Trinitarian Ministry to Body, Mind, and Soul
A series of articles originally written by Jonathan Stepp, edited by Michael Morrison.
What is worship in the light of who Jesus is?
To start our discussion we want to get a definition of the word “worship” that is rooted in the New Testament witness to Jesus. “Worship” in English has its roots in an Old English word that means “to ascribe worth or value” to someone or something. There are several Greek words in the New Testament that are often translated as “worship”:
- In Romans 12:1 Paul uses the word latreuo to tell us that offering our bodies as a living sacrifice is our reasonable, logical, act of worship. In its simplest sense, latreuo means to serve, and was often used to describe the worship and prayer of Israel – as, for example, in Luke’s description of the prophetess Anna in Luke 2:37.
- In John 4:23, and throughout Revelation, John uses the word proskuneo, which means “to prostrate one’s self” before the divinity and takes on the connotation of adoration and love.
- In Acts 13:2 Luke uses leitourgeo to describe the worship of the church at Antioch when Paul and Barnabas were called by the Spirit to their mission. Leitourgeo was the word most commonly used by the ancient Greek translators of the Old Testament to describe Israel’s worship in the Temple and the service rendered by priests in the sacrifices and Holy Days of Israel. This Greek word for worship has entered our language as the English word “liturgy.”
If we were to summarize these three Greek words, we might offer a biblical definition of worship that is something like this: to bow before God [proskuneo] and serve him [latreuo] by ascribing worth and value to him through the words and actions of our liturgy [leitourgeo].
We have only scratched the surface of worship by defining these words. To begin to understand worship, we need to think about these definitions in the light of who Jesus is as the union of humanity and Trinity.
This is what it means to think in a Christ-centered way. Too often we see Christian thought rooted in nothing more than the grammatical and historical context of the Bible. That approach to defining worship would take the definitions we have just established, examine the historical context in which those words were used, and then try to apply that information to modern thought and practice. That approach bypasses Jesus almost entirely. It is akin to “preaching the Bible” instead of “preaching Christ.”
The biblical words we are talking about need to be a window to help us see
- who Jesus is as the worshiping human, and
- the worshiped God, and
- who we are in Jesus as worshipers.
To use these words as a window to help us see Jesus, we need to begin with the Trinity. The divine Persons are constantly ascribing worth and value to each other. How do we know this? Because God is love (1 John 4:8). Love is active and expressive, not passive and silent. Since we know that God is love, we know that the Father and the Son have forever been actively expressing love, worth, and value to each other in the communion of the Holy Spirit.
Since God is love, we know that he loved before we existed. God didn’t become love when he brought us into existence and then had someone to love. God is love, it is his nature, and before we existed that love was active and expressive in the life the Father and Son shared in communion with the Holy Spirit. Before the Bible, or Israel, or humanity, or anything in all creation, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit existed in a relationship that was love and expressed itself in service, respect, and honor: latreuo, proskuneo, and leitourgeo, even before those words existed to describe their relationship.
Worship is an inherent activity of God’s life. The Father, Son, and Spirit worship each other. Their worship is similar to the way that we might describe a married couple who are so in love that they “worship” each other. This flows from mutual love, mutual respect, and mutual adoration. This is the worship that gazes longingly at the other when the other does not even know they are being watched.
Worship in the Trinity has little in common with the worship devised by human beings to appease the angry gods of our imagination. The Greek words that we translate “worship” have their origin in the appeasement religion of the ancient world. That is another reason that we have to be careful about simply using the definitions of words, without looking at who Jesus is, as our basis for understanding ministry.
For example, proskuneo could be seen in the light of its roots in ancient Greek society, where people prostrated themselves before conquering kings, or before capricious and angry deities that they imagined to be toying with human lives. Is that happening in the Triune life when the Son prostrates himself before the Father? Are the divine Persons falling on their faces before each other out of terror and fear of punishment? No – such an image of worship is a contradiction of the life that Jesus shares with his Father and reveals to us.
Even though this image of worship is not faithful to who Jesus is, it has still influenced Christian thinking about worship. You do not have to go far to find Christian thought about worship that centers on our human, fearful response to the overwhelming holiness of God. It is true that when we first encounter the Triune life in a new or more immediate way it often evokes a response of terror in our human nature – we might think of Peter saying to Jesus, “go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). He was apparently afraid that something bad would happen to him – but he had not understood the true nature of “holy.”
