the baby and the bathwater

October 20, 2007, 5:16 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

real: true; not merely ostensible, nominal, or apparent; existing or occurring as fact; actual rather than imaginary; genuine; not counterfeit, artificial, or imitation; authentic; unfeigned or sincere;

Time and time again when I’m discussing issues about worship, I come across this plea: ‘we just want our worship to be real’.


It’s got a nice ring to it, hasn’t it?

And everything in us wants to agree. Surely our worship has to be real. It can’t be anything else. It certainly shouldn’t be false. It certainly shouldn’t be imaginary. If worship is worship, it has to be authentic, unfeigned, sincere, genuine.


But what does ‘real’ really mean? What does real worship look like, sound like, feel like?

Well, let’s start with some things that real worship is probably not.

Firstly, real worship is probably not about a certain style of music. Even if it totally floats our boat. We all have likes and dislikes, and musical likes and dislikes are some of the most passionate we come across. And we may find certain styles help us to worship more than others. We may also find some styles of worship are more accessible to those outside the church. And that certainly is important. But certain styles of music in themselves do not make worship more real.

Secondly, real worship doesn’t depend on our state of mind, our emotional circumstances, our social status. Worship is not more real because we happen to be sick or suffering, living in a deprived area, or going through a heartbreaking personal tragedy. It may hurt more. But does that make it more real? I’m not sure it does. Conversely I don’t know if you have ever watched some of those satelite religious channels where the band is awesome, the choir all look like models, dressed in sparkly and black uniforms, the songs are all up-tempo and happy-clappy, and every one has that o-so-perfect smile on their faces. Have you, like me, ever questioned the authenticity of their worship? But actually, I’m not sure that we can – certainly not just on the basis that ‘surely no-one can be that perfect’ mentality. Just because a bunch of people are that happy does not make their worship unreal, does it?

Thirdly, I’m not convinced that worship is more real purely because the band is cut back, more acoustic, more ‘sit in a field of mud round a camp fire and earthy’. And likewise, it’s not more real because you have a ten piece band, a 100 strong choir, the psalm drummers and the national philharmonic orchestra. All of these may be appropriate in certain circumstances. All may speak of God in different ways. But I’m not convinced that either in itself makes the worship more real.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not just trying to be clever here. I’m certainly not trying to undermine people’s creativity. Anything but that – in fact, one of the biggest challenges to the church generally is how to release more creativity – not only in worship – but in the widest possible activity of kingdom life.

But what I am saying is that many of these things in themselves do not make our worship real. And in fact my biggest, biggest frustration is that, so often when I hear people say ‘I don’t think that the worship is real’, what I am really hearing them say is ‘I don’t like that worship’. So often I sense a consumerism underlying a plea for realism, and that is so disappointing.

Let’s have a look at some worshippers in the Bible. David for example. accompanying the ark back to Jerusalem. He engages in a very extravagant act of worship. It cost lots of money. It was very public. And when you read the Psalms, you don’t get the impression this is something necessarily in character. Elsewhere David comes over as very intense, thoughtful and, ultimately, broken. Maybe this act of worship was more reflective of what God required than what David naturally would act like?

Let’s look at Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice his son as an act of worshipful obedience. Hardly easy. Hardly fashionable. But he was willing to go with what God required.

Let’s look at Mary. Worshipping with tears, pouring perfume over the feet of Jesus. Hardly dignifying. Hardly financially prudent. But judging from Jesus’ words, seemingly that was what was required of her in that moment.

And let’s hear the words of Jesus, who says that the Father seeks those who will worship in spirit and truth. Those who will worship with all that they are and with all that they have. People who don’t take themselves too seriously, but take God very seriously.

It seems to me that real worship means living with our hearts set on God – loving mercy, acting with justice, walking humbly – and then engaging in worship with our hearts set on God: singing to Him with all we have, singing to Him because of all we know and have seen of Him. Regardless of personal circumstances, regardless of the style of music, regardless or the size of the band. And we who are mature in Christ should be those taking the lead in this. We should be the ones that should worship with all that we are whatever is on offer in terms of style or variety. We should be the ones who are worshipping with everything we have, regardless of our own personal circumstances.

Yes we should grow in creativity. Yes we should be relevant. Yes we should be accessible. Of course we should. But no amount or creativity, relevance or accessibility will in itself make our worship real.

There’s someone in our congregation at Trinity Cheltenham who comes every week to church, and throws themselves into every song, sometimes with exuberance, sometimes on their knees, sometimes with hands held high, sometimes with tears flowing, often with a huge smile on their face. Outside Sundays this person talks to people on the street about Jesus, and then serves some of the poorest communities you can find around the world. And then this person comes back to church and sings again.

For me, this is worship.

Real worship.


11 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Hey Neil – this is wonderfully edifying stuff to read….

