A theology of worship: stumbling towards mystery

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This article was originally published here and has been reproduced with kind permission of the author in order to further the conversation.

Dan writes... To formulate a rich and powerful theology of worship is to engage the most essential questions of humankind, the most vital revelations of human history, and the most practical activities of human experience. In short, to embrace that a clear theology of worship is not only helpful, but of highest human necessity, is to begin to see the full scope of the silver thread of worship that weaves throughout this magical universe.

Found On Other Planets: Worship Cosmologist George Ellis once suggested that if we communicate at some point with sentient life on other planets, we will find two things. Firstly, we will find that these creatures understand mathematics. Using their own terms, and building on their own histories, storytelling, discoveries and biology, these beings will understand the majestic order that provides a framework for understanding the shape and tendencies of such a rambunctious, chaotic universe. Secondly, Ellis suggests that these creatures will understand what he calls the “Kenotic Ethic.” The word “kenotic” comes from the Greek word “kenosis,” which means “to empty.” Ellis suggests that our new celestial friends will understand that giving oneself, emptying oneself, epitomized in Jesus’ self-offering in the garden of Gethsemane, is the only true way to peace, healing and restoration in any given universe.

While these two ideas are bright with beauty and possibility, I would add at least one more probability to Ellis’ duo. I would add that upon meeting these creatures, and hearing about the nature of their life, history and daily experience, we would begin to hear - very soon into the conversation - words and ideas related to worship. In the fabric of the universe is an impulse – an impulse to live in, return to, and reclaim the proper order of things. It is an impulse toward Eden, toward origins and beginnings. Our destabilization (what we call the Fall on earth) has created a sense of longing vibrating in every human cell (Scripture also suggests it resonates in the entirety of this creation) for a relationship that encompasses other human beings, creation and yet something beyond. That impulse and intuition seems to largely endure in individuals, guided by particular visions of faith and stories of reality, if not consciously restrained.

It is a desire to return to love, to return to the dance, to return to the life of adoration (and the life that flows among us when we live in this state) for which we are made. Worship is the completing of the circle of love into which we have been invited by a self-revealing God. To misunderstand worship, to fail to articulate its content and themes well, is to fail to find the meaning pregnant in every spousal kiss, act of kindness, mundane chore, serendipitous glance and invigorating breath.

Everything we are, and everything we do, hinges on our conscious approach to developing a living theology of worship that takes into account the wildest gifts and deepest rifts that exist in the human consciousness - and in the creation in which we find ourselves.

Digital And Analog Worship Theology Let’s get something out of the way, for starters. Theology that is digital - that is all 1’s and 0’s- makes no living sense to this generation. Digital theology is surgically precise theology. It is manifest in ways of seeing, thinking and talking about God that leave little room for error, aberration or dissonance. Something in our makeup tells us that holy mysteries, as Peterson puts it, should never be reduced to slogans or simple answers.

Analog theology, however, is filled with the hiss and the sounds of the stories in which we live. In analog recording, there is no objective, musical “perfection” with which all things line up neatly and are defined as “the perfect music.” There are options, with principles leading, guiding and ultimately shaping the music. The stories of your life and mine are filled with the raw noise of experience, and the experience of those who have gone before us. The Bible seems to affirm that this kind of experience is not only common, but it may be at the very center of the way that God interacts with His world.

If theology is approached as a systematic math equation, leading us to a true understanding of God and our place in His world, then it had better be the longest, most obtuse, most breathtaking and infinite math equation of them all. The reason we as human beings are storytelling creatures (and are drawn to stories like bees to honey), is because we innately understand that we live in a relational narrative, rather than a concise equation.

Theology that is rich, strong, true, and ultimately biblical, is theology that holds in it the analog hiss, the mystery, the wonder, the pain of being a human being in a shared cosmic and communal story. If worship theology will begin to take us toward envisioning the God of heaven and the earth from the foundation of expressed revelation (the Scriptures), then we had better get this straight from the top. Any journey in worship theology worth our time will be messy, wonderful, exhilarating and sickening. Worship theology that is pristine and polished is all 1’s and 0’s - helpful for doing the math of theology, but ultimately inadequate for incarnationally living it out in the world we inhabit.

