Worshiping the Triune God: Gathering

A Study Guide to a Global Dialogue, Part 2 of 5

This article is the second in a series introducing “Worshiping the Triune God,” a working document published following the inaugural meeting of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) in June 2010 (see Part 1 in RW 100).

The document is a series of “proverbs” designed to provoke ongoing discussion about the nature and function of Christian worship. The study guide to this series is intended to localize a global conversation, inviting those who design, lead, and participate in the liturgical life of congregations to experience deeper blessing and to exercise greater wisdom in their approach to worship. 

The first article introduced the WCRC document and explained the process by which it was created. From here on, we’ll examine five components of worship: gathering, proclamation, response, sacraments, and mission.

Christian worship, even in its simplest forms, is multidimensional. Throughout the history of the church, God’s people have encountered at least three realities whenever we gather for worship:

(1) We bring our context with us: trauma (natural disasters, political upheaval, unemployment, relocation, death) combines with triumph (births, graduations, new jobs, new relationships) to make us who we are on any given day. Even the most static congregation will be “different” each time they gather for worship because our world is constantly changing and so are we.

(2) Consciously or not, we are “logging on” to the unending worship of the triune God across creation and throughout time. No matter how edgy or how stodgy our particular worship may seem, no matter how connected or how isolated any group of worshipers may feel, we are all part of the cosmic reality Maltbie Babcock famously called “the music of the spheres.”

(3) The triune God is waiting to meet us in our worship, prompting, perfecting, and receiving our prayers and praise and welcoming us to active participation in the most profound experience of community we will ever know: the “group hug” of the Trinity.

Authentic Christian worship, like the Word of God on which it is centered, is living, breathing, changing, vibrant, vital, refreshingly unpredictable, and always transformative. The blessing of worship, the life-changing experience of encountering and adoring the living God, is available to Jesus’ followers around the globe every time we gather. This blessing is not dependent on our resources or on the available personnel, on the beauty or accessibility of our location, on the approval and endorsement of our culture, or on any other temporal circumstance. Such a blessing is a gift from God as freely given as salvation itself. Yet many of God’s people settle for worship that is ritualized and pedantic at best, devoid of energy, imagination, passion, surprise—even life. Why?

The answer to that question is as varied as the people who respond to it. There is no single solution—no universal formula to guarantee deep and vibrant worship. The process of identifying the obstacles, real or imagined, that any given worshiping community has erected between itself and God is much more complex. For this reason alone, proverbs about the reality of God’s blessing and the reward of applied wisdom are a helpful starting point, and bringing our local context into the arena of an ongoing global conversation is worth our time and attention.

As we explore the “proverbs” in this document over the coming months, we invite you, as much as you can, to encounter your congregation’s worship as a newcomer. What do you see? What do you hear? Do the words and the music, the postures and the images, the patterns and the practices proclaim the majesty of God the Father, the redeeming work of God the Son, and the dynamic unpredictability of God the Holy Spirit?

Listen for the voice of the triune God in the words of these proverbs.

The Document

1.1 Called by God: WHY Gather?

Blessed are the people of God who are deeply aware that they are both called by and address the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who gathers, protects, and cares for the church through Word and Spirit, a God of splendor and majesty perfectly revealed in Jesus Christ, the “image of the invisible God.”

Blessed is the community that gratefully acknowledges that the triune God not only receives our worship but also makes our worship possible, prompting us through the Holy Spirit and sanctifying our offerings through the perfect priesthood of Jesus Christ, who during his life on earth offered praise “to the Father” full of joy in the Holy Spirit.

Blessed is the congregation that insists that believers gather to worship God not first of all in order that God might bless them, but because God has already blessed them.

Truly, worship is a gift to receive, not an accomplishment to achieve.

Blessed is the congregation that then discovers that God does indeed bless them as they worship the triune God who nourishes, teaches, convicts, and corrects them, and strengthens bonds that unite believers with Jesus Christ and with each other through the sanctifying actions of the proclamation of the word and corporate prayer, through baptism and the Lord’s Supper, through fellowship, offerings, and testimony.

