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The Soul of Worship

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts

Note: You may download this resource at no cost, for personal use or for use in a Christian ministry, as long as you are not publishing it for sale. All I ask is that you give credit where credit is due. For all other uses, please contact me at mark@markdroberts.com. Thank you

Note: If you would like a printer-friendly version of this series, please click here.

Series Table of Contents
Part 1 The Soul of Worship: Introduction
Part 2 Tethered Creativity: Worship and the Word of God
Part 3 Worship as Responding to God
Part 4 Worship as an Offering for God
Part 5 Worship as an Offering for God (continued)
Part 6 Worship as Praying
Part 7 Worship as Praying (continued)
Part 8 Worship as a Corporate Activity
Part 9 Facedown: The Paradigm of Worship
Part 10 Bowing in Worship: Should We Do It Today?
Part 11 Celebrating the Worth of God
Part 12 What Makes Worship Christian? The Worship of Jesus
Part 13 What Makes Worship Christian? The Mystery of the Trinity
Part 14 What Makes Worship Christian? The Centrality of the Cross
Part 15 What Makes Worship Christian? The Prevalence of Grace
Part 16 Diversity in Worship
Part 17 Worship and Our Mission in the World
Part 18 Worship as an Act of Love

Other Links Related to Worship
Blog Series: Easter from the Other Side of the Pulpit
Blog Series: Visual Arts in Faith and Worship
Blog Series: Blogging on Worship
Worship Leader Magazine
Recommended Books on Worship:
     Andy Park, To Know You More
     Matt Redman, ed., The Heart of Worship Files
     David Peterson, Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship
"Basics for Worship" -- a set of guidelines for worship adopted by my church

The Soul of Worship: Introduction
Part 1 of the series “The Soul of Worship”
Posted at 9:00 p.m. on Sunday, June 20, 2004

For several months I’ve been wanting to do some blogging on worship. It is, after all, something in which I’ve invested a large chunk of my life during the last twenty years, as a pastor, worship leader, songwriter, seminary professor, and writer. But I was waiting for some opportune time to weigh in on worship. That time has now come.

It began in May, as I was teaching a course called “Worship in the New Testament and Today” at Fuller Theological Seminary’s Orange County extension. My mind was abuzz with thoughts about worship as it’s described in Scripture and as it’s experienced throughout the world today. In the midst of my reflections, Worship Leader Magazine asked me to review Matt Redman’s latest album, Facedown.

If you’re not familiar with Matt Redman, he’s one of the leading worship leaders and songwriters in the world today. Among his hit songs are “The Heart of Worship” and “Better is One Day.” Matt hails from England, though he spends quite a bit of time on this side of the Atlantic.

I was eager to review Facedown because I have deeply appreciated Matt’s music in the past. Among other things, he is an outstanding lyricist, combining strengths as a poet and theologian. Thus I began to listen to Facedown with high expectations. But nothing prepared me for what I heard. This is an exceptional album musically, but a unique album lyrically. In fact, from a theological point of view, Facedown is the premier praise and worship album in the world today. (Okay, so I haven’t listened to all of them. But I’d be surprised if any album were to surpass Matt’s when it comes to theological breadth and integrity.)

As I was writing my brief review of Facedown for Worship Leader, I hatched the idea of using this album as the basis for a blog series on worship. I’m not planning to write a multi-post review of Facedown so much as a multi-post discussion of worship, with the songs from Matt’s album brought in as illustrations. In this process, I’ll discuss every song from his album. (Here’s a striking fact about Facedown. It will illustrate every major point I wish to make about worship. Talk about theological breadth!)

This series will be extremely helpful, I believe, to worship leaders, especially (but not only) those who lead with worship bands. If you’re a worship leader, this series will expose you to a basic biblical theology of worship – something you absolutely need if you’re going to lead worship that is fully honoring to God. I intend to clarify many of the basic truths of Christian worship, some of which are not widely understood, and many of which are actually contradicted in common worship practices today. But if you read this series, you’ll know what the essence of truly Christian worship is all about. And then, if you use the songs from Facedown, not only will your own understanding be put into practice, but you’ll help those you lead to grow into a deeper and truer experience of worship – which is to say, a deeper and truer experience of God.

But what if you’re not a worship leader? Will this series offer anything of value to you? Yes, absolutely, because the more you comprehend what worship is, the more you’ll be able to worship God “in spirit and in truth.” As you do, your relationship with the living God will grow into deeper intimacy and greater vitality.

I've called this series "The Soul of Worship." In Hebrew thinking, the soul is not just the "inside part" of a human being. It is also the life force in a living being, that which enables a body to be alive. Take away the soul and you take away the life. What I intend to discuss in this series is the "life force" of Christian worship, not just the heart or core of worship, but the essential qualities of worship that make it vital and genuine.

But what if you’re someone who really doesn’t like contemporary praise music? Does this series promise anything for you? Yes, I believe it does. For one thing, by the time I’ve finished discussing the soul of worship and illustrating it from Matt Redman’s album, you’ll have a new appreciation of a genre of music that isn’t your cup of tea. So, whether you relate to the musical style of Facedown or not, you’ll be set free from the uninformed prejudices frequently expressed about praise music (that it’s too emotionalistic, too “lite” theologically, too simplistic, too individualistic, too self-centered, etc.). Even if you don’t like Redman’s music, you’ll be moved by his poetry and instructed by his theology. Moreover, whether you’re an aficionado of contemporary worship music or not, the truths expressed and illustrated by Facedown will help know and worship God better. And who doesn’t need this kind of help?

If you are at all inclined to listen to band-led praise music – and especially if you’re a worship leader – I’d urge you not only to read this blog series, but also to buy Matt’s album. It’s available at most Christian bookstores and at many secular record stores. Moreover, you can order the album online. My hope is that the songs from Facedown will be used in congregations everywhere. As this happens, worshippers will learn more about true worship. More importantly, they will learn more about the God of truth as they see him more clearly. The result will be the kind of worship God requires and our hearts desire.

As Matt Redman says on the printed insert for Facedown: "When we face up to the glory of God, we soon find ourselves facedown in worship." True worship, like the album Facedown, is about "seeing" God and responding to his glory and grace. My prayer is that this series will help you both to see God more clearly and to worship him more fully.


Tethered Creativity: Worship and the Word of God
Part 2 of the series “The Soul of Worship”
Posted at 9:00 p.m. on Monday, June 21, 2004

In the last twenty years the church has been blessed with an explosion of creativity in worship. Much of this creativity has been focused upon the development of new musical expressions, including but not limited to the praise and worship movement. Moreover, churches that never even considered the use of visual arts in worship have found new freedom to explore a whole realm of worshipful communication. There have been many other avenues for creative innovation as well.

Creativity in worship has been encouraged by the use of forms and genres that invite non-professionals to participate. So, whereas hymn writing requires a good bit of musical training, a spiritually inspired but musically unsophisticated person can write an effective praise song. Or, whereas classical church art was necessarily created by experts – Could you have painted creation scene of the Sistine Chapel? -- just about anybody can produce a moving PowerPoint presentation that celebrates the glory of God in creation.

Creativity, innovation, freedom – all of these can be gifts from God for worship, but only if they are nourished by the rich soil of biblical truth, and only if their fruits are weighed in balance of Scripture. Sadly, I’m aware that this sort of nourishment and evaluation doesn’t always happen. When teaching in the Southern California Worship Institute, for example, I asked a room full of worship leaders to critique a popular praise song from a theological perspective. This particular song included a couple of glaring theological errors. Yet my students were very reticent to say anything negative about the song because it was so “hot” and because it had “worked” in their congregations. (“Hot” meant “popular in many churches and played on Christian radio.” “Worked” meant “moved people emotionally and they liked it.”) Though I didn’t dispute this song’s popularity and emotional appeal, I did find its theology to be biblically indefensible. For this reason I would not use the song in a worship service, and would recommend the same to others.

God gives us lots of room for innovation in worship. But, at the same time, God also makes clear what he requires from us. This has been true ever since God entered into a covenant relationship with a people so they might worship him. Consider the example of Exodus. As soon as God delivered the Israelites and made a covenant with them he instructed them explicitly in how they should and should not worship him (see Exodus 19-40, esp. 20:4-6, 22-26; 25:1-40:38). In the New Testament era God allowed for greater freedom in worship expression. So, we do not find elaborate New Testament instructions for Christian worship such as we found in the Old Testament law. Nevertheless, God’s basic will for Christian worship is clear, both from Old Testament instruction that continues to be relevant to Christians and also from many New Testament texts (see, for example: Mark 12:30; John 4: 21-24; Rom 12:1-2; 1 Cor 11-14; Col 3:12-17; Eph 5:18-21; Phil 2:1-11; Heb 4:14-16, 12:18-13:25; Revelation 4-5).

God has not said to us, “Feel free to worship me in any way you please. What ever feels worshipful to you will honor me.” Though this sort of license resonates with the individualism and relativism of our culture - even our Christian culture - it’s not the way of God. God has in fact told us how he wants to be worshipped. He has filled the Bible with specific commandments as well as examples of worship for us to emulate (notably, the Psalms). More importantly, he has revealed himself through Scripture, so that our worship might be “in truth,” and not merely a figment of our fallen imaginations.

Thus, God-honoring worship is not anything we want it to be. It is worship that concords with God’s self-revelation in Scripture and with his teaching on the kind of worship he desires. The Lord has left plenty of room for human creativity, but not unbounded creativity. Our creative expressions will honor God fully only when they are tethered to the Word of God, both the Incarnate Word (Jesus Christ) and the written Word (the Bible).

Matt Redman’s new CD, Facedown, exemplifes this sort of creative tethering. On the one hand, almost every song on the album has been inspired by one or more biblical passages (the references of which are included, most helpfully, on the CD insert). For example, the title track, “Facedown,” is based on Leviticus 9:24: “Fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell facedown” (NIV).

On the other hand, Redman’s lyrics are the product of a writer who is deeply steeped in biblical truth. Just about any worship song, no matter how trivial or even heretical, could be supported by some Bible verse taken out of context if a songwriter tries hard enough to force a connection. But Facedown grows out of Matt Redman's profound encounter with God’s self-revelation in Scripture, not to mention God’s guidance for how he wishes to be worshipped. (I should mention that “Facedown” was co-written by Matt’s wife, Beth. And “Pure Light” was co-written by Louie Giglio.)
Matt Redman

By basing his songs so thoroughly upon Scripture, Redman stands on the strong shoulders of other English songwriters who have gone before him. His writing, though different in genre from that of Isaac Watts, reminds me of Watts’s own compositions, which include “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “Joy to the World.” Watts’s lyrics flowed from a heart marinated in Scripture. Moreover, many of his hymns are paraphrases of biblical texts. “Joy to the World,” for example, was not originally written as a Christmas carol, but was Watts’s Christian reflection on Psalm 98. Like Matt Redman, Isaac Watts’ creativity was tethered to Scripture, and therefore what he produced was both inspiring and God honoring. This also helps to explain why we’re still singing Watts’ songs three centuries after they were composed.

Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

Those of us who lead worship, or who write songs for worship, or who worship in our personal devotions (and this should include all Christians), must be sure that our worship is utterly consistent with what God has revealed about himself and about the worship he requires. We do this by weighing everything in the balance of Scripture. This is something we aspire to in my own church. Let me close by quoting a passage from our “Basics for Worship” statement. I don't mean to suggest that we alway succeed in doing this. But this is our intention:

The Bible inspires and guides every aspect of our worship. The God we worship has been revealed to us primarily through the written Word that consistently bears witness to Jesus, the Incarnate Word. From the pages of Scripture we discover the true nature of worship and we learn how to worship from inspired directives and examples. The Bible also supplies the foundational content of our worship as it is read, sung, preached, prayed, reflected upon, and enacted


Worship as Responding to God
Part 3 of the series “The Soul of Worship”
Posted at 11:00 p.m. on Tuesday, June 22, 2004

What is worship? If you were to ask a roomful of Christians this question, you’d receive a bunch of different answers, including:

Worship is what we do in church.
Worship is experiencing God.
Worship is feeling God’s presence.
Worship is singing to God.
Worship is praising God.
Worship is making an offering to God.
Worship is a form of prayer.
Worship is love.
Worship is engaging with God.
Worship is serving God.
Worship is devotion to God.
Worship is ascribing worth to God.

This last answer is commonly heard from Christian preachers and teachers, who base their analysis upon the etymology of the word “worship.” This term derives from the Old English “weorthscipe” which meant “the quality of having worth or value.” So the English verb “to worship” means “to ascribe worth to someone or something.” This approach to worship accurately explains the etymology of the English word, but does it accurately account for the biblical understanding of worship? I’m not so sure.

Another way to consider the meaning of “worship” is to think in terms of those pesky Venn Diagrams we encountered in math class: you know, those overlapping circles that placed something within one or more broader sets. So, we might ask: If worship is the subset of some other activity, what is that activity? Is it feeling? Is it feeling? Or experiencing? Or praying? Or singing? Or . . . ?


Of course something as complex as worship may very well belong in a number of overlapping Venn diagram circles. For example, it may be belong in the set of “Experiencing” and in the set of “Praying” and in the set of “Singing.” Surely at times worship is all of these things. I believe that worship is not simply one kind of activity, but a multi-layered experience that defies simplistic categorization.

But if I had to place worship within the one or two most appropriate circles, if I had to say in essence what sort of activity worship is, I’d say it is responding. Whatever else we might believe about Christian worship, it is essentially and necessarily a response to God. It is our reaction to a God who has initiated relationship with us, reaching out to us in love and grace through Jesus Christ.

One of the things that impressed me so strongly when I first listened to Matt Redman’s new album Facedown was how much he gets the basic quality of worship as a response to God. In fact one of the songs on the album is actually called “A Gifted Response”: “This is a gifted response, Father we cannot come to you by our own merit. . . .” I can’t think of any praise and worship song that more clearly communicates this essential character of Christian worship.

But “Gifted Response” doesn’t stand alone in this regard. The first track of Facedown, “Praise Awaits You,” lays a theological foundation of “worship as response” for the entire CD:

Praise awaits You in this place today, O Lord
We are gathered, ready, God, to sing Your praise
Ready to respond to the glories of Your name
To the wonders of Your heart
To Your great love. . . .

The third song, “Seeing You,” reiterates this same theme:

This is a time for seeing and singing
This is a time for breathing You in
And breathing out Your praise
Our hearts respond to Your revelation
All You are showing, all we have seen
Commands a life of praise. . . .

As Redman rightly communicates, true worship is a response to who God is and what he has done. It’s a response to God’s revelation of himself in history, in Christian community, in our individual lives, and most of all in Jesus Christ.

Many of the best writers of praise and worship music intuitively grasp the responsive nature of worship. But none is clearer about this than Matt Redman. This is one of the reasons I am so excited about Facedown. As the songs from this album are used in worship gatherings throughout the world, countless Christians will come to a deeper and truer understanding of worship as a response to God. Matt Redman’s lyrics will teach an essential truth about biblical worship to many who have never before understood it.

Why is this so important? Of course I could answer this question by saying, simply, that God wants to be worshiped “in truth,” and this is a sufficient answer. But this doesn’t tell the whole story. As I have worshipped in a variety of settings during the past twenty years, I have found that worship leaders can easily forget that worship is primarily a response to God. They can see worship more as something we humans initiate, and not as something initiated by God. Thus the worship leader can feel compelled to get people to worship by choosing inspiring songs and leading them with sufficient energy, as if it were his or her primary job. Worship, in this mode, easily becomes more of a pep rally for God than a deeply personal response to God’s own initiative. When the congregation doesn’t “get into it,” the worship leader can feel like a failure and can resolve to “do better” the next time by using more emotional songs, or a more driving beat, or whatever else might “work.”

But if true worship is really a response to God’s initiative, then the worship leader should focus less on getting people to do something or feel something and more on pointing them to God’s revelation of himself in Christ and in Scripture.

In this sense worship leading is rather like an experience I had with my son last year. He and I planned to hike to a lake in the High Sierra of California, one of the most beautiful places I had ever been to in my life. But the trail to Chocolate Lake was a difficult one. Getting there requied lots of physical effort and cross-country maneuvering. Along the way, it was easy for Nathan to become discouraged. I tried to keep him excited by being enthusiastic and telling him how wonderful our destination would be. But my efforts weren’t entirely successful. Finally, after a tough hike, we arrived at Chocolate Lake. Now Nathan could see for himself what I had been talking about. No longer did I have to get him pumped up about the lake and its surroundings. I simply pointed him to the reality of the beauty in front of him, and he loved it as much as I did.
My son Nathan and I enjoy the beauty of Chocolate Lake in the High Sierra of California.

So it is for those of us who lead worship. Our primary job is not to manufacture an experience for people or get them pumped up, but to point them to the reality and beauty of the living God. Genuine worship will be the “gifted response” to the One who has revealed himself in the written Word and the incarnate Word. As Matt Redman so wisely writes,

Our hearts respond to Your revelation
All You are showing, all we have seen
Commands a life of praise. . . .


Worship as an Offering for God
Part 4 of the series “The Soul of Worship”
Posted at 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 23, 2004

In my last post I began to answer the question: What is worship? I suggested that worship is responding to God. One of the qualities that makes the Judeo-Christian tradition unique among the world’s religions is its fundamental understanding of worship as a response to God’s initiative, rather than as something humans do to motivate a god to act in their favor.

But, though it’s essential to recognize worship as a response, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Indeed, sometimes people respond to God in ways that aren’t worshipful. Consider, for example, the case of Pharaoh in Exodus, who responded to God by hardening his heart – which is about as far from worship as you can get. So, however crucial it is to recognize the responding character of worship, we must clarify the kind of response that counts as worship.

Here it’s tempting to list out the sorts of activity that we typically include in worship services and which are also common throughout the Bible. From this point of view, worship is praising God, thanking God, adoring God, exalting God, serving God, etc. Indeed, these actions are responses to God that qualify as worship.

But is there anything that these disparate activities have in common? Yes. For one thing, they are all moving in God’s direction. They are turning towards God, not away from him. Recognizing that God has first moved in our direction, most of all through Jesus Christ, we respond in kind. We come to God because he has first come to us. So a worshipful response to God will not be turning away or fleeing or hardening one’s heart. It will be a turning towards with all that we are.

Praise, thanks, adoration, exaltation, service and other worshipful actions are also distinctive because they seek most of all to offer something to God, not to receive something from him. In the Old Testament era, worship was centered in the tabernacle/temple, in the literal offering of sacrifices to God. In the New Testament era, because Christ offered the perfect and final sacrifice “once for all” (Heb 7:27; 9:12; 10:10), our worship no longer focuses upon offering animals, grains, and other physical gifts. Now we “continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God” (Heb 13:15). More than this, we offer our whole selves in service to God as a “living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1).

So then, worship is a response to God in which we move in God’s direction rather than withdrawing from him. Moreover, we turn towards him, not because we want God to give something to us, but because we want to give something to him. Thus, in addition to responding to God, worship is also making an offering to God. It is giving him something he deserves, whether praise, thanks, adoration, submission, etc.

So then, worship is a response to God in which we move in God’s direction rather than withdrawing from him. Moreover, we turn towards him, not because we want God to give something to us, but because we want to give something to him. Thus, in addition to responding to God, worship is also making an offering to God. It is giving him something he deserves, whether praise, thanks, adoration, submission, etc.

Given biblical teaching on worship, the notion of worship as an offering for God makes perfect sense. Yet this idea can leave us with a nagging discomfort. For, when we realize that everything we have – even life itself – is a gift from God, we might wonder how we can offer anything to God at all? Aren’t our offerings really giving back to God what he has already given to us?

Once again, Matt Redman’s album Facedown captures both the “worship as offering” idea and the tension in which we find ourselves as creature wholly dependent on God for everything. His song “Breathing the Breath” clearly envisions worship as offering or giving something to God. Yet it also confesses that God is the source of whatever we might give him:

We have nothing to give
That didn't first come from Your hands
We have nothing to offer You
Which You did not provide
Every good, perfect gift comes from
Your kind and gracious heart
And all we do is give back to You
What always has been Yours

Lord, we're breathing the breath
That You gave us to breathe
To worship You, to worship You
And we're singing these songs
With the very same breath
To worship You, to worship You

Who has given to You
That it should be paid back to him?
Who has given to You
As if You needed anything?
From You, and to You, and through You
Come all things, O Lord
And all we do is give back to You
What always has been Yours

We are breathing the breath
That You gave us to breathe

Here, once again, Redman presents both a profound and a profoundly biblical picture of true worship.

Can you and I give anything to God? From one perspective, of course we can’t, because all good things come from God’s hand. Yet God has given us the freedom to use his good things according to our choice. A talented musician could choose to write crass and sordid songs – and many do. Or that same musician could choose to put his or her talent to work in the service of God, writing music of worship.

Moreover, though God could have created us as robots who can’t help but worship him, he opted instead for a much riskier strategy, giving us the freedom to honor him or not. Because the Lord wants our hearts – not merely the praises of our lips or our compelled service – he lets us not worship him so that when we do, it is truly a gift for him.

This reminds me of when my children give me Father’s Day presents, as they did just last week. There’s always a certain irony in this event, because the money they use to buy my gifts is really my money. They don’t have the financial means to give me anything I can’t buy for myself, and the only way they can give me anything is by spending my money. Yet I nevertheless love getting Father’s Day presents because of what they convey and what goes along with them, usually a special homemade card and lots of hugs and kisses. Stuff I can buy for myself. But the love of my children can only be given freely. And this matters to me more than any thing in the whole world.
Lots of presents, but nothing is better than the love of my children!

When we worship God, we respond to him by offering what he has allowed us freely and truly to give: our love, our devotion, our praise, our submission, our commitment, our service. To be sure, our ability to make these offerings depends upon God’s initiative, not to mention the help of his Spirit. Yet when we choose to offer what God asks us to give, he is truly worshipped.


Worship as an Offering for God (continued)
Part 5 of the series “The Soul of Worship”
Posted at 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 24, 2004

So far we’ve seen that worship is responding to God by making an offering to him. In worship we do not so much seek something from God as we seek to give something to him, whether that be praise, adoration, thanks, submission, or our very lives.

At this point you may be thinking, “But wait a minute. I get so much out of worship. When I worship I receive God’s joy and peace. I experience his love for me. Isn’t worship the place where I receive more than I give?” Yes, in the context of worship we do receive manifold gifts from God. As we draw near to bless the Lord, he blesses us. And when it comes to this gift exchange, God is always willing and able to outgive us!

Yet, I would still contend that, in biblical perspective, the worshipful part of our engagement with God involves our making an offering to him. To be sure, in giving to God we open a channel of relationship with him so that we are ready and able to receive even more from his hand. But our receiving from God isn’t worship, strictly speaking. It might be better to call this a fruit of worship. And a sweet fruit at that! When we worship God, he heals us, transforms us, and simply blesses us with his presence – which, of course, leads us to worship him even more.

I’m belaboring this point because so many people today think of worship primarily in terms of what they receive in the process. They have “really worshipped” if they’ve felt certain emotions or received the grace-filled awareness of God’s presence. In an over-used metaphor, they see worship as a spiritual filling station, a place to get filled with the Spirit for the long, dry week ahead.

Now I fully and gladly agree that when we worship God often fills us with his Spirit. We often receive much more than we give when we worship God. But if we focus too much on what we receive in worship, then we miss the main point. And this point, biblically-speaking, is our giving to God, not our getting from him.

Once again let me use the analogy of human gift-giving to illustrate what I’m saying here. When my wife and I were first married, I was a terrible gift-giver. I’m embarrassed to confess that I didn’t even give Linda a birthday present for her first birthday after our wedding. I freely admit that I was just plain stupid, but not only because giving my wife a present for her birthday is a cultural obligation. More than committing an egregious faux pas, I was missing a precious chance to express my love for my wife.

In time, however, I discovered that offering a gift to my wife – with a card, always a card! – really made a difference for her. When I presented her with a gift I had picked out, she felt special, important, and, most of all, loved by me. My desire to express my love for Linda has helped me to become a pretty decent gift giver. (I think even she would say so!)

A picture of a young man (with his wife) who needs to learn quite a bit about gift giving.

Here’s the point I’m trying to make with this analogy. When I give Linda a gift, I feel great. I am pleased with myself for not forgetting her birthday, and I’m glad that my wife feels loved. So I get a lot out of giving presents to Linda. Plus, she always expresses her gratitude and love in return, so I get even more benefits when I remember her birthday.

But, if I were to think of my gift-giving primarily in this way, then I’d be missing the point. If you asked me why I give birthday gifts to Linda and I said, “Because I get so much out of it,” you’d no doubt think I was more than a little self-centered. In fact, you might want to say: “Hey Mark. You’re missing the point. It’s not about you. It’s about Linda!”

Similarly, though we receive so much when we worship, it’s not primarily about us, but about God. If I approach worship thinking mainly about what I hope to receive or feel or experience, then my perspective is skewed. Yet if I regard worship primarily as a time to offer something to God, then I’ve got my focus in the right place. And, ironically, I will be in a better place to receive new gifts from the Lord.

One of the most striking and distinctive features of Matt Redman’s new worship album, Facedown, is the extent to which it helps us make offerings to God without asking for anything in return. There are only two requests on the entire CD, and these are really more about God’s glory than our needs. The title track, “Facedown,” includes the appeal:

So let Your glory shine around
Let Your glory shine around
King of glory, here be found
King of glory.

Why are we asking for God to reveal his glory? So that we might “fall facedown, As Your glory shines around.” In other words, we’re asking the Lord to reveal more of himself so that we might worship him more completely. Hardly a preoccupation with self!

The second to the last track on the album, “Mission’s Flame,” also includes a request of the Lord:

Let worship be the fuel for mission’s flame
We’re going with a passion for Your name
We’re going for we care about Your praise
Send us out.

Now our request is that God would send us out into the world so that he might be praised even more than he is today. Once more, the focus is on God and his glory, not on us and our experience or feelings or needs.

Now having said clearly that worship is giving to God, not asking from God, I want to be clear about what I am not saying. I am not saying that we shouldn’t ask the Lord for things in the context of worship.On the contrary, asking is absolutely appropriate in private or corporate worship. One of the results of focusing on God is that we realize just how much more we need him – not just his gifts, but also his presence. Moreover, as we are reminded of what Christ has done for us as our great high priest, we come before God with our requests. And we come, not hesitantly or fearfully, but boldly and freely, knowing in advance that we will find mercy and grace at God’s throne (Heb 4:14-16).

Nevertheless, when we worship, our intention should be to offer to the Lord everything he deserves, including our very lives. I’ll have more to say about this later in the series.


Worship as Praying
Part 6 of the series “The Soul of Worship”
Posted at 9:30 p.m. on Friday, June 25, 2004

In my last three posts I’ve shown that worship is responding to God by making an offering to him. Though we receive generously from the Lord in the context of worship, our action is the offering of praise, thanks, adoration, etc. So, back to the Venn diagrams I used in Part 3, worship belongs within the circles of responding and offering. But is this it? Is there some other essential characteristic of worship that deserves to be mentioned at this point? Yes, I believe there is.

When we worship, we communicate with God. To use common language, in worship we pray. Often our prayers are expressed in words, either spoken or sung. Sometimes our prayers of worship are silent. At other times they may be enacted in some way, through kneeling, dancing, lifting hands, standing, or even lying prostrate before the Lord. Yet, no matter the exact form of our praying, when we worship, we pray to God.

The fact that worship is prayer seems so obvious that one might suppose it doesn’t need to be said. But in many Christian traditions of worship, the notion of worship as prayer seems almost non-existent. I grew up in an evangelical church where there was plenty of worship. But if you were to have timed the actual amount of explicit conversation with God in any so-called worship service, you’d find that prayer took the back seat to other directions of dialogue. Of course the sermon was a major feature of worship, taking about a third of the time. And, though we sang many hymns, rarely did we address God directly as if praying in song. Most of the hymns we sang were written so that we addressed each other, reminding each other of wonderful truths. For example, we sang “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” not “You are a mighty fortress, O God.” The bulk of our time in worship was conversation, not with God, but about God. It was edifying, educational, truthful, and God-honoring in the broader sense. But it wasn’t worship, strictly speaking.

During my youth, most of the contemporary, guitar-led songs were also songs about God, not to God. In “Pass It On” we reminded each other of how God’s love is like a spark that gets a fire going. In “He’s Everything to Me” we sung to one another of the wonders of having a relationship with God. But we didn’t say these things to God directly.

Sometime in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, contemporary Christian songwriting took a new turn. Increasingly songs enabled the singer to address God directly. So rather than singing “He is worthy” we sang “Thou art worthy, Thou art worthy, Thou art worthy, O Lord.” And rather than singing “I love the Lord,” we began to sing, “I love you, Lord, and I lift my voice.” Leading the way in this new movement of worship singing were Calvary Chapel, Marantha! Music, and the Vineyard. Many worshipers experienced, for the first time, the joy and intimacy of communicating directly with God in worship. It was a transforming experience, both for individuals, and also for churches, and ultimately for the church of Jesus Christ throughout the world.

Matt Redman’s album Facedown falls squarely within the praise and worship tradition I’m describing here. Every song on his album addresses God directly in prayer. Only one portion of one song on the album speaks about Jesus in the third person rather than to him. These lines, as it turns out, were not written by Matt Redman, but are from the nineteenth-century hymn by Robert Lowry, “Nothing But the Blood.” Yet notice how Matt frames these lines, originally sung to other people about Jesus, so that they become part of a prayer:

Your blood speaks a better word
Than all the empty claims I've heard upon this earth
Speaks righteousness for me
And stands in my defense
Jesus, it's Your blood

What can wash away our sins?
What can make us whole again?
Nothing but the blood
Nothing but the blood of Jesus
What can wash us pure as snow
Welcomed as the friends of God?
Nothing but Your blood
Nothing but Your blood, King Jesus

Your cross testifies in grace
Tells of the Father's heart to make a way for us
Now boldly we approach
Not earthly confidence
It's only by Your blood

Not only does this section of “Nothing But the Blood” now fit within a prayer to Jesus, but also Redman changes the last lines from “Nothing but the blood, Nothing but the blood of Jesus” to “Nothing but Your blood, Nothing but Your blood, King Jesus.”

If we’re going to see worship from a biblical perspective, and if we’re going to worship “in spirit and truth,” then we must understand that worship is responding, offering, and praying. Thus I would complete the Venn diagram of worship by making worship a subset of all three activities.

The fact that worship is prayer raises interesting questions. Should a worship service include elements that aren’t spoken directly to God? Should we employ in worship only songs that address the Lord? I know some people within the praise and worship movement who are so zealous for addressing God in song that they disparage or disallow other kinds of musical communication. These folks believe that if a song or hymn is about God, not to God, then it shouldn’t be used in worship.

In my next post I’ll examine this position more closely.


Worship as Praying (continued)
Part 7 of the series “The Soul of Worship”
Posted at 9:45 p.m. on Saturday, June 26, 2004

In my last post I explained that worship is a kind of prayer. It’s communication with God, whether through words, songs, silence, or other actions. Yet, if worship is really prayer, then should “worship services” included non-prayerful elements? When it comes to music in worship, should churches use only songs and hymns that address God directly? What about the hymns that speak about God, rather than to him? Can we still sing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”?

When I’ve taught courses for worship leaders, I’ve found that many of my students believe a song must address God to be an effective song for worship. Some would pretty much disallow the use of songs or hymns that speak to the congregation about God. So I ask my students to think about Jack Hayford’s classic praise song, “Majesty.” “This song doesn’t address God,” I explain, “but the gathered congregation. Yet most people think it’s a great song. It’s one of the most popular of all contemporary worship songs.” Many students try at first to disagree with me. “Surely,” they reason, “if ‘Majesty’ is such a great song, then it must speak to God directly.” But when they examine the words of the song, they realize that I’m right. We sing to each other, “Majesty, worship His majesty, unto Jesus . . .” not “Majesty, we worship Your majesty, unto You. . . .”

