At a well in a Samaritan village, Jesus spoke to a woman whose life was in turmoil. Their conversation that day included an exchange about worship. She presented the Lord with a clash of cultures. In effect, she told him, "The Jews say worship at the temple; our leaders say worship at this mountain. What do you say?" His answer is perhaps His most important teaching on worship. ". . . [T]rue worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks" (John 4:23b). Worship isn't about temples and mountains--it is about God, not us.
Examination of the original language of that passage reveals no hidden meanings: Spirit means spirit and truth means truth. To determine the meaning more fully, however, we must ask a few questions: Whose spirit? What truth? When we do, the meanings become clear. We must worship from our spirits, led and empowered by the Holy Spirit. At the same time, we must worship with our truth--with true hearts and according to God's truth--in obedience to the Word of God.
I have found synonyms useful in understanding these terms. I think of worship in spirit and truth as worship with passion and reason. The passion of the spirit involves the whole person. The reasoning of the worshiping heart is a cycle of revelation and response that takes us deeper and deeper into the heart of God. Passion and reason demand honesty and integrity. Worship must be focused on Jesus, not us. It must be powered by the eternal, not the temporal. A vital key to worship renewal is the restoration of these dual characteristics of worship.
It is easy to lose this focus. If leaders think of worship as a church-growth tool, and worshipers consider it a service given to them, Jesus is no longer at the center; the people are. The planning of church services becomes market-driven, not principle-powered: "What do the people want?" "What music do they like?" "What will really get them going?" "We need to do it this way to attract these particular people." Leaders have already violated the first principle of worship before they make even a single decision about what to sing or when to receive communion or what to preach or how to conduct an altar call.
Worshipers come through the doors of the church with an astounding array of visions and expectations. They may have much passion but little reason, or they may be well informed but passive. The role of leadership is to consolidate these competing expectations into a single vision for worship. Where can we find such a vision that transcends culture and unifies the church? The answer is the Word of God. To see worship renewal, we must shift the focus from us back to Jesus. We must be inspired by the eternal, not impressed by the timely.
When the thirsty people in our villages, their lives in turmoil, come to our wells, they need more than a public parade of our personal preferences. They need the living water that only Jesus can give. Biblical elements of worship are Christ-centered: prayer, praise, adoration, the Lord's Table, the anointing with oil, the gifts of the Spirit, the Lord's story and His teaching, the astounding witness of Jesus found in the New Testament writers and anticipated in the Old Testament record, and the presence of Jesus Himself. These, indeed, are the living water that satisfies the thirsting soul.
Further Reading from Dr. Phifer: