Sometimes reverence and joy are viewed as mutually exclusive in the worship of the church. I have friends who suspect “reverence” is a code word for austere, cold, somber and dour. So, when they hear someone talking about the need for reverence in worship, they want to have none of it. On the other hand, I have friends who are suspicious of calls for “joyfulness” in worship, as if this necessarily entailed emotional manipulation and superficial sanguinity.
In some churches, there is such an emotional display in worship that reverence is lost completely. In other churches, the congregation appears to have been caught at a stranger’s funeral. Deadpan and flat, they go through the customary motions. But each of these tendencies reflect serious deficiencies in the practice of true Christian worship of God. I want to suggest that we aim to worship God with both reverence and joy.
The Bible makes it clear that when we worship the one true God we must come with reverence: “…offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire” says Hebrews 12:28-29 (note: that’s the New Testament calling us to reverence!). But reverent worship does not mean dull, emotionless, boring worship, for God wants us to come also with joy: “Worship the Lord with gladness; come before Him with joyful songs” says Psalm 100:2 (note: that’s the Old Testament call us to joy!).
Our worship is to be whole-souled and heartfelt. At some times our hearts and eyes will fill with tears of gladness or contrition, at others we’ll quietly rest in the peace of the Lord, then again we’ll sometimes feel that we can hardly contain our praise and thanksgiving to God. The outward expression of emotion must never be confused, one way or another, with the real state of the heart – but true Christian worship emanates from the heart, and is characterized by the whole range of godly affections and sanctified emotional responses of the soul to the truth and glory of the living God.
We ought to aspire to congregational worship characterized by true heart-worship of the living God, according to His Word, that is reverent, substantial and joyful. Our ideal is not stuffy formality, nor liturgical mystery, nor contemporary/charismatic catharsis. Indeed, we ought to aspire to a reverent, joyful service that is neither designed to promote emotionalism nor to be anti-emotional. We are not interested in emotional manipulation (by either suppressing or producing certain outward effects), but rather aim for an environment in which the congregation naturally responds to God in expressions of both godly reverence and joy.
Every worship service has to carry the freight for people who are bruised and crushed and broken-hearted, and for people who are content and grateful and happy (and both). If our services are only cheerful and upbeat, we’ll miss ministering to the constant heart wounds of the people of God as they gather to meet with him. If our services are only serious (and lack the joy that expresses a filial affection towards the one who made us and saved us and loves us) then we are missing an important part of the Christian life.
John Calvin famously defined piety as “that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of His benefits induces.” He went on to say: “For until men recognize that they owe everything to God, that they are nourished by His Fatherly care, that He is the author of their every good, that they should seek nothing beyond Him, they will never yield Him willing service.”
Our public services of worship need to be places where that kind of piety can be expressed congregationally. And if so, the service will manifest reverence (we will take God seriously), and love to God (because we have tasted and seen that he is good and we have apprehended his benefits to us), and joy (because grateful hearts will overflow in joy). Sometimes that joy will be expressed exuberantly, and other times it will be subdued. Different people in the congregation will be in different places. And that’s okay. Our goal is not to force everybody to be at the same place, but in a reverent and joyful service, to allow every present Christian to work from where they are towards the praise of God, in such a way that they realize to some degree that meeting with God is a serious joy.