A response of terror is not the Triune life – it is the response of fallen human nature to the glorious love and joy of the Triune life. Consider John in the first chapter of Revelation. At his first sight of the risen Jesus, he is struck with terror and prostrates himself before him – even though John had laid his head on Jesus’ chest in Jesus’ pre-resurrection existence (Rev. 1:17, John 13:25). Notice how Jesus responds to John’s prostration and terror: he puts his hand on John and says, “Do not be afraid.”
That is the worship characteristic of the Triune life. It is not a worship rooted in terror of a God who is holy just because he has the power of life and death. Rather, it is a worship rooted in the adoration (love) and awe of The Three in One who is holy because his relational nature is whole, healthy, perfect, and functional. The terror that our human nature experiences when encountering the Triune life is like the fear a person might feel at a dinner party with people who all seem to be smarter, richer, and better looking. It is the terror of feeling inadequate. When our dysfunctional, relationally broken nature encounters the functional, whole, holy nature of the Trinity, we feel our complete inadequacy, and it terrifies us. The holiness of the Trinity is far more than just the fact that God does not sin. Snails don’t sin, either, but neither do they inspire awe. The holiness of the Trinity is the wholeness of the perfect life of the divine communion of worshipful love.
In contrast to the cloying, sniveling, self-hating kind of worship that the gods of our imagination demand, the Father picks us up off our feet, throws his arms around us through his Son Jesus Christ, and says “do not be afraid.” He embraces us into the loving, adoring, joyful worship life that he and the Son have always shared in the Spirit. In the light of the Trinity, we understand our bowing down before God to be the bow of respect and adoration between persons who adore each other. It is a bow that says, All your ways are right and true.
Worship is an inherent property of the Triune life, and worship is therefore a reality that Jesus is sharing with humanity. In the same way that Jesus is both “speaking God” and “listening human” (because he is fully human and fully divine), he is also “worshiped God” and “worshiping human.” As the representative of all humanity, he offers acceptable worship on our behalf, and shows us what worship is. Our human nature, broken and fallen, does not know how to worship and is not capable of worship. This is especially evident when we define worship as the adoration and service that the divine Persons give to each other. All we are capable of doing is hiding in the bushes and incinerating animals to appease the imaginary deity we think is looking to kill someone.
This is why the Father, through the Son, gave Israel the sacrificial system of worship. Having never seen God in the flesh as the man Jesus Christ, Israel could not imagine a god who did not need to be appeased by the blood of animals. So, condescending to our human weakness, and stooping down to our level as spiritual infants, the Son instructed Israel through the Spirit in how to offer up a sacrifice in a way that it would point to his future incarnation in our flesh and blood. In giving them this sacrificial system, the Son enabled Israel to enter into the worship relationship of the Triune life in spite of their terror of God – a terror so great that they said to Moses, “you talk to God, don’t let him talk to us directly” (Exodus 20:19).
Now that the Son has entered our humanity, and raised our humanity into the Trinity, the Father no longer needs to condescend to our terrified and fallen human nature through a sacrificial system involving animals. Because humanity is in Christ and Christ is in humanity, we are able to participate in the worship of the Triune life. Jesus bows down before humanity, serves us, and adores us as One who loves us (John 13:1-5). He bows down before the Father and the Spirit on our behalf, serving the Father and expressing the adoration and love for the Father that we are incapable of expressing (John 17:20-21; Heb. 8:1-2). This is why we pray in Jesus’ name – and carry out all worship in his name – because it is only in and through his humanity (his blood and flesh) that any authentic human worship takes place. Through his human nature, represented by his blood, he functions as humanity’s high priest and as the sacrificial offering of humanity up to the Father (Heb. 2:14-17). By his divine nature he accepts the worship of humanity on behalf of the Father and the Spirit and gives to humanity the service, adoration, and sacrifice of the Father and the Spirit. In Jesus “we have been given the grace that enables us to worship.”
Worship is the adoration and service that the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are forever giving to each other. Jesus includes us in this life of adoration and service by sharing his divinity with our humanity and our humanity with his divinity – and thus shares our humanity with the divinity of the Father and the Spirit. The word “adoration” helps us incorporate proskuneo into our definition, and the word “service” helps us incorporate latreuo. In a moment, when we discuss worship through body, mind, and spirit, we will incorporate leitourgeo more fully into our understanding.
What have we learned about worship by looking at who Jesus is in the Trinity and in humanity? One Christ-centered definition of worship would be this:
Worship is our participation in Jesus’ ministry to express through himself, by the Holy Spirit, to the Father, humanity’s participation in the service and adoration of the Triune life.
This points out that worship is something that is in the nature of the Triune life and therefore something in which Jesus includes us by sharing with us in our human nature and pouring out his Spirit on us.
