The Relational Progression
A Relational Theology of Discipleship
9 Practicing Relational Connection
Practicing Relational Involvement in
Study Note: Please engage each chap. in sequence because this study is cumulative.
"I have given them the glory that you gave me,
There has been talk related to postmodernism that any transition from modernity will require a "paradigm shift." Yet, as much as modernism has influenced our personal predispositions and biases, cultivated a common mind-set and worldview, Christians need to understand that the consequences of modernity on the quality of life go much deeper than philosophy, ideology and the workings of the mind. I suggest that postmodernism, in its idealism, is searching for the heart, that it is seeking intimacy, both of which have been reduced by modernism. I n this sense Jesus would be the quintessential postmodernist, and he could be the hero of postmodernism--depending on how his disciples function.
The recovery of the heart and the restoration of intimacy in relationships are the proper functions of all Christ's followers and are characteristic of their discipleship, individually and corporately. Yet, modern day disciples have to undergo change from modernity also, wherever reductionism has minimized the heart by defining us from the outer-in based primarily on what we do and have, and whenever intimacy in relationships has been displaced by other priorities or substituted for with secondary matter. This necessary redemptive change has less to do with our minds and everything to do with our hearts and our relationships.
The paradigm Jesus brought in the incarnation came directly from the Father. It starts with his glory, the glory of God, in which he made the Father known (Jn 1:14,18). The word for glory in Hebrew (kabod) comes from the word "to be heavy," for example, with wealth or worthiness. The concept of "the glory of God" denotes the revelation of the transcendent God's being, his nature and presence to us; Jesus did exactly that--revealed God's being, his nature and his presence to us. Jesus was "heavy" with the Father's being, nature, presence.
As discussed earlier, Jesus incarnated God's glory: his being as the God of heart; his nature as intimately relational; his presence as vulnerably with us. This is how Jesus functioned in his person and with his words every day he was with us in the flesh. By living God's glory Jesus operationalized what it means to be a whole person with heart and how to have intimacy in relationships. And the ultimate paradigm for this new life process is based on the relationship between him and his Father, which he revealed vulnerably to us. Now the Spirit is here to help us through this paradigm change and to complete the process of this relational progression.
Whenever we use the term glory, it must take on its relational meaning and context. Glory as a concept does not yield the relational outcome of being one that Jesus prayed for (Jn 17:22). But Jesus didn't give us a concept of glory, he vulnerably gave us his person and the Father's person in intimate relationship. This is the glory he gave us as relational reality, which as we practice will make us one as he and his Father are.
As we discuss the serious practice of discipleship, the question of what is authentic will be an ongoing issue. When we examine our own practice, it is important to understand what emerged from our roots in Scripture, what was based on church tradition, and what is a result of other influences surrounding us today. This understanding of our practice will be helpful in the examination of three major areas involved in all practice: (1) the presentation of self, (2) the content of communication, and (3) the level of relationship engaged in. When we examine these three areas in the individual and corporate practice of the foundational characteristics of the transformed church involving prayer, worship and the Word, we will have a better grasp of the functions critical to authentic discipleship.
The mere act of prayer is not complicated. Like communication, prayer happens whenever we engage in it. Yet, also like communication, not all prayer is meaningful nor does it always fulfill the function for which it was intended. How significant prayer is depends on what is engaged. When we understand that prayer involves relationship and an ongoing process, both of these are seen as critically interrelated to living--the everyday living of Christ's disciples.
How do we present our self when we pray? Exactly what are we communicating in our prayer? What level of involvement in the relationship are we engaging with our prayer? These are important issues in the practice of prayer.
A lot of people besides Christians pray. Few, however, pray in a relationship context--even less so when prayer functions in a routine process. For the most part prayer is experienced merely as a structured activity or is reduced to something one does, along with many other things in the schedule. In such practice prayer often is not well-integrated to one's total living even though prayer may take up a relatively large quantity of time in one's life. The result is that one tends to pray merely according to a schedule, dependent on style, form, or by the needs of a situation. Consider what kind of relationship operates by a schedule and is based on situations.
Unfortunately, this is how many Christians see or experience prayer. Within this approach implicit limits are created by schedules or style, and inadvertent constraints imposed by situations which prevent a deeper relational involvement in prayer. For example, we may not think of praying at other moments during an activity when in our minds prayer is scheduled only at the beginning or end of the activity; or a certain style or form predisposes us to pray in a limited way. Likewise, prayer may be inhibited because it isn't perceived to fit the definition of the situation. Relationship with God suffers under these conditions, often unknowingly. The level of involvement in the relationship does not have as deep a connection because the self presented in prayer or the content of the prayer is not free to be natural, no matter how normative the practice. That is, we can't be as real, therefore, as authentic, in prayer when we labor under limitations and constraints preventing deeper relational connection. We may appear real or sound real in our prayers but only relational connection determines authentic prayer.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said not to pray like the hypocrites (Gk. hypokrites, one who pretends to be someone, like an actor, Mt 6:5). Beside the obvious connotation of hypocrite, how does a hypocrite pray? More importantly and specific to Jesus' instruction on prayer, how does a hypocrite function in prayer? One who pretends to be someone essentially presents a self which is not genuine or open (honest) in prayer. This does not mean necessarily that one is insincere in the display of prayer; the issue is not the sincerity of the display but what that prayer represents. What is important for us to grasp here about prayer is the outer expression being consistent with the inner person (or the heart). In other words, prayer needs to be truthful of the self presented and a trustworthy expression of one's person.
Certainly, the presence of sin in our heart creates this incongruity, which is why God rejects such prayer. We cannot overlook, however, those prayers lacking honest presentation of self or authentic communication from the heart; such prayers are dissonant to God also and have no relational significance to him. Prayer is a function of relationship, the quality of which depends on honesty (or trustworthy); and intimate relationship requires the honesty of the heart.
When Jesus contrasted dissonant prayer with substantive prayer, the alternative he described was not about privacy but intimacy (Mt 6:6). He certainly didn't reduce praying to a particular place nor to a mode; private prayer does not guarantee honesty of self and heart. He was emphasizing the importance of the inner person and sharing that person with the Father. Furthermore, he not only defined how to pray but what to communicate.
What do we communicate in prayer--not what do we pray for, but communicate? In a verbally-oriented social context like ours, we depend heavily on words. The information age and its technology exponentially compound this dependency. We even become enamored with words in prayer--especially with certain words in public prayer. Verbose communication is the norm today because the alternative of silence or nonverbal communication make us too vulnerable. Though Jesus doesn't discuss the mode of silent or wordless prayer here, he addresses our dependence on words (vv.7,8). Do we depend on external words and quantity in prayer, or what we mean from the heart? How we present our self affects the content of our communication. When our words are more about form and style or when what we share is merely information, communication becomes shallow. We should not confuse words and information with substance. Any form of reductionism encourages us to pray in effect like a hypocrite by minimizing the heart and distancing us in the relationship with a quantitative approach from the outer-in. That is also Satan's goal for our prayer life.
Jesus clearly defines that prayer is relational communication with the Father (vv.6,8,9). It is this intimate relationship with the Father as his daughter and son which constitutes the relational process of prayer. This process is not about sharing information (the Father already knows that, v.8) but about sharing one's true self with him. This true self in Christ is now the new self which Jesus redeemed for the Father to be his very own in his family. Whether we share our new self with our own words, recite the Lord's prayer, pray the Scriptures, use other prayer books, or even share in silence, this relational function as daughter or son cannot be experienced from a condition of constraint or enslavement. This intimate connection is the relational outcome only of ongoingly experiencing the relational progression, which is why Paul tells us to "pray in the Spirit" (Eph 6:18).
Paul further said to pray "on all occasions [Gk. kairos, opportunity, not about situations or events] with all kinds of prayers [Gk. proseuche, general term for the variety of prayer], and requests [Gk. deesis, specific prayer for benefits] . . . always keep on praying" (Eph 6:18), not to mention to pray for him also (v.19). Along with other Scripture (like Lk 18:1; 1 Thes. 5:17), these accounts of prayer point to such a comprehensive participation in prayer that it suggests most of our time should be occupied with prayer. That could be the conclusion when we approach prayer as an activity or merely something we do. Praying as a relational process, however, focuses on our ongoing involvement with God in relationship. Reductionist tendencies focus more on the quantitative aspects (including time) rather than the relationship. Though quantity of prayer is not precluded from this relational process, it is "prayer as ongoing relational involvement" which characterizes the qualitative transformation of Christ's disciples, individually and corporately.
How we are used to doing relationships influences the prayer process. Interaction is vital for any relationship, yet many cultures, for example, put limits on that interaction by de-emphasizing direct, open communication. The result is presenting a self which is less than authentic. Constraints on relational interaction are also imposed when the expression of feelings from the heart are discouraged--for example when boys are told not to cry. What does get expressed is not a trustworthy indicator of the person. Contrary to common assumptions, what you see (and hear) is not always what you get. Do a role-reversal and consider what God is experiencing as he listens to your prayers.
Despite occupying space and time together as well as sharing activities together, families still have trouble making relational connection because deeper interaction is limited or constrained. So many of our prevailing ways of doing things, our established traditions, even some of our interpretations of Scripture keep us from openly sharing with and listening to each other, or just being more quiet with one another.
