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Worshiping God in Likeness

of the Trinity

Not Determined 'in their way'

   Uncommon  Worship  Study

Chapter 1      Confronting the Common



The Incompatible Common

Exposing Reductionism

Raising the Lowest Common Denominator

Contextualizing Worship 'in their way'

God's Relational Terms

Disembodied Lips

Counter-Relational Performance

Worship in Likeness of the Trinity

Whole Lips

A Relational Word for Our Voices


Ch 1

Ch 2

Ch 3

Ch 4


Printable pdf of entire study

Table of Contents

Scripture Index




You must not worship the Lord your God in their way.

Deuteronomy 12:4, 31, NIV[1]



How do you think God feels about the corporate worship in his church around the world today? Related, do you ever think about who and what God receives from you and your fellow worshipers? Do these issues matter to God? Of the above words from God about worship, do you think those words still apply to us today? Or are they merely a brittle ancient historic record, the intent of which has no relevance to our contemporary time?


In both the Old and New Testaments, God says challenging things about worship. If we believe Scripture to compose the relational communication from God that God communicates directly to us, then we need to take his words to heart. If, however, we don’t acknowledge that God communicates relationally to us today through Scripture, we are left to our own devices, guessing a lot about God and about worship in particular, and then shaping worship “according to our own desires” (Dt 12:8).


For one thing, judging by the fact that much of contemporary worship today has little relational clarity as to who is the one being worshiped, it seems that many worship planners and leaders fall into the latter group of speculators, however inadvertently that may be so. Traditional liturgical worship may have more relational clarity, but it is difficult to discern that much of this worship has any relational significance of making intimate relational connection with God, whose presence has revealed himself in the most vulnerable ways for intimate relationship together. Who is being worshiped is reflected by how we worship, which raises the critical question of whether or not we worship ‘in their way’, regardless of our church’s style of worship. This study proceeds on the conviction that by and large the global church worships God ‘in their way’ across the worship spectrum that ranges from the most casual contemporary worship to the most structured liturgical worship, with all their contextual variations and sociocultural diversity.




The Incompatible Common


From early on in the covenant relationship between the Holy (Uncommon) God and the Israelites, those relationships frequently involved incompatibility and incongruence between the Uncommon God and the common default ways of the Israelites, leading to much tension and conflict. Central to this conflict was the Israelites’ worship of God. Here is what was involved, looking beyond the either-or worship of Yahweh or pagan deities.


On the one hand, the Holy God initiated the covenant relationship with the Hebrew people to establish them in the relational terms of wholeness (tāmiym, be whole, Gen 17:1). Wholeness is the significance of biblical peace, namely, the inner-out well-being of persons both individually and corporately in covenant relationship together with God (shalôm, see Num 6:24-26). Shalôm stands in qualitative contrast to the common inadequate view of peace—for example, peace as the absence of conflict and war—that we get from Greek philosophy.[2] Christians, notably those who toil in peace and justice efforts, commonly think of peace in this limited sense, which reflects their reduced view of the biblical peace distinguished by God (as in Num 6:24-26). Yet, it is also inadequate to move beyond the mere absence of the negative to a common ‘holistic’ view of peace (and the human person) by merely adding more parts of a person, such as physical and economic needs. The wholeness of shalôm is the inner-out emergence of persons and their convergence in the primacy of relationships that have been specifically redeemed from reductionism and reconciled to God and each other in intimate and equalized relationships (to be discussed throughout the study). By its nature, wholeness is the experiential truth that composes the experiential reality of intimate reciprocal relationship with God.


On the other hand of the incompatibility and incongruence between God and his covenant people, God has always had to contend with his people’s development influenced by the context of the common, that is, shaped by the general human context (planet earth) and its specific contexts (e.g. religiocultural, sociocultural, family). Indeed, the whole of Scripture deals with this prevailing issue of human shaping in the common’s ordinary context, which is always in contrast to and in conflict with the uncommon context of God distinguished beyond the common. This shaping influence from the human context(s) is called human contextualization. And human contextualization’s most sinister yet unavoidable influence on all human persons ever since the primordial garden is the sin of reductionism.


Reductionism, which is defined shortly, is the antithesis, the foe if you wish, of wholeness, holiness (uncommonness), and of God himself. For human beings, this reductionism is our lowest common denominator, and influences every aspect of human life and relationships, including how we practice church and how we worship God. Underlying this doxology in our theology and practice is our theological anthropology, which is the primary determinant for how we function as persons, yet is usually overlooked. Thus, the consequences of the sin of reductionism on worship escape our awareness because its subtle influence shapes how we function by the default mode of the unredeemed human context; but the consequences are felt nonetheless, as will become increasingly apparent.


Wherever God’s wholeness emerges in the human context (the common’s ordinary context), there the presence of reductionism can always be found to oppose wholeness. It is therefore imperative that we understand and expose reductionism at the outset of this study on worshiping God in God’s likeness, because the serious relational consequences from reductionism are:


(1)  Our person is reduced to less than whole, and accordingly our relationships are less

       than whole.

(2)  Against God’s warning, based on our human-shaped biases we impose our reduced

preconceptions and interpretations of God’s Word and end up worshiping a human-shaped God (our shaping of God, resulting in diverse versions of God)—however knowingly or unknowingly.


(3)  Based on our shaping of God, we worship God in ways that have little if only

       relational clarity of God and no relational significance to God; thereby, we end up

       worshiping God ‘in their way’.


The same relational tensions and conflicts in worship that took place between Yahweh and the ancient Israelites present themselves in today’s worship gatherings in different outer forms. The relational consequences will become more apparent as we move through this study.


God’s words at the opening of this chapter—“you must not worship the Lord your God in their way”—are a direct challenge to us, a confronting challenge inseparably including our shaping of God that many may want to avoid.[3] As we discuss reductionism in this chapter, I pray that readers will, with the help of the Spirit, come to understand a number of related issues that concern corporate worship, issues that get raised in many discussions among worship thinkers, planners and practitioners but are never completely resolved. These include how to deal with performance, preferences about worship styles, liturgical traditions, music differences, diversity among worshipers (i.e. differences based on race, ethnicity, gender, age/generation, class), competition—everything that creates relational distance, tensions and even conflicts among God’s worshipers in the local and global church.


The prevailing approach by worship thinkers to these issues in worship has been notably fragmented, attending to disparate issues, such as promoting multigenerational or multicultural worship to address the generational and diversity gaps with the intent of having a measure of harmony. Yet any harmonious outcomes are often shallow and short-lived, somewhat analogous to the short-lived periods of harmony that mask the enduring problems of racism and sexism in the world. Too often harmony is equated with mere niceness, which has no relational significance compared to the relational involvement of love. We must go deeper to deal with the underlying presence of reductionism that is not yet understood in its depth. In order to sufficiently address this issue, we have to come face to face with the Lord in unprecedented vulnerability of our whole person for the relational involvement necessary for a truly transformed relational outcome.


These issues all point us to our need for redemptive change: to die to reductionism, so that the new can emerge in vulnerableness, in the intimate and equalized relationships together of wholeness as God’s new creation family, that is, who we are as God’s church locally and globally. We will not experience this transformed (not a mere transformative) relational outcome that the gospel of transformation offers unless we listen better to God’s Word and the embodied Word.[4] That is, we need to make ourselves vulnerable to having been ignorant or even resistant “all this time,” even as some of us have been dedicated Christians for many decades (cf. Jesus’ poignant words to his disciples, Jn 14:9).


This worship study focuses on these urgent issues so that we can tackle them head on, thus to give the Spirit the opportunity to unfold the transformation in us individually and corporately as the global church, to be and live whole from the inner out. Far from the common approaches embraced by churches and the academy to bring about transformation, in biblical transformation the old (including our worship theology and practice) dies so that the new can emerge (cf. Rom 6:4-5; 2 Cor 5:17) as the new wine (cf. Lk 5:38) and flow in worship gatherings and beyond into the world. Such transformation—that is, redemptive change—will distinguish our God, us as the global church, and our worship far beyond how our worship ‘in their way’ does. This has been God’s desire from the beginning, and it is exciting to anticipate the transformed church whole-ly responding to God in relational terms of God’s likeness and participating in God’s life as the new creation family in transformed worship.




Exposing Reductionism


Before we can expect this transformation to unfold, we have to expose the influence of reductionism in our theology and practice. In reductionism, a person is defined not as an integrated whole but by one or more aspects (parts) of that person, thereby fragmenting and reducing the person’s significance to that part. The part or parts of our person used in that way are mainly quantitative ‘outer’ aspects of what we do (e.g. job, education, social and family roles) or have (e.g. wealth, status, physical attributes, talents). While the ‘outer’ of what we do/have gets primary focus, the ‘inner’ qualitative function of our heart, notably its function in relationships, is rendered less important, hidden, or even ignored altogether. Thus, with this narrow measure the integrity of our whole person has become fragmented and reduced to those outer criteria. Reductionism has been the default and common mode of all of us humans ever since the primordial garden—who and what we are as persons, and how we function in all of our relationships, foremost with God and notably in worship.[5]


What one does or has are quantitative measures of the person on which we construct our self-image and derive self-worth. Whether in a positive or negative sense, while growing up, you likely defined your person (and were defined by others) by what you did or didn’t do (e.g. how well you did in school, sports, art, music), and/or by what you had or didn’t have (e.g. certain physical attributes, talents). I have written elsewhere about my own journey—that I defined my person by how I did in school, abilities (or lack thereof) in art and music, my female gender, appearance (this last one partly related to being Asian American)—and my need to be made whole in my person. Every one of us has a similar narrative that would be vital to identify and bring before the Lord.