Taken seriously, these first four proverbs alone would be enough to rock the world of most contemporary North American worshipers. Nurtured by a consumer culture, we have been encouraged to believe that, if we worship God, it is because we want to. We worship when we want to, how we want to, and where we want to. Formed by these assumptions, many people choose their worshiping community based on a personalized list of crucial goods and services:

  • Is the preaching interesting enough to hold my attention, and is it sufficiently relevant to connect with my life?
  • Do the music and/or the liturgy match my style preference and taste and meet my expectation of quality?
  • Are there enough programs to sufficiently distract my kids so I can have some “personal time” with God?
  • Is the congregation hip enough, socially concerned enough, friendly enough, or “missional” enough to reinforce my self-image?
  • Are the expectations of belonging and involvement open-ended enough, and is the schedule of worship flexible enough to fit into my lifestyle without significant sacrifice from other pursuits and interests?

Notice that the checklist above is entirely about my needs, my desires, my preferences, my life. It is no accident that the first of the proverbs in this new conversation resets the focus on God.

It is God who calls us to worship and it is God who makes our worship possible. Without God’s prompting and preparation, Christian worship would be anathema to fallen creatures like us. We can find blessing in the simple realization that God is deeply invested in a relationship with us. The Author of the universe has been perfectly revealed to us in Jesus Christ, and the same Spirit who hovered over pre-creation chaos drags us out of bed or out of ourselves into a posture of praise. We were created to worship this triune God. Worship is our home; praise is our voice, and prayer is the air our lungs were designed to breathe.

And yet, even when we answer God’s call to worship, our secular selves come along for the ride. Worship may provide nourishment, teaching, conviction, and correction, but we can also be deluded into thinking that God might like us a little better if we were more faithful in worship, or more visible or active—the “extra credit” we need to score the desired answer to our deepest prayers.

Christianity is different from every other faith system, and Christian worship functions differently from every other form of praise. We do not love, serve, or worship God in order to attract God’s attention, avoid God’s wrath, or receive God’s blessing. God in Jesus Christ has come to us, redeemed us, and blessed us—it’s a done deal. Worship is our opportunity to respond to this reality.

Questions for Reflection 1.1

A. Why do you think the writers of this document chose to describe as “blessed” people and communities who are intentional about the focus and attitude of their worship? What helpful parallels can you draw between these proverbs and their stylistic antecedents in Jesus’ teaching (Matthew 5)?

B. How, in the gathering time of your worship, do you connect people with the reality of

  • God’s splendor and majesty?
  • God’s Spirit, who has actively gathered them on that day?
  • Jesus Christ, who is God’s perfect revelation?

C. How can you most effectively communicate the important understanding that we gather to worship God not to receive God’s blessing but because God has already blessed us?

1.2 Corporate Assembly, the Whole People of God: WHO Gathers?

Wise is the worshiping community that “does not neglect meeting together” but joyfully gathers in Jesus’ name, eager to proclaim the Word of God, to offer praise and prayer, and to celebrate the sacraments, each of which are actions of the whole people of God, “the royal priesthood.”

Blessed is the congregation that invites all worshipers—including those which our cultures may label in different ways as “disabled”—to full, conscious, and active participation in corporate worship, engaging heart, soul, and mind in devotion to God, deeply aware of how their own personal worship participates in a much larger chorus of praise to God.

Blessed is the congregation that expresses in its worship the communion in the body of Christ, the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, the oneness that is the gift and calling of God, that unites the young and the old, and believers of every time and place who share a common calling by the Spirit of God in Jesus Christ.

As important as the why of worship, our motivation and call, is the question of who comes to worship—our spiritual attitude, our expectation of God’s surprise and blessing, the evangelical potential of redeemed people coming together in a fluid community. If we center our hearts on the gospel, the Person and work of Jesus Christ, if we eagerly proclaim God’s Word and joyfully celebrate the sacraments of our faith, we have the opportunity to embody the gospel, creating a countercultural community of hope and joy, of vision and compassion. Yet in many North American congregations there is little evidence of spiritual vitality and abundant life. Why?