In the everyday life of Jesus' disciples, prayer is that vital interaction in relationship with God. The authentic disciple prays (interacts, communicates) often and ongoingly, but not because it's the right thing to do; prayer is to the relationship what breathing is to one's life. In other words, prayer is the vital sign of our functioning in the relationship, that life is present, that living is in progress. Like breathing, prayer is absolutely essential to the life of the relationship. Prayer, then, characterizes not what a disciple does in the relationship; prayer characterizes engaging God in the intimate process of the relationship. This level of engagement constitutes prayer.
No matter how much we "do prayer," it only has significance to God when we engage him in relationship. This interaction has an important relational outcome, as open communication would in many other relationships. In other parts of Scripture, particularly in the Psalms, those who knew God prayed, those who didn't pray didn't know God. But the issue of knowing here is less about the quantitative matter of conventional epistemology (cf. Jn 14:5-9). Knowing beyond information involves more the deep experience of the heart which could only take place in our intimate relationship with God. Such a relational connection of hearts open to one another and coming together always has the outcome of truly knowing each other. The ongoing relational involvement of prayer is what provides the opportunity for this relational outcome.
The interaction of prayer also serves further specific purposes which integrate a disciple's life. Faith as trust underlies all relational response to God's mercy, grace and love. Prayer is the most substantial way we operationalize our trust, such that we would not be passive in the relationship. Not only is prayer the vital indicator that we are alive in the relationship but more importantly that we are functioning as the redeemed sons and daughters of his family. And as his adopted children, responsible to represent their Father and to extend his family, this interaction through prayer serves as: (A) an act of communion; (B) an act of compassion; (C) an act of advocacy or opposition; (4) the process of being family. As will be apparent, these aspects overlap and are vitally interrelated.
As we have been discussing already, prayer is fundamentally an act of communion with God first and foremost. Given that the substantive meaning of communion implies sharing in common with each other, the word expresses an inner relationship involving intimacy. The full range of our relational responses to him in this act include: worship, thanksgiving, petition, intercession, other sharing and even the daily give-and-take of our life together. Since the quantity of participation needs to be distinguished from the quality of involvement in these acts, the mere outward presence of such activity should not be our primary indicator that communion with God is taking place. Anything which minimizes direct relational involvement during these acts results in distance or disconnection from God--quite a contrast from communion. Yet, our participation in many of the above responses is often in this manner by reducing the act of communion as prayer to an activity.
Many of our prevailing ways of doing things and established traditions cultivate relational distance. Since intimate connections of the heart are not easy to make, we've established patterns to avoid such opportunities, making it even more difficult for us to connect. We may not overtly hide as Adam and Eve did in the garden, but our masks are much more sophisticated than the fig leaves they put on. For example, if it's not some activity replacing the opportunity for conversation, then indirect expression of thoughts and feelings substitute for more direct and open communication. In today's climate, information about ourselves has become the dominant substitute for sharing our person more deeply. Direct sharing is even further lost in the art of communication. If our practice is rooted in Jesus' teaching (as noted earlier) and not based on traditions and prevailing influences, the content of our prayers in response to the Father will not depend on words and information.
Not only is indirect communication a barrier to communion, the absence of silence is another important barrier to address. Silence is also virtually lost in modern lifestyles and U.S. culture. The issue is twofold. On the one hand, we've become uncomfortable with silence in general, so we fill up silent moments as much as possible, for example, with activities, music, TV. In relationships, on the other hand, we get tense (knowingly or unknowingly) with silence because it makes us more vulnerable to intimacy (not to say that silence always leads to intimacy). In the tension of this perception, we fill such moments, for example, with a lot of talk--assuming, of course, we haven't ended the interaction. We're not really communicating with each other, just talking; the relational connection is not being made, the process of communion is blocked. In effect, there really is "silence" in the relationship because nothing of substance is said. Yet, the alternative of any real silence would be disconcerting if it is not occupied. Some romantic couples turn to sex in such moments, often with the illusion of experiencing intimacy. Whether we talk or not, the issue of silence dominates the practices in more and more relationships. And these practices influence how we present our self to God, what we communicate and, certainly, the level of our involvement in the relationship.
Relationships, if they are to be vital, necessitate intimate communion. Without this connection relationships lose their substance. That's how God made us. Our primary intimate communion with God is prayer. This practice has a tradition of methods and styles which you may find helpful but should not confuse with the relational connection of intimacy itself. Furthermore, the act of communion in prayer is not a moment of separation from the routines of everyday life. It may indeed be necessary to go into quiet retreat in order to pray. In fact, it is often necessary to do exactly that. Yet, the mere act of separation also should not be confused with the act of communion. No method, style, place or time in itself ensures intimacy; they may help but this connection is the relational process of hearts open to each other and coming together.
Because this is a relational process, this act of communion is not unilateral but is reciprocal. That is, prayer involves not only sharing ourselves openly with God but letting him share openly with us. We all have experienced times when God seems to be silent in our relationship. There are times God apparently is, in fact, silent. Many other times, however, God only seems to be silent because I don't hear him. How much am I listening to him? How much opportunity do I give him to speak? Some persons don't even allow for a transcendent God to have an active "voice."
Prayer includes giving God quality time to speak to us also. This means that prayer necessarily also involves paying attention to him, concentrating on him, listening to him (his person, not a voice). If we are talking all the time or can't be silent with him, he doesn't have the opportunity to share with us. This results in a loss for us as well as for him. It is here, along with his feedback, guidance and revelations of his will, that his relational messages are the most important for us to receive from him. For relational messages (what he says about us, about our relationship, about himself) to have significance, it implies our God is an impassioned God. I realize this is problematic for some but, then, the whole matter of intimacy for them would be also.
When David said his God "delighted in me" (Ps 18:19), the Hebrew term used (hapes) means to take pleasure in, have affection for and denotes a strong positive attraction for. Our initial reaction may be: "how can God, almighty and holy God, delight in, take pleasure in, have strong affection for me?" This is a fair question but, nevertheless, this is not about me. If it were about me, God wouldn't feel this way for me. However we may struggle with it, this is all about God and how he feels. These relationship messages communicate his being and person, not mine. In this intimate communion, this is what we need to hear from him and whom we need to receive deeply in our heart.
This intimate communion extends to those with whom we share in prayer, just as witnessed in the early transformed church. Far beyond participating in an activity we do, however frequent, prayer is fundamental for the integration of the various aspects of the individual and corporate life of Christ's disciples. It is not just one part of that integration, it is the primary relational mode by which the integration of the new life order is experienced. This can be understood further as we examine the practice of prayer as an act of compassion, prayer as an act of advocacy, and prayer as the process of being family.
As discussed in part earlier, in order to live as authentic disciples Jesus said we need to learn "I desire mercy [compassion], not sacrifice" (Mt 9:13). He repeated this not only because it is the needy we are called to but to define the new life we are called to. In response to the need to live this new life, Paul urges all in Christ (without differentiation) "as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion" (Col 3:12). Clearly, the life of Christ's disciples means living as an act of compassion. This compassion is demonstrated by the good Samaritan in the parable Jesus used to define loving others (Lk 10:33,37).
When we think of the call to compassion (particularly with the good Samaritan as our role model), our tendency is to start thinking about what we should do in a situation and not be like the priest and Levite. Rightfully, compassion must translate into concrete, observable actions on behalf of others; good intentions are not enough. Compassion, however, means less about what we can do and more about how we can be and live--based on the new life in Christ. It is one thing merely to do compassion. Many people other than Christians have accomplished that. Yet, to go beyond that requires living compassion, not only doing it.
What is crucial in living compassion is the following: being the recipients of God's mercy (compassion) and grace, we can go forth to share his compassion with others; but this must be done within the context and the process of our relationship with him. This relationship is the new life we are called to and what Jesus was defining in his statement above. Compassion focuses on this relationship and reciprocates with what is relationally experienced deeply in it. Sacrifice focuses primarily on the individual and what one does--particularly from the outer-in. God only wants what is relationship-specific; anything else we do is not relationally significant to him.
To separate ourselves (inadvertently or intentionally) from this relational context and/or to temporarily suspend this relational process are effectively to disconnect ourselves from interacting with God. This has serious implications. Whenever we reduce or minimize our interaction with him, we are communicating (indirectly more so than directly) three relational messages to him about: (1) how we see our relationship, (2) how we feel about him, and (3) how we feel about ourselves.
If we are disciples of Christ, then the most authentic and conclusive characteristic bearing witness to that fact is not what we are doing from the outside-in. It is how we are living--from the inside-out. What distinguishes this inner-out living as his disciples is first and foremost a function of our relationship with him; this means specifically interacting together, communicating with each other. We may have a relationship in form without this deliberate interaction but we cannot have it in function. Interacting together is what the life of his disciples is based on. This process may be obvious, yet too often what we are doing in practice minimizes this interaction of living in ongoing relationship.
It is from this living that observable actions emerge from his disciples on behalf of others. Yet, all of these actions ongoingly need to be done within the context and the process of our relationship with him. Our first response, then, of compassion for others--whether in the church or out in the world--cannot be in that situation without first having lifted those persons, needs, issues, matters up to our Lord in prayer. We follow him as his disciples; and compassion for others' needs, as a matter of priority, must be raised to him before anything else. To neglect or circumvent this interaction is to disconnect ourselves from the function of our relationship with him and, thus, essentially to reduce it to form only. This contradicts our discipleship, at least on his terms. Even though we rigorously may be following Jesus' principles or philosophy, we are not following his person. Authentic discipleship ongoingly interacts and is intimately involved with the person of Jesus; it does not merely relate to his principles.
