understanding the truth—activates the emotions in praise, and adoration, and love towards God.” That’s a far cry from the raucous emotional explosions that pass for worship in many churches today. However, it’s also not the somber, staid affair some in the church would prefer.
True worship is not a battle between our minds and our emotions—it’s the two working together to the praise and glory of the Lord. As Christ Himself told the Samaritan woman at the well, “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). You don’t have to look hard to find churches that fail to worship God in spirit, or plenty of others that overlook the vital aspect of the truth.
In his book Worship: The Ultimate Priority, John MacArthur contrasts the spiritual dangers of both extremes.
Sincerity, enthusiasm, and aggressiveness are important, but they must be based on truth. And truth is foundational, but if it doesn’t result in an eager, excited, enthusiastic heart, it is deficient. Enthusiastic heresy is heat without light. Barren orthodoxy is light without heat.
The same two extremes are still with us today. On the one hand there are groups who get together and hold hands and sway back and forth and sing songs and speak in ecstatic language. You can’t fault their enthusiasm, but far too often it is merely zeal without knowledge.
Worshiping with enthusiasm is not enough. No group of worshipers is more spirited than the fanatic Shiite Muslims who once a year slit their scalps with razors and then beat themselves in the head with the flat side of their swords to stimulate bleeding. Men, boys, and even infants have their shaved heads lacerated with swift chopping strokes of a straight razor and then march around in the square before the mosque, bleeding profusely while thousands watch and chant. They do it to celebrate the death of a Muslim leader more than a dozen centuries ago, and they see their hideous display as worship. It stands as an extreme example of what attempting to worship apart from the truth can become.
On the other hand, there are those who hold firmly to sound doctrine but have lost all the fervor of true faith. They know the truth, but they can’t get excited about it. Maybe some of them go to your church.
The Father seeks both enthusiasm and orthodoxy, spirit and truth.  John MacArthur, Worship: The Ultimate Priority (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012), 154-155.
In the days ahead, we’re going to look at how the truth must undergird our worship for the Lord; we’ll also expose the dangers of lifeless, emotionless praise.