With this common mindset and narrow quantitative interpretive lens focused on the secondary criteria of what we do or have—that is, the lens which tells us what to pay attention to and what to ignore—on that distorted basis our persons engage in relationships with others, including God. Likewise, we view and define others by the same fragmented criteria of what they do or have, and engage in relationships on that distorted basis, including with God. To engage with another person with my heart distant or hidden severely limits any depth of relational connection, certainly precluding intimate connection (intimacy defined as hearts vulnerable and coming together). Then we bring this same way of engaging others into our church relationships, subtly affirming the common practice of relationships prevailing in our surrounding context. The consequence of reductionism on the human person is inevitably, if not immediately, on relationships, and we need to recognize reductionism’s particular counter-relational work in worship.


As long as we define our person by the outer criteria of what we do and have, our whole person remains relationally at a distance from others, even if we give the appearance of being warm and relationally available. The lack of depth of relational connection with God and other worshipers in church—for example before, during and after worship services—is the prevailing common experience among worshipers, certainly a common experience for visitors and even regular attendees who don’t fit the church’s main demographic. How would you honestly assess the depth of relational connection your church makes with God and each other in your worship gatherings—not in quantitative terms but in qualitative relational terms?


When the persons leading worship give primacy to secondary criteria of what they do (e.g. lead worship, preach, play a musical instrument well) or have (e.g. talents, spiritual gifts), they try to relate to God by those fragmented parts. This process makes secondary or altogether ignores their inner person—the inner person signified by the qualitative function of the heart. ‘What to do’ in worship—in this case, play an instrument, sing, even preach—then becomes a substitute offered to God, a substitute for their whole person. And God has long rejected such offerings (cf. Ps 40:6-7; 50:16-17).


Intentionally or unintentionally, when we come before God as reduced persons, we only give something less than the whole person God seeks to be his worshipers, and we merely give any substitute of what we do (e.g. attend worship, observe Christian traditions, serve, even sacrifice) and have (financial or other resources, spiritual gifts). Perhaps the best indicator that we are functioning in reductionism—which thus reflects our lack of wholeness—is the extent to which self-concern preoccupies us more than deeper relational connection. Another related issue is the assumption is that we know God well enough to know what God wants in worship. Whether it is a conscious thought or not, we make the assumption that God is like us such that God primarily wants from his worshipers what we do and have, and that God gives primacy to the secondary criteria, just as we humans do. Accordingly, the better we perform and the more we do for God, the happier God must be with us, and thus wouldn’t put us down or reject us; and he may even then bless us.


This perception of God is the common view of God that focuses on what God does for us (e.g. saves and prospers us, does miracles) or has (e.g. superlative attributes rendered in static terms, even as love); and such a narrow focus fails to hear and respond to God’s relational communications giving primacy to our whole person for intimate relational connection in worship. This is the crux of Jesus’ critique of persons who honor God with lips “but their hearts are far from me” (Mt 15:8-9; Mk 7:6-8). In contrast to and conflict with the common perception of God that is shaped and reduced by human contextualization is the uncommon holy God: God who is distinguished beyond comparison with anyone and anything in the universe, God who has vulnerably revealed himself to us for the sole purpose of relationship together (as in God’s distinguished [pālā’] love, Ps 31:21). Our perception and shaping of God is an ongoing problem in the global church, and is a crucial issue throughout this study.



Raising the Lowest Common Denominator


From a very young age we are immersed in reductionism prevailing in our human contexts, thereby conformed to the reduced shaping from our family, church culture, broader culture, and society. Increased use of technology certainly thrives on reductionism of our person by reducing us to the templates of social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter). Similar templates for worship abound, ranging from PowerPoint graphics to orders of worship for given days in the church calendar year. Yet, even apart from electronic technology, the church has employed templates for centuries, such as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and Common Worship. The critical issue about worship orders is how these templates are used (as references, guidelines, or as hard and fast rules). Because we are always susceptible to giving primacy to ‘what to do’, we must understand reductionism’s influence on worship planning. Worship orders and the issues surrounding them are discussed more fully in chapter three.


Reductionism is the universal common denominator that sustains the human condition, its fragmentation and distance in relationships occurring at all levels of life. Giving primacy to secondary matter of what we do (e.g. job, roles in church, in worship) and/or have (e.g. skills, training, even spiritual gifts), carries over into our relationships, into church, and into worship. The universal consequences of reductionism are to reduce the wholeness integral to human persons as well as to reinforce and sustain distance in relationships.


Defining one’s self from the outer in engages us in the comparative process measured by outer criteria, because we are always evaluating our worth in comparison with someone else in the ongoing self-concern of ‘how well I measure up’. Paul directly addressed this comparative process that the Corinthian church was engaged in (see 2 Cor 10:12-13). As common and familiar as the comparative process is to us, we need to realize that it is not a neutral dynamic, because it expresses, reinforces, and sustains reduced human ontology and function in all of us. Further issues in this common reductionist process become clear, as the following excerpt illuminates:


     The often subtle shift to redefining the person away from the qualitative significance of the heart increasingly becomes quantitative (things measured in quantified terms for more certainty, or identified primarily by rationality for more control), increasingly transposes the secondary over the primary, and shapes substitutes for the qualitative significance of persons distinguished in the image and likeness of God. This shift amplifies human consciousness of the parts that compose human distinctions—that is, heightens self-consciousness of what we do and have in order to define (or measure up) ourselves in a comparative process. As this self-consciousness increases, there is a correlated decrease in person-consciousness. Accordingly, as person-consciousness fades, there is a proportional decrease in a person’s qualitative sensitivity and relational awareness. The lack of qualitative sensitivity and relational awareness is a critical condition for the person in the human context, resulting in a self increasingly distant from the heart and in relationships, that is, increasingly “to be apart” and unable to live in ontology and function by the qualitative image and relational likeness of God.[6]


The need to measure up is an inner message that we all know, comparing ourselves—and being compared by others—to family members, schoolmates, teammates, and even media personalities, not to mention Christian role models (as demonstrated by the disciples, Lk 9:46; 22:24). It is the common human experience to compare ourselves to others, envy others for what they do or have, or feel jealous, resentful, or bad when someone seems ‘better’ and we feel ‘less’. Underlying this comparative process is its competitive nature; all of us have engaged in competition with another person or persons, where we actively vie for the status to be ‘better than’ someone else. Yet, when we did feel better than another person, there would always be two consequences: one, there would always be someone else who was ‘better than’, so we had to strive to get even better; two, feeling better about our self was always at the cost of someone else’s integrity and worth as a person, who likely felt bad about their self.


The comparative-competitive process is never-ending because we can never feel that we finally measure up (e.g. measure up to how we define God’s expectations of us), though we keep trying. The ongoing effort to measure up also compels putting down other persons in some way, if not overtly then subtly through snobbery, sarcasm, and joking. Such communication is not harmless, but is always counter-relational because it creates relational distance, especially by the one making the joke. Sadly, this common practice is widely accepted as a substitute for loving relational involvement. Paul warns against this type of language in worship gatherings (Eph 5:4; Col 3:8). These are examples of how reductionism plays out in worship ‘in their way’ because of the underlying focus on secondary criteria and the implied reduced human ontology and function from human contexts. This focus also gets transposed onto God without fail.


Many Christians are aware of the comparative-competitive process in themselves but don’t know how to change. The usual approach is to try to not compare, try to not be competitive, laying down our specific “crowns” (e.g. that thing we do or have that we look to, to feel good about ourselves), only to end up comparing and competing again, to great frustration and discouragement. Sometimes we simply remove ourselves from the situations that bring out our competitiveness as a way to deal with it. I recall a seminary classmate who had earlier worked in commercial art. He left that vocation because, as he put it, “It brought out the worst in me.” Yet the propensity to comparison-competition never goes away due to our need for self-worth, and this was palpable in my classmate’s demeanor. Further, because our focus is always on outer-in aspects of what we do or have, our concerns inevitably keep revolving around ourselves, no matter how much we profess to serve God and others, including by leading worship. This should not be surprising but rather what should be expected from self-worth based on a comparative process.


Do any of the following secondary concerns sound familiar: Does someone play the guitar better than I do? Do I have a better preaching gift? Did we have a more creative or dynamic worship, a more Spirit-filled worship than another church? Did I look better, or less cool, than so-and-so? Am I witty enough, like pastor X? Does our church have more worship attendees than the church down the street? Should we employ arts in worship as churches X, Y, and Z do? Does our technology measure up?