Whenever we make this disconnection (however transient) we do not act together with him. We are doing something, albeit with good intentions, but we are not living together with him in the process. The implied message communicated to him about our relationship in such moments is that either it doesn't matter, it's secondary, let's suspend it for awhile or something to that effect.
For his true disciple, nothing takes priority over this relationship. No matter how urgent or crucial a need may be, this relationship is not subordinated. A disciple serves him and that means to follow him in intimate relationship (Jn 12:26). Therefore, our first response must always be to him. To ensure we are sharing in this effort of service together with him--just as the disciples were told prior to his ascension--we need to "wait for him" as we wait on him. This also helps to put the immediate situation into the context of God's big picture.
This is demonstrated powerfully by Jesus in his relationship with the Father during a critical situation (Jn 11:1-14). Lazarus was dying and Jesus was asked to come to heal him. The situation was clearly urgent, and Jesus personally felt much love (agape, v.5) and warm affection (phileo, v.3) for him and his sisters, Mary and Martha. From this human dimension alone we could easily have expected Jesus to drop everything and respond quickly. That would have been the reasonable thing to do; certainly, Lazarus' family expected a quick response. But instead, Jesus purposely waited two long extra days before responding to the need. If he had responded immediately, he could have prevented Lazarus' death. Why did he wait? Because God his Father had a greater purpose in mind for this situation; and Jesus was directed by his relationship with his Father, not by the situation. In spite of the need and the strength of his feelings for this family, his first response was to his Father, not to Lazarus.
This brings out the further need for our initial as well as ongoing interaction with our Lord. When disciples consider responding compassionately to others (or in advocacy for others' needs in the world), there is a susceptibility to dilute or abdicate our unique identity as God's people because of prevailing influences from the surrounding context. If this happens, then our response to help others would be no different from any other source of help. Again, this can be observed in function but not necessarily in form. Pressures which generate from the urgency of a need, the immensity of a situation or the multiplicity of issues can easily exert a dominant influence in our lives and result in a loss of perspective, thus ambiguity or shallowness in our identity.
however, may have different plans for his disciples. Our
interaction with him is crucial to be able to discern this.
Going to him initially and continuously on matters of compassion and
advocacy reflect that our relationship with him is the
determining factor in our lives, that situations don't define us.
Therefore, for example, the priorities of the world's needs, the
method of our responses to them and also the timing of these
responses are all determined, controlled, influenced by him as he
works the big picture
When we disconnect from him during our acts of compassion, we are further communicating a relational message about "how we feel about him." Basically, if we don't engage him on these matters, we are saying that his role is minor or is not urgent. Moreover, we may be inadvertently implying that we don't need him, that our resources, love, power, etc., are enough or that we are putting him on hold for now. Whatever the exact message that is implied in our communication to him, we reduce the presence and/or the function of our Lord to something less than primary. This is what we're saying in how we feel about him. Here again, we don't say this directly with words but indirectly by how we're living.
same time, we are also saying something specific about "how we feel
about ourselves." To go forth to act in effect separately--whether in compassion or advocacy
We are susceptible in practice to act on our own (albeit appointed by God) as the agents of healing, redemption, reconciliation, change. Yet, we would not argue that God in his mercy and grace is the hope and the power for any of these changes. To whatever extent we may affirm this in our minds, we need to ongoingly function like this in our relationship with him. There is no substitute for sharing in this effort together. Therefore, relational interaction with him is the key causal variable in the process of change--that is, redemptive change. Prayer is the only interaction leading to this conclusion.
Unfortunately, prayer is not an involuntary response like some functions in our physical body. But, then, a relationship would not be meaningful if it had to depend on involuntary interaction. We can be thankful that our relationship with him is based on volitional obedience and love. Yet, prayer, like good communication, takes work; and we have to cultivate its development. We need to demonstrate further in our practice that the extent and the priority of prayer in our lives are vital to living as his disciples. Without prayer we are in subtle distance or detachment from what makes us disciples: the dynamic relationship of following Jesus. And as he said, any service to him must be predicated on this ongoing relationship (Jn 12:26).
In other words, any aspect of living as his disciple does not take place outside of the specific context and the ongoing process of that relationship. Any act outside of this--no matter how seemingly righteous or how well meaning--is reduced to doing something. This is a susceptibility especially for those who tend to define themselves or justify themselves by what they do. When God communicates, however, "to obey is better than sacrifice" (1 Sam 15:22), "I desire compassion, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings" (Hos 6:6), "compassion, not sacrifice" (Mt 9:13; 12:7), throughout his Word he is pointing us to this relationship. This is because God is relational; this is his nature. Our response must be to that relationship and to his vulnerable presence. Such a relational response is the vital difference between doing (sacrifice) and living (obedience, compassion).
Every revelation from God points to himself, to our relationship with him and to how he feels about us. Together these relational messages communicate his deep desire to share life with us, to share it together and for us to go forth into the world together with him in order to share this life with others. Living as his disciple is the relational outworking of this process. Disconnections along the way reflect a contradiction of this life; in spite of the ups and downs of this relationship due to our imperfections, his grace is always sufficient for our forgiveness and reconciliation. But, here again, this act of communion requires prayer.
As prayer is the vital interaction basic to our relationship with him, it also becomes our most basic action in relation to the world.
When Paul was entrusted with the gospel to the rest of humanity, there was only one stipulation given to him: to remember the poor (Gal 2:10). Later he urges Timothy to pray for the well-being of everyone (1 Tim 2:1). In Jeremiah we are given the words of the Lord to pray for the welfare of the city (29:7). And Bruce Winter argues that Jeremiah 29:7 serves as a paradigm for the role of the Christian in society as defined in 1 Peter. So this would not be spiritualized, James reminds us that discipleship must translate into overt action beyond words, that our compassion and advocacy must be supported by direct concrete response to those needy persons in order for our faith to be alive (James 2:14ff).
What this presents for us is not an "either-or" alternative for action. Rather, we have a "both-and" responsibility which calls for both prayer and tangible response to the various needs of the needy, of which making disciples for Christ is foremost. Whether as an act of compassion or of advocacy, prayer evokes God's response to the need, to those persons with the need and to the situation. Our tangible direct action evokes our complete response.
Yet, in another sense prayer serves a greater function than evoking God's response. Prayer can also represent our most basic response of compassion and advocacy. Initially, we may not always know which is the best way to concretely respond to a need, an issue or a matter. Or we may feel too inadequate to respond at all; we could also feel too scared to respond. Whether we are lacking knowledge, experience or other emotional resources to respond initially to a need, in the meantime there is always one immediate way we can respond and be involved: to pray. It should be understood, however, that prayer is not the alternative disciples turn to as a replacement for direct overt action. At the same time, action of prayer is often how compassion and advocacy eventually emerge in his disciples and reach their complete depth. For it is while in the process of prayer that many things can happen to us.
Prayer is the opportunity to start acting with compassion and advocacy. By lifting up to our Lord in intercession a particular person, need, issue or matter, we can begin to evoke our own person in response to the world. That is, prayer becomes the means for us to get involved. Yet, prayer is not just the mode by which our response to the world can begin. It is also the relational context through which the fullness of our hearts could be brought forth in compassion and advocacy. This also includes our response of opposition to, protest of or conflict with parts of the world on behalf of others in need. So, prayer is the opportunity to express how we feel as well as the opportunity to have more of our heart emerge. Let's look further at this process.
As the process of prayer continues in acts of compassion or advocacy, very definite things happen to his disciples. Prayer first becomes our baptismal ground as we initiate action to a need. Progressively, prayer is the developmental ground where our action in these areas takes on greater hope and substance. This is important especially in terms of submitting to God to determine the priorities of response, the method of response and the timing of that response. Next, prayer becomes the proving ground (or testing ground) for his disciples' action. In persevering with our Lord in prayer we can find out how serious or committed our action is. Or we could find out the purity of our motives--for whose sake we are doing this. Prayer, then, becomes the maturing ground for our action--refining it, stabilizing us, and generally establishing us in the rightful context and process of our relationship with him where compassion and advocacy must be generated.
Other specific things happen to his disciples in prayer. Many times we find ourselves participating in prayers for others but in a matter-of-fact manner. We may be consistent and even frequent in praying; yet, we know that we are more expressive at other times or more involved regarding other things. This is not the process of prayer or the experience of living his disciples are involved in while truly interacting with him. If it were, very few meaningful things would happen to us.
Whenever we call forth God's mercy, hope and power, we are challenged to engage him on behalf of others with our total persons. In relation to him that means authenticity--an honesty of heart to share with him all that we feel or exactly where we are. This includes our fears about taking action, our doubts, our lacks, even our disagreements. These are shared in order to open the door for our hearts to come forth more fully.
