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Wednesday, June 04, 2008
Defining Worship

How do you define worship? Definitions abound out there from the earliest days to the present one.  Why does it matter?  Because the way you define worship will determine the way you design worship.  

Warren Wiersbe, in his book, Real Worship, defines it like this:

Worship is the believer’s response of all that they are – mind, emotions, will, body – to what God is and says and does. 

Louie Giglio, founder of the Passion Movement, which has contributed much to the world of worship in the last ten years or so defines worship this way:

“Worship is a full life response to the greatness and the grace of God.”
Worship.com defines it this way:  

Everything you think, everything you say, and everything you do, revealing that which you treasure most in life.  

William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury in the early 20th century, defines worship this way:

Worship is the submission of all of our nature to God.
It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness,
nourishment of mind by His truth,
purifying of imagination by His beauty,
opening of the heart to His love,
and submission of will to His purpose.
And all this gathered up in adoration is the greatest of human expressions of which we are capable and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centeredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin."

Now  consider a quite different take on defining worship. It has captured my attention in recent years and caused me to do a lot of rethinking. It comes from James Torrance, an English reformed theologian, who offers it in his book, Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace.

"Worship is the gift of participating by the power of the Spirit in the incarnate Son's communion with the Father."
Can you see the paradigm shift here? How would you describe the difference in the latter and the former definitions?  Remember-- the way we define worship determines the way we design worship.  
posted by John David Walt | at 6/04/2008 12:11:00 AM



Blogger Ben said...


I agree that the last definition redirects our definition of worship in a "triune" manner, but i"m just as hesitant to embrace it now as I was the first day as a chapel intern.

I think Torrance, while taking us in the right direction fails to adequately capture the personhood of the Holy Spirit. Granted we would have to take the whole of Torrance's theology into consideration, but if his definition is indicative of his theology then we run into real problems with a Spirit that is merely a manifestation of God rather than the fullness of God himself.

In order to not make a mountain out of a molehill (as I somehow always find myself doing) I'll stop there. But it does seem to me that he fails to describe worship because he fails to understand the essential substance of the Christian faith - God in Trinity.

- Ben

1:11 AM EDT  
Anonymous Mark Benjamin said...

I'd say the primary difference lies in whom mediates worship. The previous lends more to me submitting, responding, acting, perhaps even defining worship as the "what I do" before God...where Torrence I believe rightly places Jesus the High Priest as the ultimate mediator. The language of "participating" however doesn't leave out elements of the other definitions which rightly include a human participation. Standing alone they seem more humancentric.

I like Torrence's definition because it places us as co-participators with Christ. Much like Gal. 4 that we are inheritors of the divine gift of Sonship. "God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!'."

Mark Benjamin - also a previous chapel intern :) Thanks JD

6:12 PM EDT  
Blogger chad said...

HA...I am a current intern. I have always enjoyed Torrance. I do agree with Ben, in that we (worship geeks) do need a fuller theology of the Holy Spirit, but I think we have enough to function in this realm.

The difference is something we do vs. something that we are now allowed to do because of a relationship with Jesus, the one who brings us before the throne of God. It's kind of like "cool by association" when you were in high school (or the "good old boy" network if you are from a rural network)

I was reading an article by Ralph Martin. He was describing pagan 1st century worship vs. worship that we see in the New Testament. The defining characteristic of pagan worship was a focus on the self and "the devotee's range of interest does not step outside of the circle of egocentricity".

Christian worship instead offered an eschatological hope, a worship that was (and is) distinctly grounded in the person of Jesus Christ, who has made is possible to participate in action (the worship) of relationship of the Triune God.

What is scary is how many of these definitions of worship line up alot more with pagan forms of worship.

I am loving this series of posts JD. Keep them coming.

10:59 PM EDT  
Blogger Rob Mehner said...

the latter definition properly places Jesus as initiator and us as joiners. however, i think ben's concerns are valid; it seems to make the holy spirit no more than a conduit to a...what..."biune" god?

10:39 AM EDT  
Anonymous John D. Palmer said...

How about what Dictionary.com has to say about the topic.