At this juncture in the conversation, some students become defensive for “Majesty,” as if I have just criticized the song or implied that it shouldn’t be used in worship services. But I have done nothing of the kind. I’ve simply noted the song’s direction and purpose. “Majesty” addresses the community gathered for worship. It is, technically speaking, a call to worship, and an mightily inspired one at that. Countless congregations have used this song as a crucial element in God-honoring worship, even though it doesn’t directly speak to God.

We can certainly sing songs about God while worshipping God directly. We can sing to each other, “Majesty, worship his majesty” while our hearts are already worshiping our majestic God. Or we can sing “A mighty fortress is our God” while our hearts are saying “You are a mighty fortress, O God.” The more people become used to singing to God in worship, the more they are able to sing worshipfully songs that don’t address God directly.

If we take Scripture seriously, then we must also acknowledge the benefit for worship of songs (and other verbal expressions) that speak to the congregation, or the world, or even to the individual worshiper. To be sure, many Psalms speak directly to God. But many addresses others besides the Lord himself. Consider Psalm 95, which is a call for God’s people to worship:

O come, let us sing to the LORD;
     let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! . . .
O come, let us worship and bow down,
     let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker! (vv. 1, 6)

Psalm 96 is spoken, not only to God’s covenant people, to all peoples everywhere:

Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples,
     ascribe to the LORD glory and strength. . . .
Worship the LORD in holy splendor;
     tremble before him, all the earth. (vv. 7, 9)

And Psalm 103 actually begins with the singer speaking directly to himself or herself:

Bless the LORD, O my soul,
     and all that is within me,
     bless his holy name. (v. 1)

In light of the Psalms, an extreme position that allows in worship only songs that address God is unbiblical. God’s own Word teaches us that there is a time and place for a variety of expressions within a worship service.

Having said this, however, I still believe it is essential both for worship leaders and also for worshipers to understand the essential quality of worship as prayer. At the core, worship is communication with God. In the context of a worship service we might call each other to worship, or urge ourselves to bless the Lord, or even invite the world to join us, and this is fine. But let’s not forget that the point of these expressions is to get us to speak to the Lord, whether with words or silence, whether in speaking or in singing, whether in stillness or in action.

I’ve sung Robert Lowry’s hymn, “Nothing But the Blood” all of my life. I don’t consider that singing it “the good ol’ fashioned way,” before Matt Redman got his hands on it, was misguided or inadequate. It’s great to sing of the wonders of Christ’s sacrifice to one another. You and I need to remind each other time and again of what Christ has done for us on the cross.

But there is also something distinctly special about singing this song in the way Matt Redman has reframed it. How wonderful to be able to sing directly to Jesus himself:

What can wash away our sins?
What can make us whole again?
Nothing but the blood
Nothing but the blood of Jesus
What can wash us pure as snow
Welcomed as the friends of God?
Nothing but Your blood
Nothing but Your blood, King Jesus

I hope, and indeed I expect, that we’ll see more and more writers of contemporary worship music mining the riches of great hymns, recasting the great theology and poetry of days gone by in ways that will help people today to worship God with greater depth, truthfulness, and intimacy.


Worship as a Corporate Activity
Part 8 of the series “The Soul of Worship”
Posted at 10:45 p.m. on Sunday, June 27, 2004

In my last post two posts I quoted from the song “Nothing But the Blood” that appears on Matt Redman’s newest album, Facedown. This song is a contemporary rewriting of a classic 19th century hymn by Robert Lowry. I mentioned how Matt rewrote the song so that the worshipper could sing directly to Jesus, not only sing about him to other people. So “Nothing but the blood of Jesus” becomes “Nothing but Your blood, King Jesus.”

If you’re familiar with this hymn, you may have noticed another change, from the singular to the plural. Where the original reads, “What can wash away my sin? What can make me whole again?”, Redman’s version now asks, “What can wash away our sins? What can make us whole again?”

This is quite a striking change, especially given one of the most common criticisms of contemporary praise and worship music – namely, that it is too individualistic, too centered in “me” and “my experience” and not sufficiently inclusive of “us” (where “us” points to the worshipping congregation). Indeed, this criticism is often valid. I recently surveyed the top 25 praise and worship songs at CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing, Inc). Over 80% of these songs are expressions of individual worship (“I Will Worship”) not corporate worship (“We Will Worship”). Though they are written to be sung by a congregation (for the most part), these songs treat the congregation as a bunch of individual worshippers, whose interrelationship in worship is insignificant.

Yet Facedown is full of music written for communities of people in worship. Every song, without exception, includes at least some first person plural subjects (“we praise”). Several songs express individual worship (“I praise”), yet every one of these makes a transition at some point to the plural. The worship of Facedown is still intensely personal and intimate, yet it is something “we” do as a community of Christ.

Once more, Redman hits the theological nail on the head. Throughout the Bible, worship involves individuals to be sure, but individuals who are members of a worshipping community. This is so utterly fundamental to the biblical understanding of worship that it is often assumed rather than taught. If you were to ask Moses or David or Paul if worship was primarily the function of the covenant community, they’d respond, “But of course!” Yet when Christianity is pressed through grid of American individualism, worship often becomes something I do, even if I happen to be in a gathering of other worshippers.

People in non-Western cultures often grasp the corporate nature of biblical worship intuitively.

One reason why so much contemporary worship is individualistic has to do with a quite wonderful discovery. In the last twenty-five years, many people have come to experience life-changing intimacy with God through worship. This is quite wonderful. But often these folk confuse the personal with the private. In a biblical perspective, the personal is meant to be shared. The personal is corporate.

If contemporary praise and worship music can lead to too much individualism and isolation in worship, many more traditional forms face the opposite danger: too little personal, intimate relationship with God. Sadly enough, many who participate in worship never experience a personal dimension of relationship with God. For them, there’s too much “we” and too little “I” in worship.

Of course if we were to let God’s own Word guide us in our worship, we’d avoid the extremes of extreme individualism and empty community. The Psalms provide a healthy balance that we also need to maintain. Sometimes the Psalmists speak individually to God (“I praise”); sometime they write for the community (“We praise”). Often, in fact, we find a mix of subjects in the same psalm, much as we find in Facedown. Consider Psalm 66, for example. It begins with an invitation to “all the earth” to “make a joyful noise to God” (v. 1). This is as corporate as you can get. A few verses later it speaks of the fact that “we” (the covenant people) rejoiced in God (v. 6). And then, a few verses later, the Psalmist adds, “But I will rejoice forever; I will sing praises to the God of Jacob” (v. 13).

When I teach worship leaders, I encourage them to examine their own worship services in light of these questions: Is there a biblical balance between the individual and the corporate? Do our songs and prayers help the gathered community to have sense of worshipping God together? In most cases, worship leaders realize that they have weighted things heavily on the side of individualism. As they study biblical teaching on worship, they realize that they need to emphasize the “we-ness” of worship more strongly. But often they complain that so few of the most well-known worship songs exclude the “we.” I tell my students that some of these songs can easily be adapted for a stronger emphasis on community (e.g. “I will worship” becomes “We will worship”). Now I have a new recommendation: Buy Facedown and use it!


Facedown: The Paradigm of Worship
Part 9 of the series “The Soul of Worship”
Posted at 10:00 p.m. on Monday, June 28, 2004

For the first twenty years of my Christian life, I heard many teachers and preachers speak of worship. Almost without exception they defined “worship” by pointing to the derivation of this term from the Old English “weorthscipe” (see Part 3 of this series). The conclusion of this line of argument was that worship is ascribing or offering worth to God. The worshipper is the one who speaks of God’s supreme worth, either to God or as is often the case in traditional Protestant worship, to the congregation. The paradigmatic picture of the worshipper is what one we would see in most churches of this ilk: individuals speaking (or singing) about the greatness of God.

Though worship surely includes ascribing worth to God (see Psalm 29:1-2), an understanding of worship based on the meaning of the English word falls short of the biblical standard. If we look to Scripture for a basic definition and paradigm of worship, we come up with something far more engaging than “ascribing worth to.”

The primary word for worship in the Hebrew Old Testament is the verb hishtachawah. The basic meaning of this verb is “to bow down in reverence and submission.” Scholars debate whether the bowing signified by hishtachawah involves kneeling down completely with one’s face to the ground or simply bowing over at the waist. Yet no matter the exact posture, the meaning of hishtachawah is clear. It involves bowing before a sovereign as a sign of respect, humility, and surrender. It was something that people did before human rulers and, by extension, before the Ruler of all, the King of kings.

Often, to emphasize the completeness of the worshippers’ submission, the Bible mentions that they bowed with their faces to the ground. So, for example, when the prophet Nathan came before King Solomon, he “did obeisance [hishtachawah] to the king, with his face to the ground” (1 Kings 1:23). Similarly, when the people of Israel came before God, “they bowed their heads and worshiped [hishtachawah] the LORD with their faces to the ground” (Neh 8:6).

  In today's culture we don't have many experiences of bowing before a king. One of the classic pop culture images comes from the play/movie The King and I. The king, played by Yul Brynner, receives the bowing worship of all his subjects (see kneeling people in background). But Anna, a proud Englishwoman, won't bow, which the king takes as a sign of disrespect.

A biblical account of such bowing is the inspiration for Matt Redman’s album Facedown, according to the biblical reference – Leviticus 9:24 -- that accompanies the song “Facedown.” In Leviticus 9, Aaron celebrated his first act of worship as the anointed high priest. Meticulously, he offered the required sacrifices to the Lord. Then the glory of the Lord miraculously appeared to all the people. “Fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell facedown” (Lev 9:24, NIV).

With this story in mind, consider the lyrics of “Facedown”

Welcomed in to the courts of the King
I've been ushered in to Your presence
Lord, I stand on Your merciful ground
Yet with every step tread with reverence

And I'll fall facedown
As Your glory shines around
Yes, I'll fall facedown
As Your glory shines around

Who is there in the heavens like You?
And upon the earth, who's Your equal?
You are far above, You're the highest of heights
We are bowing down to exalt You

So let Your glory shine around
Let Your glory shine around
King of glory, here be found
King of glory

Here is the fundamental paradigm of biblical worship: bowing down before the Lord in response to his glorious self-revelation. It’s an act of reverence in which we lower ourselves in humility so that God might be lifted up. It’s a gesture of total submission, in which we say: “Lord, you are the King of kings, and I am your humble servant.”

