Worship Declares God and Shapes Us

Whatever else believers do, they worship God. For some, that’s where the trouble starts. In an age of unreferenced spirituality, it’s much better to speak about God in non-specific ways so as not to privilege or offend. Thus, a person may affirm their spiritual nature without the risk of particularity. It fits the zeitgeist. A common enough response invokes the sometimes-sad history of conflict within churches and congregations over matters regarding the praxis of worship. Very strong opinions arise sometimes to the point of breaches in fellowship and, sadly, around central pivots in worship. The advice of St. Augustine is regularly forgotten: “When in Rome, we do what the Romans do.”
Still, at the very least, this might alert us to the possibility that something is actually at stake even if, superficially, all that seems to be happening at such times is a struggle over whose opinions will prevail. Those not wishing to engage merely have their worst views of Christian commitment confirmed – who needs the grief? However, what this “something” is might be worth consideration. This requires us to take a couple of steps back. To be sure, what we say and do in worship is vital and if, as many assert, the liturgy is “the work of the people” then presumably its theological construction(s) should speak into the core dimensions of Christian faith, who God is and what God says and does. Thus the Church is obligated to construct its worship imagination biblically and theologically in terms of description and declaration – the resources are immense – but some key ideas seem to me essential.
Before our worship can be construed as the work of the people, the works of God should be understood as the centrepiece – our priority. We do not invite God into our presence – rather, God calls, even commands us into God’s presence. The worship band, if you have one, does not invite us to join them in worship – they are ministers of music no doubt but share with each person in whom the Spirit dwells the charismatic identity (to put it that way) of the gathered community. Similarly, the prayers of the people. Worship is an act of obedience and is our life. It constitutes the bond or glue that holds and sustains the effectual mystical relationship and communion of the Body with the One who brought it into being. This is no mere invention nor abstract theological construction. The work of the people, be it liturgy, evangelism or mission, is completely contingent on both the One Who Is and his achievement in Christ.
Insofar as worship is also proclamation, this constitutes its point of departure – there is nothing especially new in this. St. Augustine taught it; Richard Hooker affirmed it and so do we. Our problem is that we so often conceive of worship “from below” as somehow our achievement. This shows up when aesthetic and logistical considerations dominate what should really be theological discussions. Certainly, there should be no dichotomy between the theological mind and its appropriation of the arts, linguistic or visual but still, it is theological discourse that regularly takes a hit. When we are thinking theologically and coherently, we are using the essential lens by which the work to which we are given receives it energy, not only in liturgy and worship.
A key part of worship therefore is situating the various theological moves in correct relation to each other. Its descriptive dimensions ask, Who is this God whom we worship? Why does God call us? What is God’s character and identity? These are central questions and can be found everywhere in Scripture. Responses range from “the One who can be known” to “the One who is deepest mystery.” How God can be known is both a sympathetic human appreciation of the natural order, per Romans 1, and yet only beyond that by revelation. That God wills to be known is central to the theology of the Pentateuch, which establishes the antiphon (as it were) between knowing and not-knowing. Yet once established, the journey begins and what unfolds is what God does – the declarative aspects of worship. God creates, judges, forgives, warns, restores, brings into being, gives grace, gives wisdom, and saves and does so through the obedience of Jesus Christ. It may be said that all liturgy is a response to this – in places that claim no liturgy, it is usually clear that they do, even if unacknowledged.

The Rev. Dr. John Stafford is an ordained Anglican clergyman who has served in various parishes in Manitoba. He also served as the Dean of Theology and Chaplain at St. John’s College for 16 years and an Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Providence University College, Otterburne, Manitoba.

Worship and liturgy understands itself to be a response to God’s Person in Christ and not our achievement – an act of joyful obedience to God’s call in Christ. Our worship is directed toward this end whether we like the hymns or not. Perhaps this might help when we bump heads over liturgical questions. Thinking theologically often helps and when all else fails, we take St. Augustine’s opinion that all being well, it’ll still be worship.

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