In relation to others, to engage him in prayer with our total persons means exercising an empathy with those in need such that we ourselves would start to feel some of their need, pain or suffering with them. This could not take place routinely or as a matter of fact on the mind level. It is only possible on the heart level, which means we have to open up our hearts to unpleasant feelings, start to get our hands dirty and risk the consequences for even our person being exposed and affected. Understandably, making ourselves vulnerable like this is not easy. But, since this is exercised in the context and process of our relationship with him, and hopefully with his people, we do not go through this alone. On the contrary, as authentic followers of Jesus we join together with him who has already entered into their need, pain and suffering. Sharing this together provides us with a deeper communion of intimacy as well as results in a greater depth of compassion. All this then translates into more direct concrete action toward the needy.
As noted earlier, elements of pride counter prayer as an act of communion and as an act of compassion. Also of equal consequence, any sense of resignation in his disciples counters prayer as compassion and prayer as an act of advocacy, protest or opposition. To feel helpless or hopeless about a matter, or that our efforts wouldn't make a difference, or that God doesn't want to do something about it, is to resign ourselves to the point where we may either give up, fall into despondency or become somewhat indifferent.
There is a compelling example in the Bible that witnesses to both the unlimited outcomes of the prayer process as well as the abortive consequence of disconnecting prayer due to resignation. In James' call to the church to pray (Jas 5:13-18), he recounts the prayers of Elijah. Elijah prayed as an act of protest and opposition to King Ahab (see 1 Kgs 18). As James describes him, "he prayed earnestly" (5:17). Elijah's heart came forth with great intensity; and this led to greater prayer and his action of direct visible confrontation of 450 prophets of Baal and their defeat. Elijah stepped forth with his total person on the line, and God's power was evoked.
In dramatic contrast, however, Elijah runs away from the threats of Jezebel because of this situation (see 1 Kgs 19). Resigned hopelessly to this circumstance, he doesn't even tell God where he is going. Elijah disconnected all communication. He could only feel self-pity and powerless. He could see only one recourse: total escape through death. Prayer, even for his own life, was no longer effective for Elijah because in that moment of disconnection he no longer shared in this together with his God. Victory in the previous situation did not carry over to the next situation when the relationship was disconnected.
Whether the outcomes are unlimited or abortive, we must take to heart James' emphasis of Elijah's humanity. He was a person just like us (Jas 5:17). On the one hand, then, the process of prayer can yield unlimited relational outcomes for us as well because it depends not on what we're able to do but on how we live. On the other hand, we are equally capable of experiencing an abortive consequence because the opportunity to disconnect our interaction with our God exists any time.
Prayer as a corporate act has even greater significance to God than as an individual act. This involves the process of being family--his functional family. In the above passage, James calls forth the body of believers to pray with one another and for one another. This is vital to the church but, again, not as an activity. This is essential for the family of God--yet also not because it's the right thing to do. I n his call, James continues to distinguish mere words (faith) from action. Prayer as an act of communion is the mode by which disciples share their hearts with God and also with each other. It is this process of intimacy that makes prayer so vital and necessary for the family of God. That's why James exhorts us to share our needs with the body of believers (Jas 5:14). That's why he exhorts us to forego our self-protectiveness and open our heart--with all its wounds or sins--to one another (5:15,16). In this the church is intimately drawn together as family and lifted up to him by each other.
The initial outcome of this process is healing, with the continuous transformation to be new. The ongoing outcome is the transformation of the church from a collection of individuals to an interdependent unit of believers as community, to the intimate process of his sons and daughters (brothers and sisters) as family. The new life order in Christ develops in this process. But, this could not happen apart from the intimacy of opening up our hearts to him as well as to each other. It doesn't happen merely because we are doing something together called prayer.
It is certainly easier to do something together than to share our hearts together. We put ourselves in a vulnerable position when we share our wounds or sins. It requires trust, and misplaced trust could always lead to being hurt or betrayed. Yet, first and foremost, our trust needs to be placed in him and the work of his Spirit. In trusting him and submitting to his sovereignty, we can yield our hearts to others, even with the distinct possibility of being disappointed by them, knowing that he will not disappoint me nor let me down. If we are not willing to yield our hearts to others, it is because our trust in him is limited and conditional.
Prayer as living--be it in communion, compassion or advocacy--is the dynamic interaction necessary in our relationship with the Lord God. This is not merely an individual relationship with God but a corporate relationship as well. Through this relational process the body of believers shares together in its intimate communion (in part as discussed above) and shares in its petitions and intercessions before him. As disciples interact with God in this manner, they simultaneously set into motion a process of deeper involvement with each other--for example, when they support each other intimately in prayer. A similar kind of relational involvement further extends beyond themselves outward into the world to those persons for whom they are interceding. The eventual impact on those persons is both with the outpouring of Christ's love for them as well as witnessing the love God's people share intimately with each other as family.
Whatever the matter brought before God in prayer, his disciples share it in common with him and with each other. This was the beauty of the shared life together the early disciples had in Acts. We cannot underestimate how vital the interaction of prayer is to our relationships with each other. It's not only a means to call forth God's mercy or power but a way to engage each other in love. In the relational context and process of this kind of interaction our hearts open up, come forth and draw together more than in any other way. As the God of heart and intimate relationships, he designed life for his followers to be lived and experienced this way. Furthermore, he makes himself intimately vulnerable to us for this relational interaction.
This whole relational process of prayer becomes the norm for how disciples can and need to live in all aspects of their lives. In our daily living we cannot function as authentic disciples apart from the intimate interaction of our relationships; and that intimate interaction cannot take place for the most part without prayer. So, prayer as everyday living is basic to our understanding of discipleship. And how we present our self when we pray indicates what part of us is involved. This part of us will determine what we communicate in our prayers and what level of involvement in the relationship we are engaging as we pray. Prayer simply reflects how we live--with frequency, verbosity or eloquence in prayer having no qualitative significance.
In its process prayer becomes these defining moments: creating, generating, cultivating those aspects of the new person in Jesus Christ. Prayer is how we begin and learn many things like being intimate, compassionate, advocates, or just being. It's how we learn to be rigorous and tenacious. It's how we learn to be persevering, how to pour out our hearts to him and to each other. It's how we learn to live as his family. It's how the many aspects of our living are integrated.
For these reasons, plus others not stated here, the new life order of the transformed church of Jesus Christ is necessarily characterized by ongoing relational involvement in prayer. When the practice of prayer in the life of God's people is approached as a matter involving these relationships and this kind of process, then it's also understandable why the early disciples' shared life together first and foremost ongoingly practiced this intimate interaction.
For his disciples, to pray is to breathe their life, for which there is no substitute.
In no other aspect of discipleship practice are the three major areas (how we present our self, the content of our communication, the level of relationship we engage) more significant than in worship. To help us further understand these issues we need to examine whether our worship (both individual and corporate) is rooted in Scripture, based on church tradition or a product of other surrounding influences today.
Worship is not an activity or an event with a figurative God. If our worship is adequately rooted in Scripture, the object of our worship will have clarity. Yet, clarity in the worship of the God revealed in Scripture is not just a matter of correct doctrine or sound theology. Worship is the ultimate response to God who so revealed himself and who continues to share himself vulnerably. However we may perceive this response and whatever the context for it, worship is simply only this act. Yet, if any worship rooted in Scripture is not constrained by certain traditions or redefined by prevailing influences, then that worship is not merely an act (or shallow response) but a distinct relational act. Relational clarity is this distinguishable relational act. It is this relational act of worship which provides the opportunity for the deepest relational outcome of intimacy with God.
If our worship practice is genuine to the God of Scripture, these acts will have relational clarity. Satan may not discourage us from participation in worship but he certainly tries to influence ambiguity in our response. By ambiguity, I'm not referring to doctrine but relational significance. When I think about the relational significance of our worship, I often wonder how we would feel being in God's shoes. If we were the honoree, or the one receiving what God is often "given" in worship, I think we may have some of these feelings: bewildered that in spite of my presence as the honoree, I am addressed primarily in the third person; slighted that I am sung about more than sung to (in the second person), that the focus is on information about me rather than being with me; hurt by the indirect communication and references to me which push me to the periphery of the time rather than at the center of attention; discouraged by all the unrelated subject matter and detractions from this gathering to honor me.
In serious reflection, I don't think any of us would appreciate nor like to be treated as God often is in our worship. This is not to humanize God and reduce him to our level. But this is the relational consequence when our worship does not have relational clarity. Much of what is involved in social interaction and relationships goes toward wanting to be acknowledged and affirmed. Rightfully and justly everyone needs to be acknowledged and affirmed. Yet, this cannot be reduced merely to what we do or have attained; this has to be primarily about the relational acknowledgment and affirmation of our person--not based on the secondary matter of what we do or have. This is the nature of the person and the relational beings we are which God created. This is the working of our heart made in the image of the God of heart. Consequently, we have this need.
In this sense God wants to be relationally acknowledged and affirmed by us--not only for what he does but even more so for his personal being, for what he truly is. This also is a part of his being as the God of heart and his intimate relational nature. Certainly, we cannot say that God has a need for this as we do. Yet, he strongly desires and expects, even demands, to be acknowledged and affirmed by us. This is fulfilled by our worship of him with our praise and thanksgiving, which also involves submission and service because in function worship is the natural relational treatment of one who is superior. Not every expression of worship, however, fulfills this.
