What does worship have to do with theology?

AS A WORD (LOGOS) about God (Theos), worship expresses the church’s deepest beliefs about God.

For example, the doctrine of the Trinity is set forth in many traditional worship texts, e.g. the Gloria Patri (“Glory be to the Father … ”), the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, and the Benediction (“ … and the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit be among you … ”).

Some texts expound our belief in Jesus’ divinity, e.g. the greeting “The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ”, and likewise the Gloria in excelsis with its several divine titles for Jesus (Lord, God, Christ, Holy One, Most High).

Hymns and other songs also express doctrine. The Trinity is proclaimed in hymns such as “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty” and “Holy God, We Praise Your Name”. Beloved favourites such as “Just as I Am” and “O For a Thousand Tongues” proclaim the doctrine of salvation through Jesus Christ.

Most Easter hymns expound the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection, and the church’s hope for the perfection of creation is expressed in Charles Wesley’s “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”.

As a source and expression of the church’s theology, worship is an important part of each Christian’s spiritual and theological formation. Worship is therefore a “school” of theology. This means that worship leaders need to select prayers and songs with care, making sure that texts adequately express the church’s doctrinal beliefs. A steady diet of theologically defective worship materials will lead to the formation of a defective church!

It would be advantageous for churches to provide for the theological education of their worship leaders so that these persons might grow in their ability to plan theologically sound worship. At the same time, pastors are to exercise theological oversight of the worship and music ministry, offering advice and guidance to musicians regarding their selections.

But worship does more than express beliefs about God; worship is an encounter with God. Worship is pure or enacted “theology” because its biblically-mandated actions allow us to experience the person and presence of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Word of God proclaimed in Scripture readings and sermons is Christ Himself speaking to us. In John 5:39 Jesus declares that the (Hebrew) Scriptures give testimony to Him, and in Luke 10:16, Jesus promises that He will speak through the church’s preaching.

Whenever we listen to the Scriptures being read and their interpretation in preaching, we hear the living Christ Himself addressing us!

Additionally, the Lord’s Supper also offers an encounter with the Risen Lord. In 1 Corinthians 10:16, Paul states that sharing in the bread and cup is a participation in the body and blood of Christ. The words of Jesus at the “Last Supper” (“This is my body given for you”, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you … ”) likewise indicate that partaking of the Supper is a means of experiencing fellowship with Him.

Some theologians hold that the Walk to Emmaus story in Luke 24 is a narrative description of Christian worship and its meaning: the Scriptures are interpreted to speak of Jesus, and Christ is made known in the breaking of the bread (Holy Communion).

For Luke, these two main actions of worship (proclaiming the Scriptures and sharing a meal) are full of Christ!

Because worship is about the experience of God through Word and Meal, worship leaders are well-advised to exercise good discernment in planning. To be resisted are the temptations to downsize the reading of the Word to just a verse or two, and to make the Lord’s Supper a quick passing of bread and wine (or juice) through the congregation with very little said about the meaning or purpose of the Supper.

Perhaps there is a concern to “save time” or a lack of appreciation for the importance of these things in worship.

Worship leaders are therefore encouraged to grow in their understanding of worship so that the actions surrounding Word and Meal may be carefully planned and led.

Because worship is both a source of theology and an experience of theology – a word from God – worship leadership is a vital task. Worship leaders need to be “little theologians” and churches must help them to attain this goal.

May God aid us in this endeavour!

The Rev Dr. Jeffrey Truscott, Lecturer in Worship and Liturgy at Trinity Theological College, is also the Chaplain of the college.