10 Theses on Christian Worship

As I sit down to begin my work today, these are ten theses that orient my thinking on the subject of corporate worship. They're pasted to my office wall. I stare at them and they stare back at me. They stare back at me to remind me of what I ought not to forget. For one moment. Ever. They stare back at me with a persistent refrain: clarity, clarity, clarity.

My interests in the field of worship studies are largely theological, while my current research focuses on the Reformed tradition (broadly regarded). The particular aim of my dissertation is to propose a pneumatological reading of the nature and function of the arts in corporate worship context (i.e. the liturgical arts). I offer these ten theses as a conceptual framework--distilling biblical patterns, listening to the witness of church history, discerning the internal logic of the triune life, and welcoming the cross-cultural insights of Christians across the globe--in the hope that they will encourage (ongoing) good conversation around the topic of Christian worship.

If you're looking closely, you'll be able to detect the sources of influence on my thinking.

If Christian worship in its corporate form is trinitarian, then the following will hold true:

1. That it will be the real encounter of the triune God with his people.

More specifically, worship is chiefly a work by the triune God, about the triune God, to the triune God where structures, words and practices are reflective of the triune God. I argue this over against any tendencies to narrow down worship to a binitarian scheme, where a fulsome role is accorded to the Father and Son but a desiccated one is accorded to the Spirit.

2.That it will be personal and communal because, through the Spirit, Christians across time and space are made actively to participate in the Son’s communion with the Father.

I argue this over against notions that rob worship of Christ’s doxological role in our corporate acts of prayer and praise or that reduce public worship to atonement Christology (among other things).

3. That it will be a sacramentally, symbolically and formatively rich expression of the communal faith of Christians in which they celebrate that encounter.

I argue specifically that worship ought to conform us to the pattern of Christ’s life. Worship is significantly and substantially a work of discipleship that conforms us to the content and quality of Christ’s life, a discipleship that is fulfilled in Christ and in the totus Christus or the body of Christ, and a discipleship that necessarily occurs synchronically and diachronically, that is, in a particular time and through time.

4. That it will be narratival because of the story Christians inhabit.

5. That it will be dramatic because of what Christians enact together.

With these two theses, I argue that worship should conform Christians to the basic narrative-dramatic pattern of revelation and response, refracted through three biblical "images": a "covenantal" image, a "sacrifice" image, and a "table fellowship" image.

6. That it will be aesthetic because of what Christians taste, touch, see, smell, speak, feel and imagine possible because of the work of Christ through his Spirit.

In service to the actions of corporate worship, the liturgical arts serve the liturgy in their own way but not on their own terms.

7. That it will be missional because of how it forms, inspires and compels Christians to live as Christ throughout the rest of their lives.

I argue specifically that worship and mission ought never to be pitted against each other. Their relationship is an inter-animating one, and how each is formed and spurred on by the other is a matter of context.

8. That it will be a culturally contextual celebration both because of God’s love for “all nations” and because of the Spirit’s work to call forth Christ-honoring worship in every particular time and place of creation.

The Holy Spirit, as the animator and particularizer of all things in creation, brings all of Christian worship into conformity to the order of Christ’s life, enabling the church to innovate in ways that are faithful to the catholic and apostolic tradition, with the result that praise and thanksgiving from every tribe, tongue and nation are raised to the Father.

9. That it will be eschatological because of the way it pulls Christians now, through hope, towards the life that awaits us in Christ through the Spirit.

The church’s corporate worship takes place within a cosmic liturgy, at the center of which stands Christ as the chief Leitourgos who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, gathers up all of creation’s praise as an everlasting gift of love and fellowship to his Father.

10. That by the necessities of biblical patterns and the logic of the economy of God, corporate worship will be experienced through a series of binaries: free and en-formed, traditioned and innovative, festal and ascetic, accessible and difficult, useful and excessive, formative and expressive, contemplative and active, individual and communal, local and global, worldly and other-worldly, quotidian and numinous, earthly and heavenly.

In other news ... ever wonder about the Farmer who went out to sow his seeds? I have. So has artist Ai Weiwei, in a manner of speaking.

Ai Weiwei, "Sunflower Seeds"

Ever wonder whether all of creation, including bugs, praises God in its own articulate way? Wonder no more.

Ever wonder whether preaching without apology was a good idea? Stanley Hauerwas thinks it is.

Ever think of worship as leaping into the abyss? No, me neither, but this is cool nevertheless.


Kathryn said…
Love this. If I had an office, I would post it there. :) So many tensions to keep in mind - but I love the concept that the tension is the healthy place to be, not a sign that something is wrong. There should be an ongoing tension between formal/informal, corporate/personal, all the ones you mentioned. Great, succinct reminders!
Ron said…
the fact is in the past months I am regularly drawn to a scene from a BBC series on the Planet Earth (or whatever its called) where a man abandons himself into the very large black hole mouth of one of the world's largest caves somewhere in south america. (he has some type of parachute on for later) when I do my prayer has been along the lines of "dear Lord, me in you, you in me. Help me be in communion with you as you desire it to be."

I have often thought there is at times risk and fear to abandon oneself to such a powerful being, to not know where he will lead us. to be called to transformation, etc., intense stuff.

This image is now is now one of my absolute strongest encounter points with God!

I do not know how i would get myself to dive into the thin air of a gapping black hole knowing its like a mile deep or something like that!
Kathryn, thanks for your note. The tensions are not easy in two ways. They're not always easy to identify, and it's not always easy to live in the tensions; it's certainly not always easy to live in the tensions *well* over time.

There but for the grace of God ... go we.
Ron: bless your soul, you sound like one of the great mystics of the church, which means you are definitely not alone in feelings these things. Hang in there--quite literally, I guess.
Unknown said…
WaHi David,

Greetings from Vancouver! Re: point 1 - how do you interact with Hurtado and his work on the dyadic devotional practices of early christianity? Here's one relevant blog post of Hurtado's:

Dave Fournier said…
Great post, David! Thanks for thinking about these things. I even liked the parts I didn't understand... yet.
Angie Hong said…
Hi David. You are a rock star. Thanks so much for writing this and I'm glad that it's making its way around the masses. What's interesting about this post is the feeling of inclusion, not criticism, of various current worship practices with an inspiration to do and create more together as the body. LOVE IT. Thank you thank you.
Thank you, Angie. And I'm glad you're out there, mixing things up in various contexts and working hard to make "good worship" happen.
Kim: let me give Hurtado's essay a proper read and get back to you on your question.

Dave: thanks so kindly.
Unknown said…
Thank you, David. These are powerful. I am especially drawn to the "inter-animation" between worship and mission.

A friend of mine (30 years older than I) once made a connection between the vertical and horizontal aspects of worship that those who are both engaged in the missional life and gifted in leading the Church in adoring God work as a double-edged sword in regards to power and effectiveness. I don't know if this is true, but I do think this combination of gifting and engagement is beautiful especially when I take time to consider "pure, faultless religion" and our "spiritual act of worship."

I'd love to learn more about this "inter-animation" between the two. Could you point me to any readings/resources that expound on this?

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