In this ‘better’-‘less’ dynamic, relationships become stratified vertically, becoming hierarchical, however subtly or benignly that hierarchy may be imposed and presented. Jesus noted this better-less dynamic in the disciples, and confronted them with his deeper relational perspective (Lk 22:24-27). Many churches have a distinct hierarchy between church leadership and the rest of the members, as well as a distinction between worship leaders and the rest of the worshipers. These human-shaped distinctions that subtly fragment churches are commonplace, and go to the heart of what’s ailing God’s global church and worship today. Stratification based on human-shaped distinctions fragments all relationships—from the personal to the systemic—and is especially egregious among Christians because God definitively gives primacy to persons’ hearts over outer distinctions (e.g. 1 Sam 16:7; Ps 147:10-11). This very same dynamic of distinction-making is the basis for distinctions based on race, ethnicity, sex, age, class, tribe, and nation. The obvious outcomes are the divisiveness of racism, sexism, ageism, classism, tribalism, and nationalism. Paul also emphasizes that there is no place among God’s people for human-shaped distinction making (Gal 3:27-28; 1 Cor 12:13; Col 3:11), as does James (2:1,9).


These distinctions that we make create and maintain horizontal barriers as well. The distinctions based on the secondary matter of worship styles, music styles, liturgical practices including how to celebrate Communion, are all secondary matter that have little or no relational significance to God. Yet we engage in them, if not insist on them, which leads to horizontal barriers of relational distance. We make these distinctions primary in our worship gatherings, imagining unity with those who worship ‘in our way’, isolating ourselves from the ‘other’. Christian denominations and confessions are guilty of these horizontal relational barriers.


Diametrically opposed to the comparative-competitive process is to make our self vulnerable in our innermost, that is, vulnerable to not just others but first to ourselves and God. To be vulnerable with our heart means to be honest about our weakness, inadequacies, about our fear of not measuring up, and most importantly our need for self-worth. This is the fear of failing, of losing, and ultimately of the shame being considered ‘less’ and then rejected. These fears are part of our human condition ever since the primordial garden.[7] But vulnerableness of heart can bring us before God to receive his relational response of relational grace, in order that we can be raised from the lowest common denominator.




Contextualizing Worship ‘in their way’


Before discussing further how we commonly worship ‘in their way’, let’s first examine what God meant by “you shall not worship the Lord your God in their way.” God’s terms for covenant relationship together with the Israelites were made definitive in more detail with the Ten Commandments (the Decalogue) to expand on the summary relational terms given to Abraham; and the twelfth chapter of Deuteronomy presents some of God’s specific terms regarding worship that the Israelites were to follow. (It would be helpful to read Ex 20:1-7 and Dt 12 before continuing.) The context of Deuteronomy 12 is that God was preparing the Israelites to enter the land he promised them. How the Israelites were to worship God was also of utmost importance to God, equal to the importance of worshiping the one God and God only.



God’s Relational Terms


The first commandment of the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:2) is not, contrary to common understanding, about having Yahweh as their only God, with no other gods. That Yahweh was their one and only God is stated in the previous sentence: “I am the Lord your God,” and this establishes the relational context of the covenant relationship, along with the Shema (Dt 6:4). The first commandment—“You shall have no other gods before [besides] me”—focuses on how the Israelites were to respond to Yahweh in their understanding and in their worship. God is establishing a new context for them—a qualitatively and relationally distinguished context—after having freed them from their former context of Egypt, and is further preparing to distinguish them from their soon-to-be immediate socio-religious context of Canaan.


The first commandment (i.e. the first definitive expanded relational term) communicates that because the Lord was their God, they were not to have any other deity “before [pāneh] me” (Ex 20:3). Pāneh signifies “face,” or “in front of,” and so “before me” means “in my presence.” In the beliefs and ritual practice of the Canaanites and other peoples in the land, they had a divine assembly of deities in their common context that ruled both the supernatural and natural worlds. In this pantheon, one deity was designated the head of the assembly and that deity converged with one or more divine female consorts/partners. Since the Israelites were to take possession of the land in Canaan, they would encounter, if they hadn’t already, this polytheistic context. By prohibiting the juxtaposition and conflation of any of these foreign deities with God, the first commandment banned the Israelites from bringing this worldview into the worship context of their covenant relationship (and worship), definitively to eliminate the human contextualization of God’s worship, in order that the integrity of the whole of God would be maintained and that their involvement in covenant relationship would be composed by wholeness in likeness of the Lord their God.


This first commandment herein goes beyond the common interpretation of having only one God, which was the monotheistic reality that God stated just prior: “I am the Lord your God who….” (Ex 20:1). This monotheistic reality about Yahweh is also the relational intent of the beginning of the Shema (Dt 6:4b): “Yhwh our God Yhwh one”[8] or the more familiar “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone” (NRSV). Implied in distinguishing God in this way is the necessary decontextualizing that the Israelites needed to address in themselves, that is, to understand and choose against the default mode of the common, or what the surrounding nations were doing. In other words, human norms for relationships must not determine how relationship with God is engaged. Yet, we know that the Israelites failed in this critical way when they sought a king “to govern us, like other nations” (1 Sam 8:5). The lure of human contextualization with its reductionism was, and still is, strong, pervasive, and prevailing. In fact, the history of the church unmistakably attests to the triumph of human contextualization up until the present.[9]


After the first commandment eliminates human contextualization of worship of God, the second commandment naturally follows with specifics of how not to be involved with God: “You shall not make for yourself an idol [any image of God], in the form of anything that is in heaven above…on earth beneath, or…in the water under the earth” (Ex 20:4). Here God exposes any attempts by his people to reduce the integral wholeness of who, what, and how God is through (1) making images (idols) of God, which is to shape and reduce the irreducible God according to human terms, (2) worshiping those human-shaped creations of him (i.e. worshiping idols), and (3) trying to manipulate God to act on their behalf based on their terms imposed on God. God made the foregoing definitive because it was the practice of the Canaanites to make images (idols) of their deities, cover these images in gold and silver, clothe them, and ascribe power to them, and in essence try to manipulate them to act on their behalf, summarized as follows:


Images of deity in the ancient Near East were where the deity became present in a special way, to the extent that the cult statue became the god (when the god so favored his worshipers)…. As a result of this linkage, spells, incantations and other magical acts could be performed on the image in order to threaten, bind or compel the deity. In contrast, other rites related to the image were intended to aid the deity or care for the deity. The images then represent a worldview, a concept of deity that was not consistent with how Yahweh had revealed himself.[10]


Likely not to this extent, nevertheless contrary to God’s relational terms, we do not realize it, but we make images of God all the time. How? We do this by shaping God using our reductionist interpretive lens that focuses on only divine aspects (read fragmented parts) of God, most commonly by the same reductionist terms according to which we define our own person based on the secondary criteria of ‘what we do’ and ‘what we have’. On the one hand, our interpretive lens pays attention to what God did or does (e.g. created, saved us, sacrificed for us, does signs and wonders, answers our requests, provides) or has (e.g. attributes of glory, majesty, strength, omniscience), because this is our default perceptual-interpretive framework and lens from reductionism that fragments our person and God’s accordingly from wholeness.


On the other hand, our interpretive lens generally (sometimes intentionally) ignores God’s relational messages throughout Scripture, which integrally compose his vulnerable presence and intimate relational response of grace to us together with his desire and purpose for us for face-to-face reciprocal relationship together. God made his desires unmistakable in the incarnation of the Son, whose time on earth was embodied by his vulnerable presence and relational involvement with all those he interacted with. This Jesus, however, is not the one we generally celebrate in worship, though we certainly celebrate a Jesus—that is, some ideal (idol) of Jesus shaped by our Christian contexts that are commonly shaped by surrounding contexts.


            In our practices of worship, it is axiomatic that ‘as our God goes, so goes our worship’. The common process of human shaping of God—the idolization of God—is the very process from human contextualization that God eliminated in the first commandment, and the image(s) we have constructed are reductionist idols whom we worship, even represented as ideals. I contend with this generalization: that for the most part in the global church, our worship today is ‘in their’ way’ and is relationally compatible only with the God we have shaped, and who thus differs markedly from and is incongruent with the God who revealed himself on his own terms—even though our doctrine of God may appear compatible and congruent with Scripture. Assuming the validity of my contention, or at least its plausibility in our practice, our worship for the most part must be recognized as having incompatibility with the God who has revealed himself in the most vulnerable way imaginable.


The next chapter expands on God as he has revealed and continues to reveal himself, which challenges the God we have ended up shaping by our human terms, the God whom we worship ‘in their way’.



Disembodied Lips


Worshiping God ‘in their way’ may not seem like a bad thing to most of us when it’s all we know, and also appears to be congruent with the God familiar to us. Yet, we need to consider further God’s words from the Old Testament and Jesus’ words from the New Testament that challenge us for our corporate worship today. When Jesus said to some Pharisees, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Mt 15:8; Mk 7:6, both originally from the OT, Isa 29:13), he spoke in full congruence with “You must not worship the LORD your God in their way” (Dt 12:4,31, NIV). This NT interaction took place when these Pharisees challenged Jesus and his disciples about their practices of piety (Mt 15:1-20; Mk 7:1-23). And Jesus went straight to the heart of the matter: their worship focused on secondary matters and thereby prioritized outward expressions of their lips, but their “hearts are far from me.” This substitute of and simulation by the person are the defining issue that human contextualization ongoingly presents to God’s worshipers. Where can God find “those who worship in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:24)?


