Monday, September 5, 2011

Polarities of Worship

The basic idea of this post has been “a work in progress” for decades and has supplied me with numerous insights about Christian worship. I’m sure it will continue to be refined and revised. What follows is lengthier than usual for this blog; nevertheless, it is but a sketchy outline of a concept that I hope will provoke the reader’s thoughts as it has mine.

One way of understanding the phenomenon of worship is to look at three fundamental polarities and how they intersect in the liturgical arena. (See the diagram below.)

The three “polarities” are often dealt with separately without direct application to the experience of worship, much less with each other. Theology is, however, integral to ecclesiology, and both have a significant connection to the chronology of God’s history with humankind, God’s own in particular. All apply to worship.

All three “polarities” have inherent tensions which seek resolution, or not. Sometimes the tension is itself the dynamic that enlivens the relationship. Too easy a resolution may lead to a partial, and therefore flawed understanding.


The first is the polarity with God on one end and all of us on the other. The two are opposites: God the wholly (holy) Other, eternal, mighty and perfect, versus mere mortal humans, weak and sinful. The divine-human opposition produces theological tension.

This tension, however, approaches resolution because of the divine initiative and in the human response. God takes the initiative in the Incarnation, coming to us in Jesus Christ. True life is modeled by Jesus, yet even more, Jesus is the one extending God’s call to us to “repent” and turn our lives around facing toward the Almighty One. This initiative from God calls for a response from the human end.

Resolution is only approached, however, since sin and repentance is an on-going process. Always the distance between God and ourselves is great, in spite of the fact of God’s jumping the gap in the Incarnation. Immanence and transcendence must always be side by side, balancing one another.

God’s initiative in reaching out to humankind is impressive, in the sense that it leaves an impression on us and prompts us to express ourselves. The primary expression we make is recognition of God and the Incarnate Jesus Christ. Our expression often comes in the form of liturgical worship, including making commitments of self and possessions. Often our responses may be very subjective and personal, yet even as individuals, we are part of the humanity God is addressing.

All of this plays out in Christian worship in a sort of dialogue, a conversation, as it were, between God and the worshippers. Some liturgists stress this dialogue in arrangement of the elements of the service. For example, the Call to Worship in words of Scripture echoes God’s voice; this is answered by a prayer and/or hymn, a human expression of praise. Another example is the conversation around Confession: the summons to confession, the people’s prayer, and the assurance of God’s forgiveness. At the Table, worshippers hear the Invitation and respond with obedient eating and drinking. And so forth.


The second polarity involved in Christian worship has to do with time. At one end is Genesis, the beginning, creation, and at the other is Revelation, the end, the culmination of all history, the fulfillment of God’s promises.

In between is what is often referred to as “Salvation History”, the record of God’s activity in reaching out to humankind from start to finish. Stories of “saints” in the Old Testament and New tell of God’s on-going conversation with his children.

Salvation History does not end with us, however, but is projected into the future, all the way to the end. Therefore, many more “saints” are due on the scene to continue with God after we are gone. This polarity of history is not only about the past, but also about the future.

Salvation History calls for both remembering (anamnesis) and expectation or hope (prolepsis), including God’s promises for the end of time.

The tension between past and future needs to be kept in worship. To focus worship solely on the past or on the future in order to resolve the tension is to make worship antiquarian or otherworldly—both of which deny our participation in the Now of Salvation History, and ignore God’s active presence as well.

Awareness of the past, present, and future is clearly evident in Christian liturgy. The Confession section obviously deals with past failure, present repentance, and commitment to future obedience. The celebration of the Eucharist is replete with references to time: “Do this in remembrance of me.” - “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” – “Keep us faithful in your service until Christ comes in final victory, and we shall feast with all your saints in the joy of your eternal realm.” And so forth.

Time, in this view, is to be understood primarily as kronos time, calendar time, one day after another, year following year, through the centuries.


The third polarity present in Christian worship has to do with the fundamental nature of the Church of Jesus Christ.

At one and the same time, the Church is, and must be, a community of faith and a force for mission in ministry to the world. These two purposes of the church are, and will necessarily be, in constant tension. It is in that tension, that the dynamic of the Spirit springs forth.

On one end is what is called kononia, often translated as “fellowship”, although that is an insufficient and often misinterpreted word. Kononia refers to those God has called out (ekklesia) to be the people of God in the world. In the present discussion, they are the followers of Jesus, those who responded to his call through the centuries, who have recognized him present in their lives and in their worship.

By its very nature as God’s gathered people, the Church has an exclusive aspect to it. Clearly not everyone in the world belongs to that gathering—many are obviously outside. The Church’s exclusiveness, however, is never cause for judgment—God is full of surprises.

The Church is gathered by God for mutual support, for education and equipment, in carrying out its mission outside the church building. The mission of serving is called diakonia.

The service the Church is called to perform is the ministry of Christ, no less. To perform it, the gathered church must be scattered throughout the world. The Church is called to gather and refresh its life, then scatter and risk its life in following the Risen Christ.

The exclusiveness of the Church’s kononia is now countered by its diakonia; it is service, Jesus style, indiscriminately to anyone and everyone in need. Simultaneously though the Church is a people chosen by God, in the world it must be broadly inclusive in rendering service in God’s name. All of this finds expression in our prayers of intercession and petition—for every prayer carries within it a commitment to action to help it come true.

Obviously, for us to settle into one or the other, koinonia or diakonia, would be to minimize who and what we are called to be as the church of Jesus Christ. Koinonia-only leaves us in a pious version of a country club; diakonia-only leaves us indistinguishable from those who serve others without the strength of the risen Christ.


It is at this point that we see how the three polarities intersect.

Along the way of Salvation History, at the “Now” of our worship, we look fore and aft remembering God’s promises and hoping for their fulfillment.

In the life of the Church we gather to be strengthened for the scattered service we are sent to perform; and out in the world, we long for the refreshment and strength we receive in the community gathered.

And now as the Communion of Saints at worship, we perceive God Incarnate in our midst, and time changes. Time is no longer chronological time—now it is kairos, the moment of time that makes the difference, the spark of the Spirit that makes the Word spoken to me, the insight that changes the character of our congregation and calls us to new ministry. Kairos is God’s time, when God breaks through to us, overcoming our defenses, clearing away the debris of our lives and filling us with fresh enthusiasm.

When all three polarities are evident, Christian worship displays a vibrancy and vitality, celebrating God’s past actions and longing for God’s promised future, cultivating community and carrying out ministry in the world, as God ‘s overwhelming grace captures hearts and minds and souls. So the Church of Jesus Christ proceeds in faith and service to Almighty God by the power of the Spirit.

How do you find these polarities existing in your worship services? Do you try to resolve the tensions, or do you find them dynamic.?

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