When you think of the word worship, images of an ancient human bowing down before a statue or a person singing to a divine force might come to mind.  Perhaps you think of a meditative Buddhist, a Muslim engaged in daily prayer, or a Catholic bishop in flowing robes singing in Latin. Or maybe you think outside of mainstream religion and envision nature worship, such as a sun dance or veneration of a certain animal as the ultimate expression of worship.  Regardless of what comes to mind, you still may be asking yourself: "what is worship?" While the Oxford Dictionary defines worship as an "expression of reverence and adoration for a deity”, we would argue that this definition doesn’t fully capture what worship actually means. When you examine Western society, you find that it’s not always the divine being worshiped.  For example, worship has become jargon for something that we're really stoked about or can't get enough of. "Oh man, Billie Eilish? I literally worship her music."  In fact, it's become quite common to use similar terminology to communicate our deep loyalty and passion for our favorite bands, artists, and sports teams.  As an outpouring of adoration, we see people jump up and down, weep tears of joy, and spend lots of money to express this passion. Ever been to a Taylor Swift concert?  Author Rich Cohen puts it this way, "I have long believed that celebrity, the way we worship and package and sell our pop stars, is what filled the need for gods that was once filled by the pictures in stained glass”. This raises a critical point, which is that worship is not exclusively a religious concept. While worship may sound like a strong word, it's actually something that we all do, whether we realize it or not.  This is why UrbanDictionary.com features the most accurate definition of the word – “anything you put your heart and affection in”. Put another way, worship essentially means “to value or treasure something above all things”. In a recent talk, speaker Nirup Alphonse adds that “we worship the thing we most love, and we most love the thing we believe will complete us”.  When taking this into consideration, we discover that worship actually has a major influence on our daily lives, behaviors and actions.



From the dawn of civilization, the earliest humans worshiped. More often than not, this meant worshiping the gods of their day by building ornate statues and temples. The Ancient Sumerians, for instance, built ornate ziggurats (stepped pyramids) as a means of getting physically closer to their gods and appealing to them for good fortune.  This wasn’t solely about the gods themselves, but also what they represented – like money, sex and power. For example, the Romans once worshiped the Greek god Aphorodite, who was a symbol of sex. Innately, humans have always automatically looked to other people, concepts, beliefs, spirits, or deities as a means of making sense of the world around them. Remarkably, this is all happening at a neurological level, suggesting that there's something biologically "hardwired" into us that causes us to worship someone or something. Dr. Andrew Newberg, a University of Pennsylvania professor and researcher, found that certain brain activity is heightened when people engage in worship or prayer towards a higher force.  In a study of Franciscan nuns, Tibetan Buddhists, and Pentecostal Christians, similar brain activity was detected in the parietal lobe, which deals with sensory function.  Newberg continued that the parietal lobe is "involved in that feeling of becoming part of something greater than oneself." From this assessment, Newberg found that "these brain scans may provide proof that our brains are built to believe in God...there may be universal features of the human mind that actually make it easier for us to believe in a higher power."



Whether or not you find Newberg's study to be compelling, it’s hard to argue against the fact that every single one of us has made something our primary object of affection.  This happens on a symbolic level when we start putting something or someone “on a pedestal”. Do a quick assessment of the relationships you have with friends, careers, influencers, lovers, and/or material possessions and you’ll discover worshipful tendencies somewhere. Whatever that thing is, it has become our ultimate source of meaning. In ancient times, these objections of affection were known as “idols”, but more recently author Tim Keller labeled them “ultimate things”. In Counterfeit Gods, he writes “the human heart takes good things like a successful career, love, material possessions, even family and turns them into ultimate things. Our hearts deify them as the center of our lives, because we think they can give us significance and security, safety and fulfillment, if we attain them.” He adds that it’s “whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.” Historically — and still today — it’s been money, sex or power. These three things are the driving forces behind many people's lives. But we can “deify” virtually anything. Spend enough time with someone, and you’ll be able to identify the thing they worship. It will ultimately be revealed through that person’s behaviors, comments and choices.  Here are some of the most common examples.

