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Trinitarian Worship: This doctrine makes a difference in how you worship

What makes worship "work?" Gordon T. Smith and Philip W. Butin are among a growing group of scholars who say that consistently and explicitly naming and invoking the Trinity in worship inspires renewal. A feature story exploring how Trinitarian doctrine shapes Christian Worship.

When Gordon T. Smith pastored an international interdenominational congregation in the Philippines, no one expected worship to be all one flavor. "It was a rich experience to be part of a fellowship where we learned so much from each other," says Smith, a pastor, author, and theology professor.

He'll never forget briefing one couple before their baby was baptized. "They were Lutheran and reminded me that in their Lutheran practice, baptism always includes making the sign of the cross in oil on the child's forehead. It's a sign of the Spirit's providential protecting grace against the wiles of the Evil One."

This fragrantly tactile reminder was part of Smith's journey to a deeper appreciation of the underlying Trinitarian framework of worship. He and other scholars, such as Philip W. Butin, explain that how churches teach the doctrine of the Trinity makes a huge difference in how they worship.

Tapping into deep longings

Smith grew up and became a pastor in the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA). It’s a free church tradition that, like many evangelical or nondenominational churches, views baptism and the Lord’s Supper as ordinances, not sacraments.

Smith says that in CMA history, the emphasis is on the human act—of witnessing to God’s greatness in baptism and of remembering God’s grace in the Lord’s Supper. In practice both ordinances point back. Baptism reminds the believer of conversion. Communion reminds believers of Christ’s death. Smith says neither action has much sense of Christ being present in the event.

“I am what I am now because of realizing the deficiencies of that perspective. As a young pastor in my 20s, reading the Church Fathers awakened in me an appreciation of something broader, richer, deeper, more complexed, and more nuanced than my own heritage,” Smith says.

While earning his doctorate, he did a course on liturgy and eventually wrote A Holy Meal: The Lord's Supper in the Life of the Church and edited The Lord’s Supper: Five Views (September 2008). These experiences convinced him that “good theology, including liturgical theology, is done ecumenically.”

When he presented a paper at a recent Wheaton conference, Rediscovering the Trinity: Classic Doctrine and Contemporary Ministry, Smith talked with fellow CMA members who were very enthused about Trinitarian worship.

Smith views his current calling as educating ministers and “tapping into longings already there and placed there by God. There’s a huge palpable desire for worship that integrates heart and mind. We are weary of cerebralism that does not integrate affect and weary of sentimentalism that has no theological substance,” he says.

Recognizing worship as dialogue

Helping worshipers tap into a longing for embodied worship begins with agreeing what worship is.

“Everybody needs to understand what we’re trying to do, what this means, and what it is not,” Smith says. He’s worshiped with many congregations that—because people are sitting in rows, looking at skilled musicians on something called a stage—think of worship as similar to attending a performance or football game.

“We’ve made a one-to-one correlation between a certain kind of emotional contour and the presence of God. People think, ‘As long as we’re happy and clapping, then we must be content. And if we’re content and happy, then God must be here,’” he says.

As a theological and liturgical scholar, Smith has talked with many worship leaders who are “getting that something’s wrong if their only criteria for worship is what makes us feel good.”

He suggests instead that pastors and worship leaders think of worship as a dialogue.

“Every element in the worship service needs to be understood in terms of dialogue. The key entry for this whole conversation is to have a sense that Christ is present in real time—calling us to worship, enabling us by his Spirit to worship, and speaking to us through his Word and the sacraments. Every element of worship is God speaking to us or our response,” Smith says.

Understanding worship as dialogue is far more than semantics. “The biggest, most significant piece is that we no longer view worship as our accomplishment, something we are trying to mount up to offer to God. It is, first, an act of response to God’s initiative towards us and, second, our participation in worship and fellowship already happening within the Trinity,” he explains.

Changing worship habits

Smith urges pastors to take responsibility for liturgical leadership. “It’s typical to give the so-called ‘worship’ part of the service to church musicians, usually contemporary pop musicians. Often they don’t realize that the sermon is as much part of worship as the songs are,” he says.

A typical call to worship in the free church tradition would be “Welcome. We’re glad you’ve come. Let’s turn around and greet each other.” Smith explains, “It’s an entirely horizontal act of one human welcoming another human. There’s no reference to the name of Christ, no sense that Christ is the One who invited us here…or that the primary actor in worship is not us, but Christ.”

When, however, worshipers see themselves as called to enter worship that is already going on within the Trinity, then “preaching becomes not one person trying to persuade other people to be more godly and more Christian. Rather, it’s explaining the Scriptures so the people of God can hear Christ speak to them and feed them.”

In the paper he presented at the Wheaton conference on Trinitarian worship, Smith said he understands why congregations think of baptism and communion as their work. It’s because they’re trying to preserve the doctrine of justification by faith.

Ironically, in seeing baptism, communion, and worship as our works of faith, believers may “inadvertently establish” a justification by works. They miss out on how God offers even more than a way to know or think about the gospel. In Christ, God offers, “slowly and incrementally,” embodied ways for us to identify with Christ.

“Then the Lord’s Supper is not so much us thinking about the bad things we have done and resolving never to do them again. Rather it’s accepting that Christ now is inviting us to this table, feeding us and gracing us for the life to which he calls us,” Smith says.

Learn More

Read and review one or more of these books for your church library or newsletter:

Essays presented at the 2008 Wheaton conference, Rediscovering the Trinity: Classic Doctrine and Contemporary Ministry, will be published as a collection. Till then you can explore this recap in parts one, two, and three by blogger Jendi Reiter.

Check out Calvin Institute of Christian Worship resources for Trinitarian worship. Feel free to use or adapt ideas from Reformed Worship for planning a Trinity Sunday service or sermon series on the Trinity or explaining why Trinitarian language matters in worship.

Reading The Shack, a surprise bestseller novel that allegorizes the Trinity, prompted Christianity Today editor at large Collin Hansen to review other Trinity analogies. Blogger Timothy Challies generated lots of comment with his lengthy theological review of The Shack.

Just for fun: open up two browser windows, one for the Evangelical Free Church of America,, and one for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Search the same terms on each site—worship, sacrament, ordinance, baptism, communion, Lord’s Supper. What conclusions can you draw from the relative strength of each term on either site?

Read “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry,” a Faith and Order paper published by the World Council of Churches in 1982. Many churches use this document, also known as “the Lima text,” to create liturgies for World Communion Sunday.

James K. A. Smith urges Reformed Christians to be more Pentecostal and expect the sovereign God to surprise them in worship.

Browse related stories on “in between” wordsLord’s Supper practice in Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, planning contemporary worship, and vertical habits.

Start a Discussion

Talk about Trinitarian worship:

  • Recall a time when you were surprised, blessed, or challenged by a Christian worship practice that was different than what you’re used to. Explain why your congregation might want to adopt this practice.
  • Discuss what’s the same or different between Smith’s understanding of worship as dialogue and the way your congregation worships. How might you (or would you even want to) help worshipers see Christ as leading the worship?
  • What is the connection between Trinitarian worship and the sacraments?
  • What advantages or disadvantages do you see in naming the Trinity more often in worship? Which first steps could you take to correct any imbalances in how often your worship mentions Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

    Share Your Wisdom

    What is the best way you’ve found to explore the dynamics of Trinitarian worship or embodied sacraments?

    • Did you catalog the songs used most often in your worship and notice which persons of the Trinity they mention? If so, did you make any changes in song selection?
    • Which methods—including education, bulletin or screen explanations, more attention to “in between” words, involving the preacher or more members in worship planning—have worked best for creating renewal through explicit Trinitarian worship?