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A Theology of Worship
'Singing' a New Song to the LORD

 

Verse 5        ...in the Key of Jesus

sections:

 

Tuning in to Relational Clarity and Relational Significance

Discomfort with Intimacy

Proclamation of the Word

'Singing' More Verses

The Need to Know

Chorus

printable pdf of entire study

Prelude

Verse 1

Verse 2

Verse 3

Verse 4

--

Finale

Table of Contents

Bibliography

Scripture Index

 

 

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.

Now remain in my love....Love each other as I have loved you.

 

John 15:9,12 NIV

 

 

In this Verse, we look at some examples of tuning in to the key that Jesus relationally embodied, to ‘sing’ forth in the primacy of relationship as our response to God as worshipers who worship vulnerably in spirit and truth, nothing less and no substitutes. Since we all are ever susceptible to shifting back into the old of ‘what to do’ and substitutes from Secondary Sanctuary, I encourage readers to regularly check out with the Spirit in ongoing reciprocal relational work where one’s focus is. We need to ask the Spirit to clarify, “Am I making this more about myself?” Or, confess “Forgive me, Lord, for getting into the secondary things first.” This is part of the ongoing fight—joining together with Paul—against reductionism and for wholeness, starting in ourselves!

 

Remember, that corporate worship integrates our focus only for primacy of relationship—vertically with God and horizontally with one another—in vulnerable involvement together as God’s very own family. Worship is the integral convergence of our reciprocal relational response to God in his relational desires, in his purpose in creating us in his qualitative image and relational likeness, and in his first response to us in our human condition. The following are some examples of rethinking in relational language some aspects of corporate worship.

 

 

 

Tuning in to Relational Clarity and Relational Significance

 

 

To have relational clarity (the primary focus on God directly, not indirectly through someone else), we need to reduce relational ambiguity. It is God who is to receive our attention, our praise, thanksgivings, affection and petitions—the One to whom we submit (to his whole terms for relationship) and serve (share his family love, e.g. through caring for each other). The acronym PASS—Praise, Adoration (or Affection), Submission, Service—is helpful to our focus; worship is our PASS to intimate relationship with God; that is, worship integrally converges our relational response of PASS to God. Worshipers gather in the Father’s presence as his very own daughters and sons altogether, to integrate our focus on our God in whom we have new life, identity and purpose, and also to share in the intimate involvement with the whole of God together as family—without the veil, as celebrated integrally at Communion.

For relational clarity to be more compatibly keyed to this whole worship, two changes are relatively simple: (1) make simple changes to the wording of songs; (2) redefine the function of the worship band and choir.

For the first type of change, in order to grow in thinking and functioning relationally in worship (corporate and private), I suggest that we sing as much as possible in the second person directly addressing God as “you” (thou or thee) in place of singing in the third person “he.” This can greatly help us open our hearts further to him in relational language instead of singing about him in referential language. When you consider face-to-face communication, we never (at least I hope not) talk to the other in the third person. Many songs can be easily changed, if not in the PowerPoint (because of copyright issues, a questionable reason), worshipers can be encouraged to make the changes as they sing:

Example 1—simple changes in italics:

He is holy

to

You are holy

Great is the Lord

to

Great are You Lord

And for his glory

to

And for your glory

Example 2—Not every line needs to be changed; it may feel odd at first to shift during a song, but the form is less significant than the relational messages we sing to him. God does not grade us on grammar issues[1]:

The Lord is my strength and my song.

He has become my salvation.

Under the shadow of his wings I belong.

I will give thanks to the Lord.

 

to

The Lord is my strength and my song.

You have become my salvation.

Under the shadow of your wings I belong.

I will give thanks to you Lord.[2]

Note: Some songs are better left in the third person (he/him), but these should not comprise the majority of songs sung in a worship service; these include Call to Worship songs (e.g. the hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King”[3]).

