A Theology of Worship

Recently I had the opportunity to play tour guide at Park Street Church – the third stop on Boston’s historic freedom trail.  I had a blast scouring the archives for interesting photographs, letters, and documents from the churches’ 202-year history.  Through this I learned a great deal about the religious culture of early 19th century New England, and the history of this particular Evangelical landmark.  One thing that struck me from the first week to the last as tour guide were the varying amounts of engagement from tourists.  Many of the ~1500 daily tourists that came through our doors were on a mission.  They wanted to “do.”  Perhaps you have seen these tourists before.  They wanted to check off stop #3 on their list, snap some photographs for the album, and duck out before we could even ask where they were from.  The minority approach was the more compelling.  These tourists would walk slower, stay longer, and ask intriguing questions.  In asking questions, we exchanged ideas and learned of each other’s sacred stories; thoughts on God as expressed through beauty, architecture, stained glass, and music.

Now who was the better tourist?  If we judge by how many sites visited, or how many pictures taken, then surely the former wins.  But if we judge by how knowledge was deepened, or how relationships were formed, then the latter made the lasting impression.

This is just how we can approach worship.  We can be spectators.  We can check off the actions, sing the songs, and go through the motions.  Or, we can dive in with all our hearts, souls, and minds and live at full-stretch[1] before God.  Tim Keller describes worship as the act of ascribing ultimate value to something in a way that engages your entire being: mind, will, and emotions[2].  When we sing together, we chew on the text and wrestle with the poetry.  When we hear scripture, we digest it and meditate on it corporately.  When we are lead in prayer, we pray actively with the leader (and might even add an amen!).  When we hear poetry, drama, music, experience other forms of art, we prepare by asking: how might this art deepen my understanding of the gospel?  And let us not forget, we share!  Communion is at its essence something shared, so let us be bold to tell one another the amazing things God has done, is doing, and will continue to do in our lives – living in and embracing the tension between the “already” and the “not-yet”.  Profoundly eschatological (our longing for “Your kingdom come”) and infinitely hopeful is the gospel of our Lord!


            A fundamental part of organizing congregational worship is to hold certain necessary tensions in balance.  Because of this bi-polar nature of worship, it is to be expected that disagreements will arise.  Consider the following dialectical tensions:


1)   Balance between the glorification of God and edification of His people

2)   Balance between the corporeal and the spiritual

3)   Balance between the emotional and the intellectual

4)   Balance between the church past and the church present

5)   Balance between being relevant and counter-cultural[3]

6)   Balance between a local community and global community


And this list could go on.  With so many layers of worship, we can expect opinions to differ.  Each of us will have a different opinion on where the church should stand on each perspective.

In John 17, Jesus says much more then “the world will know you are Christians by your love.”  He links the visible unity of his followers with the world’s perception of himself (John 17:21-23).  In other words, if the church visibly demonstrates real unity (love and togetherness that transcends serious differences) then the world will have an easier time believing that Jesus really was God, and that his blood really HAS made his followers one.  On the other hand, if Christians do not visibly demonstrate the unity that God has given them, non-Christians will find it difficult to believe that Jesus was from God. His identity will seem implausible to the world if there is no visible fruit among his followers.  People will look at our behavior and be encouraged either towards the right or the wrong doctrinal position.  What a scary responsibility!

Differences in musical preference present us with an opportunity to demonstrate unity in the church (along with differences like race, age, gender, class etc.).  Music presents us with an opportunity to love our brothers and sisters by attempting to appreciate AND participate in their particular ways of relating to God, which may differ from our own.  Isn’t it a good thing to rejoice in the fact that someone else is worshipping God in spirit and in truth – even if we would do it differently?  There is even a chance that we might begin to worship God in a new way ourselves!

Another opportunity presented by different musical tastes lies in being a counter-cultural witness to the world.  This might be the kind of thing Jesus is getting at in John 17.  We have an opportunity to present a refreshingly different picture of what community can be to the world.  Our culture tells us that people only really relate to others who are just like themselves. That is what most people expect to find when they walk into the church; old people only talking to old people, young people talking to young people etc….  Sadly, this is what most people will find in most churches (age segregation is just one example).  In contrast, the gospel tells us that what believers have in common (the death and resurrection of Christ) is so important that it transcends all the things that can divide us.  If the gospel made Jews and gentiles into one people, than surely musical preference is not a legitimate cause for disunity in the church.  If this is demonstrated, even in small ways (like people being open to the music of another), than Jesus himself will be ‘believable’ to newcomers.  If we actually lived this out, the world would be shocked by AND drawn to the church.

As the saying credited to St. Francis of Assisi goes, “preach the gospel always, use words if necessary.”  Our visible ‘one-ness’ is as important towards spreading the good news as all of the true words we speak.  By embracing these tensions and learning to worship with others unlike you we are proclaiming the upside-down nature of the Gospel.  As a worship planning committee, we seek to keep these tensions in balance, making sure we do not let any one side become an ultimate.

Think back to your last Sunday in worship.  Think about where you stand on these tensions.  What might be left out of your conception of God?  What are your burdens?  What are your joys? How can you use these to encourage the body with?  Think.  Pray.  Worship.


TCC Worship Planning Committee

Karen Johnson, Ben Keyes, Adam Kurihara, and Kristin Neprud

September 2011

[1] This term borrowed from liturgical scholar Don Saliers.  For his insights on his theology of worship see: Don Saliers, Worship Come to its Senses (Abingdon Press, 1996)

[2] From a sermon on the theology of worship based on Psalm 95 by Tim Keller, Feb. 8, 2010.

[3] Marva Dawn, Reaching out Without Dumbing Down (Eerdmans Publishing, 1995)


(This text appears in “Tidings,” the quarterly newsletter of TCC Wayland)

Author: adamkurihara

Minister of Worship Arts at NSCBC in Beverly, MA

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