Far more than “ascribing worth to God,” biblical worship is a complete devotion of oneself to God. It’s offering more than my praise, however well-intended. Biblical worship is offering myself completely to God. Whether we actually bow down in worship or not, the core of our worship should be the humble submission of ourselves to God.

Of course this raises an interesting question. Should our worship today include actual physical bowing, or is it enough to worship with an attitude of submission? I’ll address this question in my next post.


Bowing in Worship: Should We Do It Today?
Part 10 of the series “The Soul of Worship”
Posted at 10:00 p.m. on Tuesday, June 29, 2004

In my last post I examined the “facedown” paradigm of worship. In this context I explained that the fundamental Old Testament meaning of “worship” is “to bow humbly as before a sovereign.” This activity is captured perfectly in the title track of Matt Redman’s album Facedown. According to “Facedown,” as God reveals his glory, we “fall facedown” and bow down to exalt the Lord. This is exactly what biblical worship is all about.

It seems to me that Matt has been doing his scriptural homework! He gets things that almost all other contemporary songwriters either don’t understand or don’t seem to value. What a great teaching tool we have in Facedown, not to mention a rich resource for worship.

If the core of biblical worship is bowing before God, and if we sing about falling facedown and bowing, shouldn’t we actually do it? Should our bodies do what our mouths confess? Or is it okay simply to approach God in an attitude of humble reverence. As one of the pastors in my former church used to pray, “Lord, we come before you on the knees of our hearts.” What went unspoken was this: “Yes, indeed, on the knees of our hearts, but not our real knees! We’re Presbyterians, after all. We don’t do the bowing thing.”

Before I propose an answer to the question of whether we should actually bow in worship or not, I must mention two ironies that continue to haunt me. First, since I’ve spent most of my worshipping life among Presbyterians, I’ve often found myself in a setting where we were singing about using some physical gesture in worship, yet without doing it. We could sing the classic praise song, “Come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our God our Maker,” without ever thinking that it would be good actually to bow or kneel. This has always struck me as odd. Our mouths are saying “I honor you, Lord, by bowing before you” yet our bodies aren’t doing it.

The second irony is that most churches encourage some of the physical expressions of worship regularly commended in Scripture (standing, kneeling, bowing, lifting hands, shouting, singing, etc.), while at the same time discouraging others of these expressions. Kneeling churches don’t often raise their hands, while hand-raising churches don’t often kneel. Almost all churches have allowed their traditions and personal comfort levels to govern what parts of biblical worship are welcome and what parts are out of bounds. Again, this seems very odd to me, and rather sad. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to discover the wholeness and fullness of biblical worship without being bound by our personal preferences and fears?

As you can tell, I am inclined to believe that we should actually do things like bow and kneel and shout and lift our hands in worship. Now let me hurry to say that I’m not particularly comfortable with any of these expressions. Left to my own devices, I’d be happy just to sit there, with an occasional effort to stand, and ascribe worth to God with my mind and lips. But I’ve come to believe that the physical expressions of worship we find in Scripture aren’t merely remnants of an ancient and more expressive culture. They are ways for us all to worship God, and, as we do, to discover what it means to worship the Lord more completely, to love him with heart, soul, mind, and strength.

But what about the idea that it’s what’s in our hearts that really matters? If your heart is submitted to God, do I really have to kneel? No, I don’t think so. I know older people in my congregation who can barely stand, yet alone kneel. Yet they give themselves fully to God in worship. Their hearts are facedown even if their bodies can’t be. Yet, if I’m really fully submitted to God in my heart, why would I be reticent to offer my body in submission as well? Hmmmm.

I’m convinced that God has made us as whole people. Our hearts and bodies are connected. What we do with our bodies impacts our hearts, and vice versa. Though it’s possible to worship God fully without ever bowing, I’d argue that it’s unnatural, not to mention unspiritual. No matter what I might think with my mind, feel in my heart, and express with my lips, when I put my whole body into communicating something, I’m engaged more completely. It’s not hard to see how biblical worship requires even more of myself than “ascribing worth to God,” as some would characterize worship. I can ascribe worth to many things: stunning sunsets, great athletes, classic novels, etc. But if I were ever to bow down before someone or something, this would be a supreme act of devotion and submission.

Consider one of the most moving scenes from the third of The Lord of the Rings movies, The Return of the King. Aragorn, having battled bravely and led wisely, is finally crowned as the King of Gondor. As he and his queen walk among their adoring people, heads bow in respect.

King Aragorn approaches the four little hobbits, who also bow to their sovereign. But he interrupts them: “My friends,” Aragorn says, “you bow to no one!” And then he does something most unexpected. He kneels before the hobbits and bows his head, offering them the greatest possible gesture of respect. Immediately all of the crowd joins their king in bowing to the astonished hobbits.

The newly crowned Aragorn, King of Gondor, is about to shock everyone by bowing before four diminuitive hobbits in a supreme gesture of respect and "worship."  

Now, of course, Aragorn could simply have used words to convey his regard. But by kneeling he communicated something much more powerful and moving. The physical gesture of kneeling is both an expression of the heart and it moves the heart as well.

In conclusion, let me say once again that the most important thing in worship is that you offer yourself humbly to God. The heart does indeed matter most. But, at the same time, let me encourage you, in your private worship if not in your public worship, to take the risk of actually kneeling before the Lord. He is worth it, don’t you think? And you just might find that your heart follows your body, so that your gesture of worship leads you into even deeper and more heartfelt worship.


Celebrating the Worth of God
Part 11 of the series “The Soul of Worship”
Posted at 10:00 p.m. on Wednesday, June 30, 2004

In my two previous posts I argued that the biblical understanding of worship is centered in the idea of bowing humbly before God, as one would bow before a human king. Thus I don’t agree with those who define “worship” essentially as “ascribing worth to God,” even though they rightly derive this definition from the Old English etymology of “worship.” The biblical sense of worship, as embodied in the Hebrew terminology, is different and, I would contend, deeper and more demanding of personal investment than “ascribing worth to.”

However, at this point I want to prevent potential misunderstanding by stating clearly that recognizing God’s worth is one key facet of genuine worship. Though it’s not the core of biblical worship, it is necessary and essential to full worship.

Consider Psalm 18, for example:

I love you, O LORD, my strength,
The LORD is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
     my God, my rock in whom I take refuge,
     my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised,
     so I shall be saved from my enemies. (vv. 1-3, emphasis added)

Similarly, proclaiming the worth of God is central to the vision of heavenly worship in the book of Revelation. In chapter 4 the elders “fall before the one who is seated on the throne,” assuming the biblical posture of worship. From this position they sing:

You are worthy, our Lord and God,
     to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
     and by your will they existed and were created. (v. 11, emphasis added)

Likewise, in Revelation 5 countless throngs of angels sing:

     Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
          to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
          and honor and glory and blessing. (v. 12, emph. add.)

Proclaiming God’s worth, therefore, is nothing to sneeze at. When we encounter God in his glory and grace, our hearts yearn to speak of just how wonderful he is, even though we know our words will never do justice to God’s inestimable worth.

Have you ever stopped to ponder God’s worth? This sounds like such an obvious aspect of Christian discipleship, yet it is something many of us rarely do, if ever. Sure, we take for granted that God is valuable beyond all measure. But what would happen if we took time to reflect upon this truth, to let it sink into our minds and hearts? I expect that our worship would become more passionate and expressive. We just couldn’t hold back from praising God.

This is Vincent Van Gogh’s painting of Dr. Gachet, the most expensive painting in the world. It sold in 1990 to a private collector for $82.5 million. If this one work of art is worth so much money, what is God worth?

This is what Matt Redman suggests in the song (co-written with Chris Tomlin) called “Worthy, You Are Worthy”:

Worthy, You are worthy
Much more worthy than I know
I cannot imagine
Just how glorious You are
And I cannot begin to tell
How deep a love You bring
O Lord my ears had heard of You
But now my eyes have seen

You're worthy
You're worthy
You're worthy
You're worthy to be praised
Forever and a day

Glory, I give glory
To the One who saved my soul
You found me and You freed me
From the shame that was my own
And I cannot begin to tell
How merciful You've been
O Lord, my ears had heard of You
But now my eyes have seen

We'll sing an anthem of the highest praise
We'll sound an anthem of Your glorious name

How do we experience God’s worth, such that we might “sing an anthem of the highest praise?” Scripture suggests many ways. Consider the passages I cited above. In Psalm 18, God is valuable to us as a place of strength, safety, and protection. In Revelation 4 God’s worth is tied to his power as the Creator. In Revelation 5 the Lamb (Jesus) is worthy because he was slaughtered, because he died in our place so that we might live. These three passages don’t even begin to exhaust God’s worth. They simply get us started in our reflection.

If you’re seeking a more genuine or passionate experience of worship, don’t focus on yourself. Don’t try to worship better. Rather, focus on God, on who he is and what he has done. Remember his great works in history and his grace in your own life. Consider just how much God means to you. As you do, you’ll find an unquenchable desire to proclaim the incalculable worth of God.

We can just begin to see God's worth in the beauty of nature, such as this sunset at Morro Bay, California.



What Makes Worship Christian? The Worship of Jesus
Part 12 of the series “The Soul of Worship”
Posted at 10:00 p.m. on Thursday, July 1, 2004

What makes worship Christian? Is there anything distinctive about Christian worship, in contrast, for example, to Jewish worship? Both Jews and Christians worship the same God. Both Jews and Christians use many of the same texts in worship, notably the Psalms. Both Jews and Christians are called to praise, to thank, and to adore. And, today, both Jews and Christians offer symbolic sacrifices, not actual ones. Our worship services are filled with singing, praying, and readings from the Bible. So, what makes worship truly Christian?

Of course the most obvious answer is the Christian worship has something to do with Jesus Christ. Indeed! But what? How does Christ impact worship such that it becomes Christian? This question deserves a thorough answer, and will be the subject of my next few blog posts.

In the most obvious sense, Christian worship is offered, at least in part, to Jesus. We praise Jesus. We sing to Jesus. We pray to Jesus. This seems completely normal to those of us who regularly worship in Christian communities. But it hasn’t always been that way.

It’s easy for us to overlook how absolutely unprecedented it was in the first years of Christianity for believers in Jesus to worship him. The earliest Christians were, after all, Jews. If anything set apart Jews from all others in the Roman world, it was their dogged commitment to monotheism, a commitment that inspired plenty of anti-Semitism, I might add. Even though their monotheism often got them into trouble with their pagan neighbors, Jews refused to worship any god other than the one true LORD. Yet along came the earliest Christians, apparently faithful Jews who actually offered worship to Jesus, one they knew to have been a real human being. What’s up with this?

