The Rhythm of Transcendence and Immanence—
Reflections on Christian Worship of the God of Wonder(s):
A Special Word of Encouragement to Those who Lead Worship
(Blog Article Part 9)
As worship pastors, we have the unique privilege of placing the very words of worship into the mouths, hearts, and minds of the people we lead—an enormous assignment carrying with it profound implications. We have the responsibility not only of providing the words for the worshiper in the dialogue of worship but also, and more profoundly, of representing God, his words, his actions, his character, and his nature in the dialogue of worship. We must faithfully represent both sides of the worship conversation—the overtures of the Creator and the responses of the creature. The very idea that we are called upon to represent God in the discourse of worship should bring us to our knees in humble submission to God and to God’s word.
The Christian worship service is spiritually formational; therefore, it is a vitally important event in a believer’s life perhaps only trumped by his or her daily devotional life with God. Because the worship event is so important and formational, the worship service requires our thoughtful care and attention to the meticulous details of planning and preparing the drama of the worship dialogue that will be played out Sunday by Sunday in churches throughout the globe.
Worship pastors, to tell the story of God well, order and sequence matter. God was transcendent first before he was immanent. Convey God’s transcendence first in your worship service, either through song, through Scripture, through prayer, or through a brief reflection about God in his transcendent otherness. Where you start matters. Where you start can affect your final destination. Use the biblical models as your scriptural mandate to provide a theological substructure to your worship that incorporates the rhythm of transcendence then immanence throughout your worship service, but especially at its beginning.
Worship pastors, as you lead your congregations to celebrate God’s amazing work of grace through Christ’s great redemptive act on the cross, please remember that the cross and the gospel can only be most clearly understood against the backdrop of God’s holiness and his sovereignty, both of which represent profound transcendent attributes of God. As you tell the story of the gospel, reenact its profound passion, and celebrate the wonder of redemption, I implore you to remember that the gospel does not begin at the cross. As stated earlier, the gospel begins with this foundational truth: “God is holy”—arguably the most profound representation of the transcendent nature of God. The cross of redemption must always be considered through the lens of God’s transcendent wholly otherness in order for the gospel to be most clearly communicated. With transcendence in full view first, the starting point of the gospel becomes God and God’s holiness rather than man and man’s corruption by sin. As a result, the transcendence of God and the immanence of God in Christ will both be magnified to their appropriate levels of significance.
Worship pastors, always be aware that only God’s transcendence can provide the appropriate context for understanding most fully and completely God’s immanence. We must fight modern culture’s propensity to casually bypass the transcendence of God while running ill-equipped to embrace God’s nearness, God’s provision, God’s care, and God’s works on our behalf—all of which will be misunderstood without the appropriate transcendent contextualization. How often do we sidestep the mysterious, fearful, awe-full, righteous transcendence of God to embrace him primarily as the one from whom all blessings flow? Praising God for what he has done is not wrong; in fact we are commanded to praise him for his magnificent work on our behalf. However, it is a mistake to praise God for his work without establishing first who God is.
To reverse the “rush to immanence” propensity of modern times will require effort and intentionality. We must fight our own acculturated tendencies and inclinations and, as worship pastors, establish the transcendent otherness of God as we call our people to come in fear and trembling before a God who is above, beyond, and other than we are. Worship pastors, we must ensure that believers understand the God they worship, the wholly other, transcendent God for whom their transcendence-starved souls hunger. Then, the work of God and the blessings of God (expressions of his immanent care and concern) may be all the more valued and appreciated.
The following questions may prove helpful in developing a more intentional application of the rhythm of transcendence then immanence in your worship service planning and design:
1. What story am I telling about God?
2. What picture of God am I forming in the mind and heart of my congregation?
3. What biblical paradigms am I using to shape the services I lead?
4. Is my service design or service template a help or hindrance to painting an accurate picture of God?
5. Are the categories of transcendence and immanence significant players in my mind and heart as I prepare worship?
6 Does the rhythm of transcendence then immanence affect the way I select and sequence elements for worship services?
7. Is the foundational picture of God that I paint each Sunday grand, enormous, majestic, holy, sovereign, glorious, all-mighty, timelessly eternal, infinite, all-wise, and all-knowing?
8. Has the cultural “rush to immanence” affected the way I plan a worship service?
9. Do I focus more on what God does than who God is?
Finally, worship pastors, I encourage you to vigilantly examine the words of introduction, transition, or instruction that you speak in your services of worship. Words matter. Words communicate. Ask yourself, “What am I communicating about God, about his people, or about the world?” Words chosen carefully accomplish more than words chosen poorly. Write them out. Revise and craft your thoughts for maximum impact. Compare them to Scripture. Inform them with Scripture. God’s words will always be more powerful than human words. A carefully chosen word takes time, energy, effort, thought, and prayer. Yet, “like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances” (Prov 25:11 NASB). The impact on your congregation is worth the investment.
Also examine carefully the words that you place into your congregation’s mouths to say or sing. Meticulously scrutinize the lyrics of the songs you select to offer in the dialogue of worship. Write out lyrics to the songs for maximum apprehension of a song’s meaning. This will help you to know the message you are communicating as well as enable you to evaluate the lyrical content of each song. Concerning lyrical viability and biblical fidelity, ask: “What is the message of this song?” “What does the message communicate about the transcendence of God?” “What does the song teach about the immanence of God?” “What do the lyrics teach about God, man, or the relationship between God and the world?” “Are the lyrics scripturally informed and biblically faithful?” “Will the lyrics help to form a fuller and more accurate picture of who God is?” “Will the lyrics appropriately frame God’s love, care, and concern for his people in the appropriate context of God’s transcendent otherness?”
Your role as a worship pastor is notably consequential. You are a pastoral artist called upon weekly to paint a portrait of God for your congregation. God has given you the paint, the brush, and the canvass through his Word in order to craft momentous opportunities for weekly encounters for the gathered church with their God. Your role is to “inspire worshipers to see the true and holy God of glory,” to turn their gaze from the mundane to that which is eternal, to celebrate God for who he is, and then to celebrate what God does. You have been given stewardship of God’s story, God’s character, and God’s condescending grace and mercy that save undeserving sinful man. Remain true to the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3). In your freedom, employ sound biblical principles and models to form a solid theological infrastructure for your worship services. Much is at stake.
Rienstra and Rienstra, Worship Words, 19.
Allen P. Ross, Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2006), 37.
This blog article is written by Chuck T. Lewis, Ph.D. Dr. Lewis serves as Assistant Professor of Church Music and Worship at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Lewis is also currently serving as Worship Associate at Highview Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky and has formerly served as Worship Pastor of the First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach, Florida. Lewis’s complete research on the rhythm of transcendence and immense can be viewed under the “Complete Dissertation” tab found at worshipdesignproject.com. Also, worshipdesignproject.com features the findings of a nationwide survey of the largest Southern Baptist Churches in America designed to discover the prime influencers on how worship pastors select elements to be included in their worship services and how those elements are sequenced.