Career & Work

In the United States, it is often our careers that get placed on a pedestal. They have become our ultimate source of meaning and what defines our identity. While our careers aren’t literally placed on an altar to be worshiped, symbolically they represent the same thing. Consider how much time, effort, and energy is put into attaining a successful title. LinkedIn exists for networking, but how satisfying is it when you can finally put "CEO" underneath your polished headshot?  The question that seemingly gets asked from the moment we leave college is what do YOU do? Yes, jobs are important and work is a good thing, but it's the disproportionate amount of attention given to our careers that turns them into objects of worship. In a 2019 article for The Atlantic, popular journalist Derek Thompson asserts that "workism" has become a new religion, with people giving their full time and adoration into career aspirations.  "Some people worship beauty, some worship political identities, and others worship their children. But everybody worships something. And workism is among the most potent of the new religions." Thompson goes on to say that a strange paradigm shift has happened in which the wealthiest Americans, who could very easily devote their time elsewhere, crave work instead. They spend their free time on work and ingrain their identities in a seemingly endless pursuit.  "The problem with this [mentality] — your dream job is out there, so never stop hustling — is that it’s a blueprint for.. Exhaustion."

Money & Possessions

Jesus once said that money has the power to become our master. And that is exactly the temptation every generation faces. We’ve all heard the idea that money doesn’t buy happiness – many times over – yet we continue to pursue it as if it does.  We are convinced that everything in life will be good once we reach a certain level of financial security. This causes us to worship money, and place it on the pedestal of our lives. But controversial influencer Dan Bilzerian explains that money does not do what we think it does. With 33 million Instagram followers, Bilzerian is worth $350 million dollars. He said in a recent interview that, “once you have your basic needs met you don’t get incremental happiness from more money”.  In fact, a 2010 Princeton study found that there is a numerical limit to which money brings happiness — $75,000/year to be exact. Given inflation over the last 13 years and the geographical location that different people live in, this number is relative. In San Francisco, for example, it might be much higher, because the cost-of-living is higher. Nonetheless, the point remains the same. Once we are financially secure, money does not increase happiness. Nonetheless, going back to our original definition of worship, we still tend to value and treasure money above all other things. Keller explains some of the symptoms of this mentality, “lovers of money are those who find themselves daydreaming and fantasizing about new ways to make money, new possessions to buy, and looking with jealousy on those who have more than they do.”

Sex & Romance

For others, especially men, the playboy lifestyle is glorified. Sex itself is placed on a pedestal, and it becomes a badge of honor with how many people you can sleep with. We see someone like Hugh Hefner or Dan Bilzerian, and we envy the lifestyle. We fantasize what life would be like if we could sleep with that many beautiful women. Bilzerian, who has slept with over 1,000 women and as many as 17 in one day, exposes the flaw in that thinking. In the same interview, he says that “I can’t get pleasure spikes anymore” and admits to being tired of the hedonistic lifestyle. He has found his greatest happiness in the simple joys of life, like friends.  Another segment of the population places romance and relationships on a pedestal. This places an enormous amount of pressure on the person that you are in love with.  Initially, you think they can do no wrong. You’re infatuated with them and your entire world starts to orbit around them. But they do eventually hurt you, because every human is flawed. Eventually, the relationship falls apart or goes through a period of massive conflict due to these unrealistic expectations. Many of us have experienced this personally – either through the glorification of another person, or someone else glorifying us as the person they love most.

Celebrities & Public Figures

Many people worship celebrities or public figures in a much more demonstrative way than the other things on this list. They may not realize they are doing so, but the sentiment still remains. Celebrities often receive the highest degree of our attention and adoration. Think about the idea of a 65,000 seat stadium being packed to the brim, with attendees heaping adoration and praise on one person who is quite literally raised up onto a stage or pedestal. People go into a frenzy and reach their hands out towards said figure, crying and weeping and shouting words towards them. This type of “worship” is most similar to a religious gathering.  Many of us are guilty of this to some degree, whether it's excessive deference to someone you look up to, or obsessing over a tabloid to track a celebrity's every move.  While most people don't pray to celebrities, the aforementioned concert experience could definitely be construed as a ceremony in which respect is shown to a "god" (which the celebrity has taken the place of) through singing and praising together. Consider the way in which recent hit documentary The Last Dance portrayed NBA superstar Michael Jordan. At one point, Jordan was the most popular cultural icon in the world.   LeBron James, effectively Jordan's successor as best basketball player in the world, once recalled meeting Jordan as a teenager as a borderline religious experience. "Michael Jordan was kind of like that god," James said. "He was that angel sent from heaven. I kind of used him to help me get through some of the darkest days that I had."

Deities & God

Finally, when people consider the idea of "what is worship?", the first association immediately is religion.  Though other human beings or passions can be "worshiped" in the form of giving one's time or full attention, traditionally it has been a divine force, spirit, or creator that sits at the center of our reality.