Passionate Christian worship, inspired by the Holy Spirit and oblivious to the demon of self-consciousness, is something Jesus’ followers in the West must learn from our sisters and brothers in the majority world. But discerning that need takes wisdom, and it is here, at the beginning of this section, that “wisdom” joins the conversation. Different from knowledge or rules, traditions, formulas, or even “blessings,” spiritual wisdom is what gives God’s people the ability to flourish regardless of their circumstances. A congregation is wise to make worship the central, joy-filled hallmark of life together. In the discipline of regular worship, disciples are nurtured, growth and transitions are marked, and the “royal priesthood” of God’s people is both formed and strengthened.

A “wise” congregation will be “blessed” all the more as they recognize and encourage the varied gifts and talents of their “priests” (1 Peter 2:9). This too is countercultural. We in North America are obsessed with professional leadership. We are accustomed to being passive recipients of professionally produced sporting and entertainment events and discriminating consumers of professionally franchised merchandise. It’s not a stretch, then, for people who come to the “worship event,” to leave active engagement to “professional” worship leaders and to be underwhelmed, if not somewhat embarrassed, by home-grown expressions of praise. But there is great blessing in being countercultural, allowing the dialect of our community to become our common language of worship and encouraging the particular gifts of those gathered for worship to shape our corporate response to God.

By lovingly and persistently drawing every possible member of a worshiping community into active participation in appropriate ways, worship can arise more naturally from every heart, mind, and tongue. And when special attention is given to people with special giftedness or special needs, the grace-filled embrace of the triune God is extended, and the Holy Spirit will most certainly provide unexpected blessings.

Questions for Reflection 1.2

A. Why do you think a worshiping community is called “wise” for nurturing joy and “blessed” for inviting all worshipers to participate?

B. What special gifts do people with disabilities bring to a worshiping community?

C. What “disabilities” do you personally bring to your participation in worship?

D. Unity is a hot topic in the twenty-first-century church. What is the basis for unity expressed in this set of proverbs? How can we more closely achieve this kind of unity through our worship?

1.3 The Holy Spirit: WHO Else Is There?

Wise is the worshiping community that recognizes how the Holy Spirit works through both reason and emotion, through both spiritual disciplines and surprising events, through both services that are prayerfully planned and through moments of spontaneous discovery.

Wise is the worshiping community that recognizes that the lasting value or spiritual power of worship does not depend on our own creativity, imagination, intellect, or emotions, but comes from the Holy Spirit, who may choose to use any or all of these things. For, truly, worship is a gift to receive, not an accomplishment to achieve.

If you are a worship planner/leader and that last statement did not catch your attention, read it again! This one sentence, and the proverb containing it, provides the wisdom that signals a nonnegotiable ceasefire to the unfortunately named “worship wars.” The Holy Spirit can and may choose to work through the head, the heart, the rehearsal, the “accident,” the prayer book, the spontaneous intercession, the organ, the drum set, the banners, the lights, the worship guides, the screens . . . or none of the above.

Questions for Reflection 1.3

A. How broad or how narrow is your community’s experience of worship? Where do you see evidence of the Holy Spirit most at work in the life of your worshiping community? 

B. Where might the Holy Spirit be challenging you to grow in your experience of the fullness of the gospel embodied in worship?

1.4 Affirming and Resisting Culture: WHAT Shapes Our Worship?

Wise is the church that seeks to be “in” but not “of” the world, resisting aspects of the culture that compromise the integrity of the gospel, and eagerly engaging its culture with the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ who comes to each culture, but is not bound by any culture.

Wise, then, is the church that is grateful that the gospel of Jesus is at once transcultural, contextual, cross-cultural, and countercultural.

