5 Ways to Avoid Self-Serving Worship

This article was written by Jen Roland and published by Crosswalk


Individualism is one of the greatest threats to our faith. It encourages us to act in our own interests instead of looking to the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4). Individualism values independence, autonomy, and self-sufficiency rather than growth in community and dependence on God—two defining characteristics of Christian doctrine.

With the rise of “me” culture, individualism has become more prevalent. Personal freedom to do what we want has replaced biblical boundaries instilled by God for our protection. The fixation on self has become toxic to families, churches, and workplaces, resulting in a higher incidence of divorce, decreased church attendance, and individuals who care more about climbing the corporate ladder than working collaboratively for the good of the group.

In a world that tells us our autonomic self is our only authority, how can we help restore God to His rightful position on the throne of our lives? It starts by acknowledging Jesus is Lord, worshipping Him, and living in a way that glorifies God.

Here are 5 ways to avoid self-serving worship so you can grow in your faith and honor your Heavenly Father:

1. Focus more on the truth of who God is and less on how you feel.

When we worship, if it’s an emotion or experience we’re after—if we expect to be wowed by the sermon or moved by the music—we’re focused on the wrong things. The “goal” of worship is to glorify God. The moment this shifts to what we get out of it or how we feel, worship becomes more about serving ourselves than our Savior.

Our emotions are designed to inform us, but when separated from the Spirit they will lead to acts of the flesh. They can cause us to act impulsively, make false assumptions, and sabotage our ability to thrive. This is why Paul advises us to walk by the Spirit and not gratify the desires of the flesh through sexual immorality, impurity, selfish ambition, and the like (Galatians 5:16-26). We can think beyond our emotions by giving them permission to speak without letting them take the driver’s seat. When paired with logic and the truth of God’s Word, they can be powerful tools for transformation—but they are not the end goal.

To avoid self-serving worship, focus on who God is by meditating on His unconditional love, majesty, and faithfulness. Here are a few things to consider to adopt a posture of reverence and awe as you worship:

  • The same God Who created the universe, rescued His people from slavery, and raised Jesus from the dead knows you by name (Isaiah 43:1), calls you His child (1 John 3:1), and longs for a personal relationship with you. He doesn’t need you, yet He chose you to be the focus of His love.
  • The same God that enabled David to defeat Goliath, protected Daniel in the lion’s den, and restored all that was lost to Job is also working all things for your good (Romans 8:28). You can trust Him.
  • God loves you so much that He sent His only Son to earth in human form—subjecting Him to pain, humiliation, temptation, and betrayal—so that you could become like Him. Through the shedding of Jesus’ blood on the cross, God sees you as righteous and extends the gift of external life if you believe. From the moment you accept Jesus as your Savior, you receive the Holy Spirit, empowering you to break the chain of sin and claim victory over Satan’s lies, selfish motives, and societal norms.

There is power in the name of Jesus! He is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent—worthy of all our honor and praise! When we fix our minds on Who God is and stay there, we will worship in a way that glorifies Him.

2. Focus more on praising God than presenting your requests to Him.

We often pray to God to meet our needs before praising Him for who He is, what He is done, and what He promises to do. While both are important, praise should take precedence—especially during times of worship.

In scripture, we repeatedly see how we are called to praise the Lord before presenting our requests to Him. In Philippians 4:4-7, Paul gives these final commands to the church at Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Notice how Paul commands the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord before asking for what they need. The NIRV translation reads, “Always be joyful because you belong to the Lord” (Phil 4:4 NIRV). Thus, Paul’s exhortation to rejoice is about making the choice to praise God—not for our circumstances, but because we are His, He loves and watches over us, and our worth is found in Him. Regardless of what we are going through, we can rejoice in God’s goodness when we fix our eyes on Jesus.

We find a similar command in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, where Paul encourages the church to focus on the character of God: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” God will is for worship to penetrate every area of our lives, and for us to pray as Jesus prayed—“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-11). When we begin our prayers with praise, we’re ushered into God’s presence where hearts are cleansed (Psalm 51:10), His voice becomes clear, and doors to His goodness swing open (Psalm 34:9 MSG).

3. Focus on drawing closer to the Lord rather than receiving His gifts.

A simple way of saying this is to focus on the Giver, not the gifts. The peace, strength, and blessings we seek flow out of an intimate relationship with God. Therefore, we must pursue His heart and trust Him to meet all our needs (Philippians 4:19).

In Isaiah 29:13, God says, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.” Here, the Lord is saying they chose other loyalties besides Him. They may have talked the talk, but they were not living out the truth. We do this too. We show up on Sundays and raise our hands in praise, only to swear, lie, lust, behave selfishly, or worry throughout the week. While sanctification is a journey, we should be displaying the fruit of the Spirit in increasing measures. If we’re not, or we’re intentionally choosing to live in sin, our worship is empty and meaningless.

When we worship, our motive must be to draw closer to God. He, not His blessings, should be our primary focus. Fullness of peace, joy, safety, security, and love are found in His presence.

4. Focus on listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit rather than criticizing the pastor or worship team.

In a recent poll, 83% of Americans said the quality of the preaching played an important role in their choice of congregation. Feeling welcomed came in a close second, with the style of the worship services ranking third. While we all have a preferred style of preaching, we should be focused primarily on one Voice—that of the Holy Spirit. If we’re more focused on catching the pastor’s mistakes, criticizing the worship team’s music selections, or complaining that service is too long, we’ve missed the point.

The Holy Spirit can speak through any Spirit-led Christian, from the most charismatic to the least eloquent. If you find yourself in a church where the sermon and music aren’t perfect, but God’s Word is being preached, maybe it’s not time to jump ship. Maybe it’s time to arrive ten minutes early to pray, assume a posture of humility, and quiet our minds to hear what He has to say.

To avoid self-serving worship, show up with the expectation that God will speak. Believe that He will use His Word, song lyrics, and conversations with other mature believers to confirm your God-honoring dreams, desires, and convictions. Your role is not to criticize or seek out mistakes, but to seek the voice of the Holy Spirit and obey.

5. Show up to serve, not to be served. 

1 Corinthians 12:27 NLT says, “All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it.” When each member of the body serves their unique purpose, they help the other parts grow so the whole body is healthy, growing, and full of love (Ephesians 4:16 NLT). When we show up to be served, we miss opportunities to minister—to offer words of encouragement, employ our gifts for God’s glory, and build meaningful relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ so that they too can thrive.

Worship isn’t about you—it’s about honoring God by following His commandments to love Him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:30-31). We do this by committing time to prayer, silence, and solitude with the Lord; attuning our ears to listen for His voice; and discerning how He wants us to use the unique gifts and abilities He has given us to serve.

When we remove ourselves from the equation and focus our attention on what is pleasing to God, we’ll avoid self-serving worship. Ask the Lord to move through your every action—your working, resting, speaking, and “walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering” (Romans 12:1 MSG). This is our true and proper worship.

In the words of John Wesley, “You were born for nothing else. You live for nothing else. Your life is continued to you upon earth, for no other purpose than this, that you may know, love, and serve God on Earth, and enjoy him to all eternity. Consider! You were not created to please your senses, to gratify your imagination, to gain money, or the praise of men; to seek happiness in any created good, in any thing under the sun.  All this is “walking in a vain shadow,” it is leading a restless, miserable life, in order to a miserable eternity.

On the contrary, you were created for this, and for no other purpose, by seeking and finding happiness in God on earth, to secure the glory of God in heaven.”

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