This all begs the question – what is actually worthy of our worship? What’s worship of our highest admiration, affection and praise? What can actually hold under the weight of being placed on a pedestal? Broadly speaking, it’s worth considering what actually happens when we make any of these things the center of our lives. Career: When we worship our work, it leads to far more problems than rewards. We start believing that we are what we do, and our self-worth is in our accomplishments. This creates a fragile existence. Additionally, we often burn out at some point, and neglect the areas of life that are most important. We spend our lives building our resumes, and then sit on our deathbeds realizing we sacrificed our relationships to do so. In the New York Times, writer David Brooks calls this prioritizing resume virtues over eulogy virtues. In the end, we miss the point of life itself Money: When money is our primary pursuit, it never lives up to the expectations that we place on it. Like Bilzerian, if we do become rich we’ll realize that money doesn't actually buy happiness. This may lead to a chronic state of ungratefulness, where no amount of money or pleasure is enough. We find that at one time we were overjoyed to have a million dollar house or a sports car, but now that doesn’t do it for us. We need to keep leveling up. Bilzerian explains how he recently bought a Ferrari, got bored of it after a day and got rid of it. Sex: Similar to money, the pursuit of pleasure as our “ultimate thing” is a dead-end. Bilzerian, who has experienced as much pleasure as humanly possible, called it a “black hole” and says that even having sex with beautiful women is “whatever” to him now. This might sound absurd to the average man - how can you get numb to having tons of sex with beautiful women? He explains the underlying process, “being a pleasure seeker is like being a drug addict. You take a Percocet [and it] makes you feel good. Two weeks later, you gotta take two Percocet to get the same feeling. Three weeks later, you're taking three, four or five, and then eventually you're taking them just to not feel like sh*t and you don't get high anymore. Same thing with pleasure.” What he is describing is a biological reality. In Dopamine Nation, Stanford scientist Dr. Anna Lembke explains that when we have pleasure overload, it actually fries the pain-pleasure balance in our brain. Romance: When the person we’ve fallen in love with gets placed on a pedestal, it’s only a matter of time before things implode. As we explained earlier, it’s too much pressure for one person to bear. Human beings are prone to mistakes and we will be chronically disappointed if all of our stock is placed into the hands of fallible people. Ironically, younger generations have realized this, so culturally we’ve shifted gears to careers being our “ultimate thing”. We do this not knowing that making our career the center of our lives will simply lead to the same fate, just in a different way. Celebrities: In Captivology, Ben Parr explains that “a parasocial relationship is a relationship in which one person knows a lot about another person, but the other doesn’t know anything about the first person”. This is the type of dynamic we have with influencers, celebrities, athletes and any other sort of public figure. We believe the people we follow represent who we are in some way, or are where we want to be. The problem in “worshiping” public figures is two-fold. First, they don’t actually know us, and thus, don’t actually care about us in a way that makes a difference in our lives. And two like romance, is that people are infallible. The reality is that none of our idols could ever measure up to the image we have of them in our minds. They’re flawed, and the reality is that if we actually spent a lengthy amount of time with them, we’d end up very disappointed.  It’s important to preface here by saying that all of these things could be good on their own. Money is a good thing that can be used for good things in the world. Hard work and pursuing our passions is a virtue. Sex and romance, in the right context, are beautiful things.  On the public figure front, there is also nothing wrong with becoming influential. All of these things can be freely enjoyed if they are put in their proper place in our lives. The problem is when we place any of them on a pedestal. This leaves one last possibility of what is worthy of holding the top spot in our lives: God. Perhaps what Newberg observed in his brain scans is what worship was meant to be in its proper context. Consider the analogy of a championship sports team. To construct the perfect team that capable of winning it all you need a top gun. Very rarely, especially in the NFL or NBA, does a team ever win without a star player. You need someone like LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Lionel Messi or Tom Brady leading the way. This allows the supporting characters to be effective in playing their role. When you remove the star athlete from the equation, too much weight is put on the supporting players and so the team ends up losing. Similarly, all of the things that we tend to make ultimate – like money, sex, romance and careers – thrive as supporting characters in our lives. If God is at the center, all of these other things will fall into place and we start to understand what life is really about. And doesn’t this make sense? That as created beings we would only be complete when we are connected with our Creator?  Existing outside of space and time, God is the only thing that will never fail us. Full of infinite love, compassion and forgiveness, he is perfect in ways that other humans will never be perfect. He is the gift giver, and thus will always be better than the gift he gave to us of life. He satisfies in a way that no other thing can satisfy us, because this was by design. Additionally, God provides us with hope that goes beyond this life. This relieves us of the tendency to put hope in finite things. In the end, we find that it is only God who is worthy of our worship. He is worthy of being valued above all other things. For more, click here to visit our Worship Hub.


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