Relational acknowledgment and affirmation are further expressed in the relational messages implied in our practices. Relational clarity requires relational significance. This significance involves much more than the overt expression of worship but also involves what we present of our self in that expression, what we mean by the content of that expression, and what level of relationship we are engaging as we express it. Our relational messages tell God how we actually feel about him in that moment we make the expression, what our relationship means to us at the time, and maybe how we feel about ourselves. Go back to the above examples of being in God's shoes and consider what the relational messages implied in those practices are.
Relational messages define where our heart is. That's why these relational messages are important to God. If we want to deepen our relationship with him, we need to be aware ongoingly of the relational messages we are sending to him particularly by our worship practices. Furthermore, God's relational messages to us define his heart also. This is why it's extremely important for us to be aware of his relational messages. Without receiving those messages, we can easily miss his acknowledgment or affirmation of us; then his relational connection with us will seem distant.
The incarnation of the Son is the most obvious clarity of God available to us. Yet, this is not informational clarity to store in our creeds and to have available in our belief files. Jesus not only brought the transcendent God vulnerably into our presence but he specifically revealed the Father in all aspects during his earthly life. In other words, the incarnation is totally relationship-specific to the Father. Jesus incarnated relational clarity to the Father. It is this relational significance which needs to be the basis for the relational clarity of our worship practice.
Since true worship involves the functional posture of adoration, submission and service to one who is superior, it may be confusing to consider Jesus as a worshipper. After all, he should be worshipped by us without equivocation. Yet, though Jesus is God, and the Father is not ontologically superior (nor differentiated in being), the Son is functionally subordinate to the Father (as the Spirit is to their persons). Jesus lived in this posture before the Father throughout the incarnation.
The incarnation is the relational progression to the Father because Jesus effectively worshipped the Father. He brought the Father glory (Jn 17:4) and chose to go to the cross in order to glorify the Father (Jn 12:27). He specifically revealed the Father (Jn. 17:6) and is all about making the Father known to us (17:20). Additionally, Jesus loves the Father and does exactly what his Father commands (Jn 14:31). In fact, everything he said is just what the Father told him to say (Jn 12:50). All of this demonstrates the relational clarity of Jesus' person and words. He ongoingly exercised total affirmation, submission and service to his Father. Situations (like his pending death) and circumstances (e.g., Satan's temptations) never diminished this relational clarity nor compromised the relational significance to his Father.
This is what worship is. Jesus practiced worship with others, he went off by himself to worship, he practiced it while doing ministry, performing miracles, fellowshipping, resting, while in emotional pain, while dying. Worship wasn't something he did at a particular time or in a special way, nor was it simply a lifestyle. For Jesus, worship was an ongoing life in relationship--in intimate relationship with the Father.
Discipleship necessitates following Jesus the worshipper. This involves worshipping Jesus in the relational progression to the ongoing worship of his Father. Worship that gets fixated on Jesus eventually puts him in a box and impedes the relational progression. The Son receives his glory from the Father (Jn 17:22,24), thus authentic worship ultimately focuses on the Father. This is what our Father wants from us, both individually and corporately. This is the relational clarity for which the Spirit is absolutely necessary to help us experience and complete.
The ultimate priority of worship is not a future orientation but a current practice which maximizes life in relationship with God. Basically, worship is the relational treatment of God any time in any place--not reserved for a particular time nor limited to a special place. Without hesitation, flexibility or compromise on his part, God expects to be treated like this all the time. In this sense worshipping God is not special or unique; conversely, we are not really treating him as special or unique by scheduling worship to only certain moments in the relationship. Certainly corporate worship is a further dimension of this relationship, which we will discuss in the next section. Yet, we have to grow out of this false distinction such that increasingly we don't separate worshipping him from our prayers, our service, our play, when we eat, even when we sleep. Everything we do includes an act of worship, that is, the rightful treatment of and expression to him alone who is worthy.
Paul makes it imperative for us to give thanks in everything because this is God's will for us (1 Thes 5:18). This may seem unrealistic, similar to the verse prior to it when Paul said to "pray continually." And Christians become unreal in the presentation of their self when they focus on this as doing something. As noted earlier about praying continually, it's not a quantity of life which is prescribed here. The emphasis is not on what to do but rather on the relationship and engaging God ongoingly.
We cannot, however, engage the persons of the triune God in relationship if we don't get beyond our situations and circumstances in order to see God involved with us in steadfast love and faithfulness. Despite what those situations or circumstances may seem to imply (which Satan readily reinforces), we are called to a life of faith which authentically functions only as relational trust within the context of our intimate relationship with him. Loss of relational clarity renders us passive or distant in the relationship. No vital relationship can be static, nor merely situational. It must by necessity involve the ongoing dynamic process of living in which worship and prayer engages us.
Authentic worship facilitates our focus on the personal being of God and inspires our involvement with him in intimate relational connection. Worship, then, properly shifts us from situations and circumstances, and more importantly from ourselves, to him. Worship subordinates all of this (including time and space) to bring us before him more freely face to face, more openly heart to heart.
When it comes to the everyday functional posture in our life of what truly signifies worship, we have to ask ourselves: in actuality what/whom do we defer to and what/whom are we loyal to with greater attachment and priority than God? Compromise in our worship of God is not easy to acknowledge, especially if such compromise is not obvious to us. If we faithfully attend worship service and participate in it to the extent available to us, we tend to feel that we worship God. And in these brief moments we may in fact have worshipped. Yet, it is always easier to fulfill our perceived duties and obligations when we define an area like worship in such a limited way and maintain this false distinction from the rest of our life.
To understand that worship is a relational act helps us to see the presence of compromise and its consequences on the relationship. We need to respond to the prevailing influences of our surrounding contexts just as Jesus rebuffed Satan; he didn't just apply the truth to a vulnerable situation but exercised what is basic and vital to relationship with God (see Mt 4:10). As discussed previously, true worship functionally also signifies submission, which then would involve service to the superior. To submit is to serve; the two go together naturally and should not be separated. Jesus wouldn't even entertain such a compromise--even when the situation turned from hunger in the desert to distress of death in the garden of Gethsemane.
This relational act clarifies for us when the relationship is rendered to compromise. For example, to only praise God as the expression of our worship doesn't guarantee submission, and thus service to him; to give thanks alone does not either. How we treat him ongoingly the rest of the week reveals the extent of our worship. Public worship, in fact, may be the weakest indicator of what is happening in the relationship. Likewise, to only serve God doesn't guarantee submission either if it doesn't include the relational act of worship. Not all Christian service comes from relational submission to God as a part of one's worship. Though it may have the appearance of glorifying God, service without worship has no relational significance to God (cf. Jn 12:26). Such service could merely be how we define ourselves or establish our worth, and thus tends to be self-serving.
of relationship engaged in worship always determines our worship
practice's significance to God. Authentic worship has to be
relationship-specific and its presence or absence tells us a lot
about the relationship. The functional posture of worship
serves as the primary determinant for what the relationship means to
us. Nothing reveals the compromise of this relationship
more than our worship practice. It distinguishes in our
practice, for example, what we have attachment to (in our heart)
from that which only has our interest (primarily in our mind or for
In the context of the relational progression, it is not the individual's relationship with God that has the most significance. It is the combined relationships of the Father's daughters and sons as his family which is uppermost. Worship follows the living of this relational progression and flows from the life of its corporate process. This means that worship is not primarily an individual or private matter. It is meant for God's people to corporately exalt him, and for different parts of the church body to be able to join in each others' praise and thanks, as well as for others to be edified. God is fully glorified when his family is exalting him together. When they do, his people also share in his glory in a way no individual could experience alone.
In our practice corporate worship could mean an activity, an event, a gathering, a collection of individual experiences, a group contagion experience, or intimate family moments with God the Father. Structural constraints and contextual influences greatly shape corporate worship today. Given that God vitally bonded members of the body of Christ in interdependent relationships to one another, the individualistic orientation of many Christian perspectives undermines the very nature, structure and process of the church as the embodiment of God's family. While individualism does not preclude individual relational acts of worship, nor individuals worshipping in the same gathering, it does minimize or virtually eliminate the experience of oneness as his family, along with the synergism (where worship by the whole is greater than the sum of the individuals) by which God is glorified the most--not to mention by which our worship experience is the greatest, beyond group contagion.
Worship is the heart of the transformed church; it supplies the church its lifeblood. This lifeblood is vital to the life and purpose of any church. We can see this in the church which emerged with the early disciples. That church was not a consensus group of society. In some respects it was a divisive, disturbing, even revolutionary force in the Mediterranean world; like Jesus, they were countercultural. The church operated this way because an essential part of its function was to deal with sin and evil, call people to repentance and proclaim the redemptive hope that is in Christ Jesus (Lk 24:47, 48). Carrying out that purpose created various degrees of tension, reaction and conflict with those who subscribed to the traditions, values and systems rooted in this sin and evil. Yet, even in tense and needful circumstances, one of the first things we see this body do is worship God (see again Acts 4). Unfortunately, that tension and conflict could also arise with other Christians who still embrace elements of the old order, as it did with the Judaizers. (Issues of form and style of worship have created similar conflicts within churches through the years.)
This grace and hope for new life, however, are not only for his disciples to proclaim to others but also to continue to experience for themselves and to share further with each other. As persons who still sin and live imperfectly, we all ongoingly need his grace for forgiveness and the encouragement of his hope that the new person in us is rising, that the Spirit will bring our transformation to completion just as he raised Jesus from the dead. In the total process of Christian living in discipleship with the primary purpose to glorify God, worship is the primary context in which all these various aspects can operate. Whereas prayer is how the many aspects of our living are integrated, corporate worship is where they can all operate together as the function of family. The process of corporate worship needs to involve this wholeness.
Yet, this process of worship doesn't happen automatically or mysteriously. An open and honest presentation of self is necessary for this outcome. To experience more of his grace, for example, means that submission needs to be a part of corporate worship, specifically as a time of confession. Submission along with humble adoration make up the natural content (not necessarily an order) of worship, which should conclude with opportunities to serve--for example, during the worship service by praying for others and with challenges to serve during the week.
We cannot minimize the importance of how we present our self in corporate worship, the relational content of our worship and the level of relationship we engage in our worship. The holistic worship by the early church--particularly during its needful periods--was both the praise and thanksgiving of their hearts as well as the encouragement, renewal and further uniting of their hearts with God and with each other. Worship was the ultimate time to share further in their commonality of the grace of God, the fellowship of sharing in Christ's life and suffering and the power of his resurrection (Phil 3:10), as well as to affirm their oneness with the church of Christ around the world (1 Cor 10:16,17). Their participation together in the Eucharist served this purpose, with the relational outcome that they were not alone. They were joined together with and in Christ, joined together with his church around the world.
Worship was a process in which the church as catholic (not Roman Catholic) witnessed to its living and light as it exalted the source of its life. This relational outcome may seem somewhat mystical; and the Spirit's relational work bringing to completion the relational progression has mysterious aspects. Yet, the base of commonality the church shares with Christ and with each other is the same grace, power and hope which resurrected Jesus from the dead. This truth of the new life ongoingly must be affirmed and further embraced by God's people. Corporate worship provides that opportunity and develops this experiential reality. Without this function of worship in a church, that church strains to be different from other social institutions in society, its witness fades as the source of hope in the world, it even struggles for its very life.
The ultimate priority of worship must be restored today in the mind-set of our Christian perspectives, in the operation of our churches and in the total process of living as Christ's disciples, as the Father's sons and daughters, as God's family. Yet, we are detracted from such practice by various issues, not the least of which is the tension between traditional and contemporary worship.
The common variable to both these worship contexts is the individual: how the individual is perceived and how the individual is presented. Directly related to this is its effects on the corporate dimension of worship. Worship is very personal and should be intimate, yet it is also corporate. Historically, the church has suffered through periods of having only one aspect or the other; and even the presence of the one aspect was often not carried out well.
The liturgical movement in the 20th century had as its major purpose the restoration of corporate worship as primary and essential to Christianity, the church and the Christian life. How significant this effort has been is not apparent to me, especially in mainline denominations. Given the relational nature of the Christian life, however, any such effort must adequately nurture the personal relationship inherent to worship as it seeks to edify its corporate aspect. At the opposite end of the worship spectrum, the Jesus movement of the 1960s and '70s revolutionized worship (for better and worse) with its countercultural approach and by its intentional or inadvertent disdain for the constraints of institutional structure. This relative freedom led to greater opportunity and spontaneity in worship but also to greater individualism and spiritual ambiguity. It wasn't always the Spirit who led in those gatherings. In recent years there have been efforts among various evangelicals to recover some of the early tradition and ritual of the church fathers. In worship, this is the search for more substance and consistent depth than is experienced today. But we must also see this effort as a developing reaction to individualism as well as to the current shallowness in the presentation of self.
Of course, individualism in the church formed its roots well before our contemporary context. The shape of many Sunday morning services, with its emphasis on the individual, historically goes back to Zwingli and the Swiss Reformation (16th century). Western Christianity was strongly influenced by this movement in its subordination of corporate worship for the sake of instructing the individual. The latter was carried out by dominating the morning service with the sermon.
The individualism of Christian perspectives must also have some roots in 17th-18th century Pietism whose primary character was personal subjective experience. Pietists placed personal prayer and Bible reading ahead of corporate worship and church order. It is deficient, however, to perceive these as compartmentalized aspects of the Christian life. Though each is a process in itself they all are parts of one total process of the new life order in Christ--one relational process with only one relational purpose. This will be seen further in our discussion on the relational centrality of his word in the next section.
Many policies or methods have passed through the church over the centuries. Exactly how your local church has been influenced by these developments may differ from other churches; and the traditions and prevailing influences which helped to shape it and which it still embraces should be of interest to us. Whatever these influences may be, we can observe a definite pattern for worship practices. When these practices are repeated often enough without their full relational significance, they inevitably fall into mere forms or rituals without substance. This needs to concern all Christians, both the individual and the corporate body of believers.
The following generalizations may be helpful to put this issue into sharper perspective. Traditional worship operates with structure more than spontaneity in order to formalize its order; in practice, it effectively discourages freer expression. Whenever structure prevails over spontaneity, the individual as a whole person tends to get submerged. This is not the same as emphasizing the importance of the corporate body over the individual--a perspective which some tradition correctly nurtures in contrast to contemporary worship. The individual in a structured worship context is perceived in a limited way such that, for example, the order of worship becomes more important than the individuals present. The structured format in effect becomes served by the individual rather than the order serving the gathered individuals as a means to be with God. Under these conditions, the church historically has conducted its corporate worship in more symbolic fashion than meaningful function for the individuals present. In such traditional worship (with or without the presence of liturgy and ritual), the consequence has been to make spectators out of the individuals in the congregation. Furthermore, the individual tends to enter this worship context with little more expectation or accountability than that of a spectator, consequently presenting one's self with limited depth of involvement. As a relational act, what is the significance of this worship with regard to what God receives; putting yourself in God's shoes again, how would you like to be honored in this manner?
In terms of the individual's whole person, the alternative is not necessarily contemporary worship. The individual certainly has more opportunity for varied participation in this context, especially when spontaneity is cultivated. Yet, we have to understand how the individual is perceived here and thus presented in function. Davin Seay, senior editor of Worship Leader magazine, correlates the origins of contemporary worship and its roots to the rock concert. I think we can add a partial analogy to sports events. While traditional worship makes somewhat static spectators out of the congregation, contemporary worship tends to make participatory spectators out of those present. Obviously, the intensity and involvement is much greater, as it is at sports events and rock concerts. As strong and as long as the participation may get, however, the individual is still only a fan, not a "player"; collectively, they are merely the audience prompted by (and often for the sake of) the real players and the stars. Whatever is overtly displayed, the inner person is still spectating before God.
The process of contemporary worship may not yield the relational outcome of connecting with God any better than traditional worship; in some aspects they are indistinguishable. Participants may not depend on a formal structure like traditional worship, yet they depend on worship leaders and bands, along with their own rituals, to bring them to God. Seay points out that like rock stars, worship leaders and bands serve as "de facto priests" who mediate our worship experience. And the structure of contemporary worship contexts reinforces this with worship leaders and bands at front-and-center stage.
This has created its own set of problems in the practice of worship. As further commentary on how the righteousness of his disciples must surpass that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law (Mt 5:20), Jesus specifically focused on not worshipping the Lord "in vain" (Gk. maten, invalid, falsely, fruitlessly, Mt 15:9). What validates worship is not what honors him from our lips but what comes from the intimate involvement of our heart, as Jesus emphasized (Mt 15:8). From the Old Testament (cf. Is 29:13) through the New Testament, this is the only worship significant to God.
Contemporary worship appears to think of fidelity in worship more in terms of sound than the presentation of the whole person and the content of what is communicated in this relational transaction. Fidelity is produced by amplification and other electronic modifiers. The ambiance cultivated by contemporary worship lends itself to emphasize style and experience. Style is an outer-in approach that tends to get distant from the heart. Experience in this context tends to focus too much on oneself (and what I get out of it), and thus loses focus of worship as a direct relational response to God--particularly as his family. The combination of style and experience inadvertently leads to distance from our heart and a lack of intimate connection with God. This happens despite the engrossing nature of the sound and the participatory extent of the experience; we should not confuse sensory stimulation and stirring experience with intimate relational connection with God. If you'll permit the analogy, the experience of orgasm in the act of sex often has little if any actual relational intimacy for its participants; the association with intimacy may be perceived but the experiential reality is absent.
Whereas traditional worship (with its emphasis on structure) often seems to lack heart and substantive experience, contemporary worship (with its emphasis on style and experience) often seems to lack relational clarity. This clarity is a functional focus, the depth of which is not merely experience as an end in itself but experience as the outcome of intimate relational connection with God. Worship leaders who merely mediate a worship experience not only rob God of what is rightfully due him but also shortchange us of this ultimate relational opportunity. Still, we are all accountable for our relational work.
The lack of relational clarity lends itself in effect to masquerade (metaschematizo, which, if you recall, is only outward change), with a tendency to present our self in a role different from our true self. What becomes simple role-playing, even if unintentional, is still identified by Jesus as the leaven of the Pharisees and defined in Scripture as hypocrisy. While earlier traditions may have ritualized form away from substance, contemporary worship in various ways has fictionalized worship as performance and theater. Corporate worship today provides an identity that replaces the relational clarity of the Light with ambiguity, and the distinctive substance of salt with shallowness. This is not the next level of righteousness Jesus said his disciples need to step up to.