I’ve been thinking about the whole “real” (keepin’ it, as da yoof say) worship – and I’m trying to get my head round being honest with God as we worship and balancing that with what is truth and what is fact….

What I mean by that is I have a couple of people who SO believe in being honest with God about where they are at (and they are not in a good place!) that they then use it as an excuse not to worship. Simplistically, their train of thought is this….life is bad…I feel bad…if I’m honest with Him I don’t feel like worshipping him this fine morn…

One of the issues is healing – one person isn’t healed. My response (in the nicest possible way) is the fact is that they are not healed yet.


But the truth is that He was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our inequities and by His wounds we are healed….


And we mustn’t confuse their version of “real” (mis-placed honesty) with what is fact and what is truth…..ramble ramble…. Nx

Comment by Nicole

Nicole – There’s a grain of truth in your friends’ position. When I was in a really bad place a few years ago, there were some songs that I couldn’t sing with any sense of honesty or integrity. So I didn’t sing them, or I sang bits, but not the lines I couldn’t be “real” about. There were several, but the most extreme was on a kidz CD that my son loved, all about “I’ve got joy in my heart and I’m so happy, so very happy …”

But there are plenty of other songs that we can sing with honesty whatever we are going through. Some are about the attributes of God. We can sing that he IS good, loving, strong, etc, and that he HAS made us and died for us, whatever is going on in our lives.

There are more personal ones too. Songs like “Blessed be your name” and “Father let me dedicate”, which say basically “Sometimes life’s great and sometimes it stinks, and I have no idea how my circumstances are going to turn out, but you’re still there and I’ll still praise you.”

There are loads of psalms that get quite graphic about how awful the psalmist is feeling – “everyone’s trying to kill me and I wish I’d never been born” kind of thing – but end up with “I will yet praise you”. That’s honest. It’s also obedient. They’re not incompatible.

I think Neil has got right to the point. Worship is “real” if I am giving God everything that I am. To the extent that I hold something back, my worship becomes unreal: nominal, artificial, insincere.

I agree that a personal tragedy doesn’t of itself make worship any more real. But I think difficult circumstances can make the choice more starkly obvious. When my life is in pieces I can walk away from worship, I can completely fake it, or I can give God everything. What I can’t do is enjoy a pleasant aesthetic and emotional experience and kid myself I’m doing something spiritual. When life is good, it’s all a lot more subtle.

About your friend who hasn’t been healed yet – yes of course they may get healed and it may not be in the timing we would choose. But be careful not to make the goodness of God somehow dependent on the eventual healing. The Lord miraculously rescued Peter from prison, but he didn’t rescue James, who got put to death around the same time. We don’t always understand. We have to trust him and worship him IN the suffering as well as praying in faith for him to get us OUT.

Neil – I love what you say about not writing off other people’s worship as unreal even if they’re ultra-slick, and also the bit about how we should worship God with all that we are, regardless of what is on offer musically.

I remember years ago somebody describing a church as dead, and my dad saying no church could ever be completely dead because God would always be there trying to break through. I’ve sat through plenty of services (both as a teacher and when I used to sing in choirs) in which there was little of the living God apparent. But I’ve found that my dad was right, and if I look for God he shows himself – there will be a reading, a psalm, a hymn, or something else where I can find him.

It’s good discipline, but it would wear me down if I had to do it all the time. I have friends in that situation, and it’s heartbreaking to watch the gradual cooling of their spiritual passion over the years. Since I have the choice, I choose to belong to a church where the corporate worship points me towards God, rather than obscuring him so I have to hunt for hints of him. Thank you for being part of that.

Sorry this got a bit long – take it as a compliment that you write such thought-provoking stuff!

Comment by Ruth


“I think difficult circumstances can make the choice more starkly obvious.”

Ruth, I wish I’d thought of that way of putting it. Really helpful. And I’ll probably use that in the future!

There are two strands of theology in the (wider) church at the moment that I think are so unhelpful. The first is the theology that ties up our own physical/emotional well being with the work Jesus did on the cross; that says ‘we can be totally free from sickness and suffering because Jesus died for us’. It is wrong, and has no solid scriptural foundation whatsoever – as Ruth you refer to. And it’s ultimate conclusion is that, if you are still sick or in a bad place, then it is something you are not doing right, or your lack of faith.

The other strand is actually quite similar, but packaged differently. And it says that God’s goodness is measured by the blessing and circumstances of our own lives. Some people call it prosperity teaching. It’s more subtle in some ways, but it teaches that, if I pray and trust God, then he will make me more wealthy, get me that job promotion, remove me from this hard situation.

In my mind, both of these strands of theology are horrible, and if taken to heart, will ultimately wreck lives.

The trouble is that both of them have an element of truth. Yes God is the great healer. And yes can give us job promotions or make us financially better off. And yes He can make our circumstances better. And we can, and do, pray fervently for all of these things: We pray for miracles. Of course we should. And we should rejoice when we see them.

