Published: 3 May 2021

Churchy Words: Worship


What is worship? If you asked ten people this question you might get ten different answers. Most people might respond by describing acts such as praying, singing, giving, taking communion, etc. These all could be acts of devotion, but they are not necessarily worship.

I’m afraid that many people think they are worshiping if they are doing these (or similar) actions just by virtue of the fact that they are doing them. Their mentality is that I went to church on Sunday, participated in the service, and therefore I worshipped. The fact is that participating or going through the motions does not necessarily mean that you worshipped.

What worship really is

The English word worship comes from a couple of Anglo-Saxon words. “Old English worðscip, wurðscip (Anglian), weorðscipe (West Saxon) ‘condition of being worthy, dignity, glory, distinction, honor, renown,’ from weorð ‘worthy’ + -scipe.”1 It is a word meant to convey that a person or deity is worthy of admiration and adoration. “Worth-ship” eventually evolved into the modern word worship.

In the Bible, there are several Hebrew and Greek words that are translated into English using the word worship. In the New Testament, the two most prominent are:

proskuneo (προσκυνέω)

1. to kiss the hand to (towards) one, in token of reverence
2. among the Orientals, esp. the Persians, to fall upon the knees and touch the ground with the forehead as an expression of profound reverence
3. in the NT by kneeling or prostration to do homage (to one) or make obeisance, whether in order to express respect or to make supplication2

latreia (λατρεία)

1. service rendered for hire; any service or ministration: the service of God
2. the service and worship of God according to the requirements of the Levitical law
3. to perform sacred services3

The most often used word in the Old Testament is shachah (שָׁחָה) and is very similar in meaning to proskuneo in the New Testament.

What worship means in the Bible

From the above definitions, we begin to get a picture of how the Bible defines the word. Worship involves service, sacrifice, reverence and awe. To condense all these meanings into a very concise definition we could say worship is an expression of profound reverence and awe.

With this in mind, is it possible for someone to participate in a church service without actually worshipping God? Yes, it is possible. Even though a person may take part in outward observances that are associated with worship, true worship does not take place unless the acts were stimulated by an inner awe and respect for God.

Jesus said, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24 ESV). Our expressions of reverence must be true; i.e. not being faked. Jesus may have been making use of hendiadys in this verse (the expression of a single idea by two words connected by the word ‘and’). If so, “spirit and truth” expresses a single idea which is that our expressions of reverence must come from the heart.

Vain worship

To honor God in a way that is not from the heart is vain worship.

8 “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 9 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” (Matt. 15:8–9 ESV)

In the context of this passage from Mt 15, Jesus warns that to either worship as a hypocrite or while contradicting God’s teachings is vain worship. Such “adoration” is empty and useless and does not benefit the worshipper at all. In fact, it may make his situation even worse as it deepens the hypocrisy.

Self worship

The New Testament does not explicitly define how a Christian is to express his or her feelings of reverence. We can see in the New Testament that Christians sang, prayed, donated money and possessions, and so on. These are indeed legitimate acts of worship, but they are not the only way to express awe.

However, it is not uncommon for people to offer as worship that which pleases themselves. In other words, I like __________ so I’ll perform it as an act of worship. We must be honest with ourselves and make sure we aren’t offering God that which is really only pleasing to us. To do so habitually amounts to indulgent adoration of ourselves.

True worship

True worship is an expression of profound reverence and awe. If our worship is to be genuine it must originate in the heart. 

“Praise the LORD, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name.” (Psa. 103:1 NIV)  


  2. Thayer, Joseph H. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Accordance electronic ed., version 1.8. Altamonte Springs: OakTree Software, 2004.
  3. Ibid.