The Rhythm of Transcendence and Immanence— Reflections on Christian Worship of the God of Wonder(s): Implications and Applications for Worship Planning and Design (Part 1)
If someone were to ask me, “how important is transcendence in worship planning,” I would argue that understanding God in his transcendent otherness is not simply important, but, perhaps surprisingly to many, it turns out to be one of the most consequential concepts a worship leader can embrace and deploy in worship planning. Divine transcendence uniquely and best provides the necessary and proper interpretive framework for God and every immanent attribute he possesses. No other concept can better clarify or explicate God’s immanence than his transcendence. Sequencing the drama of worship in such a way that begins with transcendence and incorporates the rhythm of transcendence then immanence will transform how believers conceive God and subsequently how they worship God.
I invite worship pastors who plan worship in freedom to enter a season of theological reflection about the task (and privilege) that God has placed into their hands week by week. I hope to call worship pastors either to a reorientation or a deeper orientation of worship planning and design to scriptural principles that should and must order the faith and practice of the believer, the church, and the church’s worship. I aim to encourage worship pastors to begin to consider the categories of God’s transcendence and God’s immanence as primary shaping influences on how worship services are planned. Ultimately, I hope to invite worship pastors to consider both the content of their worship elements and the sequencing of those elements in light of the God of their worship—a God who revealed himself first as transcendent and then immanent. I call worship pastors to embrace the rhythm of transcendence then immanence in their worship planning and design. To help frame this call, I will explore the following points of inquiry: 1) why does the sequential ordering of worship service elements matter, (2) what happens when theology informs doxology, and (3) what are practical ways to implement the rhythm of transcendence then immanence in worship praxis and design?
Why Sequence Matters
Before launching into the discussion on why sequence matters, I would like to make the following clarifications, disclaimers, and admissions. First, I am not advocating that worship pastors in the free church tradition return to ancient, lifeless liturgical forms. In reality, as a worship pastor for over twenty years, I have rarely planned a worship service in any way other than in freedom from set forms and independent of governing clerical bodies. I am grateful for the liberties granted to us by the courageous Reformers many centuries ago. Next, I am relatively neutral about prescribed liturgical formulae found in parts of evangelicalism. I recognize value in them but in no way advocate that all churches be restricted to prescribed liturgies (unless they freely choose to adopt prescribed liturgical practices). Finally, I am advocating that order and sequence are not neutral parts of a worship service, free or prescribed. On the contrary, sequence matters. Some in the free church do not give evidence of reflecting theologically about ordering and sequence. Ordering is often guided not by theological principles, but by more practical musical considerations such as tempo, style, and key of songs as was strongly indicated by the Worship Design Project 2014, a nation-wide survey of Southern Baptist Worship Pastors (to view the complete research project, see worshipdesignproject.com). Yet, sequence does matter, and the rhythm of transcendence then immanence is deserving of special or even dominant consideration by worship pastors for the reasons that follow.
Biblical Patterns and Scriptural Contours
Sequence matters because biblical patterns and scriptural contours matter. The biblical witness to the rhythm of transcendence then immanence in divine-human encounters is recorded in the very beginning pages of God’s revelation of himself to mankind. “In the beginning, God created” establishes the pattern and priority in which believers are to view God: first as the Creator and then as their Creator, first as the one who transcends all created matter and then as the one who voluntarily draws near to his creation. The Bible does not begin by expressing God’s love, compassion, grace, or mercy. Instead, the Bible begins by establishing God as sovereign Creator—the Holy One who utterly hates sin and who condemns the willful disobedience of his creatures.
In addition, fidelity to biblical models and scriptural themes necessitates a certain kind of ordering of liturgical elements in corporate worship. Hence, the order of Christian worship is well-served to be discerned from the biblical record of God’s encounter with man. Once discerned, scriptural patterns must then be invited to shape worship praxis and design. In essence, a biblically modeled order can be perceived from the divine-human encounters recorded in the Bible. In each of these encounters, God is clearly, primarily, and initially transcendent. He is transcendent before he is immanent. He is wholly other than his creation. He is independent of his creation. He is above and beyond his creation. Yet, he is not exclusively transcendent. He is also immanent. This fascinating biblical duality of God must be represented in the dialogue of worship. He is not only distant and distinct but also the one who draws near, who cares for his creation, and who is intimately involved in working his plan meticulously throughout the course of human history. God is both transcendent and immanent. Both aspects must be represented in the way a worship service is structured. However, he is transcendent first and immanent second.
Sequence Expresses Priority
Sequence matters because sequence expresses priority. Gordon Lathrop, author of Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology, convincingly argues that “meaning occurs through structure.” What comes first and what is subsequent loudly exclaims relative importance and significance. What comes first provides the essential framework for what comes second. What comes first establishes beginning points; beginning points often affect ending points. Worship pastors communicate something by their selection of elements to be included in a worship service and how those elements are sequentially ordered; they communicate importance, prominence, foundational concepts, points of initiation, essentials, nonessentials, and what builds upon what.
Because worship is a dialogic expression of the rhythm of revelation and response between God and believers, the opening words (or songs) are especially important. The opening words define the identity of the one who is summoning Christians to worship. The opening words create a sense of expectation that it is God himself who is speaking and inviting us to join in the drama of worship. The opening words unequivocally delineate God as the host of the “worship banquet” and worshipers as the invited guests to his worship table. The opening words establish the nature and character of God as the exclusive and sole object of Christian worship who calls believers to himself.
Indeed sequence matters! Next week, we’ll explore the idea that the sequence of an order of worship can model the sequence of the biblical narrative and the sequence of grand scriptural themes.
Many thanks to Cody Libolt for helping me to think through many of the ideas contained in the following sections.
Wells, God in the Wasteland, 137.
Stephen F. Winward, The Reformation of Our Worship (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1965), 12.
Gordon Lathrop, Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 33.
Debra Rienstra and Ron Rienstra, Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 48.
Edith M. Humphrey, Grand Entrance: Worship on Earth as in Heaven (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011), 70.