God’s Word commissions us to be “in” the world—aware of the world’s questions and suffering, contributing to the world’s beauty and art, modeling the highest and best ethics, morals, and standards of citizenship. But Scripture is equally clear that while the church has a place in the world, there are many aspects of the secular world that have no place in the church. When it comes to living out this distinction, worship is one of the most important filters.

The reality of God’s love, God’s promise of grace, God’s forgiveness, and God’s transformation knows no limitation of gender, race, age, orientation, or ethnicity. Most twenty-first-century people would laugh out loud if someone seriously suggested that God was male or female, or that God was Italian, Zambian, Taiwanese, Argentinian, or Canadian. But in many places the laughter stops when music or prayers from another country or from a different generation are introduced into the language I use to worship my God. Why?

People who have grown in faith using the language of one particular culture can have serious difficulty unraveling their experience of God in Jesus Christ from the language, customs, images, and expectations of that culture. While there is nothing inherently wrong or unbiblical about a highly parochial expression of faith, wisdom realizes that the good news of Jesus Christ, and worship that is centered around that good news, is not bound by any one culture’s words or music, postures or prayer. Anyone who has experienced authentic Christian worship in a totally different culture knows the immense joy of that “You too?” moment when Jesus unites his people in praise.

Questions for Reflection 1.4

A. What cultures are represented in your congregation? (Every congregation has more than one!)

B. What aspects of each culture can compromise the gospel of Jesus Christ?

C. How are you engaging these cultures in your worship?

D. How is your worship contextual? Cross-cultural? Countercultural? Transcultural?

1.5 The Goodness of the Redeemed Creation: WHERE Worship Connects with Creation

Wise is the congregation that makes clear that its worship participates in the song of praise that is offered by all creation.

Wise is the congregation that celebrates worship as an embodied reality, grateful for the gestures and postures that express our praise and prayer, and the book, water, bread, and wine that God ordains for our use—the gifts of God for the people of God.

Consciously or not, we are “logging on” to the unending worship of the triune God across creation and throughout time.

Earlier we listed three realities that God’s people encounter in worship. One of those was this: “Consciously or not, we are ‘logging on’ to the unending worship of the triune God across creation and throughout time.” Scripture tells us that God’s whole creation is being redeemed—prepared for the time when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord” (Hab. 2:14), when “the mountains and hills will burst into song” and “all the trees of the fields will clap their hands” (Isa. 55:12).

Worship grows out of God’s creation. As redeemed creatures, God’s people offer praise and prayer. But worship can be filled with other evidence of God’s created world: images, music, plants, food, water—as well as imagination, creativity, passion, and skill inspired by the Holy Spirit. God sanctifies elements of creation to be used in worship, reminding us that nothing except God is holy by virtue of existence alone, and anything can be made holy by the transforming grace of its Creator.

Questions for Reflection 1.5

A. In your experience, in what ways does worship most clearly participate in the praise of the whole creation?

B. What does it mean to you that worship is “embodied reality”? What about the worship life of your community helps you understand this?

1.6 Leading God’s People: When Leadership Is Leadership

Wise is the community that calls, trains, affirms, and responds to those gifted for leadership in all genders, ages, races, and abilities, providing formative training for them in the theology and practices of worship.

Wise are leaders in worship who equip all the members of the community for full, conscious, and active participation, taking care to express hospitality to those who are not yet a part of Christ’s body, the church.

We have already considered the wisdom and blessing of recognizing and encouraging the varied gifts and talents within any congregation or worshiping community. But simply identifying spiritual giftedness is not sufficient preparation for worship leadership. In order to move beyond common expectations of worship leaders, it can be helpful to turn the phrase around and think of them as lead worshipers. From liturgists (readers) to musicians, from those who preach and offer prayers to those who distribute the sacrament and offer the charge, the differences in expectation can be remarkable.

Worship leaders assume a posture of leadership in the eyes of the worshiping community; they read or play what they have prepared. Lead worshipers assume a posture of worship in the eyes of God and draw the words and notes—the sounds and silence of worship—out of those around them.

