Worship: Maintaining theological soundness

Worship: Maintaining theological soundness and cultural relevance

In Revelation 14:6, 7, John offers an integrative framework for worship leaders to forge authentic worship services. How does this text inform our thinking?

Alain Coralie, MDiv, MTh, is associate secretary for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in East Africa, headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya.

Part two of a two-part series

Editor’s note: In part one (January 2009), the author reviewed the current trends in worship that emphasize the emotional and the subjective in worship experience. This concluding part provides a theological framework for worship within the understanding of Revelation 14:6, 7, to assure a balance between subjective and objective, emotional and theological content of worship.

In a world where people are eager to embrace mystery and give more space to their intuition, personal involvement becomes the key word. Reflecting on today’s worshipers, Kenda Dean writes, “To them worship is a verb. ‘To worship’ is to invoke God’s immediacy—God’s awesome ‘nowness’ in which the divine presence is subjectively apprehended.”1 This experiencing of God is a fully active and dynamic engagement.

The Praise and Worship movement (P&W) and its newest cousin, the Emergent church, can be seen as a response to a thirst for more intimate religious experiences. The type of music (most often soft popular or light rock) plays an important part in the ability of P&W to resonate with the current generation with no need to revisit the past and sing unfamiliar words and unusual tunes to meet the God of the ages.

This vernacular approach also manifests itself in the texts used. Most of them are kept simple, current, and short. Although many of the songs are based on passages of Scripture, they are generally devoid of deep theological meaning. Rather, they stress heartfelt thanks and praise for God’s greatness and goodness. The common use of PowerPoint technology in worship services also favors greater bodily freedom than hymnals would allow. Hence, contemporaneousness and accessibility are paramount to P&W.

Another element of this experiential nature of P&W music focuses on songs to God rather than songs about God. British theologian Pete Ward argues that this shift denotes a move from objective to reflexive worship.2 Whereas traditional hymns tend to be centered more on the “objective” rehearsal of salvation history, contemporary songs tend to stress more our feelings and emotions toward God. Thus, they see God as being actively involved here and now, eager to touch and transform lives.

This emphasis on God’s immanence results in a welcome change, for in worship we do not exalt a God locked in time or impervious to our praise and adoration. Yet, worship also needs to take into account the transcendence of God because He is “a God at hand . . . and not a God afar off” (Jer. 23:23, KJV). Hence, limiting the worship of God to a present experience seems rather restrictive and does not keep in balance the biblical tension that should inform contemporary worship. This leads me to raise two important issues regarding worship.

Emotionalism and individualism

The fi rst area of concern includes emotionalism that is never far away when “belief is demoted, [and] experience promoted.”3 Too often, the value of worship experience runs the risk of being measured almost exclusively by the feelings it generates, thus divorcing intellect from Christian experience.

In a milieu where people take experience and emotions very seriously and consider propositional truth as a social construct, fine points of doctrines tend to become simply irrelevant. However, detaching worship from theological reflection on God and His mighty works cannot be helpful to congregations. Church members should not only be encouraged to express their feelings to God but also be challenged to think. The notion that we come into the presence of God just to relax simply stunts spiritual growth and hampers theological reflection. Indeed, such types of sentimentalism are antithetic to a true engagement with God. Worship, as holistic in nature, should involve all our faculties.

The second area of concern is the notion of individualism. In an age where people thirst for a spiritual experience, what matters most is the human-divine contact. Many of the contemporary songs stress the individual expression of faith.

The overuse of the I and me instead of the we and us in lyrics reveals that tendency. Such expressions of individual experiences extol God for His care and mercies toward the believer. Yet, a question remains, Are they simply expressions of an inward-looking faith? We need to be reminded that the original meaning and nature of corporate worship should be communal, not individualistic. Worship includes a dialogue and a communion along vertical and horizontal axes, as it unites us both with God and one another. The songs we sing and the worship we conduct should not fail to express the communal nature of our faith.