Against these types of grammatical changes I have heard the rationale given that many of the Psalms are in the third person and are addressed to the gathered worshipers. Indeed many Psalms are in the third person, yet we cannot assume these were not also addressed to God, that I suggest was a given for those ancient worshipers. The relational clarity aided by singing to God over singing about God will help us grow as worshipers whose inner-out worship has relational significance only as we function in whole ontology of who we are as God’s daughters and sons. Contrast this with OT Judaism. Though we do not know when it started, the people did not address God directly by name, for fear of being disrespectful and using his name in vain. Hence, believing it was wrong to utter the name Yahweh, they instead used the substitute term Adonai (“Lord”). Yet God told Moses his name when asked (hāyāh, meaning Yahweh), and Moses enjoyed face-to-Face connection with God (Ex 3:13-14; Num 12:8). The issue is not about doctrinal form and purity but only relational clarity and significance. Isaiah was right indeed (Isa 29:13), just as Jesus said (Mt 15:7).

If we sing about Jesus’ work on the cross, the outcome of which is to enter into his most intimate presence behind the torn veil, then we dare not stay in front of it! The writer of Hebrews admonishes us about this: “My righteous one will live by faith. My soul takes no pleasure in anyone who shrinks back” (Heb 10:38; cf. Hab 2:4). The word for “shrink back” is hypostellō and also means to withdraw or hesitate. Relationally, it matters as great deal to God for us to function as if the veil still exists since there is no relational significance to our singing. It is not the new song in the key of Jesus (2 Cor 3:16-18; 5:17; Col 3:9-10).

On another note, I agree with those worship thinkers who advocate limiting “the use of the words I-Me-My” to counteract individualism and self-focus that have crept into Christian worship from the broader culture.[4] I also believe, however, that these first person pronouns can help worshipers to be more direct relationally to make heart-to-heart connection with God; so let’s understand what needs to be eliminated (self-focused narcissism and individualism) and what needs to be embraced (primacy of relationship together). As an alternative to counteract the individualism cultivating narcissism and its inherent counter-relational work, and to build on the relational reality that we are God’s family, I suggest at times changing “I-me-my” to “we-us-our.”

Of course, these suggestions in this first area of change are only of secondary importance, yet they may have primary value to help us in singing the new song to our Lord.

The second area of change to reduce relational ambiguity is to redefine the function of the worship band and choir. As discussed in Verse 4, this issue is inseparably a dual matter of performance-audience and how we define the human person. So enculturated are we in watching others perform that we have come to view worship with that lens and even to consider ‘performance’ as the correct practice (‘what to do’)—congruent for worship and compatible with God. God’s worshipers, however, need help to grow in our relational responsibility in God’s family. One way is to have the worship band and choir actually lead the congregational singing—that is, with everyone singing. New songs, of course, need more assistance, but songs should never be so complicated as to require protracted teaching. Keep special music to a minimum. In some churches special music is no longer special because it is routine. Having the children and youth participate by leading songs with the adults also singing is very edifying, more so than the adults watching (and taking pictures) of the children. Let’s not build up the children as performers but as members of our church family.

A logistical matter is also a relational one. It is well worth the effort (and at the cost of ruffling some feathers) to reposition those who lead the singing (choir or worship team) so that they are not on stage, not in front and center of the congregation’s view. The singers who lead can lead from the back, sides, or spread throughout the sanctuary. I have found it moving to have the choir positioned up and down the aisles as they sang a special song. The functional implication is that we lifted this music to God as a body. I have heard the argument against this suggestion that persons in the congregation want to have the leaders up front, but I suggest this is a personal preference, perhaps reflecting the dependency on others to mediate for them. This gets back to our lens for worship and challenges our assumptions (including the status quo) in order to go further and deeper in relationship together with God. We can learn from a particular Taizé worship time I attended. The few instrumentalists and small choir sat together in the back of the chapel, and it seemed that a few of the choir members were scattered among the rest of us. The choir and instruments very simply and simultaneously both led and supported the congregational singing. They never dominated in volume or by arrangement, but enhanced the singing. This was an aspect of the service that I appreciated very much, and which I would strongly advocate for planning worship.

Certainly, the placement and structure of worship leaders are also only of secondary importance, yet, here again, these changes may have primary value if they help us together in ‘singing’ the new song to our Lord in the new sanctuary without the veil.

