Monday, August 4, 2008


---by Andrew Thompson

Practical Consequences for the Worship Liturgy
The "trinitarian-ness" of our definition of worship dramatically shapes how we worship. In this section, I would like to consider just a few of the ways our definition of worship finds form in the regular service of worship.

1. The Centrality of the Eucharist - If we are trinitarian in our definition of worship, then the Eucharist must be the central focus of our worship service. It becomes the supreme expression of sharing in Christ's communion with the Father and Christ's work in the world. We remember Christ's priestly work on our behalf and we are re-membered in unity with all others whom Christ has called as we participate by the Spirit in Christ's ongoing communion with the Father. All our physical senses are involved in the act. We hear the words; we see, smell, touch and taste the elements. As we commune, we receive the elements; they are given to us. We do not take them -- just like we cannot "take" the grace of God, we can only receive it. There are other senses involved too. Don Saliers in his book, "Worship Come to Its Senses," reminds us that the sense of awe, the sense of delight, the sense of truth and the sense of hope are (or should be) integral in our worship.(10) Nowhere it is more true than in the Eucharist. As we recognize Christ's real presence among us and acknowledge that we are participating in his holy offering of worship to the Father, we are filled with awe. As we remember God's grace lavished upon us and as we experience it afresh, we are filled with delight. As we see that our standing before God has been fully assured by Christ's work on our behalf, we are grounded and secured in truth. As we look forward to and experience a foretaste of the eschatological feast of heaven, we are filled with hope. If we are unitarian in our definition of worship, then the Eucharist is still an important act (that we do), but it is not essential. It is not central. It might be practiced regularly -- but it could also not be practiced, without any great loss. It becomes one among many ways that we can respond to God.

2. The Language of Worship - If we are trinitarian in our worship then the primary focus of our language will be on God -- both God's nature and God's work. Our language will concern itself with how we participate in the life of Christ -- the Son's worship of the Father and his ongoing work in the world. If we are unitarian in our worship, then our focus will be on our own response to God. The emphasis is on the relationship between "us and God." In more extreme forms, the emphasis is on the relationship between "me" and God.

It is important to remember that there may be a difference between the theology we formally endorse and the theology we functionally practice. No matter how well formed our formal statements on worship are, it is the theology that is practiced that will be (most likely) adopted by the congregations we serve. It is not enough to preach about the Trinity once a year on Trinity Sunday -- it is not even enough to consistently preach from a trinitarian viewpoint, although that is certainly a good start. Our theology of worship is primarily communicated through the language used by the people -- not just the language heard by the people. This means that we must pay careful attention to our prayers and songs. It also means we must pay attention to the language of our church "business" and fellowship. This use of language is the most honest gauge in judging how trinitarian our functional definition of worship is. It is also the most difficult area of language to reform.

We live in a culture saturated with individualism. As such, we live under the constant gravitational pull toward self-centeredness. Even with the best of intentions, we can naturally pull toward a unitarian (me and God) theology of worship. Unless we diligently guard our use of language, we can naturally fall into the narcissistic ways of our cultural context. Although I believe that this problem is both widespread and deeply entrenched in our North American church culture, allow me to illustrate though a specific example what I mean. Paul Oakly recently wrote a song for worship that is becoming quite popular. When I first heard it at a North Park worship service, I was immediately attracted to its moving melody and phrasing. The lyrics are as follows:

It's all about you, Jesus, and all this is for you, for your glory and your fame.
It's not about me, as if you should do things my way;
You alone are God and I surrender to your ways.
Jesus, lover of my soul, all consuming fire is in your gaze.
Jesus, I want you to know I will follow you all my days.
For no one else in history is like you, and history itself belongs to you.
Alpha and Omega, you have loved me and I will share eternity with you.(11)

While I suspect that Oakley was honestly trying to express Christ-centeredness in worship, (as evidenced in the first phrase of the song) he fails to follow though with this intention almost immediately. By the second phrase (all this is for you), it is implied that his act of worship is done for Christ -- a unitarian theology of worship. This song does proclaim some very important and significant things about Christ: that Jesus is God, that Jesus is unlike any other in history, that history belongs to Christ, that Jesus is the Alpha and Omega. However, these ideas are surrounded by what is essentially an egocentric world view: I do not expect Jesus to do things my way, I surrender to Jesus' way, I want Jesus to know that I will follow him. None of these sentiments are bad (actually they are quite good) but all of them flow out of a egocentric rather than Christocentric thought. This song is not "all about you, Jesus" as the author claims. Rather, it is all about the individual and Jesus. The description of Jesus' nature and work is framed by the individual's relationship to Jesus. Note the frequent use of the first person singular throughout the song. Nowhere is the first person plural used.