Revelation 14:6, 7, as an integrative framework

The dual impact of the Seeker Service and the Praise and Worship movements within a postmodern cultural context has introduced new dynamics in many congregations. This major shift should encourage us to examine more carefully the essence of worship. Unfortunately, the church has often failed to articulate a clear theology of worship. As a result, debates over worship revolve around style rather than substance.

If it is true that the challenge for pastors comprises being alert to the cultural conditions in which they operate, they should also aim at having solid biblical grounding. This means that while pastors do not need to repudiate contemporary culture to be faithful to God, they do not need to conform to every aspect of that culture to be effective in reaching worshipers. Christian calling manifests itself alternatively in embrace and resistance, depending on different aspects of the ambient culture. Only solid theological engagement can provide such a stance.

In Revelation 14:6, 7, John offers such a theological ground—an integrative framework for worship leaders to forge authentic worship services. The passage declares, “Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people. He said in a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water’ ” (NIV).

How can this text inform our thinking? First, it delineates a key aspect of worship that is gospel-centeredness. Second, the verse from Revelation offers clear guidelines.

Gospel-centered worship

Despite its strong symbolism, the text contains an important consideration— the “eternal gospel” (v. 6) constitutes the basis of true worship. This emphasis on the gospel reflects the essence of the Christian kerygma. The good news is that Christ, through His victory on the cross, has brought salvation to the human race and made true worship possible.

At the heart of the gospel stands not only a glorified cross and an empty tomb but also a living and coming Christ who now ministers in the heavenly sanctuary. In other words, Christian worship looks not only backward to the past but also forward to the future, while also focusing on the present—Christ’s ministry in “the presence of God for us” (Heb. 9:24, NKJV). The author of the letter to the Hebrews clearly points out Christ as our Leitourgos (Heb. 8:2), our heavenly Liturgist, who gathers in His life and person the worship and prayer of His people. In a remarkable way, He is both the One we worship and the “Worshiper.” As the supreme revelation of the Father (John 1:18; Col. 1:15, 16) and the only way of salvation, Christ deserves all the praise and honor of the entire creation. As the Mediator of the new covenant, He cleanses and purifies our tainted worship and prayers to offer them spotless to the Father. Within such a vision, the local worship leader does not act on behalf of worshipers but among them, in recognition that a single High Priest now serves on our behalf in the heavenly sanctuary.

Viewed this way, the gospel can be a powerful and liberating insight for worship leaders. It puts things in perspective by reminding us that Christ, not the market or culture, is Lord. By overlooking the fact that worship is our response to God’s redemptive provisions in Christ, many pastors have often been burdened by a sense of over anxiety concerning forms and accessories of worship rather than content and truth. Hence, many pastors have been overtaken by an urge to design user-friendly anthropocentric worship services to attract people rather than focusing on the transforming power of the Cross. Therefore, we cannot overemphasize the fundamental principle of attraction in worship: Christ and Him crucifi ed (1 Cor. 2: 1), not our ingenious ceremonies or entertaining rituals.

Thus, true worship will be possible only as focused on the gospel, and if its ethos and forms reflect the liberating message of Jesus Christ.

Worshiping God is not an option; it is a gospel imperative. Revelation 14:6 describes the eternal gospel as one that concerns the entire globe and addresses “every nation, tribe, language and people.” Contrary to the postmodern ethos that tends to turn worship into a nicely packaged and fuzzy product, Revelation 14 points to a threefold imperative of true worship. Look at verse 7: “ ‘Fear God . . . give him glory. . . . Worship him.’ ” Let’s explore these essentials.

