Does God have an opinion about how His creatures should worship Him? Yes He does. He has expressed Himself repeatedly on the subject. The first commandment tells us who to worship (“You shall have no other gods before Me,” Exodus 20:3) and the second tells us how to worship (“You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Exodus 20:4-6).
God even killed Nadab and Abihu for their unjustified antics in worship (Leviticus 10:1-4). As R.C. Sproul once remarked, we can all be grateful that the Lord was simply making a point and not establishing a pattern when He did this. But the fact that the Lord does not strike dead everyone who approaches Him inappropriately in worship should not lead us to conclude that He no longer cares about how He is approached. Nor should we think that in the new covenant worship is less important to the Lord than it was in the old.
Jesus told the woman at the well that “an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24). Spirit and truth–with internal devotion and external guidance. Since God’s Word is truth (John 17:17), shouldn’t the Bible at least be consulted before we plan what we intend to do in a service we call “worship?”
The progress of God’s revelation from old covenant to new is the progress from type, promise and shadow to antitype, fulfillment and reality. In worship it is a move from detail prescriptions and ceremonies to simplicity that encourages full focus on Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 11:3). What we find, then, in New Testament worship is from the heart and according to the Word. The essential elements of worship (which we ascertain from the Word–public reading of Scripture, preaching, praying, giving, observing baptism and the Lord’s Supper) must all be regulated by the Word.
This does not mean that every corporate worship service will look the same or have the same “feel” wherever or whenever it occurs. Quite the contrary. This approach to worship safeguards it from cultural captivity. Word regulated worship will seek to be authentically expressed within any culture while following God’s revealed will for how we are to approach Him. The elements of worship will remain the same while the heartfelt employment of them may vary widely from culture to culture.