Theology of Congregational Worship
One of the very first things Scripture informs about God is that He is a creator God who brought everything into existence without any pre-existent materials (Gen. 1:1-3). This idea is summed up in the phrase ex nihilo (out of nothing). Significantly, out of nothing God created light, matter, and then life, which includes all living things. With the focus on life, Scripture informs that human beings were created in the divine image, after God’s likeness (Gen. 1:26-27). Being created in the divine image, human beings are set apart from the rest of creation, which is evident in the human capacity to reason and freely express things like no other creature. Straight to the point, the realization that God created all things ex nihilo coupled with the notion that God freely created human beings after His divine image demands some sort of response. Rightfully so, the appropriate response is worship. To clarify, worship here is specifically understood as the expression of reverence and adoration toward the God of the Holy Scriptures. Knowingly, then, how Christians understand God influences how they worship God and likewise, how Christians understand worship directly influences their act of worship. This means that a well-developed theology of worship is essential to the worshiping community of God. The aim of this paper is to present a theology of congregational worship that is Biblical; theological; doxological; liturgical and pastoral for the purpose of leading God’s people into a deeper worship experience with the God of all creation. Through the process of drawing from God’s meta-narrative in the Scriptures a theology of congregational worship will emerge.
Continuing with the doctrine of creation, it must be noted that everything God creates is purely good as shown in Genesis 1:31 when God gave the divine proclamation that everything He had made was “very good.” Significantly, human beings were part of God’s proclamation; however, it was not long before God’s very good creation became subjected to corruption through the sin of the first human beings (Gen. 3) who disobeyed God’s only command to not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil or they would surely die (Gen. 2:17). As a consequence of sin, the relationship between God and His loved human creatures became severed and human beings were exiled out of His Holy presence. Simply put, human beings gave up their dwelling place with God and they no longer knew Him as they should. Just as God warned, death ensued sin, which affected every human being that followed and for this reason two main things had to be accomplished. First, being separated from humanity, God alone had to take the divine initiative to reveal Himself to human beings, and not vice-versa. Second, God alone had to take restorative action in order to save humanity from their transgressions against Him, which resulted in death. Beginning with God’s self-revelation and then His restorative action, the following will show how these two elements are at the root of Biblical worship.
After the Fall account (Gen. 3), the Scripture narrative delivers a dismal portrait of sinful humanity living separate from God. Thankfully, God does take the divine initiative in revealing Himself to a man named Abram (Gen. 12:1). More important, God not only revealed His divinity to Abram, but through a series of ordained events, God initiated His restorative plan for humanity (Gen. 12:1-3; 15, 17:1-8). It must not go unnoticed that God’s self-revelation to Abram is knitted together with His plan of restoration. That aside, the very notion that God has revealed Himself to His fallen creatures shows that God desires to be known (God is relational). The point here is that Christians worship God because God has made Himself known. Further, that God’s initiative in His self-revelation is altogether restorative shows that God has not left His loved creatures to remain in the most terrible state of depravity absorbed in sin and ending in death. Here again, the appropriate response to God’s revelation and restorative action is worship.
Moving forward, a natural extension of God’s continuous act of restoration involves deliverance. Simply put, God is constantly involved in the act of delivering humanity from sin. Notably, sin wears many masks — all of which share the common characteristic of oppression. In the Old Testament, the pattern of oppression is clear, but is most evident in the events leading up to the Exodus when God’s people were oppressed by the Egyptians. Decisively, God, at the right time, “intervened with a mighty saving act that defined Israel’s history.” This divine restorative act of deliverance is known as the Exodus Event, and it stands at the climax of the Old Testament. Markedly, immediately following the Israelites safe passage through the divided waters, Moses and the Israelites worshiped God through a song of praise (Exodus 15:1-18). The song consists of who God is (His divine characteristics) and how He has delivered His people from their oppression. Even more telling, the worship song ends with the proclamation that “the Lord will reign forever and ever” (Ex. 15:18, ESV). Today, worship continues to comprise of elements that speak of God’s character and tell of His mighty acts in history.
Just as the Exodus Event stands at the height of deliverance in the Old Testament, the Christ Event (the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ) stands at the height not only of the New Testament, but the whole of Scriptures. In other words, the Christ Event supersedes the Exodus Event, but in no way diminishes its significance. To explain, in the Exodus Event, God delivered His people from the oppression of the Egyptians. In the Old Testament, then, the deliverance God provided was directed at the Israelites, but for a future purpose not yet revealed. In the New Testament, however, Jesus came to His people with the divine initiative to accomplish God’s ultimate restorative act of delivering people not from their current oppressors (Roman rule), but to deal with the problem of sin, which affects the entire human race, once and for all. Knowingly, then, Jesus Christ is the reason for true Christian worship. Jesus is the true image of God — meaning that God’s ultimate self-revelation is in the person of Jesus (Col. 1:15). Additionally, in Jesus the Christ, God’s restorative act for the whole of His creation is continuously being realized — meaning that creation is in the process of being restored, but it will not be completely restored until the promise of the new heaven and earth is brought into the present (Rev. 21:1-5). Considering all of this, then, the cornerstone of Christian worship is Jesus Christ, which means that the heart of worship for the Church is Christ. Therefore, worship is Christocentric.