The Pharisees were known to give priority to outward appearance (performance or theater, if you wish, cf. Mt 6:1,5,16), and expected all Jews to follow their practices of piety, such as the emphasis on ceremonial washing before eating. Much of Judaism, and the Pharisees notably so, gave primacy to “the tradition of the elders,” which emphasized the outer matter of ‘what to do’ over the significance of the inner person (signified by the heart involved) in the primacy of relationship together with God and others. These outer-in practices were never God’s intention when he originally established the covenant relationship in Moses’ time. In this “covenant of love” (beriyt, “covenant,” hesed, “love,” Dt 7:12, NIV), God’s top priority and purpose was always to enjoy reciprocal relationship together (e.g. Dt 7:9; Lev 26:11-12). Note that covenant relationship with God was and is always reciprocal, because God does not participate in one-way relationships, although he can and does at times in some situations.


Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees’ worship practices tells us both what God desires and rejects from his worshipers. God rejects worship in which worshipers give primacy to the outer aspects of what they and others do in worship, because by doing so, worshipers’ “hearts are far from me.” These substitutes and simulations demonstrate distant hearts, uninvolved hearts that are ignored, hidden and unavailable for intimate relational connection together for reciprocal relationship, demonstrating reductionism’s counter-relational effect. The issues for the Pharisees wasn’t about not worshiping, but revolved around what they were doing instead to compose how they were worshiping. They were ‘worshiping’ from outer in, giving simply the outer appearance of worshiping (‘what to do’ here means ‘doing the right thing’) while withholding their hearts. In other words, worship was an end in itself, without having any relational significance. Their mouths moved and worship-y words came out, but they were not relationally involved with God with their whole person from inner out. These Pharisees worshiped ‘in their way’, determined by the priorities from human contextualization of ‘what to do’ and ‘what to have’. Their lips were, in relational terms, fragmented from the relational function of their whole person (notably their hearts) and, thus, disembodied—which should not be confused with being more spiritual but signifies only a fragmented person in reduced function.


‘Disembodied lips’ became the relational substitutes they gave to God, yet a God also shaped by their bias. ‘Disembodied lips’ is an apt metaphor for how worshipers function in reductionism, the person who defines their self by what they do (e.g. performing actions called ‘worship’) and engages in relationships on that basis—thus to paraphrase Jesus’ critique: “these people honor me with disembodied lips”. Jesus’ church today worships with disembodied lips as the prevailing norm, which is evident by the pervasive substitutes and simulations occupying (likely preoccupying) our worship services.


This is not hyperbole about the state of worship; it represents the state of who and what we present of ourselves to God, and how we function in relationships together. ‘Lips without heart’ is God’s relational critique that is relevant today, exposing what takes place in too much corporate worship. Even though we sing God’s praises, belt out dynamic hymns and praises to honor him, and work hard each week to ensure excellence in all that we bring to God, without the qualitative involvement of our hearts from our innermost that is vulnerably involved relationally directly with God, then our worship isn’t reciprocally compatible with God’s whole person who is vulnerably embodied in relational response to us; nor is it relationally congruent to make the necessary relational connection with God for our worship to be of relational significance to him. And merely talking and singing about the importance of relationship as Jesus’ followers and intimacy in worship never compose our whole person presented to God for reciprocal relational connection. As such, we do not worship in likeness of God, but ‘in their way’.


By not coming before God in the vulnerableness of our whole person(s) presented to God as our compatible response of worship communicated in relational terms, we demonstrate that we don’t understand what it means to be the worshipers the Father seeks. Those are the worshipers, as Jesus revealed to the Samaritan woman at the well, who are compatible with God (“God is spirit…must worship in spirit,” Jn 4:23-24)—that is, with the vulnerableness of honest hearts in God’s likeness. The worshipers whom Jesus distinguished and whom the Father seeks are distinguished only from inner out, whereby the whole person is embodied (1) directly before God face to face behind the curtain (cf. Heb 10:19-22; 2 Cor 4:6), and (2) intimately together, having had the ‘veil of relational barriers’ removed (cf. 2 Cor 3:16-18). As the Samaritan woman experienced by amazing love, in relational terms the worship relationship cannot be embodied new by embodying distinctions from outer in (such as her gender and ethnicity)—even if these distinctions have been long revered or are widely esteemed today.


Therefore, whenever our involvement in worship doesn’t make the vulnerable relational connection with God (as Mary, Martha’s sister, did, Jn 12:1-7; Mt 26:6-13; Mk 14:3-9; cf. Lk 7:36-50) that is congruent with how God engages in relationship (notably within the Trinity as Jesus vulnerably revealed in the incarnation), then who and what we bring to worship aren’t those who worship in spirit and truth (vulnerable honesty of heart). It is critical indeed for our practice to embrace the full reality that ‘who and what we give is who and what we get in relationship with God’ (as in Mk 4:24). More than likely we aren’t even aware of all these relational implications, even those of us who see ourselves as ‘relational’, because we have become desensitized to the qualitative in ourselves and subtly unaware of our relational nature, and increasingly distracted from our relational responsibility as God’s worshipers—the consequences of reduced ontology and function of our own person.


Consider all the worship practices you are aware of, the different ways worship is planned and led. Consider your own participation, whether you lead worship or sit in the pews/chairs. What is the implication that you give your attention more to what persons are doing, how they look, how well they sing, preach, or get laughs from the congregation? What does it mean that your church gives priority to the skillfulness of performances of worship leaders, choirs, and the like, to the extent that you hire professional musicians? Or that a few off-notes completely distract you from your own worship? Or perhaps that your church is seeking a worship leader who has an advanced degree in leading worship?


These examples are ways that we worship ‘in their way’. What they all have in common is giving primacy to the secondary (i.e. the prevailing ‘common’ in human contextualization), and making what is primary to God (i.e. whole persons and relationships together) secondary, even if only in practice and not in theory.


The underlying issue—both for us today and for the ancient Israelites—is about how we see the person, define the person, and on that basis do relationships—that is, this issue is about our theological anthropology. Who and what we are as persons is our ontology, and how we live, including how we engage in relationships, is our function. Ontology and function comprise our theological anthropology, namely how we see ourselves and function vis-à-vis the image and likeness of God.


The matter of disembodied lips, however, is not a lips-versus-heart duality, nor is the issue the ‘doing vs. being’ duality that some Christians talk about. Priority is often given to ‘being’, notably in some spiritual disciplines, whereas persons who are focused on social justice activism give priority to ‘doing’. That is reductionist thinking. Nor is the issue about merely expressing emotions to God during worship, the stronger the better—although emotions are an integral expression of one’s heart. This latter view needs to understand more fully about wholeness of the person. The person is whole who gives primacy to both the heart (the qualitative inner) and relationships together over the fragmentary parts of what ones does or has (the quantitative outer). Wholeness of the human person involves the inseparable integration of the inner and outer, from the inner out and never from outer in. The direction from outer in does not go very far in because of a quantitative focus, whereas the dynamic of inner out neither excludes nor avoids the outer since it embraces all of the persons. And wholeness is the integral experience composed only in the intimate relational connection of vulnerable hearts coming together.


God doesn’t give primacy to what we do, even in service to him; God does not define us by the skills of what we do or the gifts (even spiritual) we have that we bring into the relationship (Ps 147:10-11). God has always given priority to his people’s inner-out involvement in relationships together, that is, in reciprocal relationship together. Any particular act in worship or in ministry (e.g. playing the piano, feeding the homeless) is always secondary. Jesus makes this order of priority clear when we says to any would-be disciple, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also” (Jn 12:26). The emphasis is on “follow me,” contingent on which “serves me” stands. Jesus herein establishes the primacy of relationship together as his priority for his disciples, even to have priority over serving (cf. Mt 26:6-13). Only relationship together is the primary significance of discipleship, which is not well understood by the global church, notably in the West.


This relational primacy is not about ‘being’ vs. ‘doing’ because ‘being’ denotes a static existence and fails to understand the dynamic and ongoing reciprocal relationship together. As an added comment about this false duality, it is often incorrectly applied to Mary and Martha, that Mary enjoyed ‘being’ as she sat at Jesus’ feet while Martha was ‘doing’ the meal preparations in the kitchen (Lk 10:38-42). The issue here was that Mary responded in wholeness to Jesus in reciprocal relationship, which involved taking certain risks to go beyond human contextual constraints, while Martha remained constrained within the limits of her human context.


An illuminating example of giving primacy to ‘what to do’ (a sacred rite) from OT times is when God had instituted circumcision with Abraham (Gen 17:10) as a sign of the covenant relationship between them. This sign was practiced throughout Israel’s history into NT Judaism (Second Temple) as well. Genital circumcision, however, was only a secondary sign of the primacy of persons’ heart-response in relational involvement of trust and obedience to God in the ‘covenant of love’ (Dt 7:12-13 NIV). “Circumcise...your heart...do not be stubborn [stiff-necked, inflexible, hardened] any longer” (Dt 10:16) specifies the necessary relational response of persons’ hearts. In Judaism, circumcision became separated from the inner-out function of persons, and by NT times, it had come to serve as a national identity marker (along with the Sabbath and dietary laws) with no relational significance to God, which Paul came to understand in his own experience.