 

 

Discomfort with Intimacy

 

 

In the key of Jesus, the presence or absence of the veil is critical theologically and, more importantly, indicates the vital function of the life of God’s family in relationship together for worship. The issue of the veil determines our relational position (functionally and theologically) both before God and with God, and involves the relational distance in the relationship measured by the vital function of our heart.

The thought of intimacy (hearts connecting together openly and vulnerably) in worship makes most persons uncomfortable, I suspect. Our sociocultural context has added to that tension, unfortunately, by incorrectly equating intimacy with romantic relationships and sexual intercourse. Associating intimacy in such narrowed-down terms from outer in emerged with Adam and Eve (cf. Gen 2:25 and 3:7). And so intimacy in worship seems inappropriate, unimaginable and even undesirable. Moreover, intimacy in worship has become associated also with the individualistic view of worship captured in certain devotional “love songs,” giving birth to the phrase “Jesus is my boyfriend.” At least some of those songs have emerged, I believe, from the eternity substance that seeks the qualitative experience of deep connection with God that we all need and long for; after all, Scripture is so full of God’s intimate language that I used to feel uncomfortable myself. A prime example is found in the book Hosea, where God’s heart is vulnerably extended to unfaithful Israel using the language of a broken marriage relationship, yet still pursuing his beloved (Hos 2:1-20). And Jesus’ footwashing needs to be understood in relational terms of intimate involvement with each other, not reducing it to serving.

This is a critical matter to work through, to illuminate the relational language of Jesus and the whole of Scripture’s self-disclosures in order to distinguish it from that which comes from our own lens, whether that be referential language narrowing the terms to outer in, or any other bias from our context in limited connotations. For example, on the one hand, a self-centered focus and emotionalism in worship might be mistaken for an experience of intimacy, but self-centeredness is incompatible with having a relationship with Jesus on his terms. On the other hand, we need to ask ourselves if we might be mislabeling the discomfort of intimacy as something negative to be avoided—like self-centeredness or emotionalism—as an excuse in order to justify remaining relationally distant, knowingly or unknowingly.

Underlying much of our discomfort with intimacy is, of course, fear of possible relational rejection that comes with making ourselves vulnerable in our innermost. Most, if not all, of us have fortified ourselves against relational rejection by presenting something less than our whole vulnerable person in the form of substitutes from secondary outer in criteria of what we do and have. Intimacy threatens these self-determined efforts, which was Peter’s struggle in his refusal to let Jesus wash his feet (Jn 13:8, noted earlier). This is the precisely the critical point of relationally trusting Jesus: letting Jesus wash our feet to redefine our person from inner out by his relational response of grace. Like Peter, church leaders today are also challenged by Jesus’ whole person to relationally trust him for such intimate connection together. And so let us be willing to find out what biases, hurts from past relationships, and fear that may underlie our discomfort. The church as family needs to grow in helping each other talk about these heart matters in a supportive and healing process of family love. We need to sensitively, patiently, and firmly address ourselves to these areas in order to grow in wholeness together.

All of Jesus’ followers are called into deeper involvement through reciprocal relational work with the Spirit (Jn 15:26-27; Rom 8:15-16, 26-27); this is the purpose of discipleship and spirituality. Sadly, discipleship all too commonly gives priority to service and mission, and spirituality remains highly individual and private, and with questionable relational significance (I know!). Furthermore, they have become separated as if different vocations, a reflection of how fragmented our Christian practice has become, and also reflecting the need for the relational work that Jesus makes imperative (Jn 12:26). Worship and other church leaders are particularly accountable to God to be worshipers who worship in spirit (from inner out) and truth (honesty of heart) because how they relationally function in church witnesses to, and thus teaches others what the gospel is and thus what the church is. When church and worship leaders function with relational distance, they communicate something less than the gospel of God’s family love and wholeness.

Intimate relational involvement is the love (agapē involvement) that Jesus extends to us, that will be the whole experience in church as family in relational likeness of the Father, Son and Spirit as we transpose our song into the depth of Jesus’ relational key.

