Last time we touched upon a starting place for this discussion—a place of being and belonging. Jesus already loves us and we belong to him in spite of our weakness.
In launching this blog (09.08.09) I described my quest in ’95-’96 to understand worship, and how in my view dozens of books failed to get to the core of worship, but that a breakthrough came in ’97, when several key books were suggested, including Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace, by James B. Torrance.
J.B.T. defined worship as the gift of participating through the Spirit in what the incarnate Son has done once and for all, and what the Son continues to do today, in his communion with the Father and in his mission from the Father to the world. In prayer and worship, the risen, ascended Jesus lifts us up by the Spirit out of our grief, sorrow and selfishness, taking us into the Holy of Holies to share in his life of communion with the Father.
[Note: The book is a short summary of decades of his teachings on prayer and worship, culminating in a series of lectures J.B.T. gave at various locations in the 1990’s. On the 10.11.10 post of The Surprising God blog, Ted Johnston provides a link to four such lectures presented in '97, or you can Click here to go to a link.]
At that time I also read Royal Priesthood, and The Mediation of Christ, by J.B’s older brother Thomas F. Torrance, and again the key point is the sufficiency of Christ—about Jesus (our High Priest) sharing with us his ongoing life, worship and communion with the Father in Spirit. However none of these books mention specific songs to sing. Why so?
For one thing, they are meant as foundational tools, not detailed “how to” manuals. But perhaps it’s also so we stay focused on Christ rather than our own words. Our thoughts and words are limited. Yes, we do our best to express our hearts in petition, and offer up heartfelt praise, thanks and testimonies, but even at our best (including the most gifted among us), what we put together is still imperfect, inaccurate and incomplete, and the point of these books is plainly the sufficiency of Christ—that in Christ (the perfect offering) our worship and prayers are gladly accepted as perfect at the throne of Grace.
Yes, the expressions of our hearts matter. But they will be always be stated in different ways as we pray and sing—dependent on the time, place and happenings in our own life and that of our worship community. In each era of the church, and in each worshiping community, we find our own worship “voice” arising out of God’s action and gifting.
In WCTGG Torrance reminds us that the person of Jesus shares his life with us, and that by grace the Father has given us Jesus and the Holy Spirit—drawing us into a prayer and worship union with him—already giving us what we need to pray and worship. By the Spirit our weak incomplete and fractured thoughts, prayers and worship are taken up by Jesus, as he lifts each one of us up with him to the Father and makes his own perfect words ours and makes our imperfect words his.
We might consider the worship service from beginning to end as one continuous testimony and prayer of Jesus. No one song or collection of songs is expansively complete or perfect, but is complete only in Jesus. He is our Song—our living Prayer, our perfect Worship—is man’s word to God and God’s Word to man.
Of course we want to do our best, and be faithful witnesses, but it is easy to fall into a mode of wearying hyper-correctness that places every word under a microscope, and drains worship of its fresh joy, heart, and personal expression. It is also easy to forget that songs are poetry and not prose.
In my view, perhaps 99% of all hymns or worship songs are just fine. It’s just that most songs (with the exception of a few creedal anthems, or hymns with umpteen verses) are generally focused on some slice of the larger picture, just like just a couple of Bible verses aren’t going to tell every possible part of the larger story. The work of the worship planner is to put parts together to tell that larger story.
But even the best list of songs will not have the best effect if the worship leader loses sight of Jesus being our High Priest and Mediator—of how in the Spirit we have been drawn into union with the Triune God. Overlooking that, we fall into a somewhat Arminian or Pelagian approach, making it seem God is far away and that we must work harder to reach or please God, and think we can somehow make our worship "worthy" by singing louder, praying longer, or by being more wordy, passionate, authentic, focused, humble, or by taking a particular posture in worship—turning everything into our own effort, throwing us back onto ourselves, as if we have no heavenly High Priest.
We do well to remember that the theologians mentioned on this blog actually come from varying denominations and worship traditions, and in most cases they are also considered ecumenical theologians. Their focus is on Christ. They sing different hymns or songs in different churches, and they know different things resonate with different people.
One final thought on our theologies as we plan worship. In Reality and Evangelical Theology, T.F. Torrance quotes Paul, “Let God be true and every man a liar,” and then Torrance reminds us, “No man may boast of his own orthodoxy any more than he may boast of his own righteousness” (p. 18). We should always acknowledge our inadequacy and deficiency and point to Jesus rather than ourselves.
Blessings as you point to the love of God known in Jesus. Enjoy! Worship!