Home   I     Political Theology Study     I    Study on Music-like Theology     I     Bible Hermeneutics Study     I   Gender Equation Study

l   Justice Study      l     Whole-ly Disciples Study      l   Trinity Study     I    Global Church Study    I   Theological Anthropology Study

I   Transformation Study     Theology Study     I     Integration Study     I    Paul Study    I     Christology Study      I     Wholeness Study

I    Spirituality Study    I     Discipleship Study     l    Worship Study     l    Uncommon Worship Study     I   Worship Language Study

I    Worship Perspectives    I    Worship Songs    I     About Us     I   Contact Us


Worship Perspectives
O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness!


List of Studies and Articles

1. Worshiping God in Likeness of the Trinity: Not Determined 'in their way'

2. Embodying the Worship Relationship: Whole Theology and Practice Required

3. A Theology of Worship: 'Singing' a New Song to the Lord

4. Hermeneutic of Worship Language: Understanding Communion with the Whole of God

5. The Whole of God of Worship -- see directly below

6. Relational Clarity and Relational Significance in Worship

7. A Note to Worship Leaders, Singers, Accompanists & Players



The Whole of God of Worship



To church leaders and any others who want to grow in worship, I wish to share an urgent concern I have: the diminution of wholeness and the prevalence of reductionism, and their ongoing conflict. In fact, this conflict extends to the whole of our lives as God's family. As a way into these deeply urgent matters, a theological look at a worship song will be instructive for us.

The first time I heard the worship song "Indescribable"[1] in 2005, I was floored (figuratively), falling awestruck on my knees before God who can't be adequately described by words. The artistry of lyric and melody so moved me that I found myself looking upward at our transcendent creator God. After many singings of the song, however, that singular message of God's transcendence left me sensing that something significant was missing. I realize now that when taken by itself, God's transcendence presents a fragmented God, an incomplete picture, and one keeping me (and any of us) in actuality at a relational distance from God (unintentionally or intentionally). Even while one my knees, this was unacceptable to God because it is antithetical to the gospel.

For some recent evangelicals, focusing on God's transcendence coupled with our humbled response of kneeling before God have served as a helpful antidote to our self-focused songs that make God too small, revolving around "me," too much "ourselves about ourselves." Yet, focusing in on one or another aspect of God's being (e.g., his transcendence) undermines our good intentions. The purpose of this essay, then, is to further examine that well-intentioned corrective, to expose the process of fragmentation and reductionism that we unknowingly engage in. In order to understand fragmentation (breaking a whole into fragments) and reductionism (defining the whole by one or more of the fragments), it is vital that we also grasp what is being fragmented and reduced—that is, "the whole".

Addressing the whole and reductionism must include our perceptual-interpretive lens, which determines what we pay attention to and what we ignore—like eyeglass lenses. This determines how we define ourselves, and thus how we define and relate to others, especially God. The implications go far beyond their functions in worship songs. Ultimately, we'll see that we are faced with our need for deeper redemptive change. This is good news, for such change leads to deeper knowledge of and experience with God.



Biblical wholeness and reductionism


In this section, it will be helpful to discuss wholeness and reductionism in interaction, starting with wholeness. The Old Testament tells us over and over that God prioritized and sought the human heart for relational connection together. The Hebrew leb (heart) means the center of the person, and its qualitative function is for relational connection.[2] This is the integrating function of the person functioning "whole," from the "inner out." To live inner out is to present to others one's genuine self, nothing less and no substitutes. It is how we are created in the image of God, for the purpose of intimate relational connection with God and each other. These nonnegotiable relationships are the design and purpose of our whole being, and constitute whole relationships in likeness of the Trinity. This is the whole of God dwelling in the relational context of God's family, the church, not only dwelling in transcendence.

To live whole, then, is only about our person living openly and vulnerably from the inner out in relationships for which God created us. To live whole is to live according to God's relational terms for the covenant relationship that he initiated with the Israelites. This is the functional significance of grace, so that grace and wholeness are inseparable; both are functions of relationship on God's terms, thus nonnegotiable and irreducible by human terms. Anything less and any substitute of our whole person presented to God in relationship, even with good intentions, counters God's relational desires.[3] Biblical wholeness, then, is


the conjoint function of the whole person involved in relationships together necessary to be whole—transformed relationships both equalized and intimate. The whole person is defined from the inner out signified by the importance of the heart in its qualitative function.