The whole of God with us has shared

the whole of God with us is present

‘that they may be one as we

that they may be one as we’

‘I in them, you in me.’[5]

 

 

 

‘Singing’ the Lord’s Supper

 

 

Above all, forming a corporate identity without diminishing the individual requires the Spirit’s leading, and challenges our self-imposed limitations. There is no more important part of corporate worship for which we need a new song than celebrating Communion as the Lord’s Table Fellowship. As God’s new creation family ‘singing’ a new song to the Lord, Communion is the heart of gathered worship, the celebration behind the veil that affirms God’s gracious work embodied in the incarnation that emerges without the veil in relational wholeness as God’s family. As such, it means a shift (for non-liturgical churches) to celebrate Communion as family together, and weekly. Worship thinkers and planners in a church would creatively compose relational flow to ensure the intimate corporate dimension of Communion as much as possible. It is the integral time of intimate fellowship in likeness of Jesus’ intimate table fellowship, the sharing together in the new covenant instituted by Jesus. Even more important than reading or saying Jesus’ words of institution (1 Cor 11:24-26) is to live their relational significance for us—that is, to ‘sing’ Communion as “one,” just as Jesus prayed for us in his ‘formative family prayer’ (Jn 17:20-26). This is the crescendo of ‘singing’ as the integral relational dynamic of life in the tune of the new song of life together without the veil.

Being the family of God is an identity shared in together that is best expressed volitionally by having people get up and gather around the table(s) on which the bread and juice have been set. A whole loaf of bread (or loaves, depending on numbers of people) reflects the body of Christ better than pre-fragmented crackers, and could be passed from person to person to break off a piece. The cup could be passed for dipping, or a large bowl in the middle of the table would allow persons to dip their bread in together. The physicality of this manner affirms embodied, whole persons in relationship together.[6] For those unable to walk, other caring options are possible, such as designating persons to bring the elements to them in small gatherings.

Because relationships based on God’s relational response of grace are necessarily equalized, the celebrants leading Communion need not be only senior pastors, the ordained, or only men.[7] And provisions must be made for those who are unable to attend (e.g. home-bound) to affirm their personal significance in the family. This was a practice of the church at least at the time of Justin Martyr (mid-2nd C.), who wrote that after everyone had partaken of the bread and wine, “they [the elements] are sent through the deacons to those who are not present.”[8] Glenn Weaver thoughtfully suggests the importance of the Lord’s Supper for believers suffering from dementia, as a way for the community to affirm these persons’ identity within the body of Christ.[9]

The most meaningful Communion times I have experienced were in a small informal worship gathering. We were able to squeeze around the altar table on which was placed a loaf of bread and a wooden bowl of grape juice. The “leader” would say a thoughtful prayer of thanks to God (improvising), pick up the loaf, turn to another, make eye contact, take her hand and while passing the plate of bread say, “(name), we share in this together.” That person would then break a piece off the loaf, turn to the next person, repeat the connection and handing the bread, and so on around the table. After everyone got a piece of bread, we all dipped it in the juice and ate. Finally, we all hugged each other. These were simple, thoughtful, intimate times to share together as sisters and brothers, and there was a true sense of receiving Jesus’ person and presence with us as the Spirit touched our hearts.

The Lord’s Table Fellowship can be a significant aspect of our metamorphoō (inner-out change) as we are involved with the Spirit by grace with nothing less and no substitutes for our whole person. It is not merely a regular routine, or just a central liturgical practice, but is the key of Jesus to growing corporately together, to intimately experience each other as sisters and brothers in the same family—indeed “which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:23), for, as Paul says, “in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (2:22 NIV).

 

 

Proclamation of the Word

 

 

The sharing of God’s Word in worship is an area that needs much more discussion than this study can adequately address. I simply want to add my voice here to the view that God’s communicative Word in Scripture does not have to always be preached or taught in a sermon. Scripture is God’s relational language, and to render it into referential language, as too many sermons do, does not serve to build up the body as God’s family to be whole together in relationship with God and each other. The relational language of God can only be proclaimed relationally, ‘singing’ his new song in a new sanctuary; and this includes the gospel we claim and proclaim.

