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Towards a Theology of Worship

Eight foundational principles for a theology of worship, taken from the prologue to The Worship Sourcebook.

Eight foundational principles for a theology of worship, taken from the prologue to The Worship Sourcebook, a joint publication of Baker Books, Faith Alive Christian Resources, and the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship:

1. Christian worship should be biblical. The Bible is the source of our knowledge of God and of the world’s redemption in Christ. Worship should include prominent readings of Scripture. It should present and depict God’s being, character, and actions in ways that are consistent with scriptural teaching. It should obey explicit biblical commands about worship practices, and it should heed scriptural warnings about false and improper worship. Worship should focus its primary attention where the Bible does: on the person and work of Jesus Christ as the Redeemer of all creation and the founder and harbinger of the kingdom of God through the work of the Holy Spirit.

2. Christian worship should be dialogic. In worship, God speaks and God listens. By the power of the Holy Spirit, God challenges us, comforts us, and awakens us. And by the prompting of the Holy Spirit we listen and then respond with praise, confession, petition, testimony, and dedication. Scripture constantly depicts God as initiating and participating in ongoing relationships with people. Ahealthy life with God maintains a balance of attentive listening and honest speech. So does healthy worship. This is why our words matter in worship: they are used by God to speak to us, and they carry our praise and prayer to God.

3. Christian worship should be covenantal. In worship, God’s gracious and new covenant with us in Christ is renewed, affirmed, and sealed. The relationship that God welcomes us into is not a contractual relationship of obligations but a promise-based or covenantal relationship of self-giving love. It is more like a marriage than a legal contract. Worship rehearses God’s promises to us and allows for us to recommit ourselves to this covenantal relationship. One question to ask of any worship service is whether it has enabled us to speak to God as faithful and committed covenant partners.

4. Christian worship should be trinitarian. In worship we address the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—one God in three persons, the God of holiness, love, beauty, and power. God is the One who graciously invites our worship and then hears our response. God is the One who perfects and mediates our praise and petitions. God is also the One who helps us comprehend what we hear and prompts us to respond. In worship, then, we are drawn into relationship with God (the Father) through God (the Son) and by God (the Holy Spirit). Worship is an arena in which the triune God is active in drawing us closer, using tangible, physical things like water, bread, and wine; melodies, rhythms, and harmonies; gestures, smiles, and handshakes to nurture and challenge us. In worship we focus our attention on this self-giving God. This God-centered focus also keeps us from the temptation to worship worship itself.

5. Christian worship should be communal. The gospel of Christ draws us into communal life with other people. Worship is one setting in which we see the church in action and we attempt to demonstrate and deepen the unity, holiness, and witness of the church. Worship is a first-person-plural activity. It is extremely significant in worship that otherwise remarkably different people nevertheless offer praise together, pray together, listen together, and make promises together.

6. Christian worship should be hospitable, caring, and welcoming. Christian worship must never be self-centered. In worship we pray for the world and offer hospitality to all who live in fear, despair, and loneliness. Public worship sends us out for worshipful lives of service and witness. Worship not only comforts us with the promises of the gospel but also disturbs us (in the best sense) as we realize the significance of fear and brokenness in our world and the world’s desperate need for a Savior. Worship stokes the gratitude of our hearts that leads naturally to serving the needs of our broken world.

7. Christian worship should be “in but not of” the world. Christian worship always reflects the culture out of which it is offered. Patterns of speech, styles of dress, senses of time, rhythms and harmonies of music, and styles of visual symbols vary widely depending on cultural contexts. At the same time, worship must not be enslaved to culture. It must remain prophetic, challenging any dimension of local culture that is at odds with the gospel of Christ.

8. Christian worship should be a generous and excellent outpouring of ourselves before God. Worship should not be stingy. Like the perfume that anointed Jesus’ feet, our worship should be a lavish outpouring of our love and praise to the God who has created and redeemed us. Worship calls for our best offerings. When we practice music, prepare words to speak, set aside gifts of money and time to offer, and ensure that we are rested and ready to give our undivided attention, we are practicing the kind of excellence worthy of our great and gracious God.

Conclusion: These norms, which are more illustrative than exhaustive, point to enduring lessons of Christian wisdom drawn from two thousand years of practice and reflection. And because they are so important, these basic norms must not simply reside in books and websites about worship, they must function habitually in the working imaginations of worship leaders and worshipers each week. Those who lead worship and those who gather in the pew have the joyful task of imagining how worship can be truly biblical, dialogic, covenantal, trinitarian, hospitable, and excellent.