God disdained the Israelites' worship practices that they engaged without their whole person, because doing so precluded the relational involvement God expected from them. God's words in Isaiah, reiterated by Jesus in the New Testament, plainly rebuked those who worship God with a substitute for their heart's qualitative relational purpose:


"...these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote...." (Isa 29:13; cf. Mk 7:6-7 and Mt 15:7-9).


Notice that Jesus added, "You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition" (Mk 7:8), thereby clearly distinguishing between God's terms for relationship together and terms constructed by humans.[4] Jesus does not rebuke persons for doing nothing, but about what they are doing—even with good intentions.

In conflict with God's relational design and purpose, distant hearts characterized these worshipers. They functioned from the "outer in" by giving only the appearance of worship without the substance of their whole person relationally involved with God.[5] The Israelites' religious practices could have significance to God only if engaged in God's relational context (the covenant of love, Dt 7:7-8), and with their whole person, signified by the relational process of their hearts' involvement with God, expressed, for example, in dynamic relational trust or genuine thanksgiving. The OT is full of the conflicts between God's relational design and desires, and the effect that peoples' hardened hearts (i.e., distant, distrustful or disobedient hearts) have on the covenant relationship. This is how reductionist practices function as "counter-relational," and prevail even in worshiping God.

Circumcision provides another example of the distinction between practicing their faith either inner out or outer in. "Circumcised hearts" was the deeper relational significance of genital circumcision (Dt 10:16, see also Dt 6:4-6; cf. Rom 2:28-29). The latter had significance to God only when done in relational response with their whole person (from the inner out) to God's terms for the covenant relationship. Many of the Israelites, however, came to practice circumcision as an outer-in ritual devoid of their hearts' trust and obedience (relational responses to God of their whole persons), thus fragmenting their persons. Practicing circumcision from the outer in also implied that they redefined God; their attitude wrongly presumed that all that mattered to God was that the outer-in practice of genital circumcision was done. This is how they disregarded God's relational desires for involvement together (e.g., "I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people", Lev 26:12). They focused on what to do, and projected the same focus onto God, most notably for what God would do for them (outer in). Thus they related to God according to their image of God, essentially reducing God to aspects of just another idol.

We should not be surprised or take offense, then, that God hates these and any outer-in religious practices, for by them, as demonstrated, the Israelites remained relationally distant from him, and in conflict with God's relational desires and purposes. If we become defensive of our own comparable practices, that reflects our own reductionism.[6]

In the New Testament, God's pursuit of us to make us whole intensified with the incarnation. Jesus entered into our human context to disclose the whole of God directly with us. The person Jesus presented was nothing less and no substitutes for the whole of God (cf. 2 Cor 4:6, Col 1:19). Early in John's Gospel, Jesus openly interacted with a Samaritan woman, disclosing to her (and us) that the worshipers the Father seeks are those who respond to him in spirit and truth (Jn 4:23-24). That is, in response to God's initiatives of grace, the only worship that has relational significance to God is with our whole persons, functioning openly and vulnerably—with honesty of heart—from the inner out.

Little wonder, then, that in his interactions with certain Pharisees, Jesus rebukes their religious practices engaged from the outer in, as mentioned earlier (e.g., Mk 7:6-8). The issue of reductionism of the whole person is the same in the NT as it was in the OT, and today. Briefly, reductionism of human persons involves: defining our person from the outer in, by what we do or have, which creates distance from one's heart. This determines how we engage in relationship, based on what we do or have—fragmented persons in shallow relationships.

With God, our reductionism (and its counter-relational work) ensures that we relate to him not on his terms of grace, which is only for intimate relationship together, but by what we do or have—that is, the outer-in function of reductionism in a relationship on our terms. However unknowingly and unintentionally, we impose on him our construction of him, which then allows us to keep relational distance. Even though we sincerely work to serve him, without the substance of our whole person God is not pleased.



