Tell of the Great Things He Has Done

Just as the Christian doctrine of God should be rooted in the divine economy, so too Christian worship should rehearse the divine economy. God’s actions in history are the basis for both the knowledge and worship of the triune God. Liturgy, like theology, must not “float off into abstractions” about God. In other words, Christian liturgy is fundamentally an act of anamnesis, an act of rehearsing God’s actions in history:  past and future, realized and promised. Christians identify the God they worship by naming God as the agent of particular actions in history. Worship proceeds better by rehearsing eventful narratives of divine action—viewed iconically as reliable windows into divine life—than by re-stating rational deductions or abstract ideas. 

–John D. Witvliet, “The Trinitarian DNA of Christian Worship: Perennial Themes in Recent Theological Literature,” Colloquium Journal (Yale Institute of Sacred Music), 7-8

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Teaching Worship Leaders

We are training “player-coaches” in collaborative worship ministry.

—John D. Witvliet, “Teaching Worship as a Christian Practice,” For Life Abundant: Practical Theology, Theological Education, and Christian Ministry, 123

Wise Words

The following is a short list of themes that emerged out of classroom discussions of everything from the economics of church construction to what instructions to give a local parish flower committee. They are little theological vignettes, usually in the form of prescriptive statements about how we might best approach liturgy:    

o “We don’t worship to make God love us, but because God loves us. Nothing in worship should imply otherwise.”

o “Remarkably, God welcomes the entire range of human experience in our prayer. Honest prayer and balanced worship involve confession, thanksgiving, praise, and lament.”

o “We don’t sing in order for God to be present, but because God already is present. Nothing in worship should imply otherwise.”

o “Praise affirms and adores God. By implication, it denies false gods and idols. It protests gods our culture erects in place of God. Good liturgy should show both the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ implied in our praise.”

o “What we remember and what we anticipate define our identity. Good worship forms us in Christian identity by active recall of the past and active anticipation of the future. Good worship doesn’t dismiss the past as irrelevant or the future as too vague to anticipate.”

o “When we show up for worship, we don’t create the song of praise. We join in to a continuous song of praise that includes the music-like praise of animals and oceans, and believers from every time and space. Good liturgy helps us see that expansive vision.”

John D. Witvliet, “Teaching Worship as a Christian Practice,” in For Life Abundant: Practical Theology, Theological Education, and Christian Ministry, 139

Freed to Lead

It is very tempting to conceive of a worship leader as the spiritual engine that drives the worship train, or the highly-charged sideline coach who needs to keep her team fired up.

This puts all the focus on our agency, a vision that doesn’t square with the New Testament. In the New Testament, our agency as worshipers and leaders is intimately linked with what Jesus is doing as we worship and with what the Holy Spirit is doing as we worship.

Our congregation’s worship is not ultimately mediated by your level of or capacity for emotional engagement but by the perfect mediating work of Jesus, effected through the Holy Spirit. Praise God! This can free you—and all of us—to engage emotionally, but without a sense of burden that it all depends on us.

—John Witvliet, Reformed Worship 116, 45-46

Teaching (to) Worship

Instead of merely scrutinizing hymns, students can be asked to sing them. To the extent that it forms in students and faculty alike a deeper capacity for wonder, a genuinely doxological ethos may be as important for a course on worship as any particular assignment.

—John D. Witvliet, “Teaching Worship as a Christian Practice,” in For Life Abundant: Practical Theology, Theological Education, and Christian Ministry, 147  

Song in Its Proper Place

It is unscriptural to view worship songs as capable of initiating or guaranteeing God’s presence….Songs of worship cannot create, deliver, or otherwise command God’s presence. We cannot sing down the presence of God. The presence is already real. Music is an element in worship, like other elements, that helps us to interact conversationally with the triune God who is present, but music must not be given power on our terms.

—Constance Cherry, The Music Architect: Blueprints for Engaging Worshipers in Song, 67-68

“That would be more characteristic of Baal worship.”

—John Witvliet

Order in Worship

For some, an order of worship might feel like a straitjacket, but this is a false assumption. Consider jazz music. Jazz usually features spontaneous improvisation, but it only works because the musicians in the combo are following a regular, predictable, repeated chord structure. Without this structure, the music would be chaos. In jazz, as in worship, genuine spontaneity happens within structure.

—John Witvliet, “So You’ve Been Asked to Plan Worship”