1.reverent honor and homage paid to God or a sacred personage, or to any object regarded as sacred.
2.formal or ceremonious rendering of such honor and homage: They attended worship this morning.
3.adoring reverence or regard: excessive worship of business success.
4.the object of adoring reverence or regard.
5.(initial capital letter) British. a title of honor used in addressing or mentioning certain magistrates and others of high rank or station (usually prec. by Your, His, or Her).
–verb (used with object)
6.to render religious reverence and homage to.
7.to feel an adoring reverence or regard for (any person or thing).
–verb (used without object)
8.to render religious reverence and homage, as to a deity.
9.to attend services of divine worship.
10.to feel an adoring reverence or regard.

I'd have to say that using this definition of worship that of the two different perspective's that are being proffered for debate the initial perspectives are more right on track than the latter.

I think we have to be very careful how we might want to dissect the Trinity to try an access it. In fact I might suggest that we are not to dissect it at all, rather we are to embrace it and accept it as "holy mystery". When we do, then we rightly demonstrate our reverence and honor to God.

Worship is about God. Worship is our response to God's action in our lives. Worship is rightly recognizing the Majesty of God through the humbling of ourselves before Him.

When you overthink Worship then you make it a theatrical presentation for the masses to lose their focus on. Worship that is corporate has the task of bringing the masses focus upon God and rightly demonstrating how individuals are to respond to God's actions in their lives.

To break down the Trinity into parts that we are to "Particpate in" may be a beautiful image but it doesn't give the proper focus for worship, which is and should be fully God.

11:24 AM EDT  
Blogger JohnDeere said...

thanks friends for the conversation. Ben-- i wonder if you would take a shot at tweaking the language of this definition to better reflect the person of the Spirit? Rob-- would you take a shot at it as well?

Mark as well points us to a fantastic worship text in Hebrews. How must this impact our design and leadership of worship?

a quick response to jd palmer's comment: you raise some good cautionary trajectories here. i would be cautious about setting up an english language dictionary as the authority on Christian worship. we should rather seek our understanding from the biblical text and particularly the new testament. it is most helpful to look at the fast developing trajectory of Trinitarian grammar in the letters. i agree with you in your caution about not "over-thinking" or attempting to "dissect" the Trinity. (i.e. what you dissect you must first kill). However, a growing understanding of what it means to be "joined to Christ" "in the person, power and fellowship of the Holy Spirit" "in the intimate presence of Abba" is crucial to right doxology. otherwise, we readily slip into a unitarian framework, which as Chad points out, will also morph to resemble pagan worship.

most of the heresies and consequent idolatries in the early development of the church were the result of getting Trinity or some aspect of Trinity wrong. (i.e. perhaps most notably in this case would be Sabellianism or Modalism)

this is not about theoretical dissection nor academic head trips. this is about the practical work of designing christian worship. i reiterate-- how we define determines how we design and how we lead. more to come.

thanks john and others for stirring the pot.

12:56 PM EDT  
OpenID guymwilliams.net said...

I appreciate most about Torrence's definition its trinitarianism and its brevity. I'm down with the participation language too.

You said once that in worship we express our faith and are formed in our faith. I agree with that, so it seems that there is, in corporate worship, as in the Christian life generally, a sense of "active passivity" of sorts. In other words, we actively (expression of faith) receive a gift (participation in God's Triune life, formation in faith).

11:03 AM EDT  
Blogger Rob Mehner said...

"Worship is a dance; a rhythm of divine invitation into the loving communion of the Trinity and human acceptance/participation.

This could be expounded upon by speaking of how invitation is made (Father), how acceptance/participation is possible (Jesus), and how the music empowers the dance (Spirit).

Well...I took a shot.

11:20 PM EDT  
OpenID liturgicsjay said...

You guys are studs.
On a more shallow note, I can appreciate that Torrance at least leads us to deeper waters in his definition - a definition that simply prefigures his emphasis of a perichoretic life of worship. To me what is at stake is exceeding the typical "unitarian" approach to God which places an emphasis on God and me in the context of kerygma in the present moment. American evangelicalism is built on this schema. Torrance helps us realize that the fullness of the Godhead is experienced in the fullness of the mutual sharing and fellowship of the Trinitarian community - koinonia.
Ben, you sound like an Orthodox fellow because our Eastern sisters and brothers are always reminding us of our unwitting neglect of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps excising the 'filioque' and adding a stronger Basilian or Chrysostom epiklesis in our eucharistic prayers can remedy our Western pneumatic timidity?

1:40 AM EDT  
Blogger Rob Mehner said...

dude...that's a lot of big words!

10:39 AM EDT  

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