As mentioned earlier, a musical rendering of God’s interaction with Moses was deeply moving and edifying as it communicated God’s relational language through song and dramatization (solos and choir), distinguishing it from both a conventional sermon and a mere performance.[10] In another example, for a seminary chapel service, a group of four readers presented a creative piece that interwove various Scriptures from both Testaments in a narrative of a postulant (a candidate for a religious order) asking questions of Jesus, and Jesus responding with his own questioning of the postulant. This example was a bit more cerebral than the Moses piece, but more qualitative than most discursive sermons.

As the embodied Word of God, Jesus is our theological, hermeneutical, and functional keys to the whole of God and whole relationship together. His whole life functioned relationally proclaiming, not in referential words (e.g. teachings for information about God) but only in ‘singing’ the new song of God’s relational whole. How can our “proclamation of the Word” also ‘sing’ like Jesus?

O—praise be to God, embodied God

only for relationship (with us)

the whole of God (whole of God)[11]

 

 

 

‘Singing’ More Verses

 

 

It is imperative to be aware (with the Spirit’s help here) of the important difference between that which is relational (makes heart-to-heart connection) and that which is qualitative (touches our ‘eternity substance’). In the discussion about music’s qualitative nature and unique relational function (Verse 4), it was stated that ‘the qualitative’ is inseparable from ‘the relational’ if it is to have significance to God, even though separated the qualitative may have value to us. Therefore, anything qualitative without also making relational connection becomes an end in itself; as an end in itself, it only makes us feel something, feel moved, stirred, uplifted. This does not edify us in relationship with God. Without relational connection with God, then, the qualitative can subtly seduce us into an ontological simulation, that is, an illusion, of having relational significance to God and ourselves as well.

Just as Jesus embodied the primacy of relationship in all of God’s self-disclosures to us, and just as Jesus’ own person functioned whole from inner out in this primacy, this is our lens to our own person as worshiper, corporate and private. ‘Singing’ a new song to the Lord is our new perceptual-interpretive lens to our whole person and involvement with the Spirit, to think about, plan, and lead corporate worship together. With this new qualitative-relational lens—the perception of our person in the qualitative image and relational likeness of God—we can evaluate each aspect and feature for worship by asking about relational significance through these questions:

   What are we saying relationally to God in that particular aspect?

  What does it “teach” the gathered persons in relational terms for knowing God, not in 

            referential terms for information about God?

   Is it primary or merely secondary to God?

  Are we trying to figure out ‘what to do’ (from outer in) as opposed to ‘how to be involved’

           (from inner out)?

Communion—What are we communicating concerning: Jesus’ presence in the Spirit without the veil; what he has accomplished behind the veil for us ‘already’; what is the good news in relational terms; and how do we relationally respond to him for the good news?

Baptism—As one’s public expression of unmistakable relational involvement with Jesus Christ, and as a corporate celebration of a new family member, how can these be expressed more fully? Accordingly, how do we distinguish baptism as a special event for making a public announcement from baptism as an extension of table fellowship involving a relational statement by a new family member?

Songs—Are they relationally to or referentially about God? Is gender-inclusive language used to not leave any family members relationally distant, in front of the veil? Is the singing range best for most persons so as not to distract them with the secondary? Are the songs composed for congregational singing (accessible) or too musically complicated that only trained singers can be involved?

Prayers—Do liturgical prayers convey a fragmented God—e.g. only fragments of a transcendent and distant God, or only the God in my life. Do we convey our participation in God’s life? Do our prayers illuminate communication with the God who is present and intimately involved with us? Are prayers in the worship order (ordo) merely routine? Is there time set aside for spontaneous corporate prayer? When a moment for silent prayer is designated, is it only perfunctory, or is adequate time allowed for persons to actually communicate with God? Reexamine the purpose of background music during spoken and silent prayer—is it to create a mood, to make something happen?

Participation—Consider the level of participation of everyone, by how every aspect is planned and carried out. Is active participation nurtured, dampened or suppressed? In the format and process of worship, what do we communicate to God and to each person who is present? Is it possible to have participation during the sermon, that is, beyond adding an “amen” and “preach it”? For example, I have been in a small setting in which persons would ask the preacher questions. How can we distinguish between prompting the congregation for a conditioned response from outer in, and encouraging relational involvement of whole persons from inner out, the latter of which includes verbal and physical participation?