How do we practice the ministry of worship?
In the light of this definition, worship in the Christian community ought to be fully Trinitarian. But there is a problem. The practice of worship, as most of us have experienced it in modern culture, has been largely unitarian. Karl Rahner, a noted Catholic theologian, wrote, “We must be willing to admit that, should the doctrine of the Trinity have to be dropped as false, the major part of religious literature could well remain virtually unchanged.” Unfortunately, the same could be said of our worship.
This has not always been the case, nor is it the case everywhere in Christian worship today. Traditionally, Christian worship was explained as either “Glory to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit” or as “Worship to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.” As a result, the traditional liturgies of such worship communities as the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican churches remain overtly Trinitarian because their liturgies are rooted in ancient expressions of Christian worship that pre-date the modern decline in Trinitarian thinking about God. (Even though the words are overtly Trinitarian, in practice the worship was often unitary; outward form doesn’t always affect our thinking.)
For example, a worship service in the Anglican communion begins with, “Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” and the congregation responds “And blessed be his kingdom, now and forever. Amen.” Some liturgical churches recite the Nicene Creed in every Sunday service, and the creed is organized around the persons of the Trinity: beginning with our belief in the Father, then our belief in the Son, and then our belief in the Holy Spirit. Most of the written prayers suggested in the Book of Common Prayer are Trinitarian in language, such as this one suggested as a benediction at the end of the service: “The blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be upon you and remain with you forever.”
Similar examples could be cited in other traditions that preserve the historic and ancient theological language of the church’s worship in their liturgies. Many evangelical Protestants are judgmental against the use of set prayers and liturgies in worship – with some good reasons – but fail to recognize the way in which liturgical worship has the advantage of preserving and handing on Trinitarian worship language.
The evangelical emphasis on free-form worship has resulted in a worship culture that is often unitarian in its expression. In worship that has rejected prescribed forms and liturgies, people express what is in their hearts and minds – and for many Christians, that means a unitarian image of God. This usually does not express itself in an outright denial of the Trinity. Rather, it is usually found in the form of an intellectual assent to the doctrine of the Trinity while the people’s hearts – and thus their mouths, which speak out of their hearts – express their faith in a monistic way. For some, it means language that speaks of “God” but rarely speaks of “the Father” or “Jesus” or “the Holy Spirit.” Others focus their worship solely on Jesus and rarely speak of “the Father” or “the Holy Spirit.” This is sometimes functionally Marcionite, rejecting the Old Testament God.
Unitarian worship can often be seen in contemporary Christian worship. It is rare to find any contemporary worship songs that address worship “to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.” Instead, we find songs that sing “to God” or to “the Lord” or “to Jesus,” but rarely help the worshiper express the fullness of what it means to be a worshiping human who is worshiping through the humanity of Jesus and participating in the Trinitarian life of worship.
Consider the words to the following song, This God He is Our God:
is the God who said to the darkness
let there be light and there was light?
Who is the God who made the heavens,
the sun and moon, the stars and sky?
He is the one who’s like no
omnipotent and, oh so wise
Invisible yet ever present
He is the Holy God most high
The question “who is God?” is asked throughout the song and never once is the answer “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The Triune life never enters the writer’s mental conception as being an important descriptor of who God is.
A brief theological history may help us to see why. The Hebrew understanding of God defined him in terms of relationship. When God introduces himself to Moses in Exodus 3:6, he does not say “I am the one who is like no other” – he says “I am the God of your father, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” This relational understanding of God finds its full expression in Jesus when he says “I am in the Father and he is in me and we will send you the Holy Spirit” (John 14:11, 16). A Christ-centered, Bible-based view of God is relational. It is rooted in the relationship of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit, and then in the relationship of the Trinity with humanity in the person of Jesus Christ – who is the relational union of the Trinity and humanity. When we worship, we are not coming to worship an impersonal power, but to worship our Father in heaven, in Jesus, and by the power of their Spirit, in relationship.
The idea of defining God by his attributes instead of his relationships, and worshiping him for those attributes, is a notion from Greek philosophy. The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined God as “the unmoved mover… the eternal one… the one who is the most good… and the one to whom all life belongs.” These are true statements about God – but Aristotle derived them without reference to Jesus or the Bible. If we say that God is “like no other” or “all powerful,” we have not said anything Christ-centered – we have said only what an intelligent person (like Aristotle) can deduce from looking at creation.