If our worship practice is to increase in relational clarity and depth, then we need more change than contemporary worship provides for us. Authentic worship, whatever the context, requires inner-out change, redemptive change; this process necessitates ongoing transformation (metamorphoo) which is predicated on redemption (being liberated, e.g., from the issues above).
As a relational response, worship must be engaged on God's terms. Whatever the context of our worship practice, God does not want our stirring music, our intense words or eloquent prayers. He only wants us; that is, the whole person is the only substance that has significance to him. Yet, no matter what we do in worship, God doesn't have our person if our hearts are distant. Nothing else in worship substitutes for the presentation of our heart in open response to the heart of God. He only wants of us what he created in his image as the God of heart; and that is what he vulnerably gives of his self intimately to us first and then in return.
From a relational perspective, nothing else in worship really makes sense. When we truly make connection with the personal being of God and not the idea of God, then the natural outcome in that moment is worship. His being evokes worship--awe, reverence, submission. If God is not impressive to us in this way, he isn't much of a god. If we are not impressed with God to respond in worship, we are not genuinely relating to the transcendent and holy God. Though transcendent and holy may in fact be our idea of God, actually relating to this transcendent, holy God involves relational clarity which can be problematic for us. This is where we must address the issue regarding on whose terms the relationship will operate. When our perceptions of God don't tend to evoke worship, it is often because we have essentially reduced him in some way. Effectively putting God in some kind of box may serve our comfort zones in distancing ourselves, for example, from his transcendence and holiness, but it does not result in the natural function of worship.
Authentic worship flows when we let God be his self and we open our self to who and what he truly is. Worship is not the practice of a belief system; we don't exalt a concept but a transcendent, holy person-being. Worship then can only be the natural function of this relational encounter, which is relationship-specific by its nature to only his terms.
This intimate relational connection, however, requires our transformation for worship to be on his terms. The holy (separated from the common) and eternal God does not do relationship on the basis of the common and temporal. Since this is all we know, in order to meet him on his terms in the context of the uncommon and eternal we need to be ongoingly transformed from the inside-out. This is not merely a matter of becoming countercultural. No amount of outward change can substitute for the substance of a transformed person, nor duplicate it.
Worship must (dei, by its nature, not as obligation, cf. Jn 4:24) involve this transformation of our heart opening up and coming before the heart of God in humble reverence, submission and service. This may necessitate surrendering our masks, our titles, our roles, maybe even our culturally influenced gender in order to bow down to him as we truly are. Whatever impedes this connection has to be redeemed and transformed. In relational practice nothing connects us intimately to the heart of God as much as worship does. Yet, the transition of our heart in worship is an ongoing process for which the Spirit is absolutely necessary to develop to wholeness and bring to completion. In his relational work, the Spirit transforms us and establishes us in the relational progression with the Father in his family. That's why we need to worship primarily by the Spirit and secondarily by traditional or contemporary means (cf. Phil 3:3).
Jesus vulnerably revealed to the Samaritan woman that worship is not here or there, this way or that way (Jn 4:21-24). He took worship and its fundamental relational connection out of quantitative (spatial or behavioral) terms and constituted it in qualitative relational terms. Relational connection was not in a location or a behavioral mode such that we could merely present ourselves in body and participate in outer-in activities such as singing and offering (Mt 15:8; Ps 51:6). Worship is the function only of the context and process of relationship. He clearly defined authentic worship as relationship-specific to the Father (person to Person) and as practiced in "spirit and truth"--rendered relationally as "heart and honesty" and operationalized as "the honesty of our heart" which the Father can count on to be our authentic self (not a role-play). This is the only kind of worshipper the Father seeks. This is a must (dei), because this constitutes the intimate relational connection and involvement which Jesus brought and makes possible with the Father. It's the relational imperative.
To paraphrase Paul (cf. Gal 6:15, NLT): "it doesn't make any difference whether our worship is traditional or contemporary. What counts in worship practice is whether we really have been changed into new and different people."
The place and use of the Word are also about relational work. Since God's Word, his law (Heb. torah, instructions), his statutes (Heb. edut, testimonies) all represent words of revelation from his mouth about his self (cf. Ps 119:88; 2 Tim 3:16), no involvement with God is complete without the relational presence of his Word. In our modern context, they could be compared to emails and voice-mail from God. Yet, the dominant mind-set with which we perceive Scripture is more literary than relational. We tend not to approach the Word: (1) as God's presentation of self, (2) as the content of his relational communication, and (3) as his engagement of us in intimate relationship.
God has vulnerably shared his self with us; the primary way he communicates his desires is through his Word. Not only must we deal with him but we must ongoingly decide how we are going to present our self to him, personally determine the substance of our communication and the level of relationship we're going to engage. His greatest sharing of his self and our deepest connection with his communication occur in Jesus. What distinguishes the Word as relational communication from God--as opposed to merely literary content--is the incarnation: when the Word became human and lived among us (Jn 1:14).
The incarnation clearly established (and fulfilled) the relational context and process by which God is involved with us. The narratives of Jesus were not propositional truth but unequivocal historical fact of God's presentation of his self and his relational vulnerability. This became an experiential reality for those who received him. It becomes a relational reality for those who trust him. It is an intimate relational experience for those who are involved with him. The Word is for relationship, not knowledge and information. This is how we need to interact ongoingly with God's Word (and his law, his statutes, and so on) and practice its relational centrality in our everyday discipleship specifically.
The alternative to this relational involvement is some form of reductionism. This is the conflict Jesus discussed in the Sermon on the Mount about those who separated or diminished the qualitative aspect of God's words with quantitative relativity (Mt 5:17-20 with specific examples through the rest of the chapter). This quantitative relativity could be a code of behavior or ethics which is narrow in its application or flexible in its interpretation. The tendency here, for example, is to think of commandments (Gk. entalma) merely in its content, in contrast to focusing on the term command (Gk. entole) which stresses the character of God's desires as possessing an enjoining quality and directive power--and that it also leads to eternal life (Jn 12:50). Acting on entole is distinctly a relational response, which is Jesus' emphasis (Mt 5:19; cf. Jn 13:34), whereas practicing entalma tends to become merely the quantitative effort of the individual apart from this relational response.
Such reductionism of God's Word takes place today, for example, by those Christians who define themselves by what they do. Similar to Paul's discussion in the Romans' epistle about the law versus faith, these Christians today have replaced the old law (and its legalism) with what becomes in effect a new set of standards by which to do things and be defined--still primarily from the outer-in approach. Any apparent relational response to God's desires is the individual's effort to gain approval, not to please God. Yet, whatever sense of identity and worth derived from this new "law" also suffers under the implications and repercussions of the old law Paul argued in Romans.
Any reductionism of God's Word always directly affects the qualitative aspect of the relational context and process by which God is involved with us. This in turn constrains what we perceive of his self presented to us and filters his relational communication, both of which effectively put the relationship on our terms. Whereas God is sharing his self with us in order to have intimate relationship, we are maintaining relational distance by not being involved with his words in this relational context and process. This distance can exist inadvertently, even while intensively studying the Word.
Early in our study we discussed what determines how we perceive things and the prevailing influences underlying the basis for our perceptions. Surrounding cultures, in particular, are a major source for constructing our perceptual framework. They compete with the Word to tell us what we should pay attention to and what we should ignore. The power of culture is this highly selective screen it provides between us and the real world which acts like a filter. Similar to the lens of the eye, such a filter either sharpens or distorts, clarifies or colors our perceptions; in the process we construct "our own little world" of reality, whether valid or invalid.
The Word provides a relational framework for our perceptions, which, I suggest, signifies its own culture. How we perceive the Word and how much influence the Word has on our perceptions of the world are vital issues for all his followers and fundamental for discipleship. Competing cultures continually exert a reductionist influence on the Word, either by trying to take some aspect away from it or even by adding something to it.
For example, if you were able to reconstruct the scenario for the earthly life of Jesus, how would you present the son of God? I would imagine the narratives would include more dramatic events and dominance surrounding his character, probably more splendor and prestige--that is, generally more significant visibility and attention to match his status. Yet, what do these perceptions signify? We would probably construct a scenario which in effect reduces the being, nature and presence of God's glory, not reveal it in its qualitative difference. Though we don't have liberty to reconstruct the Word, we often take license with our perceptions and effectively impose relational constraints on the Word. Remember, Peter had his own perceptions of Jesus which initially would not let Jesus go to the cross for him (Mt 16:22), nor allow him to wash his feet (Jn 13:8).
How we perceive God as well as how we perceive others will essentially be determined by our perceptual framework. To illustrate this process in relation to others we can examine the matter of racial differences, or any other human differences. According to biblical culture, the redemptive work of Christ's death and resurrection dissolved these differences and the relational barriers associated with them (Eph 2:11-19; Gal 3:26-28). So, apart from the obvious natural physical differences, where do these human differences we "see," feel or live by come from? Any of these differences are cultural constructs--that is, prescribed ways to "see" others--which are products of a cultural perceptual framework, effectively generated or reinforced by the media. This framework shapes our perception of how others are (no matter whether valid or invalid, true or false) and ascribes meaning and value to those differences (e.g., judged as bad, inferior or otherwise less). Remember, Peter had this negative perception of Gentiles, which Jesus had to correct (Acts 10) and Paul had to enforce (Gal 2:11ff).
