In worship we commune with God. That’s number one. But does it matter what elements we include in worship, or even in what order? We’re all familiar with the old adage about changing the medium but not the message, but in truth the medium colors the message and will either enhance or diminish the truth that is presented.
Because worship is primarily about connecting with God on an intimate level, the words we say and the things we do reveal something about who we believe God to be. In my experience, this can be most readily observed in the correlation between formality/informality and transcendence/immanence. Churches that tend to emphasize a transcendent view of God also tend to utilize more ritualized actions and formal language, while those who understand God as primarily immanent will often use informal language and almost no ritual. As with all generalizations there are plenty of exceptions, but on the whole, a more or less formal a service tends to be reflective of a congregation’s view of God as primarily high and exalted or close and intimate. God, for his part, is both most high (El Elyon) and with us (Immanuel), and we must strike a balance that recognizes him as both. It is the same for practically every divine attribute in that we have some that we love to dwell on and others we’d rather not, but we must worship God as he is, not how we would prefer him to be.
It’s pretty easy to see the impact that what we say and do has on the overall feel of our worship. But what about the order? Does it really matter if the songs come first or the sermon? What about confession or the table? Actually, confession makes an interesting case study. For churches that make confession a regular practice, they generally do it in one of two ways. One tradition places confession early in the service because they understand that for worship to truly happen the hearts of the people must be cleansed to be in the presence of God. The other places confession after the sermon as a response the preaching of the word in preparation for the table because they understand that it is the Spirit’s use of the word that reveals our often hidden sin. They are both right in a sense but choose to highlight one view over the other. And what they choose says something about what they believe.
Our acts of worship not only declare what we believe, but also reinforce those same beliefs. Sometimes there is a discrepancy between what we profess and what we practice. In those cases it becomes imperative to change the practice to be more in line with the beliefs of the church. In the context of worship, however, this problem is not always obvious. The trend over the past several decades has been to whittle the service down to a block of music followed by a block of preaching. Any other actions like prayer or reading Scripture have become almost incidental in that they are often short, spontaneous, and performed from the front. The danger here is at least two fold: 1) it reduces worship to a spectacle to be observed and 2) it has the potential of become more about our subjective emotional response to the music and message than about reveling in the truth of the gospel which restores us to relationship with the Father, Son, and Spirit.
At the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves who is this God we worship and what does he require of us as we come before him? Then we must measure our worship practices against those answers. When we prayerfully do this we honor the One we serve and better proclaim his greatness to a world in need.
This is the third in a series of articles that looks at the impact the Trinity has on Christian worship. The material has been adapted from my doctoral thesis.
In the previous article of this series, we examined how the church brings glory to God simply by its existence, aka the church as worship. Turning from the church as worship to the church at worship, we must keep in mind that in both respects, worship is participation in the divine life of the Trinity. The former is concerned with temporal relationships taken up and renewed by the triune God, while the latter is concerned in particular with the divine/human relationship. Among Evangelicals, there exists a tendency to view the divine/human relationship in a direct way. Because the veil has been torn, we often think that humanity can simply come before God as his children. This statement is partly true, but it leaves out a crucial detail: there is only one true Child of God. Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of the Father, is the only human being who has a perfect relationship with the Father, and it is in and through Christ that the rest of humanity are accounted children of God. Moreover, all human experiences of God, with the exception of Jesus’ own experiences, are mediated, and the mediator is Christ.
Regarding the liturgical action of worship, the mediation of Christ rests at the heart of what we do. The Son is in a state of continual worship of the Father and as we enter into worship, the Son’s worship becomes our own, and our worship becomes his as he clothes us in his righteousness and presents us to the Father. Our own works of worship are not worthy of God, but, by the Spirit, our offerings are made acceptable through Christ in the sight of the Father. This pattern is a reversal of the normal action of the economic Trinity. Instead, we are drawn up by the Spirit through the Son into relationship with the Father.