The Qur’an says that God is “the absolute…the most gracious…the eternal…and all things in heaven and earth are his.” Do you notice the similarity between Aristotle’s basic description of God and the Qur’an’s? Mohammed, and later Islamic theology, was influenced by Aristotle. In Christianity, Aristotle was largely unknown and unread until his work was introduced by Muslims to Christians during the medieval period (ca. 1000-1300). Aristotle then became popular in medieval Christian Europe, so much so that theologians such as Thomas Aquinas sought to explain Christian doctrine in light of Aristotelian philosophy and demonstrate – as a matter of apologetics – that Christianity was not in conflict with Aristotle’s philosophy.
In the Westminster Confession, we see one result of this medieval focus on Aristotle. In its statement on God, the first thing the Westminster Confession offers is a list of God’s attributes. He is “the most absolute…eternal…most gracious…[and] has all life in himself.” Only after the confession has listed these Aristotelian (and ironically, Islamic) expressions of God’s identity does it get around to mentioning that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The abstract and impersonal qualities have preceded the relational and Trinitarian characteristics of God.
The Westminster Confession does not begin with God in Christ-centered terms of relationship. It begins by thinking of God based on a philosophical list of attributes. This is backwards – an anthropocentric approach, beginning with what human reason tells us. We need to start instead with the way that God has revealed himself to be – incarnate as Jesus Christ, and see what Jesus has revealed about the Father and the Spirit. Only that approach can help us see errors or blind spots in what our human reason can come up with.
The reason that God is eternal, most gracious, the unmoved mover, etc., is because he is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God would not have these attributes if he were not first and foremost the Triune relationship and communion of the divine Persons. Through Jesus, the first thing we know about God is that he is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The result of all this for the practice of worship is that we often find ourselves ministering in a Christian culture that is not first and foremost Trinitarian in its thinking, and not Trinitarian in its worship. There is nothing wrong with a song that describes God’s attributes and says that he is eternal, omnipotent, wise, etc. All that is true. The problem is when the song claims to answer the question “who is God?’ and never mentions his Triune nature. It has missed out on God’s relational nature, the most important aspect of why we are involved with him or why we worship him.
Songs like this are not the exception, but the rule. It is possible – and even common – to have a Christian worship service and not say anything about God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, because there are few contemporary songs that are Trinitarian.
The people of the church cannot worship in a Christ-centered, Trinitarian way – especially in free church worship – unless Christ has been preached, their hearts and minds have been saturated in their adoption into the Trinity, and they are confident in the truth of the communion they have with the Trinity through Christ. Since evangelical churches practice worship as a free, honest expression of what is in our hearts – for the most part without written prayers or set creeds – they must participate with Jesus and his Spirit in changing what is in the hearts of their people, if their worship is to become Trinitarian.
This is not an easy or quick process. It takes years of preaching the Trinity as he is revealed in Christ before people begin to pray to the Father, in the Son, by the Holy Spirit. It takes years of immersing people in a Trinitarian image of who God is before they begin to question the practically unitarian words and images of much of popular Christian music and worship.
The practice of Christian worship needs be fully Trinitarian. The reason that it is often not Trinitarian is that the modern church is not operating from the foundation of our adoption into the Triune life. That means the first task for us in leading the worship of our churches is to preach Christ as the union of the Trinity and humanity and to give people assurance of their place in the communion of the Triune life, evangelizing them in the good news of who Jesus has made them be: children of the Father. When the church becomes saturated in this reality, our prayers, songs, and expressions of worship will more often express the reality of the Trinitarian life.
How do we feed Jesus’ sheep in body, mind, and soul through worship?
Worship is an inherent property of the Triune life and as such it is a ministry in which Jesus has included humanity by including us in the Triune life through his own humanity. Therefore, worship should be Trinitarian in its expression if it is to be fully faithful to the truth of who God is and who we are as human beings.
How can we practice worship in a Trinitarian way that feeds the whole person with the truth of our life in Christ?
Body: Like baptism and Communion, worship engages the body. We close our eyes and bow our heads. We pray and sing with our vocal cords. We sit, stand, and kneel. We raise our hands in the air. We dance. The Father created our bodies to participate in the worshiping life of the Trinity. Therefore when we practice worship in a way that minimizes or discourages bodily participation, we are failing to experience worship for all that it could be. If we create a worship environment that discourages bodily engagement, we run the risk of turning worship into an intellectual exercise.
On the other hand, when our worship – and the way that we lead worship – encourages people to become fully engaged in a bodily way, then we are feeding them the truth of their life in Christ in a way that has a lasting impact on their personhood and identity. This has to be done in a way that is culturally appropriate and sensitive to where individuals are in their own comfort levels. The Trinity does not seek to evoke adoration and worship through guilt trips or manipulation. Such tactics could never evoke true adoration but only an imitation of it.