The position of singers, instrumentalists, choir—Talk out why we continue to place them front and center stage/platform. Do they draw attention to themselves or support the body of worshipers as part of the body? Is it about wanting recognition? Even if you answer no to the latter question, where do you want the gathered worshipers to focus the attention of their eyes and hearts? If, for example, lead singers have microphones to enable the congregation to hear in order to follow, why do they need to be in front?

Special music, drama, dance, art—What are we communicating through a piece? How are all the worshipers who are in attendance relationally engaged, or kept at a relational distance through performance to be observed? In this area especially (because music and art have qualitative value), it is imperative to check out relational significance, or if something is included as a qualitative end in itself.

Language used—Is language not only relational language but also relationally sensitive, for example, without unnecessary joking that reduces persons through stereotyping of women and men? Language is a huge area needing to be addressed in its communication function; the use of relational language instead of referential language is an area for much needed change. We need to transpose into the key of Jesus!

Audio format—Is priority (beyond mere consideration) being given to what is best for persons over personal preferences? High volume that younger people favor physically bothers older persons, not to mention long-term hearing loss for everyone. Even high volume for postlude music makes it difficult to have conversation for those remaining in the sanctuary right after the service ends. What is primary here?

The worship space (sanctuary, chapel, gymnasium, etc.)—Are these inherently “holy ground?” If holiness, sacredness, and sanctified mean set apart for God’s use, given what is primary to him, how can we look at our church spaces with a new lens and transform them from the common to the uncommon? Think about the placement of a cross, visuals, furniture—What does the placement communicate relationally to God? In one worship setting, the large cross in the apse is obscured from view (the view from the center of the sanctuary) by a large set of stage spotlights. In another setting, the projection screen hangs in front, like a movie theater screen, and a large wooden cross stands in secondary place to the side. Do the visuals help touch ‘eternity substance’? Is a visual more about the individual artist? Do the visuals give primacy to traditions from the sociocultural context (e.g. American flag, Christmas tree)? Are visuals edifying for the building up the family? To ask these questions is not a rejection of visuals, but to put them in relational perspective.

 

All of the above requires much more from those who plan worship in whole terms of relational involvement with God and other persons. This involves the ongoing need to pray and think through these specific matters with the Spirit rather than to fall back on what we know, how we’ve always done it, or what is easier. But this is what composes ‘singing’ the new song of loving as we have been loved (Jn 15:9,12). It is how we become relationally involved with our whole selves for growing with our sisters and brothers as God’s family. This was how Jesus composed his family behind the veil and put them in tune in his key of table fellowship together without the veil. Paul, writing as one who had been transposed from Secondary Sanctuary to this new sanctuary, sums up our purpose as this:

“to restore God’s people for their primary work of ministry, the primacy of whole relationship together, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all come to oneness together in our faith and of the knowledge in relationship of the Son of God and become complete, involved to the full measure of the whole of Christ” (Eph 4:12, italics mine).

The following is included as one example of how to help worshipers orient themselves in a new way to focus relationally on God. It is an old worship announcement given to persons arriving for a monthly Sunday evening worship service conducted by a campus ministry at UCLA in 1971.

 

IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT: Read first!!!

 

This is an invitation. It’s an invitation to worship God in Jesus Christ. Worship, however, is always connected with or related to the expressing of the worshipper’s feelings toward the Person worshipped, Jesus Christ. This is a very active sharing and involves a very intimate relating with Jesus. Worship is not even being a part of anything. Above all it is not being with other people.

This is the invitation we would like to extend to you. If you would like to actively express your feelings to Jesus Christ and are willing to put yourself on the line to Him in front of other people, then we welcome you to this opportunity. But, the initiative is solely upon the individual for the whole evening is being devoted to open and free worship. In whatever way each individual would like to express his feelings to Jesus Christ, this is how we will worship tonight. Nothing is planned or structured. The opportunity is yours to praise Jesus.