Transcendent God and God-in-a-box


In worship, fragmenting God determines that we will worship based on fragmented knowledge, that is, our selective or biased images of God, thus ignoring the significance of the whole of God's self-disclosures in Scripture. We see this happen at Jesus' transfiguration, where Peter focused in on Jesus' attribute of transcendence (see Mk 9:6; Mt 17:4,6)—similar to the focus in "Indescribable." Though this was the same Jesus with whom Peter enjoyed intimate table fellowship, his response was fear, and his recourse was to try to do something appropriate to a relationally distant God: build an altar. Notice that Jesus makes no comment about this offering, as it had no relational significance to him. Peter and the other two disciples cowered in fear, but in spite of their unknowing relational distance, Jesus came and touched them, taking the initiative to make intentional relational connection with them as always (Mt 17:7).

Like Peter, we maintain a correct relational distance from a transcendent God, which implies directing our worship to a resurrected Jesus who was not vulnerably embodied only for relationship together. That's just fine with us because we can remain cool and in control, and not risk tsk-tsks from others. I too often find myself here. Or we may see God as mean and scary, like the seminary student who once told me she pictures herself far from God in his throne room, crouching in fear behind a temple column.

As it was for Peter, for us to stay relationally distant reflects some prevailing reductionism of God and ourselves. As a substitute for our whole person, we'll devote our energies to what we can do for him, without the primary involvement being with God. There is currently a segment of worship thinkers who wish to appropriate ancient church worship practices for our present use. Ancient rituals, sacraments, use of icons and chants, typify efforts to recover a missing deeper experience—especially a sense of mystery of a transcendent God. I believe that the motivation driving this quest is the important need and desire for a qualitative experience, and, for evangelicals, to connect with our historical church roots. Yet, I wonder if "mystery" has now become the latest popular fragment of God. If it is the case, these well-intentioned efforts could be unknowingly undermining the qualitative experience that they seek to bring about. Moreover, while the perception may be thought to increase relational clarity of God, it lacks the relational significance necessary to connect with God "in spirit and in truth."

At the other extreme of the pendulum swing is our God-in-a-box. Since the 1960s we've seen a flood of popular worship songs that induce luxuriating in our private relationship with Jesus. The good intention of these songs was to help persons experience intimate connection with Jesus in worship. We truly needed and desired to experience more with God than we experienced in our church upbringing—and still do. The longing for deeper experience with God indeed attests to the relationships God created us for, but a problem issues from defining God through the lens of our needs.

Separated from God's transcendence (his ontological difference from us), this individual focus fragments the whole of God and reduces God to our level. Some of these songs incorrectly depict a Jesus who revolves around me—that is, a Jesus about me only or me first. This Jesus is not the Son of the incarnation, the God-person who embodies and reveals transcendent God. This Jesus is not Other who comes to us from beyond ourselves, and so we don't deeply listen to his whole person, much less respond with ours.

The incarnation of the Son was utterly necessary for us to deeply know the transcendent God. Unless we grasp the Son relationally, we have no basis to assume that the God we worship is the God of Scripture. Yet, this must be distinguished from just having the correct doctrine. We'd better be concerned about whom it is we think we are addressing in our corporate worship, and what it is we think we experience—that is, we need to pay careful attention to the Person and the relationship. The Son of the incarnation is the Father's imperative for us to "Listen to...." (Mt 17:5), and how we listen involves what we focus on, exposing our perceptual-interpretive lens. This is Jesus who is Other, who embodied the whole of transcendent God, not to be observed but also as Subject only for relationship with us. He is Subject-Other who is "awesome intimately".



Jesus, the key to "the whole"


Functioning from the outer in, I have measured my relationship with God as Jesus' disciple in quantitative terms, like amount of time given and sacrifices I've made "for him." But all my hard work in ministry over many years has shown me that knowing God doesn't result from what I do (on my terms and therefore essentially for myself). Compare Jesus' earliest disciples, who got to actually be with Jesus for three straight years. And yet! ...Jesus admonished them for not knowing him: "Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time?" (Jn 14:9). Why wouldn't we think Jesus is speaking to us too?

Their outer-in level of engagement provided knowledge-as-information about Jesus, but kept the early disciples (notably Peter; see Christology Study) at a relational distance, preventing them from the deeper knowing that comes from intimacy—defined as hearts open and vulnerable to each other and making connection. And Jesus' disappointment and dismay are palpable, as is his patience. This interaction tells us that Jesus expected them to know him so deeply that they would also know the Father, that he and the Father are intimately one. Jesus expects—and prayed for—the same with us (see Jn 17).

