Wednesday 3 January 2007

Ten propositions on worship

by Kim Fabricius

1. Why worship God? Because God is to be worshipped. Worship is a holy tautology.

2. Does worship make God present? No, worship presupposes God’s presence. But God’s presence is unlike any other. “God does not exist,” said Kierkegaard, “he is eternal.” Compared to all existents, God’s presence is an absence. The Holy of Holies is empty. If worship is fundamentally eucharist, you could say that it is “thanks for nothing”. Without this apophatic point of departure, worship inevitably becomes idolatrous.

3. Is worship necessary? Not for God it isn’t. God does not need our worship – because God is worship, the perichoretic adoration of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Worship is, however, necessary for us, for it is only as homo adorans, participating in the very life of the Holy Trinity, that we become truly human. As the psychologist says in Peter Shaffer’s play Equus, “If you don’t worship, you’ll shrink.”

4. Does worship please God? The question’s assumption is right: God is the audience of worship, not the congregation (though you wouldn’t know it from many an act of worship). But whether or not the audience approves depends. Worship pleases God when we wash our hands before we raise and fold them, that is, when our praise begins in penitence – and then issues in the politics of peace. Then we are all reading from the same hymn sheet. Otherwise see Amos 5:21-24.

5. How should worship begin? But worship never begins, or, rather, it has always already begun. You could say that we are always late for worship, because we always enter worship in medias res, the praise unceasing of the communio sanctorum. Never forget that when there are only three old ladies and a dog in the pews.

6. How should worship proceed? Worship is a dialogue, or, better, a two-beat tempo of revelation and response, grace and gratitude. Worship is also an ellipse, spiralling around the foci of word and sacrament. And worship is a time machine that takes us back to the future. And the various liturgies? They are aides-memoirs, not incantations, synopses of the unfinished story we are invited to indwell and improvise; therefore they should not aim at closure but make space for contemplation and imagination.

7. How should worship end? With an ellipsis…. For when the liturgy is over, the service (λειτουργία) begins. Leaving the church is the ultimate liturgical act: Ite, missa est. On Romans 12:1-2, Ernst Käsemann observes that “the cultic vocabulary serves a decidedly anti-cultic thrust. Christian worship does not consist in what is practiced at sacred sites, at sacred times, and with sacred acts. It is the offering of bodily existence in the otherwise profane sphere.” Or as Michael Marshall puts it: “You do not become a Christian by sitting in the pew anymore than you become a car by sitting in the garage.”

8. What should we get out of worship? Wrong question. Worship is not a utility but an offering, i.e. a sacrifice, an economy of grace that interrupts and critiques the feverish cycles of production and consumption – which is why the collection is not fund-raising but cultural critique. If you want relevance, excitement, or profit, go to a rally, a concert, or the stock exchange. To put it most counter-culturally: Blessed are the bored, for they will see God.

9. What about people who don’t worship? We are responsible for them. Hence intercessions. But more: all worship is a vicarious act – in fact, Christ’s vicarious act – so that when we come to worship, we bring the whole world with us. Worship is the end of “us” and “them” – and a sneak preview of the reconciliation of all things.

10. And what about worship as evangelism, education, ethics? Of course, but as the blessings, not the motives, of worship – blessings given as worship reconditions the habits of our hearts and reshapes our disordered characters.


Aric Clark said...

Someday you need to publish a little book, an anthology of all of these wonderful "10 propositions"... Now onto the critique...

I love and appreciate your emphasis, repeated in different ways throughout these propositions on worship as something that just is. God is worship. We join in the worship that is already there. We worship to become truly human, not to accomplish something etc... I absolutely agree, however, this line of thought I think has a bad habit of denegrating things like "relevance, excitement, profit" and though you touch on this briefly in the tenth proposition by suggesting that these things fall under of the category of "blessings" rather than "motives" I don't think you give this area fair consideration.