But these strands of theology miss out big time on this: we pray to a God of majesty, who is sovereign, and ultimately knows what is best for us. He chooses what he reveals, to us. And when. And how.

What we do need to remember though is this: His choices always come out from a heart of love. One day, we will know in full why He allows what He allows to happen, and why He chooses what He chooses for us. But for now, we know in part, and see in part.

And it takes someone of huge faith who joins with the psalmist through it all and says ‘yet I will praise you’.

Comment by Neil Bennetts

when i talk about worship or church that is ‘real’ i mean something that works. Not just ideas, philospophies and conjecture but things that are more tangible. A clear sense of the presence of God that unifies us. Words, music, talks and prayers that engage with the world and my everyday life and help strengthen me and make sense of this life we have. Anything that helps put things in the places God intended is ‘real’ to me. my twopence

great articles


Comment by David Gate

Hey guys,

Really helpful comments – thank you. I can’t cope with 2 phenomena Neil accurately describes – not enough faith, or blessings which show the level of your faith…as he says – that way of thinking can wreck your life.

I’m still interested in the truth aspect of things though – John 4 states that the Father is seeking worshippers who’ll worship in spirit and in truth – and how does being real, or honest, or the facts of our situation feed into worshipping in truth..?

Its all very thought provoking…! Thanks!

Comment by Nicole

Although Neil’s definition of “real” worship (set our hearts on God and bring him all that we are) and David’s definition (worship that makes an actual difference in our lives) look very different, I think they’re the same thing viewed from opposite ends.

What happens if we set our hearts on God and bring him all that we are? He changes us and our lives become different.

Conversely, how can we achieve actual change in our lives? Not in our own strength, but by bringing all that we are to God and setting our hearts on him.

One is describing the process and the other is describing the result, but they’re the same thing, I think.

Comment by Ruth

@Ruth – I don’t want to be controversial but when you say ” how can we achieve actual change in our lives? Not in our own strength, but by bringing all that we are to God and setting our hearts on him.”

I know of many people that have managed to make really significant/actual/long lasting changes in their lives without knowing God.


Comment by Andy


Again, we need to be really careful with language here, but:

I think worship can be real but totally misguided. We can worship passionately, engaging our whole being, but be in error. I know people who worship their cars, belongings, bank accounts, etc. It’s real for them. But it’s wrong. So I think that when Jesus says ‘worship in spirit and truth’ He is possibly saying that our worship should be real, and right.

Which is why it is hugely important to search for the truth, and to try and understand as much as we can about worship. The world is full of people with good hearts and good intentions. But that’s not enough. We need to do what is right as well. (Dave Gate has some good things to say on this subject).


I think you are right. They are two sides of the same coin (in my mind). Although as normal, Dave has a rather better way of putting it!

Comment by Neil Bennetts

Neil – Good points…I’m in total agreement. The thing that I always find is missing from those ‘good people’ is that surety of a hope for the future.

The reason that I was asking about whether people think that change can be made in a person’s life without God’s help is that I work in Corrections (Criminal Justice) where we see desperate people in need of change and some make it…others don’t. I’m interested in how Christianity can impact in this type of secular environment.

Anyway, as usual, cool blog and great people commenting…

Comment by Andy


Yes, of course you’re right. Lots of people do make lasting changes in their lives without knowing God. My understanding (although you must know a lot more about it than I do) is that most people who make really big changes do it when they choose to accept the help and support of caring people – that certainly seems to be the emphasis of 12 step programmes, for example, and all those psychological research findings about people coping better with stuff if they have effective support networks. God has designed us for community as well as for relationship with him, and community will have its effect whether people realise it was God’s idea or not.

There are probably other people who can make “do more, try harder” work for them in isolation, and make quite big outward changes, although I’m not convinced it’s terribly healthy on the inside.

So my sentence should have read “how can we best achieve …” or “how should we achieve …” Because the point for those of us who do know God is that we shouldn’t be trying to change ourselves in our own strength. It may sometimes work, but it often doesn’t. Even when it does work, at best it lacks the kind of spiritual growth that we find by doing it God’s way, and at worst it leads to pride and/or legalism.

And of course, the context was Dave’s definition of “real” worship. It’s hard to see how worship could be a factor in life change other than by bringing us to God and letting him work in us.


I don’t see that Dave’s description is better. The coin needs both sides equally. Yes we need to know what evidence would show that our worship is real, but we also need to know how to go about it so that it will be like that.

Comment by Ruth

@Ruth – Yup, I agree. I know that for me, God truly is transformational…at different times, in different ways, sometimes outside stuff, mostly inside stuff…and I would definitely not want to be without Him.

Anyway….it’s nearly 1am and I am tired.

Comment by Andy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: