Saturday, July 02, 2005

Ancient-Future Talk: June 2005

I've got a question for you!

Hello again! Before I ask my question I want to thank the many of you who respond to my monthly newsletter. At first I tried to respond to everyone, but I receive far too many responses to be able to do so. However, I do read every response and find most to be stimulating to my own mind. So, while I don't write to each of you personally, please regard my AFT as a kind of continuing response to your e-mails, a means by which to engage our hearts and minds together.

This month's question arises out of my continued thinking about much modern and contemporary worship. Here is the question: Is God the object of our worship or the subject of worship?

Note that I ask "Is God the object of our worship? If God is an object "up there" and "out there" who wants us to praise, worship, and adore Him, then worship arises from within me. It is something I do. I praise God, I honor God, I reverence God, I exalt God.

Or, on the other hand, if God is the subject of worship, it is God who works and acts in worship. God chooses to initiate a relationship, to become present to us through the words and in the enactment of God's story at bread and wine. The worship or response of God's people, then, is to be formed by the story of God into the people of God. Worship is not what I do to enthrone God in the heavens. It is rather an active present memory of God's work to restore creatures to fellowship with the community of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and to renew all creation. Worship rehearses the truth about the God who not only creates, but re-creates through his own two hands-word and spirit-and bids us to worship 24/7 through an entrance into the new life that God himself brings. It is living into the new heavens and the new earth, under the eternal rule of Christ in the Kingdom of God.

I am anxious to hear what you have to say. If you embrace this very old ancient paradigm it will revolutionize the way you think about worship and the way you plan worship from week to week. (I've also addressed this same matter in the next issues of Worship Leader magazine.)

Bob Webber
Myers Professor of Ministry
Director of M.A. in Worship and Spirituality
Northern Seminary


  • At 10:22 AM, Blogger Dan Wilt said…

    Thanks for the gift of this thought, Robert.

    This refresh of our thinking corresponds so beautifully with the well-known words of Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons: "The glory of God is a human being, fully alive."

    I.e. There is a resonant word in that quote that often astounds me, and your post this month affirms it's energy. God is active within the human being, as well as without, and the fountain of our expressed worship is the overflow of the springs of His vivifying activity in our souls.

    In other words, God as "subject" in the worship equation keeps the story fixed on Him as immanent Prime Mover, invites us into an transformation He is resolutely performing in us, and an exaltation He is subsequently drawing from us.

    This God-instigated worship activity in us corporately, then (and possibly secondarily - Wright) in us individually, leaves room for a response that is fully in accord with the reality of the indwelling Christ, with our ImageBearer nature and the worship themes of both immanence and transcendence.

    From us rises a fragrant, exhuberant display of worship -- as God inspires all our human faculties to direct thanks and praise to Him.

    Subject speaks of the Actor. Object speaks of the Actee. With you and the stream of the historic saints, I embrace God as Subject in the worship equation and will lead others in that direction.


  • At 11:31 AM, Blogger Dan Sullivan said…

    I think this is a valid and vital point. But the connotation of "subject" can be troublesome without definition. God being the subject does not mean that worship is "subjective", for that would make us the subject, rather than him.

    Worship implies someone is the object of worship, but that does imply a one-way action on our part. My reading of church history suggests belief in a living Christ, in fact some post-reformation theologians have lamented that a merely memorial view of Communion robbed the church of that sense of Christ as living. If we only remember his death in "history", we lose emphasis on his present life.

    But the trap of the last generation to objectify God too much is equalled by the the trend of this generation to have a "subject" that is not God but man. I fear that seeking an "experience" of God's presence can make US the center of emphasis. But we are to walk by faith, not sight.

    Perhaps a balance, where there is an "objective" truth that God is present in his Word and Christ is present in the covenant meal of communion will give us something solid to plant our feet on. Then we can safely emphasize that God is the initiator - and truly the subject of Worship.

  • At 7:23 AM, Blogger John Lynch said…

    To me, this seems like an extension of the predestination vs. free agency debate. The idea of God as SUBJECT leans toward His total sovereignty. The supposedly opposing notion of God as OBJECT inclines itself toward humanity's free agency.

    But doesn't Scripture heartily affirm both without feeling the need to explain the paradox? I mean, isn't this one of those things where we humbly acknowledge that God might've made something bigger than our finite minds can make sense of?

    And if God is sovereign AND we are responsible... then isn't the answer to your question of God as object or subject simply "Yes"?

    Thanks for stimulating this thought, Bob! Blessings!

  • At 5:38 AM, Blogger Jake-M said…

    In the beginning, God.

    We know that this is referring to the triune God, three in one, and that God is love.
    If God is love, then there is no selfishness to be found in him.
    So if there is no selfishness in God, nothing in him that wants and craves for his own good, AND that he is love, then I think he created the Universe, and all that is in it, so there was an object for his love, an object for it to reach out to, and be received by.

    I don't think that God wants us to worship him for his own sake (by which I mean that it isn't his own wellbeing that he is concerned with ), but rather because in doing so we come closer to him, and and the object of his love can be transformed by the experience.

    Robert, you suggest that if God is the subject of worship, then it is God who works and acts in worship. Further you suggest that he works and acts in worship so that we, his people, can be formed by the story of God.

    I think we have our own story that has been crafted by God, interwoven with his, but uniquely ours (at least for now).

    That being said, I agree with you in the idea that when God is the OBJECT of worship it seems to resemble a situation where we look out from where we are and are inspired by God's involvement in our story. While God as subject seems to reflect times when our stories converge.

  • At 6:05 AM, Blogger Dan Wilt said…

    I think this last comment is helpful, but misperceived in one detail.

    "I don't think that God wants us to worship him for his own sake (by which I mean that it isn't his own wellbeing that he is concerned with), but rather because in doing so we come closer to him, and and the object of his love can be transformed by the experience."

    While this sounds noble on the part of God, I think this misses a key aspect of the created order.

    I think that such a Self-focused worship seems amiss to us ("for His own sake") because we are used to fallen human beings falsely drawing glory to themselves.

    Michael Jackson doesn't deserve it. Neither does Jessica Simpson. Neither do we, and we know our own hearts. The greatest deception may indeed be to believe that we are worthy of universal honor.

    Yet, what do we do with a God who is indeed perfect, flawless, and fashioned an entire created order to celebrate Him? Was it just all about us, and creation?

    No. I think the Story finds its full order, its penultimate place (and God knows this) when for His own sake, and our own sake, we worship.

    Why? Because He is worthy, and He knows it. He also knows that if we acknowledge that worth, we won't be lost when we look at the glory of man - made in His image.

    I.e. The universe is aligned rightly when One who is truly worthy of adoration is adored, both for His own sake and for our sake.

    God has both given and received in the worship exchange, and so have we.

  • At 7:44 AM, Blogger Jake-M said…

    "God has both received and given"

    Dan, that puts words to a thought I couldn't quite grasp, namely that there are two things (at least) going on in worship. God is honoured because he is worthy, jealous like a lover should be, but again, as you say God is perfect. A humanly jealous lover is likely top be angry for selfish reasons, while God's jealousy for our love and attention comes from the fact that he knows there is no better or greater relationship possible than our relationship to him.

    But I am not yet fully willing to give up this idea: I exist so that God can love me. I don't believe he was filling his own needs when he made me. I was imagined, and created, and though this world is fallen, God saw fit to put me into it. And he did so out of love for me, out of love for his idea that was Jacob. Or Dan, or Robert.

    I worship God because he is worthy, and because he wants me to. I don't have to, but I know he deserves it, and somehow enjoys it (and so do I). And further more, my connection with the one who loves me is strengthened, and that is good, very good.
    But I guess I don't see how "Perfect God's" place is improved by it. I don't mean to be selfish or overly ego-centric, but I really do wonder sometimes what is in it for God. I sing "It's all about You, Jesus." but in that I could be saying "to me, It's all about you."

    I wonder if it is not God who is improved, or even necessarily us, but it is the connection between us that worship creates and establishes. An acknowledgement on our behalf that God is unlike us, seperate from us in his perfect Holiness, and an acknowledgement that we, too, would like to be holy.

    Ya'll are the experts, help me out here.

  • At 12:41 PM, Blogger Dan Wilt said…

    Jake, I'll respond as time allows, and maybe others have thoughts. These are rich questions.

    You also pointed out a misuse of the word "penultimate" in my earlier comment. You are very right! Thank you.I.e. It should simply read "ultimate."

    Maybe Robert's blog editor could fix that for me, and delete this part of the post.

  • At 9:33 AM, Blogger DGH said…

    I just read an interesting artcle in Relevant Magazine ( Can't for the life of me remember it author or title...I know I know i should start remembering these things...but....the author suggested the same example of God as the subject or if the focus is us, "For example in most worship songs the songs are always talking about our hands being lifted up...or how much we love God, etc....) I found it interesting and I and still soaking in this pot of simmering thought about the whole matter...but thank you for your thought Dr. Webber.

    The last things I remember from my Seminary Classes is how we need to inculd the communal understanding in worship and stop the "I's" and start the "We's" promote the comunial aspect of what Worship should community...but here we can also add to allow God to be the focus of our worship...and not our eyes, hands....but where is the line drawn (ballance) between helping christians know who and how to worship? Maybe I am going down a side road...but it sure is fun to think about, heh..... KUTPs!!!!

  • At 4:39 PM, Blogger Loy Mershimer said…

    I struggled with this 'God as subject' concept of worship, too -- for the same language reasons of objective/subjective divide mentioned by Dan.

    One thing that helped me was to think of it this way: God is the object of our praise, the subject of our worship. Think of it in grammatical terms: in the sentences of our worship, is God the subject, where we see His person and works in accord with revelation? Or, in our worship, are we [I] most often the subject?

    And, to go a step further: God as subject [grammatical/word] of worship grounds worship objectively [philosophically/spiritually]. It moves worship out of the realm of self-as-center into God-center. It allows the person and work of God, the saving acts of God, primacy in worship -- as well they should be. It is in response to the person of God that our true transformation comes: more than a feeling or fleeting emotion, it is actual encounter with objective truth [which is emotional, yes!], but vitally transformative. In the order of salvation, the subjective is in response to objective: salvific, transformative worship follows this order.

    Of course, this means that there ARE subjecive parts to worship! It is just that these subjective [human] parts are in response to the proper subject [Person] of God.

    Working this out practically, it would look something like this: Entering the presence with praise on our lips, and then hearing again of His actual person and works [in songs and prayers]. In response to this [actual, objective] subject of God, we confess a. who His is and b. who we are. In this confession we are opening to hear more of His person, which we receive in Word, read and preached. In response to this revelation, great detail of God as subject...we will again confess and receive [subjectively -- feeling -- confirmation -- commitment!] of His grace, perhaps feeding at His table, or at least responding [personally, yet within community] to His presence and grace. We receive this awareness and transformation [by faith, but properly touching emotions] and then are re-called, re-sent into the world.

    Does this help? Or is it only more confusing?



  • At 12:48 PM, Blogger jay wright said…

    I am a music pastor, and on a weekly basis I face the challenge of planning services and leading a diverse group of people to worship. If the narrative of our worship each week is too pedantic, then I immediately have lost 35-45% of my people. On the other hand, if things are too subjective and romantic, then we have gone awry (not simply because certain people won't respond, but because our worship must be faithful to the revelation of who God is.) I really appreciate Sullivan's comments about maintaining a balance between the subjective and objective in the midst of worship. Marva Dawn makes a strong case for "maintaning the dialectical poles" of subjectivity and objectivity in her book "How Shall We Worship." We see that the Psalms contain examples of both. But ultimately all of our efforts to praise, to minister before, to adore, and to magnify God end up at His feet. And so, the content of our worship must be the Triune God as both object and subject.

  • At 7:16 PM, Blogger Loy Mershimer said…

    It might be helpful for those who are crafting worship to post successful examples of their worship services -- ones where perhaps the goal of proper objective/subjective balance is met...

    Anyone feel brave enough to post their recent worship structure/content?


  • At 1:54 PM, Blogger jay wright said…

    I'm definitely not brave enough to do that, and I honestly don't know if I've done this very successfully, ever. I'm still learning/testing what vehicles I can use in my ministry setting to try and give us this balance.

  • At 11:19 PM, Blogger Loy Mershimer said…

    Thanks, Jay. I appreciate your struggle and your honesty. I'd be interested in personally seeing your work in this area, though, even if you don't feel like posting it in public.

    These are issues which I wrestle with, also.

    Thanks again,

    P.S. email: loymershimer [at] [just put in the @ symbol and remove spaces].

  • At 4:19 PM, Blogger Dan Wilt said…

    I might add just one more thought to this thread, lest we lose a great theme of the Story refreshed in a postmodern age.

    Human effort in worship is a beautiful thing, just as human effort in relationship is a beautiful thing.

    To exert is to commit, to commit is to offer, to offer is to yield, to yield is to surrender, and to surrender is to worship.

    God does not surrender for us. We surrender.

    God's stirs worship in our hearts as wind stirs waters by His indwelling presence, but He does not enter into worship for us anymore than a spouse loves themselves on behalf of the other.

    Intimacy happens when two hearts choose the path of self-disclosure above self-protection; vulnerablity above guarded preservation of power.

    Intimacy doesn't just happen when the lights are low, and the music tender. Intimacy can be loud and celebrative, or soft and sweet.

    Intimacy is a posture, a positioning of one heart toward another.

    Transcendence and immanence swell in an accordant dance of both admiration and mutual affection.

    The self-revealing God invites us to self-reveal to Him.

    The perichoresis, the mutual indwelling, the circular dance of Father, Son and Holy Spirit then open the circle for a roustabout with the one who worships.

    Our participation is a gift we offer in worship, though never possible without the stimulating movement of the Spirit of God within.

  • At 11:42 AM, Blogger Pete Heiniger said…

    I'm all for simplicity in this verbose world. What distinguishes prayer from song? Why is worship seen so often as song only? Does not the Scripture speak of the HS carrying my heartspeak (cries of my heart) to God even if my humanity cannot get the job done verbally?

    Now my heart, while being open to God, sharing in His presence in Spirit, transforming through sanctification - is my heart. Life is choice. To deny free will is deny life and relationship.

    Worship is not instrumental or non-instrumental - it is heart - all heart.

    I can sing "Faith is the Victory" and yet in my heart be saying to God "Yet, Father help me in my unbelief."

    I can sing "Trust and Obey" and yet in my heart say to my loving Father, "Father, I just lost my daughter to cancer. Please forgive me because my trust and obedience are on short flight right now. My picture of you is blurry."

    To me worship is a matter of free will where I open my heart to God and pros - "toward" - and kuneo - "to kiss" (worship) Him.

    I do think Robert needs to be a bit more clear here. Robert, are you meaning this to be a either calvinism - or arminian - or open - question???

    Are you saying that God as subject - means he is leaning toward and kissing himself through me (Calvinism)?

    Or are you God as subject - can work in any view - open, arminian, or calvinism??

    I'm sorry for this question to a question. Chalk it up to a very difficult seminary professor who always laid traps into questions.

    Maybe someone could tell me - can you say, as Robert does here, God is subject - and still hold a open view like Boyd or Pinnock or Sanders?

  • At 3:05 PM, Blogger jay wright said…

    Pete I appreciate your comments -and agree that song is prayer. I don't think this is a Calvin/Arminian paradigm at all. I think it has to do with the things we say, sing, enact, hear, pray, etc. in worship and knowing why we do those things. I think (at least I think) that what Robert is saying, in part, is that God must be the subject of everything we do in worship. Now, if you're like me, you have an affinity for what's going on in the contemporary realm with worship and music; you value a deep and intimate relationship with God, and you see the interaction of this relationship in all its different forms as worship - this coincides with your proskuneo comment. I agree with you. But, what if the content of our songs and prayers etc. wasn't primarily "about" us i.e. "I worship you. .; I exalt thee; I bless the name of the Lamb of Glory", but rather just about the Lamb of Glory and do the worshiping, exalting, blessing by singing, praying, hearing about Him?
    When I first read Dr. Webber's article, I jumped back and said, "But we are instructed to bring a sacrifice of praise, we're told praise the Lord, to ascribe to the Lord," and immediately I disagreed. But in studying further and seeing that the content of worship must be the Trinity and His Gospel, I realized that everything we do should be done to and for God (Col. 3:17). So, why can't we sing about Him, and even though the language doesn't say "I sing to you", we still sing to Him. Does this make sense?
    This has thought process has really freed me up in my personal worship and public worship leadership, and I'm so thankful for that.

  • At 4:59 PM, Blogger Pete Heiniger said…

    Jay, Thank you for your comments. I agree with everything you have said.

    It is the way that the question was phrased that made me think of it in the calvinism/arminian/open light.

    "Note that I ask "Is God the object of our worship? If God is an object "up there" and "out there" who wants us to praise, worship, and adore Him, then worship arises from within me. It is something I do. I praise God, I honor God, I reverence God, I exalt God."

    Now here Robert is saying that worship with "God as object" is something I do. In the paragraph following "God as subject," he alludes to it as something that God does. Thus the reason I ask about one's leanings - is that - isn't the question asking me to decide whether worship is something I do or something God does?

    Again, with what you said, I could not agree more. I am wondering, though, if this is what Robert is asking.

    If it is just simply the wording of our worship - by all means - take me out of the picture. I am all for the worship that is centered completely on God. But is that what he means -a song that centers on what "I do" (i.e. I Love To Tell the Story).

    Or is Robert asking me and you and anyone else to decide between whether we are the active ones in worship - or God is the active one in worship.

    It is a lot like one's view of salvation. If I believe that God is 100% behind my salvation - then I can play absolutely no part.

    Or I can see God as 100% behind Grace and Love (and much more). And I must respond to that Grace and Love - with faith. In the end, I have no faith without God's love and grace first. But, without a choice to respond - how am I free?

    So, in worship - God is perhaps 100% behind himself (He is love, he is full of grace and mercy, he is the righteous judge, he sent his Son, He is God, etc.) Yet, I must respond in worship - my prayer, my song, my service, etc.

    Is any of this making sense? I feel like I am royaly confusing myself, not to even think of how confusing it must sound to all of you.

    I do find that songs simply on God - and that is it - are the one's that help me see Him and only Him, instead of it being about me. I want to see Him in my worship. Him alone.

    Thank you Jay.


  • At 2:59 PM, Blogger jay wright said…

    I can't stand it when there's no action on the board. How's everyone doing? Pete thanks for the affirmation.
    It's so funny because we all basically say the same thing in different ways. It's good to know we're all traveling the same road.


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