Imperatives in worship

Fear God. While worship can easily slip into personal preference or prejudice, the angel summons the nations to fear God. The biblical notion of “fear” (phobeo) suggests reverence, respect, and honor to God. God is God, the Wholly Other. Fear develops into the appropriate response to the greatness of God, especially as it relates to His mighty acts of salvation and judgment. To fear God does not mean to be afraid of Him, but to take Him seriously. It demands full surrender of all aspects of our lives to Him.4

The notion of fearing God can be very odd in an age where worship services often lack a sense of awe. Marva Dawn refers to it as “the postmodern lack of genuine ‘fear’ for God.”5 Dawn claims that the scriptural tension between fear and love has been lost in many churches because of the trend toward cheap grace and the muting of God’s justice.6 As a result, we often end up with services infused with tepid sentimentalism geared at making worshipers feel happy rather than confronting them in their innermost being and challenging their complacencies.

Worship tailored only with the spiritual consumer in mind will be profoundly lacking in heightening a sense of God’s glory and holiness. It will tend to adopt “a cozy and sentimental Jesusolatry”7 and reduce the living God to an indistinct Lord, i.e., one with no explicit references to biblical history.

Consequently, we can safely assume that one of the biblical guidelines for our age contains an invitation to be re-sensitized to a due sense of fear in worship. This fear cannot be an initiative from below, one purely and humanly crafted. Rather, fear has to come from the worshiping community’s realization that they serve a God who is exalted above the heavens (Pss. 57:11; 108:4). Only a theology that exalts God’s glory and purpose along with the eschatological presence of the Holy Spirit in worshiping communities can bring that sense of awe and reverence. To this effect, the angel’s summon to fear God embodies a wake-up call to our worship leaders to embrace the biblical paradigm of a transcendent God who is just and holy.

Give glory to Him. To glorify God as seen in Revelation 14 is the second imperative of worship. The supreme purpose of God creating humans is to glorify Him (Matt. 5:16; Rom. 1:21; 1 Cor. 6:20, 10:31; Eph. 1:12; Phil. 1:11). The angel summons the nations to fear God and glorify Him for “ ‘the hour of his judgment has come’ ” (Rev. 14:7, NIV). Clearly, the global scope of the angel’s message recaptures the Old Testament hopes of nations being united in the worship of the true God. David emphasizes this call to the nations to worship God in Psalm 96:7–10:

Ascribe to the LORD, O families of nations, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.

Ascribe to the LORD the glory due to his name; . . .

Worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness; tremble before him, all the earth. . . .

He will judge the peoples with equity (NIV).

In an age where laxity and casualness are often celebrated as virtues, the very notion of judgment must be quite shocking. Yet, on the positive side, worship can be greatly improved if congregations are reminded of their accountability to God. He who inspires and enables our worship also judges it. He who empowers us also brings us into account (Rev. 1:10–3:22). This becomes especially important at a time when “false worship is as much a possibility as true worship, and that the distinction between the two is not always crystal clear.”8

Interestingly, the term giving glory to God contains a dialectical tension that characterizes balanced worship: reverence and joyfulness. Sadly, the two extremes of the Christian spectrum have often tended to stress one at the expense of the other. Traditionalists have stressed reverence, charismatics have emphasized enthusiasm, and those in the middle have often fallen short of both.

Certainly, only a God who comes to us with grace and judgment, justice and love can inspire such apparently contradictory and simultaneous responses as respect and joyfulness, reverence and jubilation. This dialectical tension needs to be kept alive for worship to remain theologically sound and experientially meaningful.

Worship Him is the third imperative of worship. Etymologically, the core meaning of the verb worship emphasizes submission and homage.9 The meaning surpasses the common restrictive use of worship to congregational services to embrace the fuller range of “Christian life and thought and experience.”10

The angel of Revelation 14 points to the true ground of divine worship: the distinction of God as Creator “ ‘who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water’ ” (v. 7, NIV). Here the angel gives a salutary reminder that we worship God not only because He created us but also because we were created for Him (Rev. 4:11). That’s not all. The angel summons us to worship God for three interlinked reasons:

• Because He is the Creator (worship him who made the heavens and earth)

• Because He is the Redeemer (the eternal Gospel)

• Because He is the Judge (the hour of His judgment has come)

As we look at these three reasons for divine worship, we cannot but note a glorious parallel to these three characteristics of God in the call to worship and obedience found in the Decalogue (Exod. 20:1–11).