Paul definitively drew the distinction between outer-in and inner-out circumcision (see Rom 2:28-29), and relativized circumcision altogether to what is primary: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). To make this emphatic, he restated what is primary to God—“neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything.” In this way Paul boasted “in Christ Jesus” as one transformed, a “new creation” and made whole (6:15-16).


Genital circumcision or uncircumcision do not determine a person’s heart and relational involvement with God. Circumcision is only a secondary matter to God, like other rituals of piety, including many of our worship practices, along with how we commonly approach Communion—the practices of our disembodied lips. The reason we are so susceptible to treating secondary matters as primary is because we are still defined by the quantitative outer aspects of what we do or have. We have yet to be redeemed from this sin of reductionism; we have yet to die to this default mode from the human context (the world in general and our surrounding contexts in particular). And when we die to the sin of reductionism, to its fragmentation of our persons, and to all its counter-relational influences, then we can emerge new, as the new creation that Paul boasted about. That will be a much longed-for new day indeed, yet not so much about the not-yet future as to emerge in the already-present.


The ancient historical context and the specifics of God’s warning (i.e. the secondary practices) are so different from conditions in our modern world that they are entirely alien to us when seen in referential terms (e.g. Dt 12:31). However, once we perceive beyond the actual practices, and as we listen deeply to God’s words in relational terms, which are only relational language (not referential language), what comes into focus are the deeper relational issues that God challenged the Israelites with, the issues that mattered most to God. Understood in only relational terms, these are the very same issues and dynamics that persist for us today. We are constantly warned and challenged not to also worship God ‘in their way’, but we have become rather deaf to God’s relational language, and end up focusing on such actual practices instead—and assume also that God is pleased.


And important underlying question to our discussion above and below should be ongoingly raise in our thinking: Are God’s relational terms for relationship together and thus for worship negotiable?



Counter-Relational Performance


In human cultural contexts, performance gives primacy to what performers are doing before an audience. There can be educational value in performances, but by and large performances are offered for entertainment, amusement, and the performers benefit from the attention, fame and reputation, not to mention making money. Performers focus on the outer aspects of how well they do what they do, often to give an audience what the audience wants, and the audiences reinforce the performers with applause and other forms of affirmation. Audiences go to performances expecting a positive experience: to be entertained, amused, and moved by an affective experience.


Even against their stated intentions otherwise, worship leaders commonly bring these dynamics of performance into worship, giving primacy to secondary outer aspects of what they do (e.g. sing, play a musical instrument, plan song sets and transitions) and have (e.g. talent, beautiful singing voice, eloquence), all even considered to be spiritual gifts. They commonly display these secondary aspects of themselves in explicit or implicit forms of performance. Of course, worship leaders are doing something, namely perform actions, but the sense of performance we mean in this discussion is to put on display for other’s approval of what one does and has. The rest of the worshipers reinforce these secondary outer aspects of worship leaders, notably with applause, often prompted by a TV-host-like comment. And although some worship leaders consciously try to lead with their hearts rather than by performance (which is commendable), we need to understand that the expression of emotions in itself and worshiping in compatible reciprocal relationship are not the same thing.


We also need to understand that the performance mentality in worship is not a neutral matter because the identity and function of persons are at stake. That is, the integrity of persons whom God created to be whole in his qualitative image and relational likeness is fragmented and reduced to those secondary outer aspects discussed above, and persons in the pews are rendered as an audience, as passive listeners, and thus as mere objects disengaged from relationship with God. Even if worshipers are singing, standing and clapping, they can still be passive, meaning that they can remain relationally distant in their worship that is not an expression of subjects actively engaging in reciprocal relationship with the Lord. The fact that worship bands and choirs are located at front and center of the stage—whether an actual stage or in the space in front of all the seating—predisposes worshipers to passively observe and have their attention focused in this audience mode. When asked about changing this arrangement by positioning the singers and musicians on the sides or back of the chapel, one singer responded that the congregation likes to have persons up front leading. And even if the seating is arranged in a semi-circle to give a more integrated feel to worship gatherings, all eyes focus on the person/s leading worship, and thereby the performance mindset prevails. How long will we continue to maintain, reinforce, and participate in this performance mindset?


Many persons (worship leaders and worshipers in the seats) subtly justify the focus on performance with various rationales. A common rationale is that God deserves excellence from us, deserves our best efforts to use the gifts he has given us. This mindset about God often translates “excellence” to mean how skillful and accomplished the persons performing are. Some churches holding this view hire professional singers and musicians to get a polished sound out of their bands, choirs, and orchestras. Is it appropriate for churches to hire professional musicians? And where does that leave those less skillful but with a heart openly involved with God? That churches pay people to play a musical instrument or sing in worship (even their own members), or at least assign the most accomplished even without pay, reflects the priority given to the skill level of persons leading worship music, and making secondary or unimportant the relational significance of worshipers to God—those whom he seeks “in spirit and truth” and can count on to be whole worshipers—nothing less and no substitutes.


Psalm 33 illuminates the deeper biblical meaning of 'skillful’ for us. Psalm 33:1-3 (NIV) is full of worship language in reciprocal relational response to the Lord. In that response, the psalmist also says to “play skillfully on the strings” in worship. Certainly the OT values skillfulness and the quality of music itself, but the OT sense of skillfulness goes deeper than our notion of skillfulness today. We tend to focus on the proficiency level of musicians or artists, persons who have refined their expertise playing instruments, and give primacy to the quality of the product over the person who created it. In Psalm 33, the context is relationship with God, established from the opening words, “Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous... Praise the Lord.” In the primacy of relationship, the psalmist then proclaims, “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy” (v.3). The Hebrew word for skillful is yātab and denotes to be good, pleasing, lovely, and favorable. Though translated incompletely in English as “skillfully,” yātab is only about what is pleasing and favorable to God—and thus connoting the relational inner-out idiom of music in God’s relational context. Yātab includes inseparably the skillful quality and relational significance to God, whereas we tend to focus more only on the skillful quantity having a quality of sound.


The OT uses another word group translated into English as skillful or skillfully—ḥokmāh, ḥākām to denote to be wise, skillful, intelligent, have insight and judgment—words used in reference to temple artisans and tailors (Ex 28:3; 31:3,6), military strategy (of God, Isa 10:13), and diplomacy (“wisdom” of Joshua as Moses replacement, Dt 34:9). The contexts and related texts are not narrowed down to the level of proficiency, but are inseparable from the involvement of the wise of heart (ḥākām leb, Ex 28:3) and the spirit (rûah, Ex 31:3,6)—pointing to the significance to God of the whole person who is engaged in serving him from inner out.


This biblical understanding of “skillful” definitively challenges the assumptions we make about what pleases God. Our notions of “skillful” and “excellence” are de-relationalized, thereby fragmenting and reducing persons—not to mention the view of God we project onto him—and reducing relational primacy in corporate worship. Hiring professional musicians or assigning the most accomplished gives primacy to our outer-in terms from our human context of how the music sounds, which is another way to render our worship ‘in their way’. Consider that if the priority of the worshipers were to sing and make music in their hearts to the Lord, they would not notice or care if the sound of the musicians was less than professional or even skillful—complaints that off-notes are distractions would, I’m sure, diminish altogether. Additionally, if visitors are turned off by an off-note or musical mistake, then that is their problem as an audience looking to be entertained. Church leaders and church members must not rely on performance to attract and keep visitors coming—a concern deriving from human contextualization, ‘in their way’ without question. We all need to give primacy to what matters most to God.


Worship is not about entertaining persons’ expectations with ideal presentations, but about fulfilling the primacy of reciprocal relationship together with God as his new creation family. Rather, churches need to examine who, what, and how they are to find their true identity and function in this relational primacy. Jesus declared that the Father seeks honesty of heart vulnerably involved with him, which is the relational significance of “worshipers who worship in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23-24). The Father seeks only these worshipers because they are the ones with whom he can have intimate relationship together in likeness of the intimate trinitarian interrelations. On our part, whenever we give primacy to the excellence of the sound of music over the primacy of our relational involvement with God, we diminish worship to mere entertainment shaped by human contextualization.


This discussion extends also to the practice of including non-Christian musicians in bands and choirs. The critical issue involved here is the perceptual-interpretive framework that we use to distinguish what is off key and out of tune, and what composes singing the new song. I think that having non-Christian musicians in the worship band (or other group of musicians leading worship) is primarily about preference for more skillful musicians. I have also heard the rationale that including them is outreach to them, or avoiding exclusion of non-Christians. The sentiment behind such thinking seems commendable, but it reflects an undeveloped understanding of the significance of corporate worship as God’s family, gathered together in reciprocal relational response to God, which persons without a relationship with God certainly don’t participate in. Far more important for these non-Christian musicians is their need to experience family love, not for what they do (i.e. play drums, sing soprano), which only reinforces fragmentation of their person, but to be treated as whole persons with the depth of involvement that goes deeper than inclusion in the worship band/orchestra based on ability. This level of involvement emerges only when primacy is given to relationships; and this is the most important need that all persons have to fulfill in order to be whole.


