The Theological Logic of Worship

There once was a time – within living memory for many of us – when you could go to a place of worship and have a reasonable sense of what to expect during a service and not be taken aback by something that seemed out of place. Those days are rapidly disappearing and it is increasingly the norm that there are no norms for a service of praise. This should give us pause for thought.

In the first place because it is a reflection of the extent to which the church is being shaped by the world and not the other way around. Two millennia of the previously pagan cultures of the world being transformed by the presence and influence of the church – especially in the West – are rapidly being put into reverse. Instead of the people of God being ‘salt and light’ and incarnating the presence of God derivatively in the world, the church is incarnating the world under the guise of professed Christianity. The clamour in many congregations and denominations is ‘to be more like the world in order that we might attract the world’. This is not the way that Jesus either taught or modelled. So when the highest activity of the church – gathering for the public worship of God – becomes coloured and clouded by the culture of a fallen world, alarm bells should be ringing.

A second and more specific reason for concern is the way in which the shape, content and contours of worship seem to be more influenced by what puts the worshippers at ease during worship instead of what should fill us with awe and wonder. There is nothing ‘easy’ about approaching the Most High God – the One who is a ‘consuming fire’ before whom the very angels of heaven ‘cover their faces’. We are called to tremble before God, be silent in his presence and draw near only ‘with reverence and awe’. The ‘fear of the LORD’ has all but disappeared from the vocabulary of many Christians; yet it is still ‘the beginning of knowledge and wisdom’ and without it we have no spiritual or moral compass. This does not in any sense mean that ‘the joy of the LORD’ should somehow be absent from public praise; but, rather, that this joy in the fullness of what it means can only come into its own when we appreciate who it is we are praising and the lengths to which he has had to go through the cross to restore us to himself. In the words of David, we are to ‘rejoice with trembling’ (Ps 2.11).

The third and arguably the most important reason to be concerned about the current drift in much Christian worship is that it is quite simply directionless. It has no beginning, middle or end; frequently depending only on the charisma of whoever happens to be the ‘worship leader’ for that day to hold it all together and sustain the interest and attention of the worshippers. (Though the inordinate increase in toilet break traffic that nowadays disrupts and distracts the flow of worship may well speak for itself in terms of worshippers wanting a break from it all.)

Again and again, through personal experience as much as through the comments I hear from fellow Christians, I am struck by what is routinely missing from our acts of worship. The service just ‘starts’ without any sense of it having a beginning. No call to worship, no prayer of invocation or adoration, no opening hymn or song that has the majesty of God as its focus. No sense of approaching God with awe and wonder in the main prayer as worship begins. No confession of sin and prayer for pardon as it progresses. No sense of progression that leads to the climax of worship when we hear the Word of God thoughtfully read and helpfully proclaimed. No hymn or psalm carefully chosen as an appropriate worshipful response to the message for the day. No final word from God: one of blessing and reassurance as we face another week. In short, all too often there is no logic or sense to worship as it unfolds from beginning to end.

Any serious consideration, not only of what the Bible overtly teaches about worship, but also in how we see it modelled in both Testaments, tells a very different story. There is invariably what we can only call a ‘theological logic’ to the worship God wants us to bring to him. That is, we will only be able to bring him heartfelt adoration, in a way that is steadily growing deeper and richer, when there is a corresponding growth in how well we know him, know ourselves and are filled with the wonder of his great salvation in Jesus Christ, his Son.

We see this in the Old Testament in the way individuals respond to God when he confronts them personally with his glory. Almost invariably they are overwhelmed by a sense of their own sin and unworthiness in his presence; but then respond in worship by setting up an altar to God as a tangible and enduring expression of his praise.

We see it very vividly portrayed in the architecture, arrangements and articles of the Tabernacle and its more permanent successor, the Temple. To enter its precincts was to enter a ‘holy space’. Everything about its décor and imagery spoke of an otherworldly place – God’s place. As the worshipper’s eye scanned what lay before him upon entry, in the distance they could see the sanctuary itself: the dwelling place of God. But between them and that holy structure there was an altar – bloodied and stinking with the evidence of creatures slaughtered in sacrifice. There was no access to the place of God’s abode without atonement for the sins that bar everyone from his presence. But sacrifice there was. By God’s command and ultimately through his own costly provision, the way was opened to come to him.

For the priests and those who ministered within the sanctuary as vicars of God’s people, they saw a pale reflection of the beauty and majesty of God and his promised provision for his people’s every need in the adornment and furniture of that place. And, when the High Priest emerged from his ministrations, it was to bless the people and send them on their way with the LORD’s Shalom.

We see the same theological logic of worship mapped out in short compass in the wording of the Lord’s Prayer. Entry point: the glorious God in the glory of heaven. Response: ‘hallowed be thy name’ and ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’. Segue: ‘Give us this day…’ – only God can supply what we really need. Confession: ‘Forgive…as we forgive…’. Plea: ‘And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one’. Assurance and blessing: ‘For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen!’ And in all of this, it is the prayer not only taught by Christ, but which we offer through him!

If today’s church could recapture even a little glimpse of these grand contours of the kind of worship that has characterised the worship of the church through the ages it would transform the depth, joy and vigour of what God’s people do when they gather on his day to truly glorify his Name.

Mark Johnston