Amos Wilder says (and I agree) that going to church should be like "approaching an open volcano where the world is molten and hearts are sifted. The altar is like a third rail that spatters sparks; the sanctuary is like the chamber next to an atomic oven: there are invisible rays and you leave your watch outside."

The point is that things like relevance, excitement, profit, evangelism, education, ethics etc.. are not merely blessings. They are the fruits the spirit gives through authentic worship. We know worship by these fruits, not as an abstract concept. You are correct that we cannot confuse the fruits for the tree, but it is not a vain exercise to look for the fruits, to expect the fruits.. indeed where the fruits are absent we are justified in wondering whether we are really worshipping. In that passage in Amos 5 God is condemning the worship at the temple precisely BECAUSE it doesn't issue in the fruit of justice.

My point is that people have far too LOW of expectations coming to worship, not too HIGH. People shouldn't come just to be entertained, obviously, but neither should they permit worship to go on being boring and irrelevant to their lives - because then it isn't worship.

Clearly we must take care to not let worship become a matter of personal taste and petty self-interest, but equally we ought to strive to make our worship fruitful.

graham old said...

Always late for worship... I'm gonna nick that! ;-)

I don't completely agree with the 'blessed are the bored' comment. Doesn't it say something about our God if the worship of Him doesn't thrill us? Isn't it more to his glory (and thus more like true worship?) if we would rather be in His presence than anywhere else?

Though I abhor his theology in most respects, I do think that Piper has something to teach us in this regard. (I also like his linking of missions and worship: missions happens because worship doesn't.)

Bless you.

Anonymous said...

Hi Miner and Graham.

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I am always humbled by the thinking good people like yourself put into my thinking that makes my thinking better.

Miner, your idea of the "fruit" of worship trumps my term "blessing". But although I am not as explicit as you would like, the idea is not just there in 10, it is there in 4, 7 and even 9. The reason why I am not more explicit is that my writings are always occasional, and I think that the contemporary cultural occasion demands that I tip the liturgical see-saw in the way I have. Also, as you must know by now, I am prone to the deployment of hyperbole and exaggeration (something I probably absorbed from Barth). But I certainly take your point. Thanks again.

And, yes, low expectations of worship - I think, ultimately, because our worship is often, in effect, unitarian, even confrontational - God is up there and we are down here, and we face each other across a great divide, and worship becomes a kind of shouting to make ourself heard. In truly trinitarian worship, we don't face God, we enter into, participate in God. Does that make sense to you?

And, Graham, "Blessed are the bored" - there's my hyperbole again! Actually, I have stolen the idea from James Alison. In an essay entitled "Worship in a Violent World" from his new book Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-In (2006), he writes: "When people tell me that they find the Mass boring, I want to say to them: it's supposed to be boring, or at least seriously under-whelming. It's a long-term education in becoming un-excited, since only that will enable us to dwell in a quiet bliss which doesn't abstract from our present or our surroundings or our neighbour, but which increases our attention, our presence and our appreciation for what is around us."

Michael J. Pailthorpe said...

Thanks Kim for your propositions. I especially like points 8 and 9 as I have thinking lately about how we approach worship through faith, through the vicarious faith of Christ and not through the desires that are evident in how we approach a concert or cinema.

T.B. Vick said...

Hey Kim, great post. I think the last part of point 2 needs to be further qualified - "If worship is fundamentally eucharist, you could say that it is 'thanks for nothing'."

I'm not so sure I fully agree with this statement, but have not formulated a thorough enough response to it as of yet. At my own blog I'm doing a series on worship and some of what you have said in this post I'll will attempt to further detail in my own series. Thanks for the post!

Anonymous said...

Hi T.B.

Of course you are right - don't take "thanks for nothing" too literally - it's really just an emphatic way of making my apophatic point - though even when we say "Thanks for nothing!" we mean thanks for something, but something we didn't expect and aren't really happy about - which if worship begins in "recoil" (see my first proposition in "Ten Propositions on Preaching") . . . if you catch my drift!

thegreatswalmi said...