The function of the musician group is to lead the congregation in praise to God, which by God’s definition is composed with only relational language. This then requires the involvement of their whole person, from inner out, nothing less and no substitutes—with no ontological simulations of their heart. What this implies, then, is that the Christian band members themselves are accountable to Jesus for their own person presented, their communication, and the depth of their relational involvement. Many worship band members are themselves youth or young adults, who should themselves receive nurture and mentoring from the pastoral staff or other more mature believers in these primary matters of relational significance to God and to grow in the primacy of relationship—assuming, of course, that they also function in relational significance with God. Worshiping God in this relational significance is what the Psalms call us all to, to “sing a new song” (Ps 33:3; 40:3).


Getting back to the rationales for performance as worship, the common rationale for applauding the worship band, choir, orchestra and special music performances is to show our appreciation for these persons, who put in much time, effort, perhaps even sacrifice. Of course it is an important part of a church family to affirm and appreciate their members, including those who lead worship. Yet, when this expression predominates in the context of corporate worship, the primary purpose for our individual and corporate reciprocal response to God (remember God?) is diminished or lost, and worship loses its relational clarity. Relational clarity means that it’s clear who is being worshiped, not in theory but in practice, and the now-routine applause for performance in worship has created the condition of relational ambiguity. How can we worship God in his likeness when his face is obscured from our view?


As a further example of the problem of performance, persons with beautiful voices may give primacy to the sound of their voices rather than to the relational involvement of their heart in singing to God. During a recent live TV production of the Passion story, one of the professional singers seemed to be delivering her song for the camera rather than to express her heart to the Lord. Viewers were more likely to focus on the singer’s talent than seek the deeper substance of not only that singer as a worshiper, but also of any significance to the words being sung. The latter scenario is common in worship, and was the very same issue that God raised in the OT to the prophet Ezekiel. God warned Ezekiel that people came to listen to him, not for the significance of his message from the Lord, but to be entertained (Ezek 33:30-32). We are much too similar to God’s people. Although this Passion production was not a worship service, there was very little relational clarity as to who was being honored, and likely no relational significance to God—that is, no reciprocal relational involvement for connection with God from the participants and viewers, despite dramatic referential terms about God.


Continuing with the counter-relational consequences of performance on worshipers, think about what performance does to worshipers. When all other worshipers define their persons in the fragmented parts from reductionism, to some degree many of them engage in the comparative process of measuring their own respective abilities against the more polished worship leaders. Many worshipers, especially excited new Christians, come to worship with a freedom of expression similar to little children, whose relational response Jesus constantly affirmed, (e.g. Mt 18:3; Mt 21:16; Lk 10:21). It is imaginable that these new Christians will pull back from their own relational responsibility to God, diminish their overall participation in worship, and learn to conform as passive observers—like the rest of the congregation—of what the worship team and choir do. Sadly for new and excited Christians, passive observers’ hearts remain at a relational distance from God and each other, putting a real damper on their experience in church. Is this a major reason why millennials in the U.S. are not attending church?


The greater responsibility to mitigate performance in worship falls to worship planners and leaders. Yet the rest of the worshipers must deal with their own default mode in which they remain focused on the secondary. When the worship leaders are performing and there is no opportunity to participate, it is difficult for everyone else to be actively involved in worship, but we must not let ourselves be reduced by what’s taking place. It’s so easy to become passive; haven’t you ever sensed that in yourself? I have often felt zoned out (numb, sleepy, even exhausted) by the time a worship service is over. It is not an outcome of wholeness and life. Imagine how God feels.


One last example of the performance of worship, or worship as performance, is an obvious instance of human contextualization. Until these past months I never watched Christian worship-type programs on TV, but my husband and I have recently done so to learn about what others see and experience. I can only summarize what I see: performance in the form of concerts, glitz, glamour—all of which are patterned on their secular predecessors. Moreover, Christian music celebrations and awards shows (e.g. the GMA Dove Awards, Celebration of Gospel) are obviously Christian versions of music awards specials. These shows are entertaining, and no doubt provide financial income for persons. God is certainly mentioned, appreciated in words and songs, and so we can say there is some relational clarity, though we cannot at all assume relationally significant connection takes place between those performers and God or between audiences and God. The theatricality of it all must compel us at the very least to ask ourselves if these programs are contextualized expressions of ‘in their way’, and what their purpose is.


These fragmenting outcomes all have the same origin in reductionism from human contextualization. From the individual worshiper, to the local church, to the global church, fragmentation exists and characterizes us on every point of this spectrum. Therefore, when the global church talks about unity—say, for example, by participating in Communion together or having a global day of prayer—the church must understand what is opposing and preventing that unity. Church unity will only be the relational outcome of transformation, in which our fragmentation and reductionism die so that our whole persons can emerge, and whole relationships unfold and flow as God’s new creation family in wholeness. We are far from that blessed relational outcome, as our worship gatherings reflect, reinforce and sustain this reduced condition. This is why it is so urgent for us to understand and fight against fragmentation and reductionism, and for wholeness in our ontology and function, also on the spectrum from individual, to local church, to global church.




Worship in Likeness of the Trinity


What then does it mean to worship in likeness of the Trinity (discussed initially as God, the triune God)? Certainly we cannot be exactly like God in the ontological sense of God’s being. Yet, we have been originally created in the image and likeness of God, which is clearly distinguished from and contrary to Satan’s false promise in the primordial garden to “be like God” (Gen 3:5). In previous worship studies I have focused on our reciprocal response of worship, stressing that the response that God seeks from his worshipers must be twofold: (1) our ontology (the heart of who and what we are) must be compatible with who and what God is, and therefore must be the qualitative inner-out whole person with nothing less and no substitutes for who and what we are created to be; and (2) how our whole person functions in our relational involvement with God (in our discipleship-worship relationship) must be congruent with how God is involved in relationships, which is vulnerably present and intimately involved, face to face and heart to heart. That is to say, our ontology in relationship with God needs to be in the qualitative image of God’s ontology, and our function in this relationship needs to be involved according to the relational likeness of God’s function.


You have likely noticed the repeated use of reciprocal relationship in this study. Relationship with God is never one way, and this includes the worship relationship. God does not do all the relational work, nor do we. Therefore, there must, by the nature of reciprocal relationship (not out of obligation), be compatibility between God’s ontology and function and our ontology and function. We need to understand and deeply embrace our reciprocal relational responsibility in worship, which is inseparable from discipleship. (And please note that if you want the worship relationship without the discipleship relationship, you will have difficulty with this study, if you haven’t already). Unmistakably, then, our reciprocal relational responsibility is fulfilled with the following: when our worship in likeness of God is enacted with our compatible ontology and function in the qualitative image and relational likeness of the wholeness of God’s ontology and function.


            Moreover, in order for our response of worship to God to have relational significance to God, it also must be according to God’s relational terms. God’s relational terms are distinguished integrally by his relational work of grace in response to us for the primary purpose of relationship together, not grace just to save us from sin. To be compatible with the presence of God’s relational grace and to be congruent with the relational involvement of God’s grace, we must come before him with the vulnerableness of the honesty of our heart. On the basis of this reciprocal relational connection initiated by God’s relational response of grace, we have been redefined from our fragmented outer-in person to our innermost, not by God’s mere work-activity of grace but by his relational response of grace to our deepest need and condition; and by God’s relational grace alone, we are made whole in our person in the intimate relational connection together ‘behind the curtain’ (Jesus’ relational work to bring us face to face with the Father) and ‘with the veil removed’ (the removal of all relational barriers). The latter are the relationships necessary to be and live whole, the equalized and intimate relationships composing God’s new creation family.


            In spite of good and sincere intentions, we Christians are careless about our worship, and fall into worshiping God ‘in their way’, all of which ignores, rejects or denies God’s relational response of grace. Such a relational response, even inadvertently or unknowingly, reduces the whole of who, what, and how God has revealed himself to be. Our carelessness is expressed in the assumptions we make about worship: we assume that God accepts anything that we present to him in worship; that our long-standing traditions are pleasing God because they have endured so long; that our rituals and sacraments engaged without relational significance bring glory to God, are good for the church, and must be preserved; that the louder and longer the singing, the more congruent with God’s might and power; that it is acceptable to God that the global church worships in segregated fragments—euphemistically called homogeneous units necessary for church growth—along borderlines of denominations, races, ethnicities, age, and social status. We are indeed a presumptuous people, as sincere as we seem to be. In our carelessness (perhaps recklessness), however, we still don’t recognize or understand that our assumptions are only variations of the sweeping assumption made by Satan in the primordial garden for all our human terms, efforts, and shaping of God’s terms: “You will not be reduced” (Gen 3:4).


Therefore, we need to sincerely be open to God’s challenges to our worship. We must stop assuming that the global church’s worship is compatible with who and what God is, is congruent with how God is involved with us, and that we are not reduced in our ontology and function. God’s warning against worshiping ‘in their way’ has serious implications for how we worship the whole and holy God.


