Far then Near – Worshipping the Transcendent then Immanent God of Wonder(s)

          Worship pastors and worship leaders 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, character, and nature 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. 

            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.

            As we lead our congregations to celebrate God’s amazing work of grace through Christ’s great redemptive act on the cross, we must 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 we tell the story of the gospel, reenact its profound passion, and celebrate the wonder of redemption, we must always remember that the gospel does not begin at the cross but begins squarely 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.

            God’s transcendence singularly provides 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 (or incompletely discerned) 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.  Without transcendence perpetually operating in the foreground of religious thought, both God’s transcendence and God’s immanence are diminished leaving incomplete and malformed thoughts about the character and nature of God. Transcendence unlocks the full meaning of immanence and uniquely provides the answer to the question, “who is this God who draws near?”  Immanence prior to or to the exclusion of God’s transcendence weakens the church, diminishes a believer’s capacity to worship rightly, and ultimately creates a picture of God in the minds of Christians that is incomplete, inaccurate, and dangerous.  Likewise, transcendence without immanence renders a believer’s thoughts about God as distorted and his knowledge of God truncated.              

            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.

This article is written by Chuck T. Lewis, Ph.D.  Dr. Lewis serves as Associate Professor of Church Music and Worship at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Lewis is also currently serving as Worship Pastor at Hurstbourne Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky and has formerly served as Worship Pastor of the First Baptist Church of West Palm Beach, Florida.