Thanks for all of this, but particularly number 8. As a "worship leader" (not my favorite term), i'm constantly challenged to make worship more "interesting." Worship as offering is all too rare in my experience.

I'd love to hear an expanded and extrapolated exposition of "apophatic eucharist"...fascinating.

Anonymous said...

This is wonderful, just like your 10 points on prayer. Have you written any more such propositions?? I particularly like the James Alison quote - it reminds me of something I recently read from one of the Atlas martyrs. I don't have it with me, but it was (written during a time of ongoing crisis) about how the chanting of the Office sustains and carries one, in its very ordinariness. It keeps going. The psalms confront one with the reality and violence of the world, and prevent one from escaping from it...


Anonymous said...

Hi Theoblogian.

Do you know Graham Greene's superb Monsignor Quixote (1982)? The climax of the novel occurs when Father Quixote, in a delerium after a car accident, rises from his bed in the monastery to which he has been taken, makes his way to the church, and begins to conduct the Mass - except there is no paten and chalice, no bread and wine!

"Father Quixote seemed totally unaware that there was no Host, no paten waiting on the altar. He raised empty hands, 'Hoc est enim corpus meum,' and afterwards he went steadily on without hesitation to the consecration of the non-existent wine in the non-existent chalice. . .

"His Communion was approaching. . . For a few seconds Father Quixote remained silent. He swayed a little back and forth before the altar . . . but then he spoke again: 'Corpus Domini nostri', and with no hesitation at all he took from the invisible paten the invisible Host and his fingers laid the nothing on his tongue. Then he raised the invisible chalice and seemed to drink from it."

Perhaps take this text as "Notes Towards an Apophatic Eucharist"!

Anonymous said...

Hi Anonymous.

You are very kind. Ben has gathered together all my "Propositions" on a range of themes: go to the sidebar under "Popular Posts". I hope you find them helpful, as discussion-starters at least.


thegreatswalmi said...


love the anecdote. thanks so much for posting it.


Brandon Jones said...

Thanks Kim, this is a rebound in my opinion from the last offering. Among other things, for me worship is the blaring of the eschaton since I foolishly never pay attention to its whispers.

Ap said...


I like them. However, since I am a Catholic, I would have put more emphasis on the Paschal Mystery. The Cross *is* worship. Worship is primarily an act of God. And worship is not just adoration. Adoration becomes, as Pope Benedict XVI said, communion. The union of God and man glorifies God. Dietrich von Hildebrand's Liturgy and Personality is a good book on this.

my two cents...

Anonymous said...

Hi Apolonio.

Great to hear from you - and thanks for your "two cents" (more like two bucks!).

By the way, did you - or anyone else - take a close look at the picture opposite 9? It's from the Priscilla Catacomb Fresco (75-125) - depicting Roman women celebrating eucharist! Very outré!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Kim, for these wonderful thoughts, esp. numbers three, five, and seven. You've provoked the most honest words I've yet been able to manage on liturgy and the low church. As one who spends Sunday mornings with his (home) Mennonite church and Sunday and most weekday evenings at Mass, never quite sure how to live through both, there is nothing quite so pressing for me as working through these basic questions of Christian worship.

Ap said...


I don't think that's a eucharist. The painting depicts a love feast or "Lord's supper" or "agape." Christian love feasts did not necessarily include the Eucharist. D.G. Dix in his book The Shape of the Liturgy explains the love feast or Lord's Supper is not the Eucharist, quoting from Hippolytus's Apostolic Tradition to show that there were meals that were not eucharistic. Some of the Eastern Orthodox still practice this and some charismatic Catholics do it as well.

Also, to add something on worship, I should've said that worship is Christocentric, that is, it is the drama played out by Christ as the High Priest and the Sacrifice. In the Holy Spirit we partake of this role of Christ.

byron smith said...