            Part of the problem is that the deeper relational issues remain below our awareness or elude acknowledgement, and thus, never get addressed. Even though we today have the benefit of Jesus’ incarnation, including his words communicated in the New Testament for us to listen to over and over, yet because we are so firmly embedded in the common, we function in our vision and hearing as those described by Jesus: “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand” (Mt 13:13). What has happened to our relational awareness and qualitative sensitivity to what we see and hear in worship? Because of our embeddedness in the common, by default we essentially worship ‘in their way’. We default to the common assuming that ‘we will not be reduced’.


God consistently calls and gathers persons into uncommon relationship with himself, Uncommon (i.e. Holy) God, relationship which requires our ontology and function to be compatible with God’s. Contrary to our inadequate ideas that holiness is only about not engaging in certain sinful behaviors for moral purity, God never commands merely what not to do (as the commandments are commonly perceived), but has a deeper context and purpose. Any words about ‘what not to do’ must be understood in only the relational terms defining the relational involvement necessary for covenant relationship with the Uncommon God. These commandments composed in relational terms are established to negate participation in the counter-relational work of reductionism. The deeper purpose of all of God’s relational action and involvement with us has always been to gather persons into family together in the image and likeness of the whole of God (the triune God).


Another difficulty we have concerns God’s words in the Old Testament. By our modern thinking (our modern interpretive lens), we focus so much on the historical-ness of the OT that we miss the narrative significance of God’s love story. This focus is how we have been educated and embedded in outer secondary matter of what people did in OT sociocultural and religious contexts. That project focuses on what God and the Israelites did; what God and his people did are, of course, part of the story, but do not comprise the whole story of God’s relational response of grace to initiate the good news from the beginning, which was later embodied relationally in the incarnation. The difficulty we have about the OT extends to the NT because the two are inseparably integral to the whole of God’s relational communications to us. Without God’s whole story, what God and the people did become dis-integrated fragments. Our interpretive lens prevents our understanding whole-ly.


With these fragments we try to piece together any relevant parallels for our practices today, still focused on the outer matter of what to do. Most consequential is that we overlook the primacy of face-to-face relationship together that God initiated with the Israelites. Or, we may not overlook such relationship, but conveniently relegate it to secondary place of priority—in practice, that is, if not in our theology, which was evident in Israel’s theology and practice. Intimate relationship together with God can be frightening, threatening, and altogether undesirable, especially in terms of reciprocal relationship together. Some of us would rather keep relational distance than be vulnerable in intimate relationship; and this practice is the prevailing norm that for too long has determined persons and relationships in the church.


The relational context of God’s love story is necessary to understand “you must not worship in their way.” This particular command was given in the relational context for all the commands that God communicated through Moses, which was to definitively establish the covenant relationship together with the nonnegotiable terms that only God could define. This covenant—God’s “covenant of love” (beriyt ḥesed, Dt 7:7-9,12; 1 Kgs 8:23; cf. Dt 4:37)—was the integral purpose of God’s relational response to the Israelites (and all nations) in their need. The whole of Deuteronomy is this love story, which began as far back as Abraham, illuminated in the following excerpt:


When God initiated the covenant relationship with Abraham to constitute God’s people, the terms God revealed were relational imperatives for all who come together as God’s family: “Walk before me, and be blameless” (Gen 17:1). This formed the good news—which the incarnation embodied—of relationship together that unfolded in God’s definitive blessing face to face (Num 6:24-26). In God’s relational words, “be involved with me in reciprocal relationship, and be whole (tamiym),” that is to say, not reduced in ontology and function—notably fragmenting the person to what one does from outer in, and on this basis, reducing relationship together to such secondary matter at the expense of the primacy of relationship defined by God’s terms….


As God’s formative people, Israel soon revised God’s terms by essentially replacing God’s relational language with referential language, thereby reducing the terms for relationship (e.g. torah) to a code of what to do from outer in—that is, as a means for identity markers as a people (primarily as nation-state) and for their self-determination (cf. Jesus’ critique, Mt 15:21-48). This re-formed the covenant from the covenant of love to a quid pro quo contract, and thus revised the book of Deuteronomy from a love story to a template of conformity (Dt 4:37; 7:7-9; 10:15; 23:5; 33:3). God was also reduced mainly to a figurehead or reference point for their theology and practice (cf. 1 Sam 15:22-23; Ps 147:10-11; Jer 7:21-26). The relational consequence was to reshape the covenant relationship of love with God (Dt 7:7-9) to a covenant increasingly detached from the primacy of relationship and distant from God, such that the covenant became engaged in secondary matter merely in referential terms (e.g. Isa 29:13; 58:1-6).[11]


This covenant of love was the relational context that God initiated into the human context in order for God to be in relationship with his human creatures; in this relational context, his relational response of grace (ḥesed) unfolded to make them whole. It is helpful for us to think of this covenant relationship in terms of composing the only possible context in which the transcendent and Uncommon God and common humans are able to come together.


The primacy that God has always given to relationship together needs to become our own priority above all else that we engage in for worship. In this primacy of relationship, all of our understanding, and efforts for worship and participation in worship also must be determined and matured in our vulnerable submission to God’s relational terms for our reciprocal response of worship to have relational significance to God, to ourselves individually and corporately, and to our witness to the world that God is indeed Uncommon and distinguished beyond all common shapes and forms of hope and love. Important for our growth in reciprocal relationship with God is a whole understanding of ‘love’ (ḥesed, agapē).


     In contrast to love defined by ‘what to do’— that may benefit a need of another without being involved with their person— distinguished love engages the depth of relational involvement with the other person(s) with nothing less and no substitute of one’s whole person, and on this basis vulnerably sharing one’s self, not merely giving one’s deeds or resources. The depth of relational involvement unique to distinguished love to set this love apart from all love can be and is fulfilled only by the face of God. This is evidenced in the covenant and Torah. The covenant was no mere framework for religious identity that the Torah served for its identity markers—although they easily become just that when perceived in referential language, as the people of Israel consistently did. The face of God turned to bring change and establish a new relationship together in wholeness, as promised, that is, the covenant relationship distinguished by love in the covenant of distinguished love (Dt 7:6-9). And the Torah is God’s terms (dabar, Dt 29:1,9) for reciprocal relationship together Face to face—the whole terms distinguished by distinguished love (Dt 7:10-13), which Jesus made definitive in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:17-48).[12]


If you have never thought of God’s “law”—commandments, laws, precepts, statues, and ordinances—as only relational terms, it is vital to stop here and think about this: God’s commands have only a relational purpose and intended outcome. We need to understand that God functions only according to who God is—nothing less than the whole of God (the Trinity), and no substitutes for who, what, and how God is in relationship. And as God is so distinguished, this is how we can better understand what it means that God is holy and cannot be narrowed down, fragmented, and reduced to ‘in their way’. We discuss the connection between God’s holiness (uncommonness) and God’s relational terms more fully in the next chapter. We will see how holiness is integrally related to God’s love (intimate relational involvement), and how holiness and love compose worshiping God in God’s likeness.



Whole Lips


How do we change and grow from disembodied lips to embodied lips, that is, lips made whole, which more accurately is to say our person made whole? Three psalms together (though not to the exclusion of others, of course) illuminate our path to this integrated wholeness: Psalms 57, 108, and 63. Taken together, they provide commentary on Jesus’ rebuke in Matthew 15:8 (also Mk 7:7-8; Isa 29:13) about honoring God with lips but hearts being distant from him.


In the midst of trouble (Ps 57:1-6), psalmist David responds with “My heart is steadfast, O God.”[13] For David, “steadfast” (kûn) denotes firm, faithful, reliable—in spite of the threat on his life by Saul—and thus whole-ly involved with God (Ps 57:-7-8; 108;1-3) in his relational response to God’s steadfast relational involvement with him (57:9-11; 108:4-5). Kûn also signifies “established” with the sense of well-being when the heart is deeply satisfied knowing that it trusts in God—that is, relationally counts on who, what, and how God is, nothing less and no substitutes, which defines for us what having faith means in relational terms.


The steadfast heart is expressed in music and worship only when our focus is qualitative and relational, whole-ly involved in reciprocal relational response to God’s relational response to us in our innermost as well as in our situations and circumstances (as David experienced). Only the experiential reality this heart distinguishes true worship from the worship ‘in their way’ of human contextualization, and thereby readily exposes what is common and prevails in quantitative and disembodied ‘lips’ without the qualitative and relational involvement of one’s person from inner out.


As further commentary on Jesus’ rebuke of worship of ‘lips without heart’, David illuminates ‘embodied lips’ in the sixty-third Psalm. David begins this psalm expressing a harsh situation he found himself in. Yet it wasn’t that ‘outer’ situation of the desert and the circumstance of dire thirst (his human context) that defined his person and his relationship with God. David remained in God’s relational context and affirmed and received God’s presence and involvement (“your steadfast love,” ḥesed, v.3). Relationship with God was primary for David’s wholeness and well-being, which he confidently claimed is “better than any secondary condition constituting life in the human context.” Because David’s heart was vulnerably available to God, he was able to deeply receive God’s loving involvement with him, and his innermost (“soul” signifying the heart of the whole person, not a dualism) was fully responded to (“satisfied as with a rich feast”). David’s reciprocal response was the inner-out joyful singing with whole-ly embodied and therefore holy (i.e. uncommon, not common) lips and mouth (v.5).