To say it one more way, if for a moment we believe that essence of worship can be fully captured in a few slogans, scriptures or quick statements, then we had better dismiss the complexity inherent to the cosmos, or even the incomparable mystery of the Sovereign Father, Resurrected Son and Indwelling Spirit active in this very moment of your life and mine.

We Start With Something To our great benefit, and in contrast to the what the voices of the new atheism may say, I (possibly ‘we’ if you are a Christian reading this) believe that the God of the universe has not remain hidden, nor will he suffer Himself to be disconnected from His works of art. He doesn’t play games with humanity, thrusting us into this undulating universe and then throwing away any description of why we might be here.

How vile this thought would be, to stare into the stunning starfields at night and to believe that our gift of consciousness for beholding these wonders will simply to lead us to the ultimate trap of meaninglessness and further unknowing. One would think that the joy of discovery for any scientist is just that, a joy, because it feels as though it is leading us somewhere. The Celtic Christians would have lifted their voices centuries ago and cried out, “No! Leading us to Someone.” A destination that ends in a Person was all that the Celtic believers could perceive not only as an accurate way of knowing and being, but as a truly worthwhile form of knowing and being.

The God we worship as Christians is a God who self reveals - who invites us into revelation by not remaining hidden, not remaining distant. This is a God who suffers with, suffers for, suffers among. This is a God who takes on flesh and blood, who incarnates to make His point. This kind of God is the opposite of the “unknown force” that leads us to discoveries only for the purpose of acquiring knowledge, feeling good about the progress of the race, heightening our evolution (to what end?) and placing ourselves on the throne of the All-Knowing One because we found hydrogen in a dust cloud. Majestic as science is, and fantastical as human spirituality and intuition can be, a God who leaves us to fend for ourselves seems to me to be the ultimate Poor Parent.

We are given a guide - the Scriptures - to lead us forward as living communities welcoming the Spirit’s leadership. Despite our diverse understandings of these authoritative letters, histories, songs, prophecies and stories, we are rooted by the Bible in a vision of God offered across tumultuous time through a single tribe in our ancient human family - the Jews. If we have enough imagination to recognize that this is indeed what God has done to self-reveal - He has particularly selected a people through which to speak a story into the world (in an age where the faulty concept of tolerance is deified, this is untenable) - then we have begun our journey toward becoming truly human in the way of Jesus.

Getting Beyond The Music Because this God draws near, there is purpose to a life, to our relationships, to the creation and to the dance into which we are invited with God Himself. This is the foundational theme that should run through any theology of worship to which we come. The cosmos has a purpose - it is part of a Story, not existing as its own story.

As we begin to consider a theology and worldview of worship (the theme of our Essentials Blue online seminar), there are a few factors we must always come back to if we are to be thorough. We must get far beyond the music of worship, the liturgies of worship, the affections we may have for certain types of gathered worship. In fact, we must even get beyond simplistic visions of the “living sacrifice” of worship that is our current ruling framework for a worshipper’s life in the Church. While important and beautiful in its reflection on worship, it is only one idea about worship (and again, a stunning and magnificent one at that), and one that makes us the Subject of the sentence, and God the object.

Embracing this, we must begin to formulate a narrative voicing of worship theology that makes God the Subject of the sentence, the one who enacts all the verbs of relationship, toward the Objects of His affection. Worship begins in God, finds its definition in God’s actions, and its fruit and welcoming opportunities in us - the objects of God’s pursuing love.

I will note here how we begin to approach such an expansive idea as worship theology here at the Institute Of Contemporary And Emerging Worship Studies. All of our online seminars, courses, webinars and Masters courses seek to pursue the articulation, and sacramental embodying of these ideas, in creative spiritual leaders across the planet. It is my hope that our framework, though flawed, can serve as a starting point for the integration of the vast worlds of faith, the arts, history, the sciences, culture, anthropology, ecology and all spheres of human relationships and experience in our approach to worship.