If I were to ask you "what color are you going to be in heaven?" and "are there going to be Latinos, Africans, Asians, Anglos, etc., in heaven?" what would you answer? From a biblical framework, I suggest the answer to the second question is "none of the above," while the answer to the first--assuming we will have similar bodies in heaven as we do now--is arguably "whatever color you are now." Perhaps you perceive it differently.
I assume there will be color in heaven because that is how God created us. Though our bodies will achieve wholeness in heaven, I have no biblical basis to conclude wholeness implies a particular color (or the lack thereof)--which, of course, if wholeness did, then it would imply white by our prevailing culture's perceptions. There will not, however, be race or ethnicity in heaven. Race/ethnicity is a creation of humankind--a construct of cultural perceptual framework based on particular assumptions (usually false beliefs) about human differences. God doesn't say this about the different peoples, we do.
These are reductions of the Word which are in conflict with the relational perceptions of the whole person from the inner-out demanded by God in how we see his self, our self and others. The relational demands of God's desires expressed in the Word involve a greater proportion of what he saved us to than saved us from. This is about the relational quality of the new covenant and new creation, not the quantitative limits of the old. The biblical perceptual framework challenges us to change or expand "our own little world" and thus threatens our comfort zones. This makes the Word susceptible to reductionism.
The practice of the Word was always subject to reductionism in the early church, even its ministry. Paul counteracts this by ensuring that his ministry team does not "distort the word of God" (2 Cor 4:2); the Greek term doloo means to adulterate, dilute, water down, cheapen. Contrary to what apparently was a norm in that period, they also did not "peddle the word of God for profit" (2 Cor 2:17). That is, the term (Gk. kapeleuo) means to merchandise it, treat it like a commodity and utilize it for one's own ends. These reductions basically serve to popularize the Word and make it more palatable for a prevailing perceptual framework. Even with good intentions, these are normative reductions we see practiced today.
The Word constructs a new perceptual framework which is qualitatively distinct from all other perceptual frameworks, as long as the Word's relational context, process and content are not compromised.
After Jesus clearly shared the Father's word with his disciples, he prayed on their behalf and identified them unmistakably as no longer being of the world (Jn 17:14,16; cf. 12:49,50). Though they are now the Father's own possession, he does not ask the Father to take them out of the world (v.15); in fact, he sends them into the world to continue his purpose (v.18). Yet, Jesus fully realizes the tension which is produced by not being out of the world but into it; he also personally understands the conflict created by being in the world while not of the world. This can only be resolved by his disciples clearly distinguishing and relationally incarnating their new identity in Christ. For this reason Jesus asks the Father to use his word to establish them in this (v.17). When a discipleship is predicated on being in Christ and thus of the Father, these followers are different from those whose life and possession are of the world. Yet, even for his most committed followers this difference (qualitative more so than quantitative) is not a simple matter to maintain.
Psalm 119 is an important passage of Scripture for those who seek to maintain or struggle to maintain this substantive difference. The writer shares his feelings about various situations which have affected him while seeking to follow God. What we can learn from his experience is that: (1) the general feeling for his situations is the strong, sometimes painful, realization that he is different from those around him--a condition he has to affirm and embrace; and (2) God's Word (in all his desires) is absolutely necessary for him in order to continue to maintain the identity and the integrity of his being--who he is and whose he is.
This is the reason the writer immersed himself so comprehensively in God's Word. It may appear somewhat obsessive or compulsive; this, however, was not about quantity but qualitative involvement out of necessity and affection. Beyond the acquisition of knowledge and information in order to do something (e.g., entalma, merely keep the content of God's commandments), the dominant mode of involvement expressed in this passage is intimate meditation on God in his Word. The outcome of his involvement with God's desires essentially reveals the focused concern for enabling a person to live fully in response to God's purpose on this earth.
God reveals his self in prayer and through the Holy Spirit. Yet, the most unequivocal way God reveals his self is in the Scriptures. Here is the objective presentation of his self and the content of his communication which defines his desires. In these desires are the objective criteria for discipleship, the quality of which is unequaled by the world (and all that is common and temporal) and which stands consistent throughout the course of human experience. These criteria are necessary for God's people to maintain the identity and integrity of their being and, thus, to fulfill God's purpose on this earth.
In the process of practicing the relational centrality of his Word, we are further opened to the unique "feedback system" God provides for us as a privilege in this relationship. He lovingly shares his self with feedback for us as ongoing input necessary to fulfill his desires. The main vehicles for feedback in this process are: (1) the corporate body of believers, (2) the Holy Spirit, and (3) the Scriptures. Though listed in ascending order, these are three interdependent feedback sources provided by God for his followers. As extensions of God the Father, they must by necessity be intimately linked one to the other with deference given to the next higher source of feedback. For example, the body of believers must defer to the relational work of the Spirit and the authority of Scripture. That is what the early disciples demonstrated immediately after the ascension by waiting for the Spirit and filling a vacant apostolic position. Furthermore, the word of God defined their message (kerygma), their teachings (didache) as well as became their highest priority of ministry (Acts 6:2,3).
In terms of communication in our relationship, the Scriptures consistently provide us with the objective feedback from God needed in order to know where our hearts are really coming from along with what our hearts need (see Heb 4:12). This is the sanctifying work Jesus prays for all his disciples in order to distinguish being in the world, yet not of the world (Jn 17:16-19). This feedback also provides the necessary perspective to know how to proceed into the world.
In other words, this relational feedback process enables God's family to maintain the identity of who they are and the integrity of whose they are. Because of the authoritative nature of God's word, with its objective character, the mind and heart of God can be distinguished from the mind of the people. The objective presentation of his self in this communication process counteracts or exposes the subjective tendencies of those who would reduce God in some way or co-opt the relationship on their terms.
When Jesus incarnated the truth, this was not a proposition. This was the vulnerable presentation of God in his person. The relational significance of the Truth is how the Word needs to become flesh in our lives. The issue of truth cannot remain only a doctrinal issue. Truth must also involve its relational counterpart, which is honesty. The relational issue of honesty in our relationships--foremost with God (cf. Jn 4:24)--is basic to the Word in its nature and function. If we cannot have confidence that the Word is the truth of God's self as presented and his words are the honest communication of his desires and feelings, our relationship with him would be characterized by a lack of trust, by ambiguity and shallowness. This is not about just the critical issue of authority but about the primary issue of relationship.
Just as the Word reveals God to us, we now have the relational responsibility to use his Word: (1) for the purpose of presenting our self in the truth, (2) to help us communicate truthfully to each other, (3) in order to live in honest relationships, the truth of which must involve heart and intimacy. The relational significance of this truth is how the Word becomes flesh in our lives. When God's people live with each other in this truth, relational distance will not characterize our relationships by a lack of trust, ambiguity, shallowness.
If the use of God's Word gets imbalanced for the sake of beliefs and doctrine, we will constrain its relational practice in our lives. This in effect becomes the reduction of truth, not its safeguard. Such reductionism does not set us free to live as sons and daughters of the Father's family but impedes this relational progression with relational constraints (see Jesus' discussion on truth, Jn 8:31ff). Doctrinal purity, for example, may give a false sense of being free but its valid indicator is the relational reality of belonging to his family (Jn 8:35). This is experienced only in living relationally as son and daughter with the Father, as well as living relationally as sisters and brothers with each other. If this is not our practice, then the Word has been reduced from the Truth, the Way has stopped short of the Father, and the Life has become the quantitative bios as a substitute for the qualitative zoe.
It is not sufficient for his Word to be central in our belief system. His Word is necessary for what we present of our self, for the meaning and substance of our communication, for the depth of relationship we engage. That is, his Word needs to have relational centrality for our ongoing practice of discipleship, both individually and corporately.
Paul summarizes the relational significance of the Word and points to the outcome of the relational progression.
For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity [Gk. autos phroneo, the same mind-set of biblical perceptual framework] among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 15:4-6).
The Word challenges, encourages and directs God's people in this relational progression with hope. Hope is not abstract but the expectation of the relational outcome Jesus incarnated. Thus, this relational process must lead to uniting Christ's disciples into the shared life together of the transformed church. This is God's desire for his followers: one mind, one heart, one voice. To be transformed individually and corporately, however, has many implications for how we live today. These implications can be both threatening and demanding, which we will address in the following chapters.
The paradigm Jesus incarnated for the three major areas in authentic practice--(1) in the presentation of God's true self to us, (2) by communicating the Father's specific desires directly with us, and (3) engaging us in intimate relationship--signifies God's vulnerable involvement with us and constitutes the authentic practice of reciprocal relational involvement he expects us to make operational in our living both individually and corporately.
Distinguish in your context the various influences on these three major areas (1. presentation of self, 2. content of communication, 3. level of relationship engaged) and how they affect your involvement in the practice of prayer, worship and his Word.
 Bruce Winter, Seek the Welfare of the City (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1004), Ch. 1.
 Davin Seay, "Rooted in Rock: the Origins of Contemporary Worship Ritual," Worship Leader, Nov/Dec 2003, Vol. 12, No. 8, 19-20.
©2004 T. Dave Matsuo, Ph.D.
©2004 T. Dave Matsuo, Ph.D.