Up to this point the paper has presented several reasons why Christians worship God. First, Christians worship the God of the Scriptures for no other reason that He is God, but thankfully a loving and righteous God. Second, the doctrine that God created everything ex nihilo together with the belief that human beings were created in the divine image demands a response, by which the appropriate one is to worship and glorify God. Third, in response to the Fall, God took the divine initiative to reveal Himself to human beings in order to restore the broken relationship, which is another reason for worship. Most significant, in worship, Christians affirm God’s ultimate act of self-revelation and self-sacrifice in the God/man Jesus Christ by whom all the promises of Scripture are presently realized and experienced but not fully until the eschaton. Pulling everything together, then, Christian worship is Christocentric. That stated, Christians do affirm the Trinity in worship; however, the reason Christians worship is Christ. Now that the paper has established the reason for Christian worship, it is ready to discuss the act and order of congregational worship.
The first element that Christians must grasp about worship is that it is very much a response. Shown above, the appropriate response to comprehending God is worship, but even more so, when Christians come together to worship God, it is in response to His personal call to worship Him. Just as God has taken the initiative of self-revelation, God also takes the initiative to invite all people to worship Him corporately. Particularly, the invitation is for His people to meet with Him through His Son, Jesus Christ. In response, then, when Christians assemble, it is known as the gathering fold of congregational worship, which is the first of four general parts of the order of worship. In sequence, worship consists of the gathering, Word, Table, and sending — each of which will be discussed below.
In the gathering, the people prepare themselves to enter into worship. Significantly, worship is holistic and therefore involves the entire person’s heart, mind, soul and spirit. Further, the gathering does have a sense of spiritual movement and its purpose is to transition the person from where they are into a deeper worship experience where divine/human interaction is a felt reality. The term felt, in this sense, is not to be misconstrued as a certain emotion (like being entertained at a show) rather it should be understood as a supernatural presence that is conversive in its own distinct way. It should also be emphasized that worship is a meeting with God on God’s terms, and it is not reliant on any specific human emotion. Further, when the Church assembles for worship, they are joining together with the worship that is occurring in heaven around the throne of God (Rev. 7:11-12). In this sense, worship truly unites heaven and earth. Considering all of this, the overall purpose of the gathering is to prepare the congregation for this heavenly meeting and then lead them to an appropriate spiritual posture to hear God’s voice in His Word.
Significantly, there is a narrative quality in the gathering fold. Recall that worship is Christocentric and therefore it celebrates Christ through the telling and acting out the Christ Event. Even more so, by gathering together to celebrate Christ, Christians are simultaneously giving God all the glory for the work that He has done through His Son. For this reason, it is appropriate to enter into God’s presence through general praise of the Triune God that speak of “who God is and what God has done for all people. The opening acts of worship can celebrate God as Creator, Sustainer, Provider, Sovereign, One who reigns over all, and so on.” All of these things can be expressed in an opening acclamation, a call to worship, music, confession and prayer. In other words, there is both freedom in the order of worship as well as in expression of worship. That stated, freedom of order should not equate to disorder, and all worship services should seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit together with careful planning.
Mentioned above, through the gathering God leads His people to the Word portion of the worship service, which should be understood as an intentional time of focus on hearing from God through His Word as Scripture reveals it. Granted, the divine/human conversation was initiated by God at the open of worship, but here, the back and forth dialogue quiets, thus allowing God to speak a focused message for His people. Being rooted in the Scripture, in the Word fold — God’s ancient narrative is told and made relevant for His people today. Meaningfully, the Word portion typically involves a reading from Scripture and of course, a sermon; however, a prayer, creed and even music can be part of the Word fold.
Constance Cherry states that “the purpose of the service of the Word is so people may be addressed by God through the Holy Scriptures and thereby changed for God’s glory and kingdom.” Cherry’s statement makes clear that the Word fold is not simply a time to hear a “good sermon” per say rather it is a time of transformation for the purpose of God’s glory.
James, in his letter, encourages the Church to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22, ESV). It is true that during the service of the Word the people are to be hearers; however, they are to listen with ears intent on transformation. To this, Robert Webber, in Planning Blended Worship states very clearly that “God’s Word takes up residence within us and shapes us into Christ’s likeness. . . [and] When God speaks, we not only hear God, we also act on what we hear God saying and doing in our lives and in the life of the world.”