The worship of Jesus as God goes back to the very earliest years of Christian worship. Yes, I’m aware that if you go to your local secular bookstore and browse through many books on Jesus, you’ll read that the first Christians thought of Jesus as only a human being, and that he wasn’t divinized until decades later. But this thesis falls flat in light of the biblical evidence. Some of the very, very earliest bits of Christian thinking we have about Jesus are pieces of early Christian worship in which Jesus receives prayer and worship as if he were one with God himself (see 1 Cor 16:22). Take Philippians 2:5-11, for example:


The Adoration of the Magi, by the Dutch painter, Peter Aertsen (c. 1560). This painting, originally in a set of three, pictures the worship of Jesus by one of the wise men. They no doubt knelt before him (Matt 2:11) as a human ruler, not as God. But the action of the Magi foreshadows the worship of Jesus yet to come.

[Christ Jesus], though he was in the form of God,
     did not regard equality with God
     as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
     taking the form of a slave,
     being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
     he humbled himself
     and became obedient to the point of death—
     even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
     and gave him the name
     that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
     every knee should bend,
     in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
     that Jesus Christ is Lord,
     to the glory of God the Father.

This passage (written in the early 50s A.D.) illustrates the truth that the earliest Christians actually worshipped Jesus alongside God the Father, while at the same time believing that they were still monotheists. (Notice that worship includes the bending of the knee and the confession of Jesus as Lord – bowing before and proclaiming the worth of Jesus and God the Father.)

Or consider the following text from Revelation 5:

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, 
     “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
     be blessing and honor and glory and might
     forever and ever!” (v. 13)

Why the earliest Christians came to worship Jesus as God is a topic that far exceeds the scope of this series on worship. (Indeed, I promise to do a blog series on this theological development sometime in the future.) But the fact that they worshipped Jesus alongside God the Father is incontrovertible.

It is also extraordinarily important for us. In our worship as Christians, it is both right and necessary that we offer praise, thanks, adoration, and ourselves to Jesus. Matt Redman understands this, as is evident from his latest album, Facedown. Although many of his songs are addressed to God (or Lord) without specifying the Son in particular, three tracks address Jesus explicitly (including “Nothing But the Blood” and “Mission’s Flame”). The final song on the album, “If I Have Not Love,” is a tender love song to Jesus:

This window pictures the worship of the Lamb from Revelation 5. It comes from Our Savior Lutheran Church in Houston. This church has some exceptional art, which they have graciously made available on the Web.


Jesus, I could sing
In the tongues of men and angels
But if I have not love
I am just a clanging cymbal, an empty sound

This is a love song
This is a love song
Jesus, a love song to You
A song of devotion, a reverent passion
Saviour, a love song to You

Jesus, I could pray
With a faith that moves a mountain
But if I have not love
It is just a noise resounding, an empty sound

It's the overflow of hearts
As we gaze upon Your beauty
A reflection of Your worth
For we've seen a glimpse of You in Your glory, Lord

This discussion of the worship of Jesus as God points to a larger theological issue, the whole question of the Trinity. In my next post I’ll talk about how Christian worship is (and ought to be) Trinitarian.


What Makes Worship Christian? The Mystery of the Trinity
Part 13 of the series “The Soul of Worship”
Posted at 10:00 p.m. on Friday, July 2, 2004

In my last post I began to consider what makes worship Christian. I began with what might be one of the most obvious points: that Christian worship is actually directed to Jesus. Christians worship Jesus as God, and we’ve done it from the very earliest days of the Christian movement.

Yet, as we saw in biblical texts from Philippians and Revelation, first-century Christians worshipped Jesus alongside God the Father, while nevertheless believing themselves to be monotheists (people who believe in one God, not more than one). Even the first Christians saw the nature of God as somehow both essential one and yet mysteriously complex. In time, this vision of God was worked out in what we know as the doctrine of the Trinity. Although this doctrine and its history are quite complicated, let me lay out a few basic facts (taken from my book, After “I Believe”).

By the close of the fourth century A.D., the church established what has become the norm for Christian belief ever since: the doctrine of the Trinity. Simply stated, we believe in one God who exists in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three persons are essential to God, just as three musicians are essential to a trio. Take one away, and you don't have a trio anymore. Take away one person from God, and you don't have God. But, unlike the three musicians, the persons of God share completely in the same being, the same essence. They are not separate beings the way three singers are distinct. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are profoundly and permanently one.
A painting of the Trinity by the 17th century Spanish artist Antonio de Perdea. The Holy Spirit is the shining dove in the center above the globe.

Critics have claimed that the Bible does not teach the doctrine of the Trinity. Their claim is true in a very simplistic but misleading way. You cannot turn to a chapter of Scripture that uses the word "Trinity." Many passages, however, speak about God in a way that implies Trinitarian theology (see, for example, Matt 3:16-17, 28:19;  John 14:16, 15:26; Gal 4:6; 1 Pet 1:2). Though the Bible does not explicitly speak about the Trinity, this conception of God is derived from Scripture and reflects its revealed truth.

It's hard for us to speak of God in three persons without thinking of those persons as separate beings. We stumble here, not only over the limits of human language, but also over the translation of theological terms from ancient languages into English. Among its nuances, the personal language for the Trinity indicates that we can have relationship with each person of the Godhead, with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (For a helpful and responsible but readable discussion of the Trinity and its relevance for the church today, see It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian by Tod Bolsinger.)

As central as the doctrine of the Trinity is to Christian theology, it comes as no surprise that it’s also essential to Christian worship. Yet you wouldn’t realize this if you were to examine almost all contemporary Christian music. Very little of this music reflects a Trinitarian understanding of God. Some of it, quite frankly, is written as if there were one God who is variously known as Father, Son, or Spirit, not one God in three co-existent persons. Or, sometimes it seems like songwriters switch back and forth between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit at random, without any clear sense of the differences between their character or their ministries.

Admittedly, the doctrine of the Trinity is not an easy one. Several years ago when my daughter, Kara, was five, she prayed out loud in a worship service, during a time of open prayer. “I thank you Jesus that you are the Holy Spirit,” she said. My son, Nathan, at seven years old, was incensed, and chewed Kara out after the service. “Jesus in not the Holy Spirit,” he said. Soon he and Kara were in a heated theological argument. Nathan was right, of course, though I wasn’t too worried if my five-year-old had a heretical theology of God. But I am worried at times when adult songwriters either blur the persons of the Trinity or seem unaware that Christians confess one God in three persons.

But, once again, Matt Redman’s album Facedown is exceptional in this regard. The majority of his songs address God or Lord, without Trinitarian distinctions. But one song in particular includes a passage that blew me away when I first heard it. It appears in the song “Gifted Response”:

This is a gifted response
Father we cannot come to You by our own merit
We will come in the name of Your Son
As He glorifies You
And in the power of Your Spirit

We have come to something so mysterious
Too deep for minds to comprehend
Through the open door
Where the angels sing
And the host of heaven are antheming...

Now I wasn’t blown away by the use of “anthem” as a verb, though I hadn’t seen this before. (Turns out it was a favorite usage of the English poet John Keats, so Redman is in good company.) No, what astounded me was such a theologically right on expression of Trinitarian theology: “Father . . . We will come in the name of Your Son/ As He glorifies You/ And in the power of Your Spirit.” What impresses me so much about this line is not only the inclusion of the three persons of the Trinity, but also the understanding of the peculiar roles of each person. We come before God the Father “in the name of the Son,” who alone opens to us the throne of grace. Moreover, we come “in the power of [God’s] Spirit,” who helps us to worship. With these lines, Redman hits the theological bull’s eye.

I can think of a few praise and worship songs that mention all members of the Trinity (“Glorify Thy Name” by Donna Adkins, for example), but only one that actually reflects the distinctive character of the persons (“Holy, Holy” by Jimmy Owens). I expect there are others I don’t know, but not many.

Now I’m not suggesting that every praise song or, indeed, every worship service, needs to have an explicit Trinitarian theology. But I am suggesting that worship leaders examine their services to see if, over time, there is a Trinitarian balance. This balance, by the way, would not mean that each person of the Trinity gets equal amounts of attention. The role of the Spirit is to point to the Father and the Son, who receive primary glory, though the Spirit shares fully in this glory. What I mean is that our worship services should reflect the very truths embodied in Matt Redman’s song “ Gifted Response.” These would include:

This is a classic painted icon of the Trinity by the Russian artist, Andrei Rublev (1360 - 1430 A.D.)


• The truth that we come to worship, not in our own merit, but in the name of Jesus who died for us so that we might approach God with boldness.

• The truth that we worship in the power of the Spirit, who helps us to “see” God and who inspires our response.

• The truth that we worship a God whom Jesus teaches us to call “Abba,” and who loves us as the father loved his prodigal son.

I must confess that much theological discussion of the Trinity is perplexing to me. Perhaps I’m just too dense to understand it. But at times I think we humans can forget that God is a God of mystery. One of the great things about Trinitarian worship is that it continually reminds us that we can’t put God in a neat little box, a box stripped of mystery.

Not surprisingly, Matt Redman emphasizes this very point in “Gifted Response.” Note this excerpt once again:

We will come in the name of Your Son
As He glorifies You
And in the power of Your Spirit

We have come to something so mysterious
Too deep for minds to comprehend . . . .

The same God who makes himself known in Jesus, who can be truly known even by little children, is the transcendent God whose nature exceeds our best theologizing. Thus we worship, not only with a sense of mystery, but with humility. Before the Triune God, we bow, or even fall facedown.


What Makes Worship Christian? The Centrality of the Cross
Part 14 of the series “The Soul of Worship”
Posted at 10:00 p.m. on Monday, July 5, 2004

In my last two posts of this series, I began to answer the question: What make worship Christian? The fact that we Christians worship Jesus as God surely makes our worship distinctive. To my knowledge, no other religious group honors him in quite this way. Moreover, the worship of Jesus plunges us into the deep water of Trinitarian theology, since we worship, not three Gods, but one God in three persons, Father, Son, and Spirit.

The role of Jesus in Christian worship includes more than his being a recipient, no matter how significant this is. Christian worship is also continually remembering and celebrating what Jesus did for us on the cross.

Several times in this series I’ve described worship as a response to God’s self-revelation. It is also a response to God’s action on our behalf. We worship God not only because he has made himself known to us, but also because he is our Creator and Savior. And, of course, the cross of Christ stands at the center of God’s saving work. Were it not for the cross, we would not be able to approach God in worship. But because of the cross, we come before God with confidence, even boldness. So we discover from Hebrews 10:19-22:

Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. (emphasis added)

In this passage, the blood of represents his death for us, his sacrifice that leads to our forgiveness and atonement with God.

