Thinking Practically About Congregational Worship

In the beginning, there was worship; and in the end of days worship will never cease.

This is certainly true and easy to state, but the implications that come as a result of this truth are far more complicated than the simplicity this claim may indicate. It has already been established within this series that God throughout history sets the standard for worship. Worship is of God and to God. The questions then that need to be ask include: what does this mean for the church today, and how does what is understood about worship as it unfolds in the bible apply to weekly gatherings of corporate worship? In Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, Marva Dawn acknowledges that “[her] greatest concern for the church has to do with worship, because its character-forming potential is so subtle and barely noticed, and yet worship creates a great impact on the hearts and minds and lives of a congregation’s members. Indeed, how we worship reveals and forms our identity as persons and communities” (4). Worship informs humanity of who God is and who we are in relation to Him. With these questions in mind we will shift our focus from strictly theological in order to develop a more practical theology of worship.

Part two of this study is designed to take what is evident from our understanding of God’s ordination and gift of worship from the biblical cannon and contextualize it for the local church. As a Pastor of Worship it is important to have a philosophy of corporate worship and practice said philosophy in a manner that is pleasing to God. The remainder of this study is designating to presenting a practical theology of worship.

We are all Wired to Worship

In an article on worship and theology, Rolf Hille responds to the question of whether or not worship of God alienates people from the very essence of being a human. He responds with regard to Genesis 1:27, ‘God created man in his image, in his likeness he created him and created him male and female.’ Because we are created in the image of God, seeking God must be the essence of humanity. Worship is therein ‘a universal expression of fulfilled humanity.’

Likewise, John Jefferson Davis (Worship and the Reality of God) is convinced that when humanity worships God, “it is the highest and most fulfilling act of which a human being is capable; it is that experience in which we in fact become most truly human, for communion with the living God is the eternal purpose (Eph 1:4-6) for which human beings were created.” Because we are indeed created in the image of God, we find our ultimate fulfillment in worshiping the one by which we were created, thus we are all indeed wired to worship. The question then becomes what is the object of our worship, and do we obtain the right to select the object of our worship?

To Whom Does Worship Belong?

Coming to the knowledge that we been created to worship means coming to some realizations about how to worship and to whom worship belongs. Ultimately, worship belongs to God. As we’ve seen in previous posts, God is the one who sets the standard. Also, it should be noted that God is audience of our worship. Yesterday marked the anniversary of the death of theologian Soren Kierkegaard who famously looks at the participants of worship through the lens of the theatre.

“Alas, in regard to things spiritual, the foolish of many is this, that they in the secular sense look upon the speaker as the actor, and the listeners as theatergoers who are to pass judgement upon the artist. But the speaker is not the actor – not in the remotest sense. No, the speaker is the prompter. There are no mere theatergoers present, for each listener will be looking into his own heart. The stage is eternity, and the listener, if his is the true listener (and if he is not, he is at fault) stands before God during the talk. The prompter whispers to the actor what he is to say, but the actor’s repetition of it is the main concern – is the solemn charm of the art. T he speaker whispers the word to the listeners. But the main concern is earnestness: that the listeners by themselves, with themselves, and to themselves, in the silence before God, may speak with the help of the address. The address is not given for the speaker’s sake, in order that men may praise or blame him. The listener’s repetition of it is what is aimed for. If the speaker has that responsibility for what he whispers, then the listener has an equally great responsibility not to fall short in his task. In the theater, the play is staged before an audience who are called theatergoers; but at the devotional address, God himself is present. In the most earnest sense God is the critical theatergoer, who looks on to see how the lines are spoken and how they are listened to: hence here the customary audience is wanting. The speaker then is the prompter, and the listener stands openly before God. The listener, if I may say so, is the actor, who in all truth acts before God.”

To put it simply, the ‘cast’ of the worship service, from the lens of Kierkegaard would be as follows:

– The congregation = performers
– Pastor and Worship Leaders = prompters
– God is our audience and our worship is directed to Him.

This is certainly a helpful analogy. If you haven’t yet I’d encourage you to read my post titled, Worship as Rehearsal. In this post I look at our corporate gatherings as an opportunity to rehearse the gospel weekly.

To some extent, worship does belong to the people. The ownership that she presents however is not authoritative ownership. Marva Dawn points out our freedom in worship stems out of the reality that all have the freedom to worship God through Christ. Christ came so that we might no longer need a mediator, thus any notion that a priest, pastor, or musician have claim to ‘owning’ the worship should be void. Instead, she notes that worship, particularly corporate worship belongs to the community of believers:

“community worship [is] worship that crosses the lines of time and space, worship that involves us in each other and not in our own private mullings, selfishness or falsely cozy ‘personal relationship with Jesus.’”

In a strong sense, Dawn is pointing out that while corporate worship does belong to the people, it does not belong to the individual. There needs to be a greater appreciation and awareness of the heritage of the church. Worship is not simply in the here and now of our corporate gatherings on Sunday mornings. Worship is a cosmic event that transcends time and space. When we gather amidst the presence of God corporately we should do so with the knowledge that our worship is rooted in the acts of God in the past and the promise of an everlasting future of worship to come. When we keep in mind the historical provision of God and the eternal provision promised we are able to fully acknowledge that while God gives his people ownership in worship, God above all, has true ownership as throughout time He provides the means for which worship may occur.

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