We never want to force people to sing, pray, lift their hands, kneel, dance, bow, or participate in any bodily way in the worship life of the Trinity. In the same way that the Father includes everyone in the dance of the Trinity through the Son, and then encourages us to become active participants in the Son, so also we want to include everyone in the worship of our church and then encourage them to become more active participants.
People who are new to our church, or simply have very reserved personalities, may not sing very much, or be comfortable offering public prayers, or want to lift their hands in the air. There should be enough “space” (physically, emotionally, psychologically) within our church for everyone to be included in worship and to actively participate as much or as little as they feel led to do so by the Holy Spirit. Those who want to lift their hands or dance should be able to, while those who prefer to sit quietly should be able to as well.
After all, worship is not primarily something that we are doing. It begins as something that the Trinity is doing. Jesus is including us in the Trinity’s life of worship. Jesus is worshiping for us as both worshiping human and worshiped God. Our active participation in Jesus’ life of worship is a matter of our growing up to look like Jesus and follow his Spirit’s lead. That takes time, and reflects the full range of individual personalities. In Christ, we all have all of eternity to learn who we are and learn to worship as our unique selves.
It is important that the flow of our services include a range of ways for people to participate in Jesus’ worshiping life. On any given worship service, some may come filled with joy and want to sing and shout and lift their hands. Others may come filled with grief and need silence and reflection. A well-rounded worship service includes time, and acts of worship, that allow for the full range of human emotions and the full range of bodily response to the good news of our life in Christ. In providing this full range, we may also be able to help the grieving person to grieve and move into more joy, while also helping the joyful person express joy and move into more contemplative expressions of that joy.
We also acknowledge and celebrate the fact that, in Christ, each congregation has its own worshiping personality, just as each person does. We do not have to do it the way they do it in some other state or city, or even next door. Not everyone who walks in off the street, or visits as the guest of a member, will be entirely comfortable with the worship personality of your church. Some will want it to be more expressive, and some will want less. If the people of your church are quiet and not outwardly expressive of emotion, then a person who likes to dance and shout will have trouble adapting. Jesus’ Spirit has formed different churches with different worship cultures in order to speak the gospel to the full range of personalities.
As a ministry leader, you want to focus on knowing and understanding who the people in your church are and what their worshiping personality is like. Are they reserved in their expression of emotion, or are they using that as an excuse to remain inhibited and un-joyful because they do not yet fully understand the gospel and do not yet feel joyful about their adoption in Christ? This is another way in which it is helpful that we spend our lives with the people we minister to. By being with them in the full range of life – from games, to parties, to funerals, to work – we can let the Spirit teach us who they are and who we are together as a church.
As a simple example, if a guy in your church jumps up and down and shouts for joy when his team wins a game, but will not so much as open his mouth to sing at church, then you know that there is a gospel issue in his life. He has a personality that expresses excitement in very bodily ways, but he is just not excited about Jesus. However, badgering him will not fill him with joy – you need to teach and reassure, encourage and model.
On the other hand, if a woman is calm, cool, and collected at church and is the same way in other circumstances of life, then that probably really is her personality. She can be the person who helps lead your church in times of silence, contemplation, and quiet reverence. The point is that the full range of human emotion, expressed in our bodily actions, is appropriate within the worshiping life of the Trinity. Therefore, our worship should not elevate one particular emotional or bodily expression over all others and make it the standard. It is not more “holy” to worship in quiet, reserved reverence than it is to worship in joyful song and dance. Nor is it more “spiritual” to worship in shouts and upraised hands than to worship kneeling in prayer. The Son’s indwelling presence in our human nature – emotions, flesh, blood, and all – means that, in him and led by his Spirit, the full range of human existence is a participation in the worship life of the Trinity.
Mind: In worship, our minds are primarily engaged by the thoughts and words we use in worship. This is one reason that worship forms have to constantly evolve to match the changing culture around us. If the scripture is read from the King James Bible and all the songs are in the language of 18th-century England, then the worship service will be difficult to understand for most people in our 21st century culture. Such a worship service may engage their bodies and souls, but it will leave their minds wandering on to other subjects.
Our minds are also the point at which our thinking about the Trinity, and our adoption into him through Christ, is important. Our minds need to be renewed in the knowledge of who we are as children of the Father, with every thought being brought into captivity and conformed to the mind of Christ.