Worship leaders perform by engaging the worshiping community in a dialogue of words and thoughts, music and images—creating an experience for the people who are gathered by a demonstration of their particular giftedness. Lead worshipers provide their ministry by preparing the worshiping community to encounter the triune God, by setting the context and creating the expectation of a living and vibrant interaction and then getting out of the way, joining their gifts with those of everyone else in a common offering of praise.

Worship leaders are rewarded by receiving notice and accolades for their particular skills. Lead worshipers are rewarded by their invisibility, deriving their greatest pleasure in helping others encounter the living God.

Just as worship itself is countercultural, lead worshipers must be nurtured to be nurturers, trained to be trainers. They must understand and be comfortable with not only the words, phrases, gestures, and rituals of the worship they are asked to lead, but they must be encouraged to hone their gifts through practice and review, continuing education and experience, so that they can not only serve God with personal integrity in their role as a lead worshiper but draw the very best worship out of the community they are called to lead. This requires investment of time, effort, vision, and passion. Training lead worshipers is its own form of discipleship.

Questions for Reflection 1.6

A. Who would you name as the “leaders” of worship in your community?

B. Do the people leading worship reflect the diversity of your worshiping community?

C. How are the people who lead worship in your community identified, trained, and nurtured?

D. Using the distinctions above, are your worship leaders “lead worshipers”? Why or why not?

1.7 Artistic Expression

  • Blessed is the congregation in which the Word is proclaimed and prayers and praise are offered not only through words, but also through artistic expression: through gifts God has given to each local community in music and dance, in speech and silence, in visual art and architecture.
  • Blessed are the artists who offer and discipline their gifts so God’s people may testify to the goodness of God, offer thanks, and express repentance.
  • Wise are the artists who are grateful both for the limitations offered by the second commandment, and also for the example of the biblical artists called by God and equipped by God’s people for service according to God’s commands.
  • Wise is the church that gratefully receives the gifts of faithful songs and artworks from other centuries and other cultures, celebrating the catholicity of the church, and cultivating creativity through new songs and works for worship.

Images, music, inspired speech, and dance are expressions of God’s gifts—evidence of natural ability combined with training and practice. They are not objects to be worshiped. At best, they point us to God, who is the Object of our worship. That is the point of the second commandment. Yet again God’s people are called to be countercultural.

Many secular performers and artists compete for the accolades they receive. They live for acclaim—the roar of applause or the effusive review. Their success is measured through visibility. Artists and performers who contribute to the worship of God’s people should live for the moment when they see worshipers reach through them and their media to connect with the living God—their success is measured through invisibility. Helping Jesus’ gifted followers make that transition from secular acclaim to godly praise is part of the role of God’s people in the church.

But God’s people also have a biblical obligation to protect and proliferate beauty in God’s creation. Throughout history, the church has been the curator of beauty, commissioning art and music, primarily for the worship of God, that speaks the gospel into the secular culture. This can and should continue today. But even within the global community of Jesus’ followers, the proliferation of art—music, images, dances, dramatic interpretations—can be a source of joy and hope if a congregation will allow itself to receive these gifts from cultures, languages, and people groups different from their own throughout the history of the church.

Questions for Reflection

A. Does your worshiping community value and nurture the arts in worship: music, images, dance, and drama? If so, how did this commitment to beauty come about? If not, what are some of the barriers to welcoming deep artistic expression in worship?

B. When there is special music or an uncommon presentation in your worship, do the people in your congregation worship the “performer(s)” with applause or do they receive the presentation as a gift of worship itself and express their gratitude to God, the Giver?

C. How does your congregation nurture beauty in worship? Have you ever commissioned an artist to create a specific work of music, image, dance, or drama?

D. What could your worshiping community help to create that would not only deepen your experience of God in worship but also communicate the good news of Jesus Christ into the secular community around you or beyond?

Rev. Dr. Paul Detterman is an author, composer, and conference speaker who is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of River Forest, Illinois, and a blogger at reformedworship.org. He is a former associate for worship on the national staff of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Reformed Worship 101 © September 2011, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.