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What Our Corporate Worship Services Need

You don’t have to spend much time with me to know I love the local church. I wholeheartedly believe in the irreplaceable value of the corporate worship service. Regardless of where you worship (Arizona or Africa) or with whom you worship (Presbyterians or Baptists), two ingredients must be present in each worship service: transcendence and immanence.

What Our Corporate Worship Services Need

Big words, I know. But bear with me. This may edify you as you consider the worship services at your church.

Transcendence and Immanence

God is transcendent and immanent. When theologians describe God’s relationship with his creation, these are the words most commonly used, although there is not consensus on how these terms are defined. Transcendence refers to God’s majesty and holiness, whereas immanence refers to God’s nearness and presence. 1 Transcendence means God is really big and holy and serious. Immanence means God is relational and warm and compassionate. Transcendence emphasizes that God is other — that he is the sovereign God of the universe, the one who rules and reigns over all creation, the one who has neither rivals nor equals. He is a consuming fire with a holy zeal for his glory. Immanence, on the other hand, reflects God’s character qualities of love, patience, and kindness. It reminds us that God is forgiving and personal and accessible. God is transcendent and immanent.

Our corporate worship services should reflect the character of God. In other words, as we read Scripture and pray and serve communion and give announcements, we should display both God’s transcendence and immanence through the service.

Don’t Go Too Much in One Direction

Deficiencies occur when worship services reflect too strongly one over the other or when they only reflect one character trait (i.e. when they are only transcendent or only immanent).

Worship services that only reflect God’s immanence are shallow. The music may seem like a production, there are all kinds of announcements, the preacher never mentions sin or wrath, and the service has more of a leadership and community bent than it does a theological one. It aims to exclusively reach unbelievers and skeptics with the ultimate goal of numerical growth. Everything about the service is comfortable, relatable, and warm for unbelievers.

Worship services that lean too much on being transcendent make God seem inaccessible. The architecture of the building makes you nervous looking at it. Throughout the service, you are standing up and sitting down several times, and not sure why. You fear talking to your neighbor because you might get in trouble. Everything is so dark, so bleak, so depressing. There is no joy in the room. You walk out of the service feeling exhausted and guilty.

Both kinds of services, I think, fail to strike the right balance between transcendence and immanence. When too immanent, we don’t reflect God’s holiness. When too transcendent, we make God seem inaccessible. Transcendence. Immanence. We need both.

Focus on Substance, Not a One-Size-Fits-All Service

What does a service look like that reflects both God’s transcendence and immanence? “It depends,” is the best answer. I can’t give you a cookie-cutter order of service example because there isn’t one. Of course, there are certain things Christians should do when we gather (e.g., read Scripture, preach the Word, pray, take the ordinances, etc.), but there is some freedom in putting together the order of service, even if you adhere to the regulative principle of worship. The worship service at your church will depend on the geographical location, denominational affiliation, culture of the church, and several other factors. You can compare two different orders of services against each other and still strike the right chord of transcendence and immanence in both. It’s not about adding a responsive reading or two, but ensuring that the service properly reflects what God is like.

Don’t uncritically adopt an order of service from that other church down the road. Part of your ministry is to understand the people in your church, and minister to them in ways that will reach them. Not every worship service needs to look identical to model faithfulness.

The Sunday corporate worship service is for Christians. And those Christians should feel fed at your services. They should feel like they are getting something at church that they can’t get in the world. Give them transcendence and immanence.

* A pastor friend mentioned the idea of transcendence and immanence in corporate worship in a conversation a few years ago and that idea in part inspired this piece. Also, a conversation with a mentor of mine from reading Christoper Watkins’s book, Biblical Critical Theory, helped provide inspiration for this article.

Notes:

  1. John Frame, The Doctrine of God, p. 103-104.

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