For example, as we discussed above, a lot of contemporary Christian music is unitarian, not Trinitarian. The music of these songs speaks to our souls. Our voices, our raised hands, and our bowed heads as we pray, all help us participate in worship using these songs in spite of their less-than-perfect words. But worship with these songs is not renewing our minds. Because their words are less than a full expression of the gospel, worshiping with these songs fails to help us grow in our relationship with our Dad in heaven.
Sometimes we can change the words to these songs to make them more in line with the gospel and more expressive of who we are in Jesus. Changing a few key words can allow the congregation to continue singing favorite songs, whose music speaks to their souls, while making those songs more helpful in feeding our minds through worship. Changing the words can also provide us with opportunities to teach about the purpose of the change, and the purpose of singing.
As an example, here is how we could change the opening lines of the song we looked at above, This God He is Our God:
Who is the God who said to the darkness
let there be light and there was light?
Who is the God who made the heavens,
the sun and moon, the stars and sky?
He is our Father who has loved
He is the Son in whom we live
He is the Holy Spirit of truth
He is the Holy God most high
We can now return to the Greek
word leitourgeo, which has come into
English as the word “liturgy.” Evangelical churches have generally been called
“nonliturgical” in their worship because they usually do not follow set,
written forms of worship using a prayer book. The positive side of this is that
it allows the congregation to worship using their own words, expressing in
prayer and words what they are thinking and feeling. The downside comes when
the words in the mind of the congregation are not the gospel.
Even non-liturgical churches have a liturgy in the most basic sense of the word. It is simply a pattern that worship takes on a regular basis. Even though you may not write out your prayers word for word, or read them from a book, you still find yourself offering prayers at the same point in the service every Sunday. Many of the prayers follow similar patterns. You generally sing the same number of songs, at the same point in the service every Sunday. You generally collect the offering at the same time, in the same way, preach the sermon at the same point in the service, and take Communion at predicable times. Whatever order you use for these worship actions is your liturgy – even if it’s not written in a prayer book.
This is inevitable. Human beings need to know when to show up and what to do and in what order to do it. This does not mean that we do not ever want spontaneity or variety, but we also do not want chaos. For example, the liturgy of one congregation is as follows:
- Intercessory Prayer
- 4-5 Songs
- Special music
- Dismissal of children
- Offering (children return)
- Communion and song
What is important about this liturgy is not so much the order, as what is taking place within it. If the gospel is being celebrated and proclaimed throughout the service, then worship in the Trinitarian reality is taking place.
Look at what you are doing in worship in your church each week and evaluate it based on how it is feeding people’s minds with the gospel of the Father’s love for them, of our salvation in Christ, of our transformation by the Spirit. Does your liturgy help you express the good news of who Jesus is and who we are in him, or is it hindering that worship? If it is hindering it, you should change it to better enable your expression of the gospel.
In feeding people’s minds through worship, we want to look at the worship calendar of the Christian year. Since Jesus is the truth of who God is and why he created humanity, we can see the Father’s plan of salvation in the life of Jesus. In order to empower the church to see Jesus’ life and to know how his life reveals the Father’s plan, the Holy Spirit led the early church to develop a worship calendar. Step by step, from Advent to Pentecost, this calendar tells the story of the Father’s plan fulfilled in Jesus.
I encourage you to center your preaching, and help center your church’s worship, on the themes and ideas that are expressed about Jesus’ life in each season of the Christian year. Here is a brief summary of how each season helps us tell the story of Jesus in the worship life of the church:
Advent: The Father called Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their descendants to become his chosen people in the world. In this chosen nation of Israel, the Father prepared a place for the advent (the coming) of the Son. The history of Israel, from Abraham to Zechariah, found its destiny in the incarnation. Israel, summed up in Mary, was the womb of the incarnation and the place prepared for the coming of the Son.
Since the advent of the Son takes place in two acts – first, his coming in the manger, and second, his coming in glory on the last day – we also celebrate and look forward to Jesus’ second coming during the Advent season. The Scripture readings for the first Sunday in Advent are about the second coming; those closer to Christmas are about his first coming.
Christmas: So that we might become what he is – a child of the Father – the Son became what we are. The Son became flesh and blood and made his dwelling among us, being born as a baby of the Virgin Mary. He did not simply “appear” to be human, he really became what we are and joined us in our real, sinful, fallen flesh. Even though he entered our sinful nature, he never sinned. Instead, he lived out a faithful life in communion with his Father and their Spirit from within our nature. He adopted humanity into the life of the Trinity and made us whole, healed, and holy by his presence.