 

Therefore, if you have come to observe something, to be part of something, to be with other people, or to be passive in any way to Jesus Christ, then we DO NOT invite you to join us in the chapel. However, if you want to remain in the LOUNGE to talk with others, to socialize, or to wait for others worshipping, please feel free to stay in this room. Please be straight and be honest with yourself. Our Lord knows our hearts, so make your decision sincerely & individually—not because others are going in to worship.

Tonight the chapel is for active worshippers only!

 

This worship time was not merely innovative but by the nature of worship necessarily holding worshipers relationally accountable to God and each other, as worship led to the involvement together in Communion.

 

 

 

The Need to Know

 

 

To ‘sing’ in the key of Jesus answers a particular issue that comes up in studies about Christian worship: the fact that the New Testament does not prescribe any how-to’s or patterns for our worship, no outline or even general paradigm. In the past few decades or so, we have heard the call for evangelicals, particularly those of free church strands, to draw more deeply from ancient Christian liturgical tradition.[12] The quest for ancient Christian worship practices during biblical times yields little, for the New Testament and its contemporary resources do not answer our ‘need’ to know. The absence of information in the NT about worship practices has, I suggest, an important relational message from the Spirit for us today: ‘How-tos’ for worship are lacking because they too easily become about ‘what to do’ and feed into the human susceptibility to make the secondary primary, thus reducing the primary issue of the relationship together with God. When we search the NT for clues to how the earliest churches worshiped, most likely what we are seeking is information for ‘what to do’ which in relational terms makes the secondary primary, and most likely at the expense of that which is primary to God. To have such information (knowledge, if you wish) is to then function as the “wise and learned” and not as the little children in the key of Jesus (Lk 10:21), who function in the relational openness and vulnerability the Father seeks.

            Given the dearth of information from the NT itself, liturgical scholars and others search the non-biblical body of documents from the third and fourth centuries to find nourishment for our worship today. Yet, as liturgical scholar Paul F. Bradshaw reminds us, this effort yields only a meager crop of useful data. As of 2001, Bradshaw sums up the general state of scholarship of early Christian liturgy: “We know much, much less about the liturgical practices of the first three centuries of Christianity than we once thought.”[13]

Liturgical functions appear to have had many forms from the birth of the church, forms compromised, evolved, related to geographical location, and the passing of time. We have had available to us the earliest church order (the Didache, 1st/2nd C.), and ecclesiastical writings from the third and fourth centuries on (e.g. Apostolic Tradition, Canons of Hippolytus, Didascalia Apostolorum, Apostolic Constitutions) describing some liturgical functions. It is unknown whether these writings are descriptive of what was taking place in churches, or whether they were prescriptive, and if the latter, if anyone followed them. The fact that these do not appear in any form in the biblical canon (established in the fourth century) signifies, I believe, (1) they are only secondary matter, because Scripture self-discloses only the primacy of relationship to God (cf. Jesus’ words to Martha in Lk 10:41-42), and (2) that the Spirit-inspired process of canonization proscribed anything that would be embraced as ‘what to do’, and thus would make the secondary primary, therefore promoting reductionism and fragmenting God’s whole.

If the liturgical descriptions in the ecclesiastical writings are not clearly or definitively how the early church worshiped, then on what basis does the ancient-future quest for ancient practices have significance for the church today? It appears that the quest (or movement) is searching for deeper experience, and looks to the ancient rituals because they provide an affective experience, something that feels meaningful and real by virtue of their participatory nature or sensory stimulation, as opposed to a worship service that is dominated by dryness, shallowness, or passive participation. If the difference comes down to the choice between being an active participant or a spectator, give me the participatory worship anytime! And yet, to qualify that, as we noted earlier in this study, participation itself does not ensure that our focus and worship has the relational clarity needed to be directly on God; nor does it ensure that our participation has the relational significance necessary to make heart-to-heart connection with God in the qualitative function and relational involvement of our whole person.

