A Theology of Worship
I should begin with a disclaimer that a blog post is hopelessly inadequate to express a complete theology of worship. There are many excellent books and resources available already for anyone who has been following this series and would like to go further. I’ll list a few good ones at the end of this post. My intent is not to give an exhaustive theology of worship, but to situate worship theologically and give a few jumping points for further exploration. For me theology has to be practical, it has to translate into something real for the person in the pews. Theology should challenge our preconceptions and propel us both towards God and into the world to which we are sent. If theology is just a reassembly of words than God help us.
Who do we Worship?
Any good theology needs to be unabashed about its assumptions, even if those assumptions are flawed. Not that I think this is flawed, but honestly who doesn’t think they have a good grasp on truth. To talk about a theology of worship we must begin with the object of worship. There is only one real worthy object of worship; everything else is but a reflection. The Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. There is something of the truth of worship in this statement. Worship should be all about God. On our parts it is our acts of glorifying God with our hearts, minds and strength. Worship is the rightful response to God’s manifest goodness. And it is completely enjoyable.
What is Worship?
So if God is the object of worship then what exactly is worship? What is interesting in the Evangelical church is that worship usually gets explicitly tied to the liturgy. In my church family it is not uncommon to have someone talk about worship and you know they really mean only the singing. Even if they are talking about private times of worship, it is usually singing (otherwise we’d call it prayer). But this type of compartmentalisation of activities only confuses the issue. It allows us to have worship time and other times, which creates the illusion that God is relegated to certain aspects of our lives and not others. There are a host of historical issues arising out of American denominationalism that just exacerbate this mindset, but a wholistic vision of worship is really the corrective that is needed. Worship is as much a participation in the liturgy as it is how we live our lives. Perhaps we could refer to the joys of liturgical celebration as high worship and regular living as low worship, but both are legitimately the place of worship.
How do we Worship?
If worship is not isolated to the liturgical life, then the categories of what constitutes worship suddenly become harder to pin down, and that is actually helpful. Surely singing and celebrating the Eucharist are easily identified as worship. The focus is on God. Such activities are rich with the potential to mediate an encounter with God. In such activities it is easy to see how people are changed by the transforming presence of God. But do not these activities also seek to orient our Christian living with the same nuances? Our songs let worship sink into our hearts so that in the midst of life the same songs come bubbling back to the surface, reminding us that in all we do it is for the glory of God. Our participation in the Eucharist opens us to God’s intimate work that touches every aspect of our lives, redeeming, transforming and calling us into better ways. I recently investigated the standard Eastern liturgy of St. John Chrysostem and discovered, along with Alexander Schmemann, a picture of life in the world. The liturgy was meant to model the Christian life in the world, as what Schmemann calls life for the world. Not that in the midst of life we expect a soundtrack rolling (let’s just leave my inner thought life out of this right now) but there are moments when we need to confess our faith in God, there are moments when we need to offer aspects of our daily life up to God and definitely we are called to respond in life, much as in the Church, to the unfolding liturgy of life. How we respond is how we worship.
When do we Worship?
With that in mind, the when of worship becomes universal as well. When we attend the service we give ourselves to worship as a way of saying with the Church, I will live for Christ today. I will offer my voice, my time, my money, my fidelity, my heart, really everything, I will offer it all to the one who offered Himself for me. Paul tells us in Romans that this is the only reasonable response to what God has done. God’s work doesn’t suffer ecclesial bounds, and so neither can our offering. So just as we did in the Church, so do we also in the world. Worship is how we live all the time, or at least worship is how we should live all the time.
Why do we Worship?
To finish up the who, what and whys I just want to say a word about why we worship. We think about worship in the Church and it is obvious, we worship to corporately glorify God. We already mentioned the Pauline exhortation of worship as a reasonable response to God’s goodness. But there are other reasons why worship, especially worship as a way of life, is important.
Most people in our churches already know how great God is. We worship corporately to bolster our own spirituality. But really if our worship is only Sunday morning and maybe a midweek group, then we are missing the chance to give God glory in the world that God so loved. Yes, God has a special love for the Church, but the Church isn’t the end of the Kingdom, it is simply a sacrament of the Kingdom. When we live as if the Church is the Kingdom we miss the fact that the Church only really exists to prepare a bride. The Church gathers the people of God and spurs us on towards Kingdom, especially in relationship to the World. So we worship at all times so that God is glorified before the nations. We worship so that the world can see, just as we see, how great the love of God is.
We worship because it is what we were made to do. I mentioned the Westminster Shorter Catechism and it is important that we realize why we were made. There is something that is so fulfilling about living the life you are meant to live. And worship is the orientation that gets us there. Paul’s exhortation continues to tells us that as we worship God with our whole selves, we will then be able to discern his perfect and pleasing will for our lives. We worship so that we will become who and what God had in His heart from the beginning.
I hope this series was encouraging; I look forward to your comments.
Some Resources I have Found Helpful:
- Brent Helming, Hot Tips for Worship Leaders (Vineyard Music) – Very practical advice for leading congregational worship. This is a book I would love to give to every aspiring worship leader.
- R. C. D. Jasper and G. J. Cuming, Prayers of the Eucharist: Early and Reformed (Pueblo Publishing) – A great collection of Christian liturgies.
- Henri Nouwen, With Burning Hearts (Orbis) – A great reflection on the Eucharist.
- Noel Dermot O’Donoghue, The Mountain Behind the Mountain (T&T Clark) – The power of sacred imagination.
- Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press) – Great exploration of the Eastern sacramental life.
- James White, Introduction to Christian Worship (Abingdon Press.) – A great introduction to Christian liturgy including a great bibliography.