In this heartfelt song to his beloved God, psalmist David also poetically frames God’s relational context, “in the shadow of your wings,” where he sings for joy in worship (v.7). There in God’s relational presence and not a referential place, David is secure in his person, safe in his secondary situations and circumstances. ‘In the shadow of your wings’ is an important metaphor to understand for our worship to be on God’s relational terms and not ‘in their way’. Much deeper than a place of protection and security, such as a cool canopy in the blazing sun or an umbrella in a rainstorm, the image is the intimate relational presence of God, face to face, the only context for worship. Scripture uses this image for this purpose to signify God’s relational context (see also Ruth 2:12; Pss 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 91:4). Sadly, in contrary practice, God’s people “were not willing” to be gathered into God’s relational context, causing Jesus to lament and weep (Mt 23:37; Lk 13:34; 19:41). In his lament, Jesus distinguishes ‘in the shadow of your wings’ in even more personal relational depth as he draws the analogy between a hen gathering her precious chicks to herself, and the vulnerableness of the heart’s deepest longing.


From his inner out flows David’s compatible reciprocal relational response of worship. In wholeness and well-being expressed in this passage Dave sings to God with embodied lips, herein composing the instructional commentary of worship for us in contrast to the disembodied lips that God rebukes in both Testaments. We need to take this commentary to heart.


Our hearts’ vulnerable involvement with God is nonnegotiable, irreplaceably distinguishing that which matters most to God. The inner-out involvement of nothing less than and no substitutes for our whole person makes unmistakable the deeper understanding that pouring out our hearts to God in worship goes beyond our feelings and emotions. Deep in our hearts is always the issue of who or what defines our person, and, accordingly, whether we experience being established in God’s relational context by God’s relational grace, or continue in our self-determined way in order to survive by the terms of reductionism for our self-worth in the human context.


Yet we never seem to get to the heart of the matter for worshiping God: our whole person signified by the vulnerable involvement the heart. The human heart, which signifies our whole person functioning from inner out in intimate relationship together, remains kept at a relational distance, either intentionally or unknowingly. In the meantime, the world’s peoples—indeed all creation—groan inwardly and outwardly, waiting for good news from the embodied lips of God’s family (cf. Rom 8:19-22). Apparently the church’s practice—epitomized by its worship practices—has not been sufficient to compose it. It seems that many persons have concluded that any good news is better than no Bad News, as they seek spiritualities other than the gospel of Christ. At this point, what do you think, are God’s whole relational terms for worshiping God negotiable?


To be freed from the sin of reductionism and be made whole from inner out is possible only by redemptive change, in which the old of reductionism is put to death so that the new of wholeness of persons and relationships can rise up. The global church (again notably in the West) gives evidence in it witness that we have yet to be redeemed from our reductionism and reconciled to wholeness in relationship together with God as beloved daughters and sons in the new creation family. Our relational responsibility in this process begins with acknowledging our participation in the sin of reductionism, and intentionally relinquishing whatever “gains” we receive. This process will include an honest and painful evaluation of our worship practices.


Without our undergoing inner-out redemptive change, how we shape God and worship ‘in their way’ will continue to remain as a relational barrier with God and distort our worship of God in gatherings without relational significance. The absence of redemptive change may be due to either unintentional ignorance or intentional ignoring on our part—perhaps unwilling to be gathered together in the primacy of relationship, as Jesus lamented. Additionally and of greatest priority for this study, in the absence of redemptive change God is denied who and what the Father seeks from his worshipers. The existing reality prevailing in our midst is that God does not get his due in spite of any good intentions and efforts in corporate worship. We must, therefore, understand about such a condition that instead of persons who worship God “in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23-24), we are reduced (common, not whole) persons of disembodied lips. Given—and it needs to become our given—God’s nonnegotiable terms, we can no longer remain as fragmented and reduced persons who worship God ‘in their way’, as the Scripture so challenges and confronts us.




A Relational Word for Our Voices


            In this relational-introducing chapter, the basic issues of this study have been raised. These issues lead us to the ending of Psalm 63: “the mouths of liars will be stopped” (v.11, “silenced,” NIV). “Liars” are those who speak (bar) falsely (šeqer), or in vain, signifying communication that has no relational significance to God, persons whom David contrasts with those who “rejoice in God” (i.e. the whole of God, not parts of God) and “all who swear by God’s name” (NIV). That is, bar šeqer identifies communication from persons whose involvement with God is with less than the whole person—with something less and some substitute—who will be silenced without the significance of a voice. In other words, God does not hear the voices of those who “honor me with lips but whose hearts are far from me.” In its full sense, liars signify those who communicate deceitfully or falsely, even if unintentionally, because their words have no significance and essentially become empty words spoken ‘in vain’—all of which communicates both the wrong (read as positive) impression of the worshiper and a misrepresentation of the God worshiped that misuses the name of God (discussed in the next chapter). Before we exclude ourselves from such practice, we need to understand that this includes those (any of us) who merely give the outer appearance of relational involvement with God, whether by role-playing, performing, or merely conforming to others. The outward appearance that lacks the integrating involvement of the heart is simply an ontological simulation, or, to put it bluntly, a lie.


            Looking beyond God’s hearing, the voice of ontological simulation also has no qualitative-relational significance to our human context, the world. In a seminar I participated in with Robert E. Webber, an influential theologian on worship and worship studies today, he surmised that “Christians no longer narrate the world.” Therefore, he asked, “Who gets to narrate the world?”[14] which he thoughtfully didn’t know how to answer, that is, in the whole of God’s story. Part of the issue involves the ambiguity and/or insignificance of Christian voices in the world that do not warrant being heard. This then raises the antecedent underlying question that we all sorely need to ask ourselves: “Who gets to speak for God?” In all the talking about God, not to mention to God, that takes place in worship gatherings around the world, where is our relational significance in compatible and congruent likeness of God that needs to emerge from our embodied lips in order to distinguish the whole of God for the whole world to be whole? We discuss these questions further in chapter 3.


In light of God’s challenging words to us, I boldly and unapologetically pray that this study shines the spotlight on the undeniable negative influences on our worship practices from reductionism in human contextualization, most notably because those influences are neither understood nor rarely even talked about in discussions about worship. I hope then that in the course of this study, we as his worshipers foremost come to understand and know God in relational terms, and on this relational basis be convicted that we need to undergo inner-out redemptive change and be raised up as worshipers in likeness of God, the very compatible and congruent worshipers God seeks. In the pages that follow, many of our long-held practices along with their assumptions about how worship ought to be are challenged as never before. If I offend any of you, sisters and brothers, that is a risk I’m willing to take, indeed that I need to take in my relational involvement with the whole of God. If I offend God, I trust him to let me know so that I may be corrected by the Spirit in our reciprocal relationship together.


My heart’s desire is for God to be able to receive from us our relational response of worship transformed to be compatible with God in spirit and truth, and thus congruent with the uncommonness that distinguishes nothing less and no substitutes for the whole and holy God. And the blessed relational outcome for us will be the experiential reality as God’s new creation family composing the global church. If these outcomes are of no interest or concern to you, then this study is not for you.




[1] Scripture references are from the NRSV unless otherwise noted. Italics indicate my further renderings.

[2] See bibliography for all Hebrew and Greek word study resources.

[3] For a focused study on the human shaping of God that we all engage in, please see T. Dave Matsuo’s new study on the Trinity, The Face of the Trinity: The Trinitarian Essential for the Whole of God and Life (Trinity Study, coming in 2016), online at http://4X12.org.

[4] For an in-depth study into the gospel of transformation, please see T. Dave Matsuo, The Gospel of Transformation: Distinguishing the Discipleship and Ecclesiology Integral to Salvation (Transformation Study, 2015). Online at http://4X12.org.

[5] Theological anthropology is a critical area of human life as God created us to be in his qualitative image and relational likeness, because it influences every aspect of our theology and practice, indeed it shapes the gospel we proclaim. For an urgent and in-depth discussion of our theological anthropology ever since the primordial garden, please read T. Dave Matsuo, The Person in Complete Context: The Whole of Theological Anthropology Distinguished (Theological Anthropology Study, 2014), online at http://4X12.org.

[6] T. Dave Matsuo, The Person in Complete Context, 88.

[7] For an integral discussion of human consciousness and the relational dynamics that took place in the primordial garden, please see T. Dave Matsuo’s The Person in Complete Context, 4-7.

[8] This interpretation by John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Faith (Vol.2) (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 38.

[9] For a deep examination of the human context and contextualization, please see T. Dave Matsuo, The Global Church Engaging the Nature of Sin and the Human Condition: Reflecting, Reinforcing, Sustaining, or Transforming  (Global Church Study, 2016), online at http://4X12.org.

[10] John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mak W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary to the Old Testament (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000), 95.

[11] T. Dave Matsuo, The Gospel of Transformation, 11-12.

[12] T. Dave Matsuo, The Gospel of Transformation, 53

[13] Although David’s authorship of many Psalms is arguable, I affirm the above psalms were composed by him.

[14] For further study of his views, especially on the convergence of liturgical traditions and contemporary evangelical worship, see Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God’s Narrative (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008).



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