Apolonio, I think Kim already made your final point about us participating in intratrinitarian worship in his point 3, although I take it that you are saying there is a particular trinitarian shape to this intratrinitarian life of worship: the Son by the Spirit adoring the Father. Balance but not strict interchangibility?

graham old said...

Thanks for the response, Kim. However, that doesn't really ease my concerns.

Does it glorify God to say that we find a rally more exciting than worshipping the living God?

I think there is a real danger that such stoic disinterested worship puts the focus more God than us (ironic, huh?). We end up being almost heroic as we put aside our interest to endure the dull act of worship. As such, our resolve and sacrificial duty are glorified.

I really did like the post. Honest! :-)

graham old said...

I meant to say: 'I think there is a real danger that such stoic disinterested worship puts the focus more on *us* that God.'

Aric Clark said...

Graham Old,

Amen. Though I think Kim's line of thought is a needed corrective in some parts of the church where too high a value is placed on what you "get" out of worship, personal tastes etc... I think that folk on the other side are just as in danger of missing real worship by persisting in their stoic disinterest.

God is NOT boring. Neither should worship of God be. We can't construct our worship out of slavery to our own desires, but neither should we disregard what is interesting, moving, impassioned, exciting... these are all signs of the presence of God.

Anonymous said...

Hi Miner.

I hear what you are saying, and "interesting, moving, impassioned, exciting" may indeed be human affections that go with the divine presence (and I certainly think it a crime to approach worship with "stoic disinterest"). However, I would insist that so too may be their opposites, as well as "negative" emotions like guilt, shame, anger, dread, despair - one has only to look at the Psalms.

Perhaps I could repeat number 9 in my "Ten Propositions on Prayer": "Do you have arid times of prayer? What else! Wherever did we get the idiotic and disabling idea that prayer must be a richly rewarding experience".

One of Freedom said...

Apolonio, that sounds very Tridintine to me. The idea that worship is a drama witnessed always leaves me cold. I much prefer the warmth restored in the liturgical renewal which surrounds and takes off from VatII. I've wanted to read The Shape of the Liturgy, almost ordered it a few times. I am more inclined to err on the otherside, while I don't think most Protestant communions are proper Eucharists, I do think that an agape feast has more Eucharistic potential than the typical Protestant communion (with some notable exceptions like the Lutheran communion). But then again my theology of the Eucharist is more grounded in what happens than in the ritual that surrounds the event.

Thanks for the 10 propositions Kim, timed perfectly to come out after I finally finished my series on Worship. I really enjoy your 10 proposition series.

Anonymous said...

Hi Frank.

The thanks is all mine - for your thanks, and for your own series on worship, which I've just been over to see. I'm glad I didn't see it before my own offering, or I might not have bothered!


Ap said...


What I said is Tridentine, but it is also Patristic and Vatican 2. The Constitution on the Liturgy says,

"Christ indeed always associates the Church with Himself in this great work wherein God is perfectly glorified and men are sanctified. The Church is His beloved Bride who calls to her Lord, and through Him offers worship to the Eternal Father. Rightly, then, the liturgy is considered as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. In the liturgy the sanctification of the man is signified by signs perceptible to the senses, and is effected in a way which corresponds with each of these signs; in the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members.From this it follows that every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree."

One of the temptations of the devil is to run away from the Paschal Christ, that it is not entertaining, that it is boring, that it is too difficult, or even "cold." But the Paschal Christ is the Father's absolute humble love for humanity. For that, men should be thankful (eucharistia).

One of Freedom said...

I'm not sure I'm getting your point, or maybe you are not getting mine. The issue isn't flight from the Paschal mystery, but the insistance on a celebration of the Eucharist that is unnecissarily narrow. For instance the exclusive drama played out between priest and God and only viewed on by the congregation. That is what is so troubling, to me, about the Tridentine liturgy. Far from fleeing the Paschal mystery, I want to see placed with the congregants can encounter that mystery for themselves.

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