Walk into any church, and you might find it difficult to determine who or what is the focus of the worship. In some churches it might be the band, clothed and posturing like rocks stars for their adoring fans. In other churches, the audience appears to be the center of attention, as the audio and video production—and any other sensory elements—work together with precision to elicit an emotional response.
Still other churches appear to put the emphasis on Christ, albeit a “Christ” of their own design. You’ve likely heard worship songs that refer to God’s Son with terminology and emotion normally reserved for a spouse. These “Jesus-as-my-boyfriend” worship songs not only corrupt the church’s understanding of what it means to love the Lord, they obscure the truth about His character and nature. It’s a trend that undersells the Person and work of Christ, replacing the truth and power of His saving work on our behalf with trite sentimentality and vague emotionalism.
Considering the influence of those popular approaches, it might be hard to find a church where God and His Word are clearly the focus of its worship service. Too many churches today believe they can worship God on their own terms, according to their tastes and interests. They see the worship service as an opportunity to engage the emotions of believers and attract those in need of salvation, putting those efforts ahead of their obligation to praise the Savior.
In his book Worship: The Ultimate Priority, John MacArthur dispels some of those modern misconceptions about worship by emphasizing its true foundation in God’s Word.
Worship is not merely an emotional exercise with God-words or musical sounds that induce certain feelings. Worship is certainly not a mystical catharsis of human passion detached from any rational thought or biblical precept. True worship is a response of adoration and praise prompted by truth that God has revealed. Psalm 145:18 says, “The Lord is near to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth” (emphasis added). Clearly, truth is prerequisite to acceptable worship.  John MacArthur, Worship: The Ultimate Priority (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012), 160.
He goes on to say, “Truth is always at the heart of authentic worship. Every kind of enthusiasm or emotion that is not inseparably linked to the truth is ultimately meaningless.”  Worship: The Ultimate Priority, 163.
Put simply, the truth about worship is that it is not about us or even up to us; God-honoring worship must be focused on His truth. Regardless of the emotions it dredges up or the excitement it creates, much of what passes for worship today is nothing more than entertainment. If the heart of the worshiper is not grounded in the truth of Scripture, it’s not worship.
The Necessity of Faithful Preaching
That brings us to the vital role of preaching in a proper understanding of worship. Too many churches attempt to sever the sermon from the rest of the worship service, as if the two were distinct entities.
But as John MacArthur explains, true worship is the natural extension of faithful preaching.
If we are to worship in truth and the Word of God is truth, we must worship out of an understanding of the Word of God.
That is why expository preaching and the systematic teaching of the Word of God are so important. Some preachers seem to specialize in sermons that are only marginally biblical but move the congregation and make them laugh and cry with clever stories and anecdotes. They might be interesting, fun, entertaining, exciting, and impressive sermons. They might elicit all manner of emotions and excitement. But such preaching does not help people genuinely worship God.
The purpose of preaching is not merely to create an emotional experience. The preacher’s primary duty is not to stir the emotions of his audience, but to “preach the word . . . in season and out of season . . . with great patience and instruction” (2 Timothy 4:2). The calling of every preacher is to teach about God, and out of that foundation of knowledge comes worship.  Worship: The Ultimate Priority, 160-161.
True worship is not some passive experience—it’s not about vague emotional excitement and empty repetition. Instead, it flows out of an engaged mind and an illuminated heart as the product of the Spirit working through His Word in His people. It is the fruit of the Word delivered to God’s people through His chosen shepherds.
What you take in of God’s Word has a direct bearing on the worship you direct back at Him. If you’re settling for weak, inconsistent teaching or repackaged worldly wisdom designed to tickle ears without offense, your worship will reflect that anemic biblical intake. On the other hand, if you’re faithfully washing your mind in God’s Word and sitting under preaching that exalts and explains Scripture, your worship of God will reflect your love for His truth.
Think of it this way: If you’re not faithfully taking in the Word of God, you don’t have a foundation from which to praise Him—the well is dry. However, if you are routinely feasting on the rich meat of the Word, you can’t help but overflow with praise to the Lord.
Regarding that inseparable relationship between faithful preaching and biblical worship, John Stott wrote,
Word and worship belong indissolubly to each other. All worship is an intelligent and loving response to the revelation of God, because it is the adoration of His Name. Therefore acceptable worship is impossible without preaching. For preaching is making known the Name of the Lord, and worship is praising the Name of the Lord made known. Far from being an alien intrusion into worship, the reading and preaching of the Word are actually indispensable to it. The two cannot be divorced. Indeed, it is their unnatural divorce which accounts for the low level of so much contemporary worship. Our worship is poor because our knowledge of God is poor, and our knowledge of God is poor because our preaching is poor. But when the Word of God is expounded in its fullness, and the congregation begin to glimpse the glory of the living God, they bow down in solemn awe and joyful wonder before His throne. It is preaching which accomplishes this, the proclamation of the Word of God in the power of the Spirit of God. That is why preaching is unique and irreplaceable.  John R. W. Stott, Between Two Worlds (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 82-83.
John MacArthur echoes that sentiment:
The powerful exposition of the Word . . . is essential to meaningful worship in the assembly of saints. And the insight gained into God’s Word in the worship service will both deepen the quality of individual worship throughout the week and stimulate the saints’ desire to study the Scriptures daily.  Worship: The Ultimate Priority, 162.
Scripture is the only foundation for legitimate worship of the Lord. That’s why Paul urged Timothy to fix it as the center and focus of His ministry:
Be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following. But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. . . . Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching. (1 Timothy 4:6-7, 13)
In the same way, we need to find our spiritual nourishment not in emotional experiences and good feelings, but in the words of faith and sound doctrine.
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