First Think, Then Worship!

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Actions Flow from Beliefs

Scripture regularly points out that our actions are the result of our thinking.  More specifically—right actions result from correct thinking (1 Peter 1:13-16; Eph 4:20-24; 1 John 2:3-6; and others).  Over and over again we are told to “prepare your minds for action,” (1 Peter 1:13), or to “be renewed in the spirit of your mind” (Ephesians 4:23), or to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

Should we wonder that these same admonitions also apply to our worship?  We all have heard horror stories about church splits as a result of changes in worship methods and styles.  The tales of “worship wars,” in which opposing sides battle to place their preferred style of worship as pre-eminent over other styles, are only too familiar within the last twenty or more years.  The striking truth of the matter is that much of this upheaval has little to do with worship style, although that is where the battle seems to rage.  In reality, the underlying issue in these “worship wars” is a shortsighted and shallow philosophical and theological understanding about worship itself.  Unfortunately, this shortage of insight resides in both the leadership and the laity.

If the right belief system can be established concerning worship, then extremes that cause divisions might possibly be avoided.  As mentioned earlier, our thinking will direct and determine our actions.  Thus, correct thinking about worship will guide our practice of worship.  This will include a solid, broadly defined theological understanding of worship based upon Scripture.  Our Scriptural and in turn theological understanding will lead to the transformation of our daily Christian walk.  It will also include a realignment of some forms or patterns of corporate worship.  Finally, it will allow for a complete experience of worship in all of its joy, sorrow and other emotions.

Theological Foundation

Recognizing the importance of our thinking is essentially a call for theological renewal.  This theological renewal is at the heart of how we think about worship and is much broader than simply doing a study on worship as it found in various Biblical texts.  Our theology of worship must be based upon a holistic understanding and foundation of what God meant for our relationship with Him.  What it was like at the beginning, what happened that distorted it so grossly, and what He has done to restore (redeem) us to Himself.  This pattern of thought—creation, fall, and redemption—is the classic pattern used in discussing worldview systems.  Ultimately, our theology of worship unfolds out of our own worldview.  Only in this broad-based picture can we truly develop theology which is both consistent with Scripture and tradition, yet adapts itself to our modern times and situations.

It is, therefore, imperative that we seek to mold our view of worship to one that is grounded in Scripture.  We must seek renewal, not based upon new methods and theories, but by renewing our minds and hearts based on a study of God’s word.  It is time to redeem worship theory and practice and return to foundational truths that transverse denominations, styles and cultures.  It is, in short, time for reform. A.W. Tozer said it pointedly:

“Every spiritual problem is at bottom theological.  Its solution will depend upon the teaching of the Holy Scriptures plus a correct understanding of that teaching.  That correct understanding constitutes a spiritual philosophy, that is, a viewpoint, a high vantage ground from which the whole landscape may be seen at once, each detail appearing in its proper relation to everyone else.  Once such a vantage ground is gained, we are in a position to evaluate any teaching or interpretation that is offered us in the name of truth.” (A.W. Tozer, Keys to the Deeper Life. Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan Publishing House, 1973, pg. 36-37.)

Tozer’s words continue to speak to the heart of what ails many churches today in the area of worship—theologically, philosophically and methodologically.  There is no shortage of opinions out there floating through cyber-space, and in print, that fall short of recognizing the foundational theological issues that face our churches in the area of worship.

I hope that my thoughts will be a continuation of the discussion of worship theology.  By saying this, I wish to recognize and appreciate the many men and women who have gone before me studying, struggling, practicing and writing on this subject—from whom I have studied, struggled, practiced and written.  I also realize that my treatment of the subject of worship might be somewhat atypical in comparison to other studies.

There has been a lot of good work done in the last thirty years in the study and advancement of worship as a discipline and activity of the church.  As I review the books on my shelf, and think through the various lines of discussion in current circles, it seems that much of what has been written deals with methodology.  Whether it is revival and renewal in liturgical worship, focus and organization in “free” worship or a combination of the two, most topics deal with the practical aspects of the public or corporate worship service.  Most often, the focus is on music—what is right, what is wrong, why we are right, why they are wrong, etc.

What I have not found in my reading and study is more than a few authors dealing with what I perceive as the heart of the matter, that is, what I would call a “theology of worship.”  As you encounter this, and other portions of my writing, you will begin to understand why I feel this is so important, and why my discussion of worship will take unusual turns from the common patterns associated with this topic.  I hope it will both encourage and challenge you to think further and deeper in regards to worship.

Please read with a heart of prayer, curiosity to explore further, a mind ready to stretch and grow, and a whole life desirous and willing to honor God in all that you do.  In this journey, I will gladly join you.

 

(This is an excerpt from Mark Sooy’s book, The Life of Worship: Rethink, Reform, Renew available through the links at www.MarkSooy.com)

 

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A New Year Perspective

When asked about the “greatest commandment,” Jesus encapsulated in His response a broad perspective on life and relationships.  Reflecting upon his answer at this time of year can help us as we move forward in every area of ministry.  His answer gives us perspective.

Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘HEAR, O ISRAEL! THE LORD OUR GOD IS ONE LORD; AND YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH.’ The second is this, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”  (Mark 12:29-31)

First, we must know God.  This is the essential element of understanding life and all of our relationships.  There is only one God, and we know Him as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  He is the Creator of all things, both seen and unseen, and we are part of His creation.  Our very life is dependent upon Him, as well as our salvation.  He is God, and we are not, though we often attempt to displace Him in His proper role.

Secondly, we must know others.  In knowing them, we must love them.  In loving them, we come to know them more fully.  All of their idiosyncrasies, their foibles, their habits – both good and bad!  As we take a look at others, we really see how needy they are, in every facet of life.  We can see in their need the reality of their dependence upon God.  Such is the human condition.

Thirdly, we must know ourselves.  Our love for others is inherently connected to our knowledge and love for self.  Too often we view ourselves separate from the others around us.  However, we must overcome this delusion and realize we are the same as they.  We need God’s supply and sufficiency each and every day.

So, really, there are only two sides here, rather than three.  God is on the one side as Creator, Sustainer, and Provider.  We and all the “others” are on the other side as needy and dependent upon God’s care and provision for us.

Keeping this in mind as we serve people in 2017 will help us keep the proper perspective.  As we serve those around us, we serve them out of our own dependence upon the God whom they need as well.  We are no better than they in this regard, whether they are believers or unbelievers, young or old.  As we depend upon Christ for our life and our sustenance, we can be a light for others who search in this darkness.  May we be faithful in showing forth His light throughout this New Year!

 

The Incarnation and the Worshiping Community (Part 2 of 2)

Last week we looked at the Incarnation from the perspective of the theological significance of the doctrine for our corporate worship.  We explored the reality of “God with us” and how vital this doctrine is for understanding the full contour of the Christian Worldview and the intertwining elements of creation, fall and redemption

As an example, we looked at the great Christmas hymn of Isaac Watts, “Joy to the World.”  In this hymn, we found that Watts showed the fullness of creation, fall and redemption as he celebrated the redemptive joy of Christ’s victory that we celebrate in this season of Christmas.

The eternal truths of the Incarnation are effective in transforming individual lives as men, women and children respond to Christ in faith.  Yet, we do not want to slip into the error of many Christians and assume that personal salvation is the primary purpose for the presence of Christ on earth as “God with us.”  We must be careful to see how the redemptive plan of God begins with humanity, and then flows throughout all of creation as a result of His continued presence on earth.

It is this aspect of Incarnation in particular that we explore in this article.  The rippling effects of sin corrupted and twisted all of man’s relationships.  First, his relationship with God is broken and severed.  Following that, his relationship with self was damaged, as well as his relationship with others, and finally the rest of the created order.  As redeemed individuals, it becomes our task to come alongside the work of Christ in redemption and be “little” redeemers in every part of our world in each of these four relationships.  We become the incarnate presence of Christ in the world.

Paul’s writings indicate many ways in which the body of Christ—the Church, as a fully functioning organism with Christ as its head (Colossians 1:18)—is the very presence of Christ on earth.  He expects the body to grow into a “mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).  As the body grows and works together with the gifts that each member supplies, the presence of Christ in the Church is pushing back the effects of sin (Ephesians 4:16; 1 Corinthians 12:4-27).  We see in Peter’s words, quoted above, that this is the reality of God’s grace among us.

Let me summarize directly, so we do not overlook the importance of this point:  Christ is still incarnate today, in the Church, the body of Christ.  God is “with us” through the presence of the Holy Spirit that indwells every believer (Ephesians 1:13-14), and as a result the Incarnation is a reality today as represented in the body of Christ – the Church.  As Christian communities, we are meant to step into this world and work to redeem all that we touch.

With this in mind, we come to find the significance of the Incarnation for today.  Not only did the presence of Christ on earth ultimately solve the problem of our sin through his death, burial and resurrection, but also His redeeming work continues through those very people that have been redeemed through His work on the cross.  In many ways, the statement is true:  “We are His hands.  We are His feet.”

The practical side of this is that the relationships that were broken—due to sin (with God, self, others, and the created order)—are open to our influence for redemptive purposes.  We celebrate the coming of the Christ Child at Christmas, and we remember the fullness of His life which redeems us, then we ourselves become a part of His redemptive work.

We may find that we have opportunity to lead an unbeliever into faith.  We may remind or restore a believer to an active relationship with Christ.  We may encourage or exhort a fellow Christian in some area of life or doctrine.  In these things we are participating in redeeming the broken relationship mankind has with God.

Some of us are trained or gifted to help those who individually struggle with one’s inner self.  The brokenness of the emotional life has many sources—from difficult childhoods to severe experiences in later life. But even in these, Christ has come to restore and heal.  Those who can lead people in these areas are participating in the redeeming work of Christ.

In another way, some Christians have a heart and ability to help in the restoration of broken relationships.  Broken marriages, rebellious children, severed friendships, and other examples of relational difficulties affect each of us directly, or in close proximity.  Christ has even come to push back this brokenness.  You, who are part of this process, whether as professionals or simply as friends, have entered into Christ’s redeeming work as well.