Epiphany: Having assumed our human nature, the Son then brought our nature into communion with the Holy Spirit and the life of the Trinity. When the Father spoke from heaven and said “this is my beloved Son,” these words were spoken to the Son in his humanity, and thus were spoken to humanity – to you and me and everyone we know and love. The Holy Spirit affirms that the Son shares with us the anointing he has in the Spirit of his Father.
Preparation for Easter: From within the human nature that had once said “yes” to Satan and “no” to the Father, the Son now reversed that decision. In the midst of the terrible wilderness of human sin and alienation, the Son said “no!” to Satan’s lies and said “yes!” to our Daddy’s love; thus he reversed the fall of Adam and Eve.
Palm Sunday: On his way to his victory on the cross, Jesus was received by the people of Israel as the conquering hero he would prove to be. Not a hero on a white stallion carrying the sword of punishment, but riding on a donkey and headed for the cross. Although the crowd had badly misunderstood what kind of king Jesus was, he was nevertheless a king, the rightful ruler of all humanity.
Maundy Thursday: The Son revealed to us the truth of his mission, that he shares with us his body (bread) and his blood (wine) and that he stoops to wash our feet and make us clean to sit at the Father’s table.
Good Friday: By his death on the cross, the Son defeated our enemy, Satan, and put our sinful nature to death. In this great victory he set humanity free from captivity to the devil and from the fear of death.
Easter Sunday: In the glory of his resurrection, the Son was raised new and immortal, the firstfruits of all who are united to him. We are destined not for Adam’s death but for Christ’s eternal life with the Father. In this transformation, he made humanity capable of eternal relationship with the Trinity as children of the Father.
Ascension: Because the Father’s purpose was for us to live forever with him, the Son carried us up into the heavenly realms and the Father seated us in Christ at his right hand. Our human nature has been transformed and carried into the most holy place, the heart and life of the Trinity, in fulfillment of the Father’s plan of adoption.
Pentecost: Human nature is now united to the Triune nature in the risen and ascended Jesus. Our adoption is complete, and we can know the Father for who he really is and relate to him as his children. So that we can know and believe this truth about ourselves, the Father pours out the Holy Spirit on all flesh, giving us the gift of the Spirit, who brings about relationship and communion within the Trinity, and now brings about communion within humanity.
The second half of the Christian year, from Pentecost to the start of Advent, is called the “season after Pentecost” or “ordinary time.” The label “ordinary time” comes from the fact that the Sundays, instead of being named (like “Pentecost Sunday”) are numbered with ordinal numbers – 1st Sunday after Pentecost, 2nd Sunday, etc. The Sundays after Pentecost are also sometimes called “Proper” as in “Proper 1, Proper 2, etc.” in reference to the prayers (or “propers”) that are to be used on those Sundays.
If you do not use a lectionary or prayer book, and thus do not follow the themes outlined in the Sundays of ordinary time, the season after Pentecost can take on the general theme of living “in” Pentecost, led by the Spirit. Now that you have told the story of Jesus through the celebrations of Advent through Pentecost, you now celebrate the life in the kingdom that we have through Jesus and the outpouring of his Spirit.
A lectionary can be enormously helpful in two ways.
- First, a lectionary helps you avoid using your same 15-20 favorite Bible verses over and over throughout the year as you plan worship. If you pick only the passages you happen to like, then your congregation is probably getting an unbalanced diet.
- Second, it can help you structure your worship to follow the themes of the Christian year.
Lectionaries have been around since ancient times, and some of our most ancient manuscripts of the Bible come to us from lectionaries. A lectionary is a system for dividing up the passages of the biblical text so that different parts of the Bible are read on each Sunday, depending on what season of the year it is.
A lectionary generally sets a reading from the Psalms, from somewhere else in the Old Testament, from the Epistles, and from the Gospels for each Sunday. These readings often relate to each other in some way – following a similar theme or discussing the same event. For example, on Easter Sunday the lectionary might assign an Old Testament reading and a Psalm that prophesied the resurrection of Jesus, a reading from the Epistles that explains the resurrection, and a passage from one of the Gospels describing Jesus’ resurrection.
One advantage of consulting a lectionary each week in planning your worship is that it directs you to parts of the Bible that address the themes of the season you are in. So, during Christmas (a season that last 12 days, from Christmas Day through the day before Epiphany), the lectionary will help you build your worship around the biblical witness to Jesus’ birth.
Most Lectionaries are divided into a three-year cycle, with each year labeled “Year A, Year B, Year C.” If you follow a lectionary every week through its three-year cycle, you will end up reading most of the New Testament, and much of the Old, during your weekly services, and doing it in a thematic way that pulls together all the parts of the Bible into their proper context in Jesus’ life.