God is Creator: “ ‘For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them’ ” (v. 11, NIV).

He is Redeemer: “ ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery’ ” (v. 2, NIV).

He is Judge: “ ‘For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing . . . those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments’ ” (vv. 5, 6, NIV).

If this theological framework with themes such as creation, redemption, judgment, eschatology, and the Sabbath informs our concept of worship, our worship emphasis and style will take on a theocentric and eschatological emphasis. As argued already, one of the problems in contemporary worship is its anthropocentric tendencies. Many programs, ideas, and ministries revolve around human wants and desires instead of the primacy of God, His love, holiness, and justice. A human-centered mentality distorts the nature of true worship by displacing God from the center. True worship, as a matter of proper focus, “must first be God-focused and then be human sensitive.”11 Pastors should, therefore, put things in proper perspective when it comes to such a sensitive issue as worship.

Conclusion

With these biblical guidelines in perspective, I now proffer a brief ensemble of ideas that necessitate further consideration by worshiping communities. I believe an urgent need exists for spiritual leaders to:

1. Move from the prevalent anthropological model (in which the ambient culture predominantly defines how worship is conducted) to a more theologically robust model (in which theology courageously engages culture, alternatively accommodating or rejecting its varied aspects).

2. Craft worship services by taking into account the eschatological dimension of faith.

3. Carefully choose and train worship leaders. Some of them are good singers but not good theologians, and fine singing does not make up for sound theology.

4. Stay away from nebulous spirituality that makes Christianity simply a matter of feelings.

5. Make sure that sermons explore the exceeding riches of biblical truth.

6. Connect the worship experience to real life by creating space in the worship service not only for celebration, but also for reflection, confession, repentance, and mourning. A danger exists in constantly requiring people to be joyful and happy within the worship context, when they are struggling and hurting in life.

7. Make worship more intercultural and intergenerational rather than being narrowly selective and potentially divisive. Multichurch services for different ages, worship styles, musical tastes, and ethnic categories are bound to lead in a number of unhealthy directions. A better way to go could be blended services where elements of tradition, contemporary culture, and innovation cross-fertilize to enrich the worship experience.

 

1 Kendra Creasy Dean, “Moshing for Jesus: Adolescence
as a Cultural Context for Worship,” in Tim Dearborn and
Scott Coil, eds., Worship at the Next Level: Insight from
Contemporary Voices
(Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004).

2 Pete Ward, Selling Worship: How What We Sing Has Changed
the Church
(Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2005), 207.

3 David Lyon, Jesus in Disneyland: Religion in Postmodern
Times
(Oxford: Polity, 2000), 94.

4 Ranko Stefanovic, Revelation of Jesus Christ: Commentary
on the Book of Revelation
(Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews
University Press, 2002), 441–443.

5 Marva Dawn, How Shall We Worship? (Wheaton, IL:
Tyndale, 2003), 49, 50.

6 Ibid., 50–52.

7 Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An
Introduction to Christian Theology
(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
1991), 65.

8 Ian Boxall, Revelation: Vision and Insight: An Introduction to
the Apocalypse
(London: SPCK, 2002), 155.

9 Howard Marshall in New Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed. (Leicester:
IVP, 2003), 1250.

10 D. A. Carson, Worship: Adoration and Action (Grand Rapids:
Baker Book House, 1993), 15.

11 R. Kent Hughes, “Free Church Worship: the Challenge of
Freedom,” in D. A. Carson, ed., Worship by the Book (Grand
Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 151.

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Alain Coralie, MDiv, MTh, is associate secretary for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in East Africa, headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya.

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