Those who fix broken things are a vital part of Christ’s incarnate work today.  Whether you seek to care for the environment, enhance the processes of manufacturing, farm the land, refine the systems of government or business, or repair the vehicles that transport us by land, sea or air, each and every one are part of the redemptive work of Christ!

We really are Christ’s presence on earth. The One Who became incarnate in the flesh as Jesus Christ, continues to be active through the Church, the body of Christ.  This truth is the effective nature of the Incarnation that we can celebrate at Christmas,  each and every day!  We celebrate in our corporate worship gatherings, as well as when we move out from our enclaves into the world in which we live.

(Original Post on December 12, 2013 at the Worldview Church: http://www.breakpoint.org/worshiparts/articles/18930-the-incarnation-and-the-worshiping-community-part-2)

The Incarnation and the Worshiping Community (Part 1 of 2)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.  And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-3, 14)

A friend suggested to me recently that Christian truth is contained in three great Christian doctrines:  the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection.  As I’ve considered his statement, I have often found myself challenged in my thinking and reviewing the depth of each of these foundational beliefs.  Whether or not we want to hold to this view, we can surely spend a lifetime studying and learning them.

The season of Advent affords an excellent opportunity to explore the ideas found within the doctrine of the Incarnation.  This doctrine is considered in detail in such studies as T.M. Moore’s set of articles titled, “Why God became Man.”  In this series, T.M. leads the reader through the arguments put forth by Anselm of Canterbury in his classic treatment of the subject.

My purpose—in this article and the next—is to ascertain how the Incarnation might be appropriately made part of the worship experience in a gathered community.  We must be careful to balance the intricacies of this doctrine as it explains the miracle of “God with us,” while at the same time connecting it with why it really matters today.  We must stay away from reciting a dusty doctrine and be sure to see how it encourages transform lives.

That Jesus Christ is the God-man stands at the center of the Incarnation, as we can see from the opening verses of the Gospel of John quoted above.  These verses swirl around and create a picture of a Creator who spoke, whose very Word has life, and that this living Word is God Himself.  It is this Word – which embodies the fullness of knowledge, wisdom and truth – which becomes embodied.  The Word becomes flesh and dwells among fallen mankind.  God becomes man.  God is with us!

When placed within the scope of the Christian Worldview, this is a revelation for wonder and celebration. From both theological conviction, as well as common experience, all of mankind knows the state of their plight (see Romans 1:18-32).  We know all too well that we are separated from God and that our best efforts have failed to repair the damaged relationship created by Adam’s disobedience (see Romans 3:9-12, 23).  It is in the midst of this despair and hopeless state that Christ comes.

And His coming to us is a vital aspect of the Incarnation.  The humble willingness and submissive obedience of Jesus to lay aside the privileges of His divinity to come near to us in human form is nothing more than a miracle (see Philippians 2:5-11).  The writer of Hebrews reminds us that Christ, existing as the “exact representation” of God, yet took on flesh and blood in order to identify with humanity – not just in theory, but in reality (see Hebrews 1:3 and 2:14).

As a result of this great story, we gather together in communities of faith with much to celebrate.  Yet, it must be done is such a way that we worship more than a babe in a manger, but reflect the fullness of the gospel message as it flows through the creation-fall-redemption paradigm.  The wonder of Jesus coming in the flesh is lost if we miss the need of humanity to overcome the sin nature as a result of Adam’s disobedience.

One specific example of how this can be done well – and memorably – is in the great hymn by Isaac Watts that we sing each year, “Joy to the World.”  Let’s consider how Watts reflects the themes of Christian Worldview in this victorious hymn.  After a statement of rejoicing and hope in the first stanza, Watts calls together the voices of both mankind and the created order for celebrating both of the first two stanzas.

We can see this theme in the lines:

Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy…

And what are they celebrating?  The restoration of what had been broken.  Romans 8:18-23 reminds us that creation was “subjected to futility” as God laid upon Adam the consequences of his sin and the ripples into the whole of creation.  Watts is noting in these few words that something had been broken after a good and perfect creation.

In stanza three, Watts clearly explains the problem that involves all of human kind and the whole created order – sin and the curse.  The repercussions of Adam’s sin were like a shockwave that impacting everything.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found…

By drawing into his lyrics the seriousness of the effects of sin, Watts skillfully reminds us why we need a Savior.  Watts shows us why the rejoicing he calls for is important and vital.  In the final stanza he returns to his original point of lifting our voices in joy for the Savior that has come.  Our King has come!  His rule is “with truth and grace” which shows the wonders of His love.

It is the fullness of this story that we celebrate at Christmas.  It is in considering the full sweep of the creation-fall-redemption paradigm that we can understand – and celebrate – the meaning of the Incarnation.

(Original Post on December 5, 2013 at the Worldview Church: http://www.breakpoint.org/worshiparts/articles/18892-the-incarnation-and-the-worshiping-community-part-1)

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