Before addressing the Table/Response portion of worship, as a transition, it is important to grasp what is meant by the term sacrament. Leaning on Wesley’s definition, it is “an outward sign of inward grace, and a means whereby we receive the same” In theological terms, Rob Staples, in Outward Sign and Inward Grace, proposes that sacramental theology “may be understood as the theological perspective that sees the physical as potentially the vehicle of the spiritual. It is the view that God can work the spiritual through the material.” This means that the Church itself is a sacrament and it represents God’s real presence and activity in the world. It is important to grasp this understanding in order to avoid narrowing the sacraments to fit only within the ordained acts of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s table, which will now be discussed.
Communing at the Table of the Lord has been the common response to the Word, at least for the first sixteen centuries of Christianity. The Table celebrates God’s redemptive story and how God, “through the power of the Holy Spirit, raised Christ from death, overcame the powers of evil, and offers to us forgiveness, healing, love, and power for victorious living in community and in the world.” Significantly the Table looks to the Last Supper when Jesus took the bread and the cup, which represents the new covenant in His blood (Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25) and was ultimately brought into fruition through the resurrection event.
Although Christians look to past events while involved in the Eucharist (meaning – to offer thanksgiving), it is important to note the significance of God’s divine activity in the present. Notably, in the Eucharist, the Church joins heavenly worship and celebrates (through deep acts of reflection) the work of God through His Son Jesus the Christ. Also, in the Eucharist, Christians fellowship both together and with Christ, which is why the Table is also referred to as Communion, which places the emphasis on oneness in the community — all unified in Jesus the Christ.
Lastly, the Table of the Lord has a future dimension. In the Table, Christians look to the promises of the Scripture when God’s creation is fully restored (Rev. 21:5) and the new heaven and earth is a present reality for all of God’s people. Alexander Schmemann, in his text For the Life of the World, illustrates this beautifully where he writes, “Eucharist is the state of perfect man. Eucharist is the life of paradise. Eucharist is the only full and real response of man to God’s creation, redemption and gift of heaven. But this perfect man who stands before God is Christ. In Him alone all that God has given man was fulfilled and brought back to heaven.” In Christ, God’s people are restored, unified and brought back to heaven where they can enjoy and worship God forever — all of which Christians look to in the Table.
At the close of worship is the sending fold where God gives His people the exhortation to live His Word out in the world for the purpose of drawing others closer to worship Him. Cherry points out that any time there is fellowship between persons in relationship, “the ways in which we part become as significant as the ways in which we greet one another.” In worship, the fellowship is between God and His people (divine/human) and therefore it is God who sends His people from the gathered community. Significantly, Jesus gives the clearest example of sending where He gives the great commission to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20, ESV). Here, it is important to note the Trinitarian nature, thus showing that as God sends us out into the world, He is with us always — to the end of the age. Lastly, the purpose of the sending is for God’s people to be “empowered by a blessing (benediction) to do God’s will (charge).” Of course, with the sending, worship comes to a close.
In the introduction of this paper, it was pointed out that how Christians understand God influences how they worship God and likewise, how Christians understand worship directly influences their act of worship, which ultimately means that a well-developed theology of worship is essential to the worshiping community of God. This paper has presented a theology of worship that is Biblical; theological; doxological; liturgical and pastoral — all for the purpose of leading people into a deeper more meaningful worship experience with God. Of course, this paper isn’t exhaustive by any means and there is so much more to Christian worship left to be discovered; however, it cannot be emphasized enough that a deeper understanding of worship is intimately connected to a deeper worship experience with God on so many different levels, which this paper has shown. With all of this in mind, then, it is entirely appropriate to close with a Word of worshipful praise, “All the nations you have made shall come and worship before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name. For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God” (Psalm 86:9-10, ESV). ~ Amen.
Cherry, Constance M. The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010. Print.
Collins, Kenneth J. The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2007. Print.
Schmemann, Alexander. For the Life of the World. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002. Print.
Staples, Rob L. Outward Sign and Inward Grace: The Place of Sacraments in Wesleyan Spirituality. Kansas City, KA: Beacon Hill Press, 1991. Print.
Webber, Robert E. Planning Blended Worship: The Creative Mixture of Old and New. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998. Print
Webber, Robert E. Worship is a Verb: Celebrating God’s Mighty Deeds of Salvation. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC. 2004. Print.
. Constance M. Cherry, The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 6.
. Robert E. Webber Planning Blended Worship: The Creative Mixture of Old and New (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998, 53.
. Cherry, 57.
. Ibid., 70.
. Webber, 88-9.
. Rob L. Staples, Outward Sign and Inward Grace: The Place of Sacraments in Wesleyan Spirituality (Kansas City, KA. Beacon Hill Press, 1991), 63.
. Cherry, 86
. Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 38.
. Cherry, 112.
. Ibid., 114.