The paradigm of mediated experience necessarily affects the manner in which the worship service should be understood and enacted. For one, worship is an interactive encounter with the God who is three in one. The idea that worship is what we do for God is false. Worship is what we do together with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as we seek to bring glory to God. So, how should we approach worship if it is not wholly our own act? The answer is found in the reality of the triune God.
God is not a static monad, but a Trinity – a community of three persons each relating to the others in unique ways. As mentioned above, the pattern of worship within the Godhead found in Scripture is that of the Spirit glorifying the Son, the Son glorifying the Father, and the Father sharing his glory with the Son and the Spirit. Likewise in us, the Spirit calls us to worship and leads us to worship the Son. The Son, as High Priest, in turn, brings us before the Father that he might receive the ultimate glory. While revelation from God represents a downward movement from the Father through the Son in the Spirit, our response is an upward movement in the Spirit through the Son toward the Father. God calls us to himself, and we answer his call, yet both movements take place with the individual actions of the divine Persons.
This trinitarian understanding of revelation and response forms the basis for all that occurs in a worship service. Everything that happens in a service falls into one of these two categories. The call to worship, the reading of scripture, the preaching of the word, the retelling of the story at communion, and even the benediction are all types of revelation. They are intended to be words from God to his people. On the other hand, our prayers, the passing of the peace (aka the welcome, for us less liturgical types), the collection of the offering, coming to the table, and most of our songs are examples of response.
Let’s look at some specific instances. When we consider the reading of Scripture, here as in other divine actions, we see that the Father speaks through the Son in the power of the Spirit. In the reading of the Scriptures it is not the voice of the reader that is heard, but the voice of Christ. The words of Scripture are not merely of human composition but are the very words of God and when we read them aloud it is Christ who speaks through us. Likewise, in preaching the preacher is meant to be a conduit through which Christ might speak in the power of the Spirit. If we accept that the sermon is a joke and three points of application then we have missed the bigger picture. The most relevant preaching is that which sets our attention on the triune God in whose image and for whose pleasure we were created. Bookstores are stuffed with self-help books. What we need in the sermon is to hear the voice of Christ.
When it comes to our response to God’s self-unveiling prayer is the ultimate paradigm. Prayer at its most simple is communication with God. As such, prayer defines all of our actions in worship. But prayer is not simply something we can do on our own. The access available in prayer is the gift of God. In prayer we engage directly with the whole Trinity. We pray to the Father in Jesus’ name but that prayer is offered up in the power of the Spirit. Praying in Jesus’ name means that our access to the Father in prayer is mediated by Christ. But prayer is also offered in the Spirit, who leads us to Christ. Too often prayer in the Spirit is associated with glossolalia and intense emotional experiences, but the truth is that all prayer is offered in the Spirit, even the most humble mealtime blessing. It is the Spirit who empowers our prayer to God and directs us to Christ the Son. It is Christ the High Priest who brings our prayers before the Father as his own. This same pattern is at the heart of all of our Godward actions in worship.
The question will undoubtedly be asked as to the rightness of praying to Jesus or the Spirit. Though the question attempts to take seriously the norms of the economic Trinity it does seem to miss the wider point. The Son and the Spirit are not lesser beings than the Father. Each of them is in fact fully God and worthy of receiving worship, including prayer. The problem is not worshiping or praying to the Son or Spirit, but instead when we fixate on one Person to the detriment of the other two. The whole doctrine of the Trinity matters, not simply the economic Trinity.
The beating heart of worship is not music. Or preaching. Or even Jesus. No, the heart of worship is the one God who exists eternally as three Persons bound together in a relationship defined by perfect love. Because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we have a place in that divine relationship. We experience it as we are conformed by the Spirit to the likeness of Christ and the image of God is restored in us. We also experience it as we enter, in Christ by the power of the Spirit, into the ongoing worship within the Godhead. In these things we bring glory to God, and that is what worship is all about.
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Letham, Robert. The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2004).
Parry, Robin A. Worshiping Trinity: Coming Back to the Heart of Worship (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012).
Thompson, John. Modern Trinitarian Perspectives (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
Torrance, James B. Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1996).
Volf, Miroslav. After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998).
Ware, Bruce A. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2005).