One lectionary that works well is the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). It has been assembled with the input of many denominations, including Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian. Because of the RCL’s ecumenical origin, if you follow it you will find yourself in step with the majority of Christian churches in the United States throughout the Christian Year. You can find the RCL online at www.lectionary.com. You can find numerous resources about each text at www.textweek.com.
Soul: Worship has a unique ability to speak to our souls in the assurance of the gospel. Music is powerful in its ability to communicate at a level beyond our conscious understanding, so that even when there are no words or we do not understand the words, we can experience the message that the music is meant to convey. In a similar way, simply being in an environment – such as a worship service – where the focus of what we see, hear, smell, and touch is permeated with gospel meaning, can have a reassuring impact on our emotional grasp of our true identity.
As with other ministries, our goal in worship is to be in step with what the Spirit is speaking to the souls of those who are participating. Since he is speaking to our souls about the assurance of who Christ has made us be, so should our worship. Music, prayers, and decorations that convey ambiguous or even negative meanings should be avoided. We want to be mindful of the environment –decorations that hang on the walls, the cleanliness of the floors, etc.
Since many of us minister in rented facilities that are used for other purposes besides worship, it is good to take notice about what unspoken messages the environment conveys. As much as possible, we can try to create a physical space that is conducive to worship and conveys the good news, but it will be a challenge when you are meeting in a space (such as a school or an Elk’s lodge) that is not designed for worship.
To feed the souls of Jesus’ sheep through worship is to invite them to participate, down to the very depth of their beings, in the life in which they are already included: the life of the Trinity. This means clearing away obstacles to participation. Our souls find rest in Christ, and joy in the knowledge of our adoption in him, when the everyday distractions around us seem to fade away and leave us free to simply be who we are in him. For parents with infants, this might mean providing child care so they can be fully engaged in the worship service. For the elderly, it might mean having the volume of the vocals higher than the instruments, and providing people with lyrics in a font size they can read. It means trying to find music, drama and prayers that express our worship in the normal language of life – not in unfamiliar theological terms or using archaic expressions from older forms of English.
In a lot of little ways, we can remove the distractions that create a sense of unrest in people’s lives and help them find in weekly worship a space and a time where they can focus on letting Jesus saturate their souls with the assurance of who they are in him. Worship can be more powerful than almost any form of ministry in creating long-term spiritual growth in people’s lives. Through worship, week in and week out, throughout our lives, we learn to sing and dance in the song and dance of the Trinity – and thus our souls, minds, and bodies are made ready for the eternal dance of the Triune life of heaven.
As further study in worship, you should review, if you have not done so recently, instructions about the church’s worship calendar and the weekly worship service. You can find those documents at: https://www.gci.org/articles/the-churchs-worship-calendar/ and https://www.gci.org/articles/the-weekly-worship-service/.
 H. Strathmann, “Latreuo,” pp. 503-504 in Kittel and Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged in One Volume.
 H. Greeven, “Proskuneo,” pp. 948-950 in Kittel and Friedrich.
 H. Strathmann, “Leitourgeo,” pp. 526-529 in Kittel and Friedrich.
 Purves, Crucifixion, 81.
 The classic text for this is Jesus’ comment about divorce: the law was given due to the hardness of the people’s hearts. But marriage customs were not the only area of hardness experienced by a nation just coming out of slavery in Egypt. In all his legislation, God worked within what they were able to understand.
 Ibid., 67.
 Karl Rahner, The Trinity, translated by Joseph Donceel (London: Burns & Oates, 1970), 10-11.
 Most “free-form” worship is actually structured, but structured in such a way as to be different than the liturgical worship services. An unfortunate side effect of this is to make people think that worship is something that we invented, and it becomes focused on us rather than God.
 There are few biblical texts that include this language, either. The Trinitarian language of the liturgies was formulated after centuries of reflection on what the biblical text implied. One could hope that worship songs would take advantage of some of this later reflection.
 Aristotle, Metaphysics, 12.1.
 Qur’an 112:1-4; 2:225; 59:22-24.
 This document was drafted by English Protestants as their statement of faith in the mid-1600s, after about 400 years of Christianity being influenced by Aristotle through the works of Aquinas and others. Since America was an English colony, the Westminster Confession strongly influenced American and evangelical theology.
 Westminster Confession, chapter 2.
 A good resource for this is Stephen Seamands, Give Them Christ: Preaching His Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension and Return (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2012).
 This reversal began at the incarnation, but continued throughout Jesus’ life.