...it would be helpful for us to gain a clearer perspective on some of the distinctives between praise and worship. They frequently operate in different realms. Sometimes, however, it is virtually impossible to differentiate between praise and worship, both may be expressed in a service by different individuals at the same time. When we are lifting our hands or dancing before the Lord, are we praising or worshiping? We could be doing either, because the outward forms that praise and worship employ are often identical.
It is almost as difficult to separate praise and worship as it is to divide soul and spirit. That the soul and spirit are two different aspects of man seems sure, but it becomes very difficult to identify the differences. When I feel a certain impulse, who am I to label that as coming from my spirit or from my soul? There is only one thing sharp enough to discern between soul and spirit, and that is the word of God [Heb. 4:12]. I cannot even analyze the difference in my own self! Similarly, praise and worship are two different entities, but they are often impossible to separate.
The four expressions known as prayer, thanksgiving, praise, and worship are very closely related. Areas within each of these expressions overlap with one another...
The differences between praise and worship...are almost hypothetical. But we will gain a better grasp of the essence of worship by examining these "hypothetical" differences.
First, God does not need our praises; we need to praise him. God has commanded us to praise, not because of what it does for him but because of the changes it brings in us. It places us in proper relationship to God and is a necessary step for us in the process of self-abasement. God receives ample praise from his other multitudinous creations - he will manage quite well if you or I refuse to praise him. But the Father seeks worshipers [John 4:23]! He seeks them because he needs them. Notice that God seeks "worshipers" not "worship." He does not need our worship, but he is fervently seeking those who have adopted the life-style and mind-set of a worshiper.
Second, praise can sometimes be distant, but worship is usually intimate. The heart of man need not be near to God for praise to occur. I have heard stories about men who have started to praise God while in drunken revelry. I have even heard of drunkards witnessing to one another, as though therein were some easing of their conscience. On one occasion Jesus said the rocks would cry out if his disciples did not praise him [Luke 19:37-40]. Rocks obviously do not have a relationship with God Almighty, and no interaction of personalities will ever exist between God and a rock, but praise is still possible. Anyone or anything can praise; the trees, mountains, rivers, sun, moon, and stars all praise the Lord [Ps. 148:3-12], and yet God has no relationship with any of these.
Worship is different. It brings us close to the heart of God. Relationship is a requirement for worship because worship is a two-way street, involving both giving and receiving. It is possible for praise to ascend one way only, but worship involves communion and fellowship.
Next, praise is always seen or heard; worship is not always evident to an observer. There are times when worship is every bit as visible and evident as praise, but not always. Sometimes worship is quiet and visually unassuming. We are told that the elders fall prostrate before the throne in worship. I would imagine that they appear almost lifeless as they pour out everything of themselves in a self-effacing way before the Lord. It is not always possible to look at people and determine whether or not they are worshiping. One might venture to judge whether another is praising God, because praise is always obvious to others. But there is only One who knows whether or not we are truly worshiping.
Fourth, praise is largely horizontal in its purpose, while worship is primarily a vertical interaction. Much happens on a horizontal level when we praise; we speak to one another, and we declare his praise before each other. But worship is more private and is much more preoccupied with the Godhead. Praise does have some vertical functions, and worship has some horizontal elements, but these are not their primary directions.
Praise is often preparatory to worship. God will frequently attempt to teach us to praise before we enter into the fullness of worship, for once we have learned what it means to praise the Lord with all that is within us, it is then a fairly easy progression to become an extravagant worshiper. If we are inhibited in our praise, however, we will likely be bound in our worship also,
Praise can be conceived as a gateway to worship. Many times it is easier to praise than to worship. Therefore, if we're having trouble entering into worship, starting with praise will help worship flow more easily. We sing in order to enter into praise, and sometimes we praise in order to enter into worship. But singing does not guarantee praise, just as praise does not guarantee that we will cross the threshold into worship.
There are exceptions to this next point, but as a general rule, experience affirms that worship is usually accompanied by slower songs, and praise, by faster songs. It is not that a slow temp always denotes worship, while a fast tempo equals praise; rather, the mood of slower songs is more conductive to worship, and faster songs lend themselves more readily to the activity that characterizes praise. Of course there is an occasional exception, but generalizations such as this can help us gain a better comprehension of the distinctives of praise and worship. Actually, one of the best ways to determine whether a song is a "praise chorus" or a "worship chorus" is to look not merely at the speed of the temple but at the subject matter of the lyrics.
We must remember, however, that music is a catalyst for worship - it in no way guarantees or even denotes worship. Some might complain, "I don't relate to all this emphasis on worship because I don't like to sing." Enjoyment of singing is entirely irrelevant to worship. Many people cannot "carry a tune in a bucket," but they are adoring worshipers. In Luke chapter 7, the woman who anointed Jesus' feet is exemplary as a worshiper; she had no musical instruments being played before her, nor was she singing, but she was worshiping in a most notable and commendable way. Worship is not a musical activity but a function of the heart.
A final variance between praise and worship can be seen in that sometimes we need to plunge into praise with an aggressiveness. It is often necessary to stir up our flesh and our soul to praise the Lord. But worship seems to operate at a different level. Worship does not seem to involve human effort to the same degree. It is more often characterized by a quiet and unassumed basking in God's presence.
Our spirit is willing to worship, but out flesh is weak and reluctant. Since praise is expressed through the flesh, it requires a stirring up of the flesh. But since worship is more a function of the spirit, what is needed is not a stirring up of the flesh but an unlocking of the spirit.
These comments are not intended to imply that worship is superior to or nobler than praise. Both expressions are equally important, and both play a vital role in the life of every believer and congregation. If we think worship is more desirable than praise, the push will be on in every praise service to progress into worship. But it is frequently appropriate to remain at praise for a period of time or to bring a service to an apex by concluding with high praise.
Some people get preoccupied with the direction of their songs: Is the song directed to myself, to my neighbor, or to God?" Songs that speak to God are not necessarily any better or more desirable than songs that speak about him. What matters to God is that we enter into sweet communion with him, regardless of whether the song is written in the first, second, or third person. Let us not get so introspective that we start worrying, "Am I praising right now, or worshiping?" Let's get our focus off the mechanics and concentrate on pleasing the Lord by expressing our love to him.
Some have made the mistake of equating praise with "the outer court" and worship with "the inner court." To place this strong a barrier between the two is artificial. Many of the bodily activities employed in praise, for example, are employed in worship also. When I lift my hands, am I praising or worshiping? Obviously I could be doing either, or even both. We typically think of dance as a form of praise, but I clearly recall once service in which I danced before the Lord with all my strength as an expression of worship. Shouting, clapping, singing - yes, all the outward forms of praise - can be used in worship. But worship can also transpire without any outward activity, whereas praise is always characterized by some form of physical manifestation. Which is the highest of these two expressions? - whichever is inspired by the Holy Spirit for the occasion.
Excerpt from Exploring Worship by Bob Sorge