Christian Worship: Retelling the Story of God

The Westminster Shorter Catechism begins by asking the question of the central purpose of humankind on earth, to which it answers, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” This simple statement of humanity’s purpose places worship at the center of humanity’s purpose on earth. In other words, humans were made to worship. Additionally, as the second statement of the catechism explains, true human enjoyment and fulfillment comes only when worshiping the Creator. Thus, true worship is solely God-focused and God-glorifying, but the worship of God also has a benefit and telos-fulfilling dimension for humankind engaged in the worship of God.

“Worship” is a word that can be used to describe a vast range of human praise and service to or in the name of many things. Fans “worship” a musical artist or celebrity by emulating their appearance and attitude to the world. Gluttons “worship” their stomachs through the mass intake of food (Phil. 3:19). In a general sense, “worship” is dedication to and service rendered in the name of something outside or inside of self. Everyone is worshipping something or someone, whether that is food, freedom, or Facebook. Ultimately, however, worship that is directed at anything other than the God of the Bible is misguided and rooted in the selfish need for fulfillment, purpose, and gratification.

Deny Yourself

It is the outward-focused, self-emptying nature of the worship of the God of the Bible that sets Christian worship apart from all other forms of worship. Whereas worship directed to the created ultimately finds its source in the human soul’s need for security and purpose, Christian worship looks outside of the individual, understanding that the purpose of the universe is not self, but the God of the Bible and His Christ (Col. 1:16). The world says “You are the center of the universe. Be who you are. Believe what works for you.” Christian worship says just the opposite. “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). Thus, Christian worship is focused solely on God to the denial of self, a placing of self on the altar, putting to death selfish need and greed in the name of fulfillment and purpose in the Creator God (Rom. 12:1).

Christian worship begins and ends with the God who is the beginning and ending, the Alpha and Omega as He Himself declares in Revelation 22. The entire narrative of Scripture, from Genesis where He is the Creator and Beginner of all to Revelation where He is the sovereign ruler of all, presents God as the central character, the protagonist in the true and epic story of God on mission to redeem and recapture His universe from His creation’s own rebellion. An understanding of the narrative scope of Scripture and God’s mission for the world will inform Christian worship, as Robert Webber writes in his book Ancient-Future Worship:

“Once we have recovered God’s Good News, the great and incredible news that he is the one who by his own two hands – the incarnate Word and the Holy Spirit – has recovered the garden, then, knowing this cosmic content, we can enter in the fullness of worship again. Worship gathers to sing, tell, and enact God’s story of the world from its beginning to its end” (40).

Understanding the character of the Triune God and His mission in the world provides a context for and a purpose to the Church’s worship. Acknowledging God as the central character in the story of Scripture and the world demands sacrifice and self-denial from worshipers, understanding that humanity plays supporting actor to God’s leading role.

The Story of God

In addition to understanding the mission of God in the world, true Christian worship is informed and inspired by the character of the Triune God to whom worship is directed. Again, the narrative of Scripture informs the Church’s worship as the character of God is revealed. In the beginning, God the Triune, perfect community and holiness, creates so as to share the glory of Himself and to invite His creation into worship of Himself. The worship of God who exists in eternal, perfect community yet who gracious extends His communion to creation demonstrates His grace, holiness, and divine creativity (Gen.1, Ps. 8). The imago Dei in humanity as well provides the mission for humanity in the world – to demonstrate the goodness, grace and communal nature of the Creator by filling the world with images of Him, believers and worshipers who fill the earth with His goodness, grace and community (Gen. 1:26-30). The narrative of Egypt and the drama of Israel presents God as Redeemer and Faithful Covenant-Keeper, One who is worthy of worship because He saves and He will not relent in His passionate pursuit of His people and His creation (Deut. 11:1-7, Hos. 2).  The Incarnation and work of Christ inform the Church that their worship is not directed to a distant, deistic God but a God who is intimately aware of His creation and who is full of grace to humble Himself to bring His creation back to the worship of Himself (Phil. 2:5-11). The formation of the Church and the promised culmination of God’s kingdom on earth demonstrate His continued faithfulness, His desire for called out individuals to be in holy, grace-filled community as He is in holy community and the anticipation of the Church for His coming kingdom (Eph.1:3-10). As this Advent season recalls, the Church should be worshiping in anxious expectation of His final kingdom even as Israel anxiously awaited the first appearance of the Messiah. And as Revelation culminates with this kingdom, the worship of the Church should echo the words of the apostle John in Revelation 22: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” As Scripture demonstrates, the Triune God at the heart of Christian worship is more than worthy of the worship and sacrifice of His people. He is the Creator, the Sustainer, and the Initiator of the salvation of the world and the worship of His people.

In considering the implementation of this narrative expression and understanding of the character and work of God in the world, the church year provides an appealing way of informing the worship of the local church. Especially in America, where consumerism and secular holidays dominate the calendar of events for the local church, the church year provides a framework through which believers can come to see the world and God’s mission to redeem the world. As Kevin Navarro writes, “From Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost, we move to Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Memorial Day, and to the Fourth of July. We celebrate who we are and what we do instead of who God is and what he does… We have replaced the rightful worship of God with the worship of ourselves” (37). Understanding the work and character of God in the world is crucial to a biblical understanding of worship.

One thought on “Christian Worship: Retelling the Story of God”

  1. I especially like the final statements about the holidays around which church calendars are often formed — American holidays, family days. Just let a 4th of July go by, or a Memorial Day go by and you don’t sing a patriotic “hymn” and church and see if you don’t get a comment or two and raised eyebrows as to patriotism or an appreciation for America’s Christian heritage. Rather than God Himself, unattached to anything or anyone else, being the center of worship, it seems it would that the center of American worship is the God of America.

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