The lack of intimacy in our relationships with God and in his family is the consequence of reductionism and its counter-relational work. I urge us to be honest about the lack of intimacy we experience, for though it can be painful to acknowledge, it is a necessary step in that very openness and vulnerability needed to experience intimacy ("in spirit and in truth")! It is far worse, and a functional enslavement, to live in what are in truth only ontological simulations and epistemological illusions from outer-in living.

For our growth and maturity, the NT gives us examples of "whole" worship to contrast with Peter's reductionism at the transfiguration. The ex-prostitute, who washed Jesus' feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair, and Mary of Bethany, who anointed Jesus, vulnerably responded to him with their whole persons and thus intimately connected with him. They did not let the prevailing opinion of other persons stop them from freely giving of themselves to Jesus from the inner out. This is worship that has relational significance to God (Lk 7:36-50 and Jn 12:1-8; cf. Mk 14:3-9).[7]



Now what?


Unless we as God's church address the prevalence of reductionism and the diminution of wholeness, future trends in worship songs will keep the pendulum swinging back and forth between fragmentary images of God—now transcendent, now all-about-me, now mystery, and so on. Whatever the fragment-of-the-day is, our worship and church practice will actually remain primarily "ourselves about ourselves", because it will be defined and determined, shaped or constructed by us.[8]

God ongoingly pursues us to go further and deeper in relationship so radical that it's beyond what we can imagine (like Jesus pursuing Peter). In reciprocal involvement with the Spirit, our response involves openness and vulnerability of our hearts, to identify, expose and reject reductionism, individually and corporately, in order to experience Christ face to face on his terms to live whole in relationship together as God's family. In other words, this is all about relational work, in which our perceptual-interpretive lens needs ongoing transformation to become relationally acute. As we do, we'll have to admit and die to our bottom line of self-interests and self-concerns, self-autonomy and self-determination. But, as God keeps saying (frequently to me), "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor 12:9). Remember, grace and wholeness go together!

Do we want to know transcendent God intimately? This is risky, because whereas our constructed Jesus conveniently doesn't hold us accountable for all God's self-disclosures, the vulnerably embodied Jesus of the incarnation does. The alternative would be to continue to worship a fragmented God and stay relationally apart.

I still love the song "Indescribable," only now singing it through the lens of the whole of God embodied, awesome intimately, has more significance to God, and to me![9]



[1] Words and music by Laura Story, additional lyrics by Jesse Reeves. Copyright ©2004 worshiptogether.com.

[2] As distinct from the heart's quantitative function to pump blood through the body.

[3] For a full discussion on grace, wholeness and reductionism, please see The Person, the Trinity, the Church: The Call to Be Whole and the Lure of Reductionism (Wholeness Study, 2006) by T. Dave Matsuo, on this website.

[4] God's priority for relationship on his terms applies to us individually and corporately as the church, and is inseparable from all areas of church practice: its worship, its church life, and its mission. This essay doesn't address all these areas, but I wish to acknowledge them. For deeper study about the church and its mission into the world, please see the Sanctified Christology: A Theological & Functional Study of the Whole of Jesus  (Christology Study, 2008), The Person, the Trinity, the Church (Wholeness Study), or The Relational Progression: A Relational Theology of Discipleship (Discipleship Study, 2004) on this website.

[5] My husband Dave and I refer to this practice as ontological simulation and epistemological illusion.

[6] The apostle Paul understood this distinction from his own experience as Jew: "A person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal. Such a person receives praise not from others but from God" (Rom 2:28-29).

[7] These two women are discussed more fully elsewhere on this website. See "Relational Clarity and Relational Significance in Worship" (in Worship Perspectives section), and Following Jesus, Knowing Christ: Engaging the Intimate Relational Process, ch. 5 "Developing this intimate relationship."

[8] For a discussion on Jesus' confronting words to the churches (Rev 2-4), see Sanctified Christology, ch. 8, subsection "Jesus' Post-Ascension Discourse on Ecclesiology to be Whole."

[9] "The Whole of God Embodied" and "Awesome Intimately" are the titles of two of the worship songs available on this website. Check them out in Worship Songs.


©2010 Kary A. Kambara

Back to Top      Home