This text from Hebrews inspired one of the songs on Matt Redman’s new album, Facedown. Taking as his jumping off point both Hebrews 10:19-22 and Robert Lowry’s classic hymn, “Nothing But the Blood,” Matt wrote this song:

Your blood speaks a better word
Than all the empty claims I've heard upon this earth
Speaks righteousness for me
And stands in my defense
Jesus, it's Your blood

What can wash away our sins?
What can make us whole again?
Nothing but the blood
Nothing but the blood of Jesus
What can wash us pure as snow
Welcomed as the friends of God?
Nothing but Your blood
Nothing but Your blood, King Jesus

Your cross testifies in grace
Tells of the Father's heart to make a way for us
Now boldly we approach
Not earthly confidence
It's only by Your blood

As in Hebrews, “the blood” signifies the whole of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. There’s no magic in the blood of Jesus per se. If, for example, Jesus the carpenter had cut his finger on a saw, there would be no reason to collect his shed blood. When we praise Jesus “for the blood,” we mean, “for shedding your blood on our behalf, for offering yourself as the once-for-all sacrifice for humanity, for dying in our place so that we might live.”

It’s no accident that throughout history Christians have placed crosses at the central point of their sanctuaries, whether Catholic crucifixes or empty Protestant crosses. Centrality highlights visibility, of course, but it also reminds us that the death of Christ is the action through which God has saved us, and through which we come before him in worship. Christian worship must always be an intentional response to the good news of salvation through the cross of Christ.
A striking crucifix above the altar in the chapel of La Casa de Maria, a retreat center in Santa Barbara, California.
The cross at the front of the sanctuary of Irvine Presbyterian Church, where I am pastor.

Of course it’s also no accident that Communion has been an essential feature of Christian worship from the very beginning. Jesus told his disciples to remember him as they broke bread and drank wine. This practice was carefully passed on by the earliest Christians, and it continues to be honored today in Christian churches throughout the world. Though we might place differing interpretations on the meaning of Communion, all Christians believe that it points to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and for this reason deserves a predominant place in worship.
Communion as celebrated in a Russian Orthodox church.

Marines at Camp Matilda in Kuwait share Communion together.

As a pastor and worship leader, I examine the worship in my church to make sure we are regularly emphasizing the death of Christ and its implications. In song and prayer, in preaching and sacrament, our worship should be a response to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Our “Basics for Worship” statement includes his paragraph about the centrality of the good news of the cross:

Christian worship responds to God's grace given through Jesus Christ, who died on the cross and was raised from the dead so that we might experience eternal life. In worship we proclaim, celebrate, and dramatize the gospel of grace. We remind each other of what God has done in Jesus Christ and we invite all people to share in God's grace through faith in Christ. Because we have been saved by grace, we worship with joy.

Notice that this statement mentions, not only the death of Christ on the cross, but also the grace of God. In my next post I’ll consider the role of grace in Christian worship.


What Makes Worship Christian? The Prevalence of Grace
Part 15 of the series “The Soul of Worship”
Posted at 10:00 p.m. on Tuesday, July 6, 2004

In my last few posts I’ve been seeking to answer the question: “What makes worship Christian?” So far I’ve shown that Christian worship is distinctive because: it includes the worship of Jesus as God; it draws us into the mystery of the Trinity; and it is centered in the saving work of Christ on the cross. Yet this emphasis on the cross points, not only to the sacrifice of Jesus, but also to the grace of God. Truly Christian worship is filled with grace.

Throughout most of the world, both today and in the past, religion is characterized by the human attempt to earn favor from the divine. Pagan worship in the time of early Christianity, for example, was an attempt to get help from the gods or, perhaps, to assuage their anger. Sacrifices were offered for this purpose, as a way to get something from the gods.

Christianity stands out distinctively against this background with its emphasis upon grace. What is grace? In the classical language of theology, it is “unmerited favor” or “undeserved kindness.” It is getting good things from God, not because we have in any way earned or deserved them, but simply because God has chosen to give them.

The fact of grace dramatically impacts our worship. We do not come with offerings in the hope of getting something good from God. Rather, we come because God has already poured out goodness upon us. He has done this, not because of anything we have done, but because he is gracious. Thus our worship is a response to God’s grace, most of all his grace given in Christ.

John Newton, who published his hymn "Amazing Grace" in 1779. A classic and beloved statement of grace.

Consider, for example, this passage from Ephesians 1:

[God] destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. (vv 5-6).

Did you catch that? First, God has been gracious to us “according to the good pleasure of his will,” not because we have earned his favor. Second, God’s “glorious grace” has been “freely bestowed on us” in Christ. It is free for us, though it cost God heavily. Third, God has done this “to the praise of his glorious grace.” Part of God’s purpose in claiming us as his own is so that his grace might be praised. Christian worship, therefore, necessarily includes the praise of God’s grace.

Consider another biblical passage, this one from the fourth chapter of Hebrews:

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:14-16)

Because of what Christ has done for us as our high priest (and, as we’ll learn later in Hebrews, as the once-for-all sacrifice for sin), we can “approach the throne of grace with boldness.” There are two utterly startling truths in this short sentence.

First, God’s throne is a throne of grace. If you look carefully throughout the Old Testament, God’s throne is never a place of grace, but of judgment. For example: “But the LORD sits enthroned forever, he has established his throne for judgment” (Psalm 9:7). The throne of God is not where you get undeserved goodness, but well-deserved justice. If you’re a sinner, this isn’t good news, of course. But because of what Jesus has done on the cross, the throne of God has become for a throne of grace. It’s the place where we “receive mercy and find grace” (Heb 4:16).

Second, because of what Christ has done, we are invited to approach the throne of grace “with boldness.” The Greek underlying “boldness” speaks of blunt, even audacious freedom. (The common translation “confidence” misses the shocking power of the Greek by a long shot.) Nobody in his or her right mind approaches a king with such boldness, let alone the King of kings. But because of God’s grace in Christ, we have unprecedented freedom.

Christian worship assumes and celebrates God’s grace in Christ. For this reason we come freely and joyfully before God, not seeking to earn God’s love, but in response to that love. In Christian worship we remember this grace, both as we thank God and as we encourage each other to live gracefully.

Once again, we find this core element of Christian theology in Matt Redman’s album, Facedown. Take the song “Pure Light,” for example:

O, to see You as You are
To glimpse the wonders yet unseen
Assist my sight, unveil my eyes
To see You
Lord, to know You as You are
To even dare to speak or stand
Though marked beloved, to fall as dead
When I see You

And through grace untold, to see You
With this heart unveiled, to know You
Lord, in Your pure light

How great the glory of Your name
How small the voice I humbly bring
Yet with my all I raise a song
When I see You
It is the song of love's pure light
The grace reflected in these eyes
The overflow of those who know
They have seen You

We were disgraced, but You graced us
With the warmth of Your forgiveness
Now You lead us ever closer
To the pure light of Your holiness

And I'll sing of the wonders of Your grace
Sing of the wonders of Your grace
Sing of the wonders of Your grace, O Lord
And I'll tell of the glory of Your name
Tell of the glory of Your name
Tell of the glory of Your name, O Lord

Because when we were “disgraced” (great use of this word!) the Lord “graced us,” therefore we “sing the wonders of [his] grace.” This song reminds us that the more we see the Lord, the more we will be impressed by his grace, and the more our worship will celebrate that grace.

The prevalence of grace in Christian worship encourages all of us to come to worship remembering what God has done for us in Christ. We should beware of thinking that somehow our worship will change the way God feels about us or acts toward us. Moreover, worship leaders should ensure that the theme of grace is woven throughout each worship service. This doesn’t mean that the word “grace” must appear. But songs, prayers, readings, and preaching should continually underline the undeserved and unquenched grace of God given supremely in Christ, and given continually through the presence of the Spirit.


Diversity in Worship
Part 16 of the series “The Soul of Worship”
Posted at 10:00 p.m. on Wednesday, July 7, 2004

Matt Redman’s album Facedown leads us into diverse expressions of worship. In the first track, “Praise Awaits You,” we begin with praise and singing:

Praise awaits You in this place today, O Lord
We are gathered, ready, God, to sing Your praise.

Then, before long, God’s mercy and glory call us to dance, thank, and shout in the song “Dancing Generation”:

Your mercy taught us how to dance
To celebrate with all we have
And we'll dance to thank You for mercy

Your glory taught us how to shout
To lift Your name in all the earth
And we'll shout to the praise of Your glory . . .

And we'll be a dancing generation
Dancing because of Your great mercy, Lord
Your great mercy, Lord
And we'll be a shouting generation
Shouting because of Your great glory, Lord
Your great glory, Lord

Qeuchua women in Peru dancing in Christian worship service.

By the middle of the album, in “Facedown,” we come to the core of biblical worship, bowing before God in humble, self-giving worship:

Welcomed in to the courts of the King
I've been ushered in to Your presence
Lord, I stand on Your merciful ground
Yet with every step tread with reverence

And I'll fall facedown
As Your glory shines around
Yes, I'll fall facedown
As Your glory shines around

Ordinands in the Anglican Church literally falling "facedown" in worship.


The surprising song “Mission’s Flame” rightly understands that worship isn’t just something we do in the gathering of God’s people. It’s also something we do in the world, as we go out with a passion for God’s name:

Let worship be the heart of mission's aim
To see the nations recognize Your fame
'Til every tribe and tongue voices Your praise
Send us out

You should be the praise of every tongue, Jesus
You should be the joy of every heart
But until the fullness of Your kingdom comes
Until that final revelation dawns
Send us out

A Christian congregation in Cuba

The final song is an intimate expression of love for Jesus:

Jesus, I could sing
In the tongues of men and angels
But if I have not love
I am just a clanging cymbal, an empty sound

This is a love song
This is a love song
Jesus, a love song to You
A song of devotion, a reverent passion
Saviour, a love song to You

Communion in a Russian Orthodox church  

Facedown is a consistent prayer, offering diverse expressions to God. The music of this album helps us to praise, thank, worship, and adore the Lord. We’re encouraged to sing, shout, dance, and fall facedown in worship.

The diversity of this album rightly reflects the diversity of biblical worship. On the one hand, Scripture urges us to worship God in a broad range of expressions and activities. My church's “Basics for Worship” statement summarizes this biblical perspective:

Worship involves all that we are - heart, soul, mind, and strength. We seek to worship with our whole being, holding nothing back. As we worship, we exercise our minds in thinking about God, our wills as we offer ourselves to him, our emotions as we open our hearts, our bodies as we follow the biblical imperatives to praise, sing, shout, clap, kneel, bow, dance, play instruments, and lift our hands to the Lord. As we offer all that we are in worship, we are transformed through an encounter with the living God. We experience repentance, forgiveness, renewal, healing, and empowerment for service.