Toward Formulating A Theology Of Worship While any grid for approaching the wide and wild world of worship will have its flaws, this approach has proven very helpful to hundreds of worship leaders, creative artists, musicians, pastors and worship leaders across the world. Drawing on N.T. Wright’s book, Simply Christian, we seek to frame a worship theology and worldview that is understandable and compelling to the postmodern mind. From the reflections on worship theology and worldview that flow among our groups, a wide variety of artistic, creative and innovate embodiments of worship theology rise from the hearts of participants. If the artists speak a living Story that is more compelling than the stories of the age, we may have a chance to lead people to encounter with the God who injects His life into each person’s unique Story, and seeds it with the holy virus of New Creation.

Here are our three categories, forming a trinity of ideas that tumble over one another in formulating what might begin to be a more comprehensive worship theology than we may have embraced to date.

1. Our Theology Of Worship should first articulate a clear view of who we believe that God has revealed Himself to be. As human beings, seeking to perceive Who God is and how we are to relate to Him, we turn to reflection on:

God as Creator (the God who makes),

God as King (the God who reigns),

God as Trinity (the God who relates and reveals) and

God as Savior (the God who acts).

2. Our Theology Of Worship should articulate a clear view of who we believe that human beings are revealed to be. As human beings perceiving and exploring the wonders of the God who makes, reigns, relates/reveals and acts, we next turn to reflection on:

Human beings as SubCreators (people who make and share),

Human beings as ImageBearers (people who reign and steward),

Human beings as CommunityBuilders (people who relate and reveal) and

Human beings as SalvificStorytellers (people who tell and act)

3. Our Theology Of Worship should articulate a clear view of what worship is given that God is the subject of worship, and people are the object of God’s affection.

Finally, as human beings who now, from our vantage point, seek to be in the center of “the design of things,” we move toward reflection on:

Worship as a Creative Act (to worship is to make and to share the gifts of that making),

Worship as a Royal Act (to worship is to steward and benevolently reign in creation),

Worship as a Relational Act (to worship is to relate rightly to God, people, the creation and the whole community of living and non-living things), and

Worship as a Narrative Act (to worship is to tell and retell a story that provides the optimal context for the universe, and to act in accord with that story).

In light of these three steps toward developing a theology (and practice) of worship, I believe that we can safely find a haven for all of the experiences that mark the human condition, the revelations that God has so generously distributed to us in the Scriptures (and in creation), the creativity that flows from us as we seek to commune with the invisible God in this world, and possible solutions to bear to the world for moving us toward the New Creation that is to come - a new creation inaugurated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

For Those Interested In More For those interested in furthering their reflection on this vision of worship, we offer our online Essentials Course. Online via Facebook, iTunes U and blogs we explore ideas in Worship Theology and Worldview (Essentials Blue - Simply Christian), Worship History and Creative Vocation (Essentials Red - Ancient-Future Time) and Worship Values and Spiritual Formation (Essentials Green - Devotional Classics). All courses are offered in a 5 week, innovative seminar format for worshipping Christians in any stream of the Church, with an emphasis on musicians, worship leaders and creative artists. The Essentials Course is also available for university credit through St. Stephen’s University in New Brunswick, Canada.

We also have an upcoming, full year Essentials Worship Team Subscription for any local church wanting us to help them to nurture their worship team or creative ministry’s vision of worship. This subscription includes the Essentials Course, monthly webinars, group study tools and more, and is already being piloted with hundreds of worship musicians around the world. Contact us for more information at the site, sign up for our newsletter, and look for info to come.

The Institute Of Contemporary And Emerging Worship Studies seeks to be a nexus of worship past, present and future for the equipping of the contemporary and emerging Church of the 21st century.

Dan Wilt, M.Min. Director, The Institute Of Contemporary And Emerging Worship Studies, St. Stephen’s University