Is it possible that a congregation can sing songs of worship but not actually be worshiping God? Yes, sadly this is possible.
Singing is an outward act. Worship is an inward act. If there is not worship in the heart, there is no worship in the singing of a song either.
Jesus said that those who worship God must worship him in spirit and truth (John 4:24). We can see that singing, or the voice, is not mentioned here. Rather worship is described as something that comes from within – it happens in spirit and in truth.
What does Jesus mean by the word “spirit”? I believe that he uses this word in apposition to ritual. Ritual has to do with external acts. “Spirit” has to do with the “heart”, the thoughts, mind, feelings and emotions that are within a person. It is the person, the “I” of the person, that needs to be doing the worshiping. God looks at the heart, not so much at the external actions of worship.
Let’s think about posture for a moment. We may be kneeling before God, but our heart may be filled with pride. This is not worship. Or we may be standing during the singing and clapping our hands, but inwardly we may be thinking sinful thoughts. This is not worship. Whatever our outward posture might be during the act of singing, our heart needs to be in a position of kneeling before God in submission to his will, in repentance for any sins committed, in humble supplication for any help we may need from him and in humble gratitude for the many gifts we have received from him.
What does Jesus mean by the word “truth”? How do we worship in truth? We need to worship in accordance with who God is. Our understanding of who God is must constantly and increasingly be brought in line with how God is revealed in the Bible, his Word. We do not want to worship a “God” of our own making, a god who does not really exist. Also, we need to come to God by means of the way which he has provided. God has made it clear that there is only one way of approach to himself that pleases him, and that is through his Son, Jesus Christ. It is only through faith in Jesus Christ that the stain of our sin is removed from us, and that we can freely come into God’s presence. Singing songs of worship without knowing Jesus Christ as Saviour is not the worship that God desires.
So here is the question that every participant engaged in congregational singing needs to ask himself when he/she stands up (or whatever other posture is taken) for the singing: Am I worshiping in spirit and in truth? Is my heart engaged in this? Do I know what I am talking (singing) about? Do I understand what the songs are saying, and am I in agreement with what they are saying? Are my thoughts centered on God right now? Am I coming to him through Jesus Christ or in a way of my own making?
What we have said here is foundational to worship actually taking place while we are singing and the Praise Team is leading us. If there is no worship in spirit and truth taking place, there may be lots of good singing, lots of good playing, lots of clapping and beautiful voices making harmonious sounds, but there will be an absence of worship.
In my view it would be better for a congregation to be silent and to have a time of soul-searching and getting right with God than to persist in “worship-singing” that is not in spirit and truth.
Like I said, a serious word about worship.