Afew weeks back, I discussed beauty in worship, drawing from an article I wrote for Worship Leader magazine in the spring of 2018. In case you didn’t get a chance to read the first part, I acknowledged the problem of beauty in discussions of this sort, where worship is concerned–namely, that arguments tend quickly to devolve into either/or rhetoric that pits utilitarian function over aesthetic form, when, truly, a both/and perspective serves the Church much better. I then articulated my first assertion, that worship leaders would do well to cultivate beauty intentionally–because our culture does not reward such efforts very often or well.
In the second part of this article, we once again hear from my Judson University/Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts colleague Mark Torgerson, Duke University professor of worship Lester Ruth, and Robert Webber (left), whose work, most worship scholars agree, helped kickstart a renewed interest–globally, but especially in America–in corporate worship 30 years ago. Webber founded what is now known as the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies, Jacksonville, Fla., where Mark and Lester were founding professors and where I did my doctoral studies. IWS was a life-changing experience for me, and I’ve been grateful to be able to encourage three of my former students (with one on the way, Lord willing) to attend. I continue to be blessed by my association with IWS. Here’s part two of “Fostering Beauty”:
Give Equal Time to Transcendence and Immanence
Christian theology is riddled with paradoxes. God is both completely just and wholly merciful. God is omniscient but remembers our sins no more when we repent. And God transcends our existence on earth while being immanent, always with us. In the words of the fairly new song, God is a “God of wonders, beyond our galaxy.” At the same time, God is, in the words of the fairly old song, “only a prayer away.” Hence, our worship ought to balance content that highlights both God’s transcendence and immanence.
Generally speaking, however, “Christians have been particularly fond of remembering that the transcendent, holy God became immanent to us in Christ,” Torgerson states, claiming that this “focus on the immanence of God in Christ supported a twentieth-century emphasis on evangelism and service” in many churches. (One need not be a sophisticated sociologist, historian, or aesthete to affirm Torgerson’s notion. Whether we look at architecture, music, or a host of other considerations, most of us clearly worship in what Lester Ruth calls “personal-story” churches rather than “cosmic-story” churches.)
Let’s say Torgerson is correct that the motivation for the predominance of God’s immanence in our worship stems from a high view of evangelism. (This clearly was the case during the advent of the seeker-sensitivity movement and remains a component of the modus operandi of seeker-friendly churches today.) Webber argues that transcendence can serve the cause of soul-winning as easily as immanence. In what he calls “my favorite story of evangelism through beauty,” Webber tells the (true) story of Vladimir, prince of Kiev, who sends a contingent of his charges into the world to discover true religion. Searching high and low but coming up empty, they finally arrive at Constantinople’s Church of the Holy Wisdom. Upon their return, they report their findings to Vladimir.
“We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere upon the earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.” Indeed, the beauty of the worship featured elements both transcendental, provoking other-worldly sentiments in the worshipers, and immanent, manifesting beyond doubt God’s presence in their midst.
In his quest to know God intimately, seeking God’s immanence such that his soul thirsts, David finds a transcendental experience with God: “I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory” (Psalm 63:2). Thus, this combination of God’s transcendence and immanence prompts David’s worship. Worship leaders endeavoring to achieve a similar balance might find similar responses from their congregants. (Need a place to start? Consider adapting a Taizé chorus for your worship. Cosmic-story lyrics and Renaissance-inspired harmonies promote an element of beauty rarely found in contemporary worship. Check out Worship Leader archives from July/August 2012, the “Sing” column, for tips regarding making Taizé choruses work in a praise-band setting.)
(You can access that Worship Leader article on Taizé worship, entitled “Renewing Worship: The Positive Payoff of Messing with Convention,” here.)
Worship leaders, we tend to do really well, as Torgerson suggests, celebrating the immanent nature of God. I encourage us, in the spirit of fostering beauty, to give a little more time in our congregational singing sets to God’s transcendence.
Coming next week, Lord willing: finding beauty in the common, everyday experiences–what Eugene Peterson referred to as the sacred ordinary aspects of life–especially as that relates to corporate worship.
The Lord be with you!