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Philip Butin on How Trinitarian Worship Revitalizes Congregations

You’ve probably noticed something about worship. “We all know there are times when the Word is more profoundly proclaimed and profoundly heard,” says Philip W. Butin, president and professor of theology at San Francisco Theological Seminary and author of The Trinity.

You’ve probably noticed something about worship. “We all know there are times when the Word is more profoundly proclaimed and profoundly heard,” says Philip W. Butin, president and professor of theology at San Francisco Theological Seminary and author of The Trinity.

Butin says it would be a mistake to draw a one-to-one connection between certain actions and deeper worship. Still, during his 25 years in church ministry, he has noticed a dynamic that consistently leads to worship renewal.

It starts with naming and practicing Trinitarian worship. And one of the best ways to join worship already going on within the Trinity is to include a prayer for illumination before the Scripture reading and sermon.

Unitarian or Trinitarian?

While attending Fuller Seminary, Butin and his wife, Jan, worked at a large Presbyterian (PCUSA) church “that had a tendency to think of and do worship as a human thing. You know the kind of upper-class excellence—a choir with paid leads in each section.

“We often had a sense that worship was very horizontal and really happening on a human level. We’d seen the same thing while serving other churches in youth ministry and Christian education,” Butin says.

Meanwhile, he was developing a theological interest in the doctrine of the Trinity as his life’s work. That interest began in a systematic theology class on Christology and soteriology given by James B. Torrance, whose book Worship, Community, & the Triune God of Grace is a published version of those lectures.

“Torrance talked about Trinitarian worship as the Christian alternative to what he sometimes called ‘Unitarian worship’, where it’s a human interaction with God, but the mediation of Christ and enablement of the Holy Spirit are ignored.

“We really taught our congregations that it took the Spirit within us to empower and undergird and motivate our worship. People begin to see that worship is not a human offering to God. It’s not just us here and some Unitarian God up there that we have to figure out how to make contact with by the beauty of our prayers and music or the power of preaching or the earnestness of our faith,” Butin says.

Instead, he explains worship as a divine-human interaction, a process of God’s grace being revealed and the Holy Spirit helping worshipers receive and respond to that.

Being explicit about dynamics

“It takes time, but people look to their ministers as models of how to think and speak about and experience God. As the reality of the Trinity permeates the congregation’s conversation and vocabulary, perceptions of God begin to honor God’s triad nature,” Butin says.

The Butins discovered that consistently using the language of the Trinity reveals a dynamic of profound worship. They often added a sentence or two of introduction before each portion of worship so people could understand the liturgy in context.

These introductions were often as simple as saying, before a song, “It’s the Holy Spirit that works in us to awaken our hearts to God’s presence within us. Let us offer up our praise to God through Jesus Christ.” Or, before communion, a minister can say, “We’ll now pray the Trinitarian great prayer of thanksgiving,” and then launch into the sursum corda: “The Lord be with you….And also with you....Lift up your hearts….”

“A worship leader opens up these dynamics by making them explicit, so if the Holy Spirit’s working in the congregation, people know it’s happening,” Butin says. Instead of coming to worship as an hour-long duty, worshipers sense that God is always waiting for and working toward a deeper connection with them. They ask to be opened by the Holy Spirit.

Prayer for illumination

The Butins found that when the preacher and congregation consciously pray the prayer for illumination, “that whole Trinitarian dynamic is explicit…and God’s truth and power is somehow released into the situation.”

In the paper he presented at a recent Wheaton conference, Rediscovering the Trinity: Classic Doctrine and Contemporary Ministry, Butin explained that liturgical scholars have found prayers for illumination among 4th century Syriac and Egyptian liturgies. John Calvin, Martin Bucer, and William Farel made it a practice. The prayer for illumination can also be sung, perhaps with Ken Medema’s “God of the Word.”

“The human preacher and the human congregation intentionally pray together that by the Holy Spirit, human speech would become God’s Word spoken through the preacher to the congregation. They pray that in this unique event, in this gathered Christian community, in this time and place, the triune God would be Speaker, Word, and Breath,” Butin told conference participants.

He linked the Apostle Paul’s 2 Corinthians 4:6-7 “jars of clay” metaphor to the prayer for illumination. Praying that human speech will become God’s Word—spoken through the preacher to the congregation—helps worshipers live into the pattern of Christ’s incarnation. They begin to see that “divine revelation is most profoundly, authentically, and characteristically communicated by the Spirit in and through ordinary, created, mortal human words and leaders.”

Worship planners most often place the prayer for illumination before the Scripture reading and sermon because the Holy Spirit can make both come alive.

You’ll find 37 examples of prayers for illumination in The Worship Sourcebook, including this one based on John 12:21: “Lord God, we wish to see Jesus. By your Spirit’s power, give us eyes to see his glory. Through Christ we pray. Amen.”

Another, by John D. Witvliet, is especially easy for children to understand: “God, the Bible is a very special book. It is so big and so old. What do these old words mean for our lives today? Please send your Spirit, so that we can understand your Word. Amen.”