Certain dynamics are necessary in the corporate worship of a local body of believers, most notably Communion and its extension in baptism. These are vital dynamics of our shared life as God’s family. Other dynamics, considered rituals,[14] can be helpful as “tutors,” to help persons get in touch with their hearts for the purpose of making intimate connection with God, to open ourselves vulnerably to receive God, to share our hearts back in praise, thanksgiving, deeper commitment of submission in trust and obedience to him. It should always be clarified that rituals are not to be engaged as ends in themselves, but to facilitate deeper connection between the worshiper and God. All of these are relational dynamics that converge with Jesus behind the veil and emerge with the whole of God without the veil.

Corporate worship, therefore, is never primarily about rituals, elements, actions, and patterns because to think in these ways makes us susceptible to outer-in worship shaped by human contexts of culture and church tradition. This shaping reduces worship to “lips with distant hearts speaking human precepts that hold to human tradition” as exposed by the key of Jesus (Mk 7:6-8). In contrast and conflict, worship is always our corporate relational response to the whole of God—heart to heart, face to Face behind the veil, in his relational context and by the intimate relational process by which he has vulnerably involved himself for relational connection, the quality and depth of which make us whole from inner out without the veil. All of this is the relational outcome of what we are saved to: the experiential reality of Jesus’ relational work of redemption on the cross to be reconciled together in the ongoing relational progression together of redemptive change that composes our relational belonging into God’s family in the key of adoption to be in tune as his very own daughters and sons.

 

 

Chorus:

 

 

‘Singing' the new song to our Lord:      By its nature, ‘singing’ can only be on key and in tune as composed in the new song of the whole of life and all the relational dynamics of life in its wholeness. As embodied by Jesus in God’s primacy of relationship together, ‘singing’ the new song is our perceptual-interpretive key to worship. Though the intimacy necessary to grow in the new song (as his new creation family) discomforts us, Jesus pursues us for this primacy in worship, and the Spirit is present to transpose together with us. Accordingly, therefore, worship can have no substitute for its integrating focus of the above relational dynamics, and is nothing less than the integral relational convergence of these dynamics composing our (both individual and corporate) reciprocal relational response and vulnerable involvement in relationship together with the whole of God. No veil allowed!

 


 

 


[1] I confess that as a former English teacher embedded in the form of a message over its relational content, it was difficult to shift at first, but a freeing shift to the primacy of relationship from an insistence on lexical correctness. Now I think, “What’s the big deal?” It was about how I defined myself from outer in, and consequently focused on the secondary.

[2] “The Lord is My Strength and My Song,” by Gerrit Gustafson ©1987 Integrity’s Hosanna!Music.

[3] St. Francis of Assisi, melody from “Geistliche Kirchengesang,” ©J. Curwen & Sons, Ltd.

[4] Robert Webber. “I-Me-My Worship?” Worship Leader Magazine, 2005, 14(1):8.

[5] “The Spirit of the Word” ©2011 T. Dave Matsuo and Kary A. Kambara

[6] Logistics would vary for different sized congregations, yet efficiency, should not be the determining factor for sharing in this most integral Christian practice. Time is only secondary, relational significance is primary.

[7] Catholic and other traditions hold the view that the celebrant (president) images Christ, and therefore must be a man, thus excluding women from this function. At Fuller Theological Seminary’s All Seminary Chapel only ordained ministers can lead the Lord’s Supper.

[8] Quoted in Paul Bradshaw, Early Christian Worship: A basic introduction to ideas and practice (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1996), 41.

[9] Glenn Weaver, “Embodied Spirituality.” In Malcolm Jeeves, ed., From Cells to Souls—and Beyond (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004), 100.

[10] “Moses” by Ken Medema ©1971 Word Music.

[11] “The Whole of God Embodied” ©2008 T. Dave Matsuo and Kary A. Kambara.

[12] For example, Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999) and his Ancient-Future worship series; also Worship Leader Magazine.

[13] Paul F. Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship: Sources and Methods for the Study of Early Liturgy, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), x.

[14] I purposely chose not to specify what these rituals are. Rather, we need to examine our rituals for their purpose, not assuming that they have significance to God and build up his family together.

 

 

 

©2011 Kary A. Kambara                     top of page     home