Surely the breadth of biblical injunctions makes the case for diversity in worship. But there is an even more persuasive theological rationale for such variety – the very nature and activity of God. Once again, let me quote from the “Basics for Worship” statement of Irvine Presbyterian Church:

The multifaceted nature of God necessitates diverse responses in worship. Because God is a mighty King, we worship with humble submission. Because God is holy, we worship with reverent awe. Because God has saved us, we worship with exuberant thanksgiving. Because God is forgiving, we worship by confessing our sins. Because God is our loving Father, we worship with heartfelt adoration. Though different worship services may emphasize different aspects of God's nature and work, and therefore inspire varied expressions in worship, joy is a consistent quality of Christian worship.

As one who has spent twenty years leading or helping to lead worship, I’m aware of how easy it is for a leader to shortchange the rightful diversity of worship. We who lead tend to emphasize those expressions that are most conducive to our own preferences. Moreover, we are often limited by the music readily available to us. If you look at the top worship songs on CCLI, for example, you’ll find plenty of praise, a couple expressions of biblical worship (“Here I Am to Worship” and “We Fall Down”), but only one song of commitment (“I Give You My Heart”). Thus worship leaders have to work hard to make sure our services reflect appropriate biblical diversity and balance. We can’t simply rely on the worship music that is popular these days.

I am not saying that every worship service needs to include all possible expressions. That would be silly. But, over the course of several worship experiences, our worship should regularly reflect the diversity we find in Scripture. This is important because, as I have noted above, diverse worship is a response to the multifaceted nature of God. If our worship is lopsided, then so will be our experience and even our understanding of God. But if our worship reflects the diversity of God's nature as well as the variation of biblical expressions of worship, then our relationship with and theology of God will be truthful and growing.


Worship and Our Mission in the World
Part 17 of the series “The Soul of Worship”
Posted at 10:00 p.m. on Thursday, July 8, 2004

As one who deeply appreciates contemporary praise and worship music, and as one who often interacts with those who don’t, I sometimes find myself on the receiving end of criticism concerning contemporary music. Some of the typical criticism I’ve already noted and responded to in this series (individualism, for example). But another of the classic put downs goes something like this: “Praise music turns people inward. It not only turns individuals inward, but also it turns churches inward. Churches who use this music don’t grow in their outreach to the lost or their care for the poor. Rather, they are too wrapped up in their own experience of worship to look outside at a hurting world.”

It would be easy to dismiss this criticism out of hand, because many “praise and worship churches” have astounding outreach ministries of evangelism, justice, and missions. And, for that matter, I could point to several “traditional worship” churches that are also preoccupied with themselves, rather than the world so much in need of Christ.

But those who criticize praise and worship churches aren’t completely off base in their concern. Even if many of these churches reach beyond themselves into the world, their music usually doesn’t support this sort of effort, at least not directly or thematically. If you search carefully through the most popular contemporary worship music, you’ll find very little that reflects the general theme of “outreach.” If you’re a worship leader, you know what I mean, because it’s very difficult to find good “going out into the world” songs, or even songs of commitment where the congregation says in so many words, “God, I will serve you in the world.” (Andy Park’s outstanding song, “Multiply Your Love,” is a rare and delightful exception. “Shine Jesus Shine” comes close to what I’m wanting, as does “I Give You My Heart” by Reuben Morgan.)

Let me say that I don’t think we need hundreds of these songs. But their absence among the CCLI top-25 does point out a blind spot in the eyes of many songwriters. They rightly see worship as a relationship between the worshipper and God, but they fail to see the extent to which this relationship leads us out into the world in witness and service. From a biblical perspective, worship doesn’t stop at the door of the church or at the last “Amen” in a service. It continues out into world as we offer ourselves “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” in our daily living (Rom 12:1).

At least this church's parking lot sign has the right idea!

I should add that genuine, God-glorifying songs will have the effect of sending people out in the world, even if the world is never mentioned in the music. This helps to explain why many praise and worship churches have passionate vision for outreach, even though their worship lyrics don’t directly support this vision. Nevertheless, the worship and outreach of these churches would be strengthened if their repertoire of worship songs included a broader range of biblical themes. They could start by singing Psalm 96, for example.

O sing to the LORD a new song;
     sing to the LORD, all the earth.
Sing to the LORD, bless his name;
     tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
     his marvelous works among all the peoples.
For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised;
     he is to be revered above all gods.

Matt Redman’s album Facedown is not primarily about missions or evangelism or doing justice in the world. In fact only one song on the CD makes a clear connection between worship and the world. But this song stands out, both because of its distinctiveness, and because of its biblical faithfulness. Here are the lyrics of “Mission’s Flame”:

Let worship be the fuel for mission's flame
We're going with a passion for Your name
We're going for we care about Your praise
Send us out

Let worship be the heart of mission's aim
To see the nations recognize Your fame
'Til every tribe and tongue voices Your praise
Send us out

You should be the praise of every tongue, Jesus
You should be the joy of every heart
But until the fullness of Your kingdom comes
Until that final revelation dawns
Send us out

Every tribe, every tongue
Every creature in the heavens and the earth
Every heart, every soul
Will sing Your praise, will sing Your praise
Every note, every strain
Every melody will be for You alone
Every harmony that flows from every tongue
We'll sing Your praise, we'll sing Your praise
We'll sing Your praise, we'll sing Your praise

Like Scripture itself, Redman doesn’t distinguish arbitrarily between worship and mission, but sees the two as thoroughly interconnected. The only thing I would add to his vision is that mission is more than something motivated by worship. When done to honor God, mission is in fact one more act of worship.

So, yes, worship should motivate us to mission, because the more we experience God in worship, the more we’ll be zealous for God to be glorified in the world. But, even beyond this, when we reach out with the love, justice, and good news of Jesus Christ, we are in fact worshipping God. Remember Jesus’s parable of the king in Matthew 25. When the king’s subjects appear before him, he rewards them for ministering to him. The people are confused, wondering when they have fed, given water to, welcomed, clothed, nursed, or visited the king. The king answers: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40). Therefore, when we care for people in the name of Christ – especially when they are members of his family – Christ himself receives our actions as if they were for him. What better way to worship our Lord, therefore, than to feed, clothe, and otherwise minister to him?

I’m grateful to Matt Redman for writing “Mission’s Flame,” and I’m sure we’ll use it often in my own church. I hope that he will inspire others to write songs that help worshippers make the necessary connection between worship and mission, songs that lead us out into the world for the sake of God’s praise and glory.


Worship as an Act of Love
Part 18 of the series “The Soul of Worship”
Posted at 10:00 p.m. on Friday, July 8, 2004

When Jesus was asked which commandment was the greatest of all, he answered: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 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’” (Mark 12:29). Of course he didn’t snatch this answer from the air. Jesus was simply quoting the classic statement of Israel’s faith in Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut 6:4-5). When you boil all of the the commandments down to their essence, Jesus said, they're about loving God with all that you are.

Therefore love and worship go hand in hand. Our worship is an expression of our love for God. And by loving God we worship him. Of course like other dimensions of worship, our love for God is a response to his love for us. As John writes in his first letter, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

Loving God is far more than feeling passionate feelings for God, just as God’s love for us involves far more than this. God’s love for us led him to send his Son, the Savior who died so that we might live (John 3:16). Our love for God involves the giving of ourselves completely to him in response (Rom 12:1-2). When we truly perceive the love of God given to us in Christ, we’re compelled to surrender all that we are to God in sacrificial love. Isacc Watts gets it absolutely right in the last verse of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”:

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Appropriately, Matt Redman’s final song on Facedown is a love song to Jesus. Here are the lyrics of “If I Have Not Love,”

Jesus, I could sing
In the tongues of men and angels
But if I have not love
I am just a clanging cymbal, an empty sound

This is a love song
This is a love song
Jesus, a love song to You
A song of devotion, a reverent passion
Saviour, a love song to You

Jesus, I could pray
With a faith that moves a mountain
But if I have not love
It is just a noise resounding, an empty sound

It's the overflow of hearts
As we gaze upon Your beauty
A reflection of Your worth
For we've seen a glimpse of You in Your glory, Lord

Once again Redman rightly sees our love for Jesus as a response to him, to his beauty, his worth, and his glory. “If I Have Not Love” is a sweet, tender song. It facilitates deep expression of love for Jesus – a fitting conclusion to the Facedown album.

It is worth noting that Matt exercises some poetic license in this song, adapting 1 Corinthians 13 to make it an expression of love for Jesus. The biblical text, of course, is a call for us to love each other as members of Christ’s body. I’m not critical of the way “If I Have Not Love” jumps off from Scripture, however, because the song is clearly consistent with the biblical understanding of love for God. Whereas biblical exegetes like me need to stick close to the meaning of each text, poets have considerable license in the freedom of the Spirit, as long as they remain tethered to the Word of God (see part 2).

Yet Facedown leaves me with a hope for songs yet to come, perhaps on Matt’s next album, perhaps on albums by other songwriters. I’ve said before that Facedown reflects the most profound understanding of biblical worship that I’ve found in any praise and worship album. This album fleshes out wonderfully what Jesus calls the first commandment, that we love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength.

But Facedown doesn’t make a connection to the second greatest commandment. Again, no criticism intended, because one album can only do so many things well. But future songs and albums might try to reflect Jesus’s whole answer to the scribe who asked him about the first commandment:

Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 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 12:29-30).

Jesus wasn’t satisfied simply to provide one commandment, because, from his point of view, love for God flows seamlessly into love for people. John makes a similar point in his first letter:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. . . . Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. . . . No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. . . . The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (1Jn 4:7-8, 11-12, 21)

I've you've ever tried to find theologically sound worship songs that celebrate the love of God's people in community, you know how rare these songs are. What Jesus and John keep together -- namely, love for God and love for others -- we usually separate in our worship music. There's a great need and opportunity for new songs that reflect the fullness of biblical love.

I believe that Facedown will help thousands of congregations, comprising millions of Christians, to worship God in greater truth, breadth, and depth. Moreover, by its stunning example, this album will help to teach churches, worship leaders, songwriters, and worshippers what true worship is really all about. It's a fantastic tool for the Kingdom of God, and we owe Matt Redman and his crew a major dept of gratitude for producing such an outstanding album.

Yet Facedown also points to what I hope will be a new wave of songwriting. This album, with its refreshingly consistent emphasis on corporate worship, with the outreach orientation of “Mission’s Flame,” and with the loving conclusion of “If I Have Not Love,” is a preamble to the next, badly-needed collection of worship songs. Facedown challenges songwriters of the future to break free from the individualism, introspection, and inwardness that has constricted so much praise and worship music of the past. Moreover, it implicitly encourages songwriters to take the next step forward in biblical worship, where what we do in worship services is but one crucial facet of a whole life of worship. In the songs of the future, may our love for God be joined to our love for people in one all-embracing act of worship.

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