These comments are not written to pick on Oakley's song. Actually, I think he does better than many other contemporary hymn writers. At least this song expresses a desire to move beyond a self-centered devotional life. My hope is only that the analysis of this song might illustrate how difficult it is for our worship language to be truly trinitarian. We should expect that any efforts we make toward fuller use of trinitarian language will be an uphill battle. The pull of egocentrism is very strong.

Personal Reflections:
This discussion on worship is very challenging to me personally. Prior to reading Torrance's work, my definition of worship would be much like James McClendon's; not as well worded, mind you, but oriented around the same idea of dialogue -- worship as close personal interaction with God. However, after reading what James Torrance is saying, I realize that my previous definition, like McClendon's, failed to fully integrate the doctrine of the Trinity. It falls short of fully recognizing the risen Christ in our midst and it fails to fully recognize Christ's ongoing priesthood. In seeing the difference from what my functional definition of worship has been, to what it could be, I feel like I have blinders removed from my eyes. This trinitarian discussion challenges me to see a bigger vision of worship than I have previously known.

A trinitarian worship definition continues to see worship as dialogue with God -- but it goes further than that. To have the privilege of knowing God in close personal dialogue is awesome and incredible -- a wonder beyond words; but to participate in the triune interrelationship is all that and more! This is the theology that I want to live.

This conclusion however does not leave me without questions. Actually, it increases them. As a worship leader, how do I plan and lead services out of this understanding of worship? Where does contemporary music and expression fit into this type of understanding? It seems clear to me that much of the songwriting in current Evangelical and Charismatic circles flows out of a unitarian definition of worship. There is a lot of "me and God" language in the church right now, and the Trinity rarely enters into common thought. How can we be authentic within our culture and context and yet steer away from our culture's self-centered, market-driven mentality? Can we be culturally current and still be trinitarian in worship? The question also becomes more personal: What things must I prune from my own worship practices? What new things will grow from this awareness? How will this change the songs I write? How will this change the services I lead? How can I communicate this? I feel inarticulate. My language fails; as does my confidence. Perhaps this is good.

All this leads me to this conclusion: I need to live out of a bigger definition of worship. I need to live out of a definition that is better rooted in community, history and the biblical narrative. I need to live out of a definition that finds its focuses in the Trinity. I need to reconsider the place of the sacraments and I need to audit my worship vocabulary.

Father, thank you that by the Spirit we can participate in your risen Son's communion with you. Renew your church we pray. Give us a fresh vision for worship. Free us from our self-centered and self-serving ways that we might more fully live within the gift you have given to us. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

1. James Wm. McClendon, Jr. Doctrine: Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) 376.
2. McClendon. 242-244.
3. McClendon. 401.
4. McClendon. 402.
5. James Torrance, Worship, Community & the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996) 20.
6. Torrance. 23.
7. Torrance. 20-41.
8. Torrance. 20.
9. Torrance. 20-21.
10. Don Saliers, Worship Come to Its Senses, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996) 19-86.
11. From "Jesus, Lover of My Soul (It's All About You)" by Paul Oakley, © 1995 Kingsway's Thankyou Music.

Marva Dawn, A Royal Waste Of Time, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999.
_________,Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995.
James McClendon, Doctrine: Systematic Theology, Volume II, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994.
Don E. Saliers, Worship Come To Its Senses, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996.
_________, Worship and Spirituality, Akron OH: OSL Publications, 1996.
_________, Worship as Theology, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994.
James B. Torrance, Worship, Community and the Triune God, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.
Robert Webber, Blended Worship, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994.
_________,Signs of Wonder, Nashville, TN: Star Song Publishing, 1992.
_________,Worship Is A Verb, Waco, TX: Word Books, 1985.


ScottH said...

"The Centrality Of The Eucharist?" Well doggone! I thought the altar call was central! LOL! At least that's what we always seemed to build up to in years past.

Anonymous said...

The Trinity is the highest revelation of God given to us in Scripture and is revealed in the person and work of Christ. Countless references are given in the Gospels of the Lord Jesus praying to the Father and also the giving of another Comforter, besides Christ himself in reference to the Holy Spirit.

Mei and I visited an Anglican church last weekend and we liked the communion. We are visiting on this coming weekend that is more reformed than the one we visited last weekend.

Dennis said...

Do you still have that article from years ago that proposed a rating system for worship songs? This article kinda reminded me of that.

srhoyle said...

check your e-mail. it's also here: