of Worship Language
Worship Language Study
Chapter 1/Introduction: Whose Language?
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“I praise you Father...because you have hidden these things
from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.
Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure”
Luke 10:21, NIV
For roughly two thousand years Christians have gathered to worship God, in which time much worship language has flowed. What is this worship language? Language is the medium—taking on a wide variety of forms—of communication for relational connection, though this connection is often not the relational outcome. We all experience breakdowns in our communication, indicating that language regularly does not adequately serve its relational function. Married couples, for example, often need counseling to help them communicate in order to save the relationship from breakdown. This should alert us to the very real possibility that our worship language in relationship with God also does not serve meaningful communication—that is, to make relational connection in significance to God. In all that our language presents to the triune God as worship, who and what does God hear from us? In our worship expressions, what constitutes acceptable worship language to God? Even more basic, does God accept any worship?
Scripture tells us, no, God does not accept just any worship, that not everything we present to him pleases him. More than a possibility, it is likely that our language actually impedes relational connection. Jesus pointedly addressed this issue about worship language when he rebuked some Pharisees and scribes saying, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain, their teachings are but rules taught by men” (Mk 7:6-7; Mt 15:8-9; Isa 29:13, NIV). First he rejects worship language lacking relational involvement of their hearts (the heart signifying the whole person functioning from inner out), that is, words composed in worship language while uttered (“honor me with lips”) at a relational distance (“hearts far from me”). He then exposes their worship language as “in vain” (matēn, without purpose, useless) because it is unable to make relational connection with God and thus doesn’t fulfill the primary communicative purpose of language—though such worship language did fulfill a secondary purpose for its users that easily becomes the primary basis for worship practice.
What we hear from Jesus illuminates our understanding of the process needed for relational connection with God. Useless worship language is not a mere cessation of speech but composed a substitute language originating from “teachings/rules taught by men” (or “human tradition”); that is, this substitute language is our default "native" language shaped by our human contexts and essentially functions to simulate worship rather than communicate relational response. Even with any good intentions, this default language has critical relational consequences. Because this language is uttered from a relational distance (even unintentionally), it conflicts with God’s distinguishing relational language that composes God’s relational imperatives (“commandments,” (Mk 7:8-9; see Jn 4:23-24), which are only for his primary purpose of making relational connection with the whole and holy God. Here, then, are two languages in conflict with each other, and their difference must be accounted for because they are incompatible in spite of the similarity of their words.
The inescapable question we are faced with is whose language we use in worship. Our worship language is either God’s relational language—the language from God’s very heart that ‘sings’ only for intimate relational connection together (intimacy defined as hearts open and making the deepest connection together)—or language that keeps us at a relational distance, confined in limits we impose on ourselves and God. The latter is a substitute language for God’s relational language. Throughout this study we call this substitute language referential language, that is composed by a narrowed-down interpretive process (hermeneutic) using quantitative and generalized terms to convey information rather than having the qualitative and relational-specific meaning to communicate to God. We speak referential language fluently and expertly, as we will see—especially in this information age dominated by social media—and this creates a hermeneutical impasse in our worship language.
In the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ many interactions with persons, the issue of ‘whose language’ persons uttered in Jesus’ presence emerged repeatedly. As Jesus openly and vulnerably extended his whole person to others solely for relational connection (composing his distinguished ‘relational context’), they were faced with the choice to engage him reciprocally with their own person vulnerably, or to keep relational distance and remain relationally apart.
When Jesus visited Martha and Mary in the well-known narrative from Luke’s Gospel (Lk 10:38-42), Mary chose to engage with Jesus by making quite a counter-cultural move. Yet, she did not simply defy a cultural norm by leaving a woman’s place in the kitchen with Martha in order to sit at the teacher’s feet to study. Rather, her bold move was to step out of the constraints of being defined by her context that would keep her at a relational distance from Jesus, and stepped into Jesus’ relational context to be directly relationally involved with Jesus with her whole person. Martha’s response was indirect and her involvement more generalized, whereas Mary was relationship specific. Jesus was obviously pleased, and affirmed Mary for having chosen the “better part” where she now belonged permanently (v.42; cf. Jn 8:35-36). Her action reciprocally responded to Jesus’ initiative of coming into their house for such relational connection. Later we discuss Mary’s beautiful response of worship that needs to become paradigmatic for all worshipers, because she was a rare one who received Jesus’ relational language and ‘sang’ back in his relational language in worship to make intimate relational connection with him (again, intimacy defined as open and vulnerable hearts making the deepest connection together). Mary’s compatible, reciprocal response and vulnerable involvement with Jesus make her a definitive witness for us to learn from for our own growth in God’s relational language for worship.
Jesus’ relational context in this narrative illuminates the significance of the new covenant enacted by God’s relational grace and later to be sealed with Jesus’ blood (Mt 26:27; Mk 14:24; Lk 22:20). The new covenant isn’t just any context but the distinguished relational context in which we can come face to face with the transcendent and holy (uncommon) God; it is therefore a holy (uncommon) relational context that necessitates submitting to God’s terms defined by his relational response of grace (beyond a gift to possess). God’s relational grace is the only basis (nonnegotiable and irreducible) on which we ‘sing’ in God’s relational language to make relational connection with the whole and holy God. Mary’s move from human contextualization of her person (for which the kitchen is an apt metaphor for women) to Jesus’ relational context therein clearly composes the melody of this requisite response to God’s relational terms for the new covenant relationship together. Therefore, functioning apart from this nonnegotiable relational basis of grace—which referential language reduces to a generalized word without its full relational significance—we will only remain defined and determined by our human context and its limits notably constrained by referential language. Consider the limits that Martha allowed herself to function in, staying out of tune at a constrained (perhaps comfortable) relational distance from Jesus (Lk 10:40; cf. Jn 8:35-36). It is therefore vital for us to account for the new covenant and its composing relational grace in order for our worship language to be transposed into God’s relational language for the outcome of making relational connection with the whole and holy God. This constitutes grace as the nonnegotiable basis of the new covenant and the ongoing base for our response of worship in this relationship together.
Worshiping God in his relational language as Mary did is in contrast to and conflict with so much of who and what we present to the whole and holy God as worship today. Given the reciprocal nature of covenant relationship together—which thus includes indispensable relational responsibilities for both God and us—God rightly expects more from us (as we certainly expect much from God!) when we come together to worship. Yet, this more in worship that God seeks cannot be found in conventional indicators of more focused on outer-in aspects that we often look to (intentionally or unintentionally) in order to determine what is significant—notably in a comparative process of what we do or have (e.g. structure of worship service, volume of the music, numbers of people in attendance, offerings collected). Nor is the more that God seeks found in the primacy of our ministries, for example, as Martha served Jesus, or our response of service to the poor, marginalized, and oppressed persons, though that response has an important place in church practice. Jesus conclusively clarified the primary priority of discipleship in worship as vulnerably engaged by Mary (Jn 12:1-8, to be discussed in chap. 3).
The more that God seeks in his worshipers is the primacy of the qualitative depth of our whole person from inner out—what Jesus refers to as “in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23-24)—in relational response that is compatible with who, what and how the whole and holy God is. Any primary focus on the quantitative more and on the secondary response of service are expressions shaped by the human contextualization of worship, the secondary nature of which God does not accept for the purpose of relational connection. Ever since God entered into covenant relationship with humans, God has given priority to relationships in the ‘covenant of love’ (Dt 7:7-9), which by the nature of covenants are reciprocal; covenant with God is not just any relationship but with persons and a people functioning ‘whole’ from inner out with who, what and how God is (as in “be whole,” tamiym, Gen 17:1).
The more that God seeks is also with whole persons comprising a people, which therefore cannot be limited to each individual’s life and worship. God continues to call persons into ongoing communion together with God in the new covenant, the distinguished relationship sealed in Jesus’ blood at his last table fellowship (Lk 22:20). This ongoing communion together antecedes, underlies and composes Communion (i.e. the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper), the integral practice of which Paul made conclusive for the church to be whole (1 Cor 11:17-29). This new covenant relationship with God is corporate relationship together as God’s very own people on only the relational terms of the whole and holy God. It was at Jesus’ last and pivotal table fellowship that Jesus declared this fulfillment in “the blood of the new covenant,” thus becoming the functional bridge of the new covenant to the ecclesiology of whole persons in whole relationships together as the new creation family constituted in the whole of God (the Trinity). This is the irreducible relational context and nonnegotiable relational process for our worship to have significance to God, and in which our worship language must be translated into God’s language in order to communicate for the relational connection to be made.
There is always a tension and conflict between God’s relational context and our human context due to their respective natures. Certainly Jesus does not call us to escape our human context, for example, as seen among ascetics. However, while on this earth we will always be lured by and susceptible to the powerful influence of reductionism that shapes and constructs human contextualization, particularly how we define our person, define God and interpret God’s words. In other words, human contextualization, inseparable from reductionism and its counter-relational work, is a formidable force that ongoingly contests our life and practice as God’s people. When not accounted for, our worship language reflects the extent of our human shaping from human contextualization of our person and these relationships, diminishing whole persons and minimalizing whole relationships that are rightfully God’s. The lure is nearly irresistible yet so subtle that we can no longer continue to assume that the triune God accepts our worship nor assume to be the worshipers the Father seeks.
At his pivotal table fellowship, Jesus prayed for us to be distinguished from the prevailing context (“the world,” kosmos), just as Jesus distinguished himself (“sanctify myself, so they may be sanctified,” Jn 17:19). Following him on his relational terms transforms us from inner out to establish definitively who we are and whose we are in transformed relationships together (Jn 17:14-19; Rom 6:3-4). This is the process of sanctification, to be set apart from the common. The outcome is to distinguish his new creation family (from inner out) from human contextualization that merely constructs the appearance of it (from outer in). Thus also distinguishes our worship and worship language from our human context and its native language in referential terms, even while remaining in this context yet not of it.
In the new covenant, the transcendent and holy God continues to enact by the Spirit his thematic relational action to ongoingly redeem us from the human relational condition “to be apart” from God’s relational whole, and transform us to be whole in his own family constituted in the Trinity. This new covenant relationship, like the old covenant, is defined solely by who and what the whole and holy God is and determined on the basis of how the Father, Son and Spirit so intimately interrelate as to be One (cf. Jn 17:21-23). Our whole person (signified by the qualitative function of the heart) must be redeemed and made whole from inner out in the qualitative image of God. Corporately, whole persons join together in transformed relationships as his new creation family in relational likeness of the whole of God, the Trinity. These relationships together are the dynamic of ecclesiology, the ecclesiology of the whole, distinguished in God’s relational language—‘singing’ the new song—of God’s whole relational context (not defined by human shaping) and God’s relational process (not determined by human contextualization). The dynamic of life of God’s relational context and process is defined as follows:
‘Singing’ is the integral relational dynamic of life that clearly distinguishes God’s family in the tune of the new song composed in the qualitative image and relational likeness of the whole of God.
This dynamic of life, ‘singing’ the new song of the new creation family, is brought into sharpest focus when God’s family comes together specifically to worship God as his family to make evident ‘the ecclesiology of worship’ in the context of the new covenant:
Worship is the integrating focus and integral convergence of our (individual and
corporate) compatible relational response to and vulnerable involvement with the whole of God.
This study examines worship language with the perspective and lens of this new creation family (ecclesiology of the whole), who we are and how we function together, which is the full significance of what God has saved us to, beyond only what he has saved us from—the latter by itself being a truncated salvation. In his thematic relational action throughout human history, God has redeemed persons, reconciled us, cleaned us up and adopted us into his own family constituted in the whole of God (the Trinity). We are now full members of God’s family in God’s relational whole. Whether and how we experience this—either as static doctrinal information or experiential reality—depends in large part on language, whose language we use. Do we use the language from human contextualization that constrains and reshapes the Word of God, essentially in our own image, or God’s own language that whole-ly discloses the Word? The former creates a hermeneutical impasse in worship language that prevents our ecclesiology from being whole in relationship together.
Scripture differentiates between two languages that are used in worship: relational language and referential language, both of which are present in any human tongue. Relational language is God’s language identified by Jesus as “my language” (lalian tēn emēn, Jn 8:43). “My language” openly disclosed the intimate family relationships within the Godhead in deep relational tones from the Father (e.g. Mk 1:11; Mt 3:17; 17:5; Jn 12:28b) and the Son (e.g. Mt 6:9-13; Jn 11:41; 12:28; 17:1-26). These deep tones disclose the whole of God’s intimate relational being and vulnerable involvement together for our benefit (e.g. Jn 12:30) because “my language” also defines the primacy of Jesus’ relational work to make us whole together in relationship to compose his new creation family. In this new song, Jesus embodies the whole of God’s communicative acts directly to us—not indirectly in generalized terms to convey information—thus fulfilling God’s definitive blessing (Num 6:24-26) with his very own face openly and vulnerably available to us now for face-to-face involvement together ‘without the veil’ (2 Cor 3:16-18; 4:6). God’s relational language is inseparable from his Face, functioning only for Face-to-face involvement with us. Undeniably, then, by God’s relational nature, God does not engage in a unilateral action, thus also does not speak unilaterally for unilateral relationship. We have a reciprocal relational responsibility for which we are accountable, individually and corporately.
Referential language is language that diminishes or ignores the qualitative-relational dynamics by giving primacy to quantitative aspects of communication such as information or outer aspects—e.g. about persons, what persons do or have; this includes giving primacy to persons’ situations and circumstances. In worship, then, referential language remains within the limits of what God does (e.g. in our life, in the world and constraining God to it) or has (attributes), and events of the church year. In other words, referential language competes and is in conflict with God’s relational language of relational involvement, desires and purposes for his covenant family. In this sense, referential language confines and shapes what we believe, functioning like a template, constraining us from straying ‘outside the lines’ of discourse. This is critical for our worship, evidenced in the unquestioned tendency of some to adhere strictly to traditions of liturgy focused on an outer-in approach. This is why Jesus highlighted the conflict between “my language” and Satan’s language who is “the father of lies” (Jn 8:43-44). If we speak the latter’s language, we cannot “hear the relational words of God” (8:47).
As we examine our worship language we are inevitably faced with our relational responsibility as God’s daughters and sons, our individual and corporate responsibility in the relational outcome of God’s initiative of relational grace toward us that is inseparable from his Face. We are faced with necessary redemptive change from inner out (metamorphoō, not outer-in change of metaschematizō, e.g. Rom 12:2). By holding us accountable, God affirms us and helps us to grow further and deeper together in relationship, which God desires and pursues us for in his own ongoing relational action in the gospel of wholeness. And because wholeness (šālôm) cannot be realized in disparate individuals—even a group of individuals—particular focus is given to our worship language and its integral importance to relationships together as God’s family, God’s relational whole. Relational language is only for the building up of God’s whole, thus worship language has an integrating function for the maturing into wholeness of the church in all our relational bonds together—in the relational outcome of the ecclesiology of worship. This uncommon relational context with its whole relational process is integral for the significance of worship of the whole and holy God.
I assume most church and worship leaders, worship thinkers and teachers in both church and academy understand and accept that most of our worship practices evolve by human shaping, that is, from human contextualization. Yet it is critical to understand that human contextualization is not a neutral influence when it comes to language, for there is an inherent conflict that necessarily arises between worship language that is from human shaping, that is, referential language, and the relational language that the whole and holy God speaks, and seeks from ‘true worshipers’ (Jn 4:23-24). Having said that, in one sense contextualization of worship language can be beneficial, even necessary, but only for the primary purpose of communication, the obvious example being corporate worship in one’s native tongue; this is not the issue of contextualization addressed in this study. The urgent issue addressed herein is that human contextualization has shifted our involvement in worship from the primacy God’s gives to relationship—in spite of many stated intentions by church and worship leaders, thinkers and teachers—to the primacy of secondary matters. The latter is normative in much worship today. This study highlights that unrecognized shift and the ignored conflict with God’s priority for worship. What, for example, makes us as worshipers any different from those whom God reprimands in Scripture for worship that they engage in on their own terms (e.g. Mt 15:8-9; Isa 29:13)? Referential language works counter-relationally, even when it refers to relationship (cf. 2 Cor 11:14-15). Our language determines either blessed outcomes or grim consequences, whether we build up the body of Christ or reduce it to some simulation of God’s whole, as Jesus exposed of the churches in his post-ascension discourse (Rev 2-3, to be discussed further in chap. 5).
Language is the means of communication necessary in all relationships, yet not always sufficient for a relationship. Language is often problematic as it causes misunderstanding or hurt even when we wish to make connection. Sometimes the problem is that we make assumptions; for example, we assume that we’ve clearly said what we mean and that the other person hasn’t listened; or, we haven’t listened well, yet assume we that know what the other person means when we don’t. Oftentimes, it seems as if we speak different languages, creating a gap too wide to overcome. Moreover, paradoxically, language is the means to create and maintain relational distance, as when we hide behind talk that doesn’t communicate our deeper selves to the other person. We like the idea of talking to make connection with a friend, for example, but in truth the quantity of talking creates an illusion of closeness—either intentionally or unintentionally; social media has compounded the illusion of connection. The effect of distance in relationships is to reduce persons and the relationship—that is true for the converse also—which God created (original and new) to be whole. Relationships strain in shallowness or break off in dissatisfaction.
These dynamics extend to our relationship with God, and how we function at church. The language used at church (‘churchspeak’) often creates illusions and tends to simulate meaningful practice but which, in effect, has little relational significance. In worship, our language can be a means to hide and maintain relational distance while talking—even unknowingly and unintentionally, even with sincere intentions otherwise. Part of this ongoing condition is due to assumptions about language in worship (both God’s and ours). Often we hear God’s words, don’t understand them, but pretend or assume we really do. If it often seems that God and we speak different languages, it is because in a real sense we do. This lack or absence of connection creates a hermeneutical impasse that must be addressed accordingly.
Worshiping God is only about our relationship together, namely reciprocal relationship on God’s relational terms. God’s terms means that if our worship language is to have any significance at all to the whole and holy God it must be compatible with God’s relational language. Yet whether we learn God’s relational language will depend on what language lens we use—that is, what we focus on and what we ignore. This will form the basis for the interpretation we use (our hermeneutic) for worship language. Generally, though not universally, hermeneutics involves interpretation that leads to understanding. In Hermeneutic of Worship Language, we are concerned with understanding both God and worship, and interpreting the context and process which leads to this integral understanding that indeed connects our worship significantly to God. We will examine what this understanding is, how we need to define it integrally in our practice, and how our understanding can be deepened.
Our hermeneutic of worship language will determine who and what God receives in worship, and, conjointly, will determine the depth of our maturity in relationship with God as his family—the significance of the ecclesiology of worship. This direct connection is made by the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, addressing persons who
were stuck on the basics of faith, like infants still feeding on milk, and unable to develop
beyond their hermeneutical impasse (Heb 5:11-13). In contrast, the writer says, those maturing and moving on to solid food use their organ or faculty of sense and perception, their “hermeneutical means” (aisthētērion, 5:14) to “distinguish” (diakrisis) God’s language and all his communicative actions and desires, as well as what opposes them (“good and evil”).
In an ironic though congruent twist to the matter of maturity, in the verse that opens this introduction, Jesus highlights “little children” to give definition to this hermeneutical means that the Hebrews writer ascribes to “the mature.” In a scene recorded in Luke’s Gospel (Lk 10:17-21), just moments after his disciples excitedly returned from an early mission, Jesus’ joy overflowed as he skipped and leapt ebulliently (agalliaō) in the Spirit, praising the Father. He praised the Father for having “hidden these things from the wise and intelligent” while revealing them “to little children [nēpios].” Little children represent the open and vulnerable hearts in relational response of trust from inner out in order to know someone. The relational involvement of these little children is the qualitative difference that stands in contrast to the measured, cautious and relationally distant stance of those who depend on their reason and rationalistic knowledge (information) about God. That quality represented in little children is wholeness of their person, not reduced by relational distance or being defined by what they can do. Furthermore, nēpios literally means “wordless,” a baby who is not yet talking. For those who function qualitatively and relationally like little children, having words—much less many words or the right words—and other features of spoken language at one’s disposal is not requisite for relationship that delights God. In fact, such words (as in churchspeak) often are substitutes for our whole person, hence relational barriers. The “hermeneutic of a ‘child’” points us to a deeper understanding of God’s language, which is only for the purpose of making relational connection on God’s relational terms. The hermeneutic of a ‘child’ challenges our assumptions about worship language that delights God’s heart; and this hermeneutic specifically exposes the hermeneutical impasse created by the referential language signified in the wise and learned (to be discussed further in chap. 4).
A hermeneutic of worship language presupposes a hermeneutic of worship, which I have written about in a previous study. The hermeneutic of worship needs not only to have a qualitative and relational focus, it also must distinguish between worship with relational barriers (the significance of remaining ‘in front of the curtain’, and ‘with the veil’), and worship without relational barriers (see Mk 15:38, 2 Cor 3:12-18, Heb 10:19-22)—discussed further in chapter four. Worship language in the OT Psalms certainly helps us with the qualitative and relational focus. The most significant key (both hermeneutical and functional) for us, however, is Jesus’ whole person in the incarnation. As the hermeneutical key, Jesus unmistakably reveals to us that worship without barriers involves the whole of God’s whole person openly and vulnerably extended to us, thereby making himself available for the deepest relational connection—with nothing less than and no substitutes for his very self (discussed in chap. 3). As the functional key, Jesus embodies the response of worship that requires of us to be relationally compatible —that is, the reciprocal response of nothing less and no substitutes of our person with the open and vulnerable involvement of our hearts from inner out—to have relational significance to the Father, as he disclosed conclusively to the Samaritan woman (Jn 4:21-24). Jesus is thus the relational key in whom our song of response needs to be composed. This is the experiential reality which Paul attests to (Acts 22:6-16; 26:12-18; 2 Cor 3:12-18; 4:6) for the church to embrace and function in to be whole in the relationships together composed by the ecclesiology of worship.
Therefore, while the hermeneutic of worship language may sound too academic to be helpful to us in practice, in reality it is only and all about the primacy of relationship together and having connection with the whole of God (the Trinity) and extending this primacy of communion to relationship together as sisters and brothers in the family of Christ, the body, his church—the communion constituted in the Trinity and emerging in likeness in his family as Jesus prayed (Jn 17:21-26). Such a hermeneutic is essential to the gospel we claim and proclaim, without which we don’t understand the gospel embodied in whole by Jesus (Col 1:19-20; 2:9-10; Eph 1:22-23; 2:14-22). This primacy of relationship is the relational significance to be whole in God’s relational whole, persons made whole from inner out, and living whole in the relationships necessary to be whole. And it is within this relational context and process that any and all worship of the whole and holy God is composed in relational significance as the worshipers the Father seeks.
We cannot, however, take wholeness for granted because there is an ongoing challenge to God’s relational whole and our wholeness: the presence and influence of reductionism—discussed throughout this study. Reductionism’s influence is the most formidable opponent to relational wholeness by fragmenting the person in relational distance with its counter-relational work, and thus permeates all facets of life, including worship and notably worship language. With the subtle use of referential terms, reductionism’s predominant influence in worship is to shift primacy of relationship to primacy of secondary aspects and activities in worship (e.g. music styles, genres of worship, forms, technology), reducing the worship context to a ‘secondary sanctuary’. This involves the shift from worship language as relational language in Jesus’ relational key, to referential language that in actual practice focuses primarily on the outer in and thereby keeps us off-key at a relational distance. As this study spotlights the influence of reductionism on our worship, it becomes unavoidable to face our individual and corporate participation and complicity in the reduction of God’s relational primacy. Herein lies the necessary challenge to some very deep-seated assumptions about some very beloved ways of “doing” worship. This process necessitates delving more deeply than only language to the more basic issue of how the person is defined and how relationships are engaged—that is, our underlying theological anthropology that we all subscribe to, knowingly or unknowingly.
A hermeneutic of worship language would only recapitulate conventional academic study if it focuses on how to talk worshipfully about God in referential language and thus ignores relational language. This study therefore does not take the path of recovering propositional truths, justifying the need for creeds, updating ancient worship practices, or seeking how to be relevant in changing demographics. Such focus merely tends to solidify the hermeneutical impasse to relational connection with the whole and holy God. We are, rather, on an adventurous experiential path to relationally know and understand the heart of God, which requires the reciprocal involvement of our hearts. This is the vulnerable relational path to grow in God’s relational language to be and live whole together as God’s new creation family (in the ecclesiology of the whole) in order for our worship and language to have relational significance to God, to compose a ‘new sanctuary’ in place of the secondary sanctuary for our ecclesiology of worship.
Church and worship leaders, and those who teach about worship in the academy and church have a particular responsibility to take up these issues for the building up of God’s family, the church (Eph 4:12-13). Growing as the new creation family involves redemptive change from inner out, not merely a reformation or innovation from outer in. In Scripture, God’s relational language speaks to us unmistakably that in order for the new to emerge, the old has to die (Jn 12:23-25; Rom 6:2-14; Eph 4:22-24; Col 3:9-10). For those leaders and teachers who don’t see the need for change, who are comfortable with the status quo, the issues addressed in this study will, I hope and pray, challenge and encourage all such persons with the more that God seeks from us in reciprocal relationship.
To all who desire to serve Jesus as his followers, he makes definitive in his paradigm for discipleship these relational words: “Whoever serves me must follow me” (Jn 12:26). Referential language gets us to focus first on following some part (teaching or example) of Jesus, thereby fragmenting his person; then it shifts the primary focus to the word “serves” to pursue what it is we should do and say in service to him, including in corporate worship, due to the shaping influence of defining ourselves by what we do or have (e.g. training, experience, knowledge, talent)—all of which emerges from a reduced theological anthropology fragmenting the person and relationships. Jesus, however, expresses the primacy he gives to relationship in the words “follow me.” This clearly is the relational imperative, giving “follow my whole person” primacy as the relationship together that constitutes discipleship, which is why he had to emphatically repeat this imperative to Peter (Jn 21:22). Being Jesus’ disciple is first and foremost relationship together, of intimate involvement in this primacy with him (as Mary enacted)—not engaged in the secondary for him (as evident in Martha)—so that his disciples would experience the depths of his person (cf. Jn 14:9, and Jesus’ prayer for all his followers, Jn 17:23-26). His relational language expresses how he sees us, that he does not define our person by what we do and have to give to him. In paraphrase, Jesus’ relational words for worship are thus: “Whoever serves me in worship must, by the nature of the worshipers the Father seeks, be relationally involved with me in compatible reciprocal response to how I am involved with you.” Now as then, Jesus’ whole person still seeks persons for compatible relational response of our whole person from inner out, nothing less and no substitutes—over anything we do for him, or have that we give him, however dedicated and faithful.
Following Jesus composes discipleship on his relational terms (not referential terms) in the relational progression to the Father in ongoing reciprocal involvement with the Spirit, the outcome of which is to be constituted together as God’s relational whole. God’s relational whole irreducibly integrates discipleship, all efforts in spirituality (growing in relationship with God), and worship in the relational significance of complete Christology, full soteriology and ecclesiology of the whole—that is, in the primacy of reconciled relationship together in wholeness without fragmentation and counter-relational work of reductionism. The ecclesiology of worship is the celebration of the whole of the new creation family of Jesus’ followers who have been adopted by the Father and made whole together in ongoing reciprocal relationship with the Spirit; and this integral family dynamic of communion together converges in Communion (celebration of the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper) as the focal point:
Together with the presence and reciprocal relational work of the Spirit (the Son’s relational replacement), Jesus’ transformed followers are functionally reconciled together to be the new creation whole of God’s family in likeness of the Trinity, ongoingly in the trinitarian relational process of family love. At this unique table fellowship with the whole of God, his church can celebrate God’s whole only as church family together, not as relational and emotional orphans functioning as orphanage. Without this relational celebration of God’s whole, our Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, pneumatology and eschatological hope become merely static doctrine essentially disembodied with nothing relationally functional to practice and experience both with God and with each other together.
Therefore, God’s relational language is never merely for information about the triune God, but only for the reciprocal covenant relationship together on God’s terms; accordingly, worship language communicating to this God can only be relational language. Scripture is God’s relational language, and reveals that God directly extends his qualitative-relational being and nature through his vulnerable presence and involvement with human persons, most notably in the incarnation of Jesus. Yet humans have constructed and maintained relational barriers to this relationship in particular and relationships in general—ever since the primordial garden (i.e. covered themselves and hid, Gen 3:7-8)—thereby reducing language designed only for relationship to referential language that simulates relationship, that creates distance, that talks indirectly about the other (e.g. “Did God really say…? Gen 3:1, NIV). Scripture thus also communicates a sustained critique through the Old and New Testaments. God’s critiques focus on our theological anthropology, that is, ‘how we define our person’ and on this basis ‘how we function in relationships’. How we define our person either keeps us relationally distant from God, or opens our whole person from inner out for intimate relational connection with God—intimacy always defined as hearts open and vulnerably coming together, the ‘spirit and truth’ God seeks—made possible by God’s relational grace. This intimate relational connection is what constitutes worship behind the curtain, without the veil (cf. Ex 29-35; 2 Cor 3:12-19; Heb 10:19-22), that is, worship face to face with God, unmediated, in humbleness, and thus in our openness and vulnerability as whole persons in whole relationship together for which the triune God created us and subsequently redeems us to.
Is our corporate worship the worship of the whole and holy God? Are we the worshipers the Father seeks (Jn 4:23-24)? However you personally answer, let us assume for ourselves that the answer is no rather than yes. ‘No’ is a more open (and vulnerable) place to start, to grow deeper in our relationship with God corporately as his worshiping church—so that our worship be of significance to God and to ourselves as well (individually and corporately), and so that we and our worship be distinguished from human shaping in order that (1) the holy God receive what is uncommon, (2) for the whole of God’s (the Trinity's) church to be whole and to live whole in likeness of the Trinity, and (3) to make whole the human context. All the above we cannot do as long as we are defined and determined by human contextualization.
Today there are important transitions taking place in the church worldwide. In the Global North, first and second generation neo-evangelical spokespersons in church and academy are giving way to a younger generation, yet who are only nominally more diverse. The Roman Catholic Church has just installed a pope from the Global South, who stands in both continuity and discontinuity with the traditions of this segment of God’s catholic church. The church in the Global South is exploding in growth. Changes such as these can continue to unfold to either go further and deeper with God, or to become increasingly embedded in human contextualization. Will we get beyond any hermeneutical impasse to make relational connection significant to the whole of God?
As we journey together through these pages, Jesus’ words “follow me” compellingly call us to go deeper with him in this relationship together. His relational process is the maturing into wholeness which will require transforming (from inner out, i.e. metamorphoō) our referential language into “my language,” God’s relational language, and also growing beyond our individual relationship with him to our corporate covenant relationship as God’s new creation family. He awaits our (both individual and corporate) compatible reciprocal relational response as whole persons together to ‘sing the new song’ in worship language of the covenant and ecclesiology of worship.
 Unless indicated, all Scripture is taken from the NRSV; all italics in a quoted text are my variations or additions.
 For full theological discussion of God’s thematic relational action and his relational whole, see T. Dave Matsuo, The Person, the Trinity, the Church: the Call to Be Whole and the Lure of Reductionism (Wholeness Study, 2006). Online: http://4X12.org.
 Paul’s ecclesiology of the whole in continuity with Jesus is examined in depth in T. Dave Matsuo, The Whole of Paul and the Whole in His Theology: Theological Interpretation in Relational Epistemic Process (Paul Study, 2010). Online: http://www.4X12.org.
 For an overview of hermeneutical and interpretive thought, see Stanley Porter and Jason Robinson, eds., Hermeneutics: An Introduction to Interpretive Theory (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011).
 T. Dave Matsuo, “Did God Really Say That?” Theology in the Age of Reductionism (Theology Study, 2013). Online: http://4X12.org, 182.
 A Theology of Worship: ‘Singing’ a New Song to the Lord. Online at http://4X12.org.
 T. Dave Matsuo, Sanctified Christology: A Theological and Functional Study of the Whole of Jesus (Christology Study, 2008). Online at http://www.4X12.org., 317-318.