Our worship team was discussing Psalm 63, especially verse 2: “I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory.” We were struck by how challenging it is to invite people to behold God’s power and glory. What advice do you have?
You have beautifully summarized the vocational call of all preachers, church musicians, artists, and other worship leaders: to invite people to behold God’s power and glory. Our work is invitational, not coercive, and we point away from ourselves to the living God.
Here is John Calvin’s summary of this call: “[God’s] benefits towards ourselves we extol as eloquently as we can, while we call upon others to reverence His Majesty, render due homage to His greatness, feel due gratitude for His mercies, and unite in showing forth His praise. In this way there is infused into their hearts that solid confidence which afterwards gives birth to prayer; and in this way, too, each one is trained to genuine self-denial, so that his will being brought into obedience to God, he bids farewell to his own desires” (John Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church, trans. Henry Beveridge (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publications, 1843), 43–44).
Worship as a Window
Think of worship as a window. In gathering prayerfully around Word and sacrament, we are invited to see “the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). As Calvin said of the Lord’s Supper: “the believer, when he sees the sacraments with his own eyes, does not halt at the physical sight of them, but by those steps . . . rises up in devout contemplation to those lofty mysteries which lie hidden in the sacraments” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, tr. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, n.d.), 4.14.5). Just as the Eastern Orthodox tradition instructs worshipers to look through and not at icons, so Calvin instructs us not merely to look at the elements of the Lord’s Supper, but to look through them to perceive the beauty, goodness, and glory of the ascended Jesus Christ and all his benefits.
If our public worship services are like a window or icon in this way, the temptation we face as worship leaders is that we will spend so much energy dressing, repairing, or cleaning this window that we will have no time to look through it ourselves—to perceive, contemplate, and be grasped by the power and glory of the triune God.
Similarly, the temptations we face as worshipers are that we will admire or criticize the window rather than looking through it or that we will be altogether distracted, with little interest or energy for perceiving the astonishing vistas of divine glory that Jesus offers us through the Holy Spirit.
Some very simple disciplines can help us here:
- Prayer: In preparing and shaping a worship service, pause first to pray “Holy Spirit, help us to perceive God’s power and glory” and to ask “What aspect of God’s beauty and glory is revealed in this week’s sermon text?” When answering the question, take time to contemplate unique dimensions of God’s beauty revealed there. In other words, be sure that your creative process is grounded in awe, wonder, and gratitude. Preparing worship for God’s people is itself worshipful.
- Awareness: In worship, be aware of how you and others are guiding people’s attention through words, gestures, projected images. Are you calling attention to yourselves? To a certain style or form? In addition to ways we invite worshipers to become aware of and hospitable to each other, are we also explicitly inviting people to attend to a particular dimension of God’s glory? And are the melodies, metaphors, rhythms, and gestures we are using well-suited to actually “beholding” that dimension of glory in a deep and transformative way? Not every tune or turn of phrase is well suited to the deep engagement demonstrated in this psalm.
- Reflection: After worship, don’t settle for talking merely about how the logistics or tempos worked out. Push deeper by asking which aspects of God’s beauty and glory inspired or convicted you as you worshiped together and then turning those answers into prayers of thanks and praise for how God’s Spirit helped you worship.
These God-centered practices are a starting point. As we engage in them, we also need to pay attention to some perennial challenges:
- Culture: Our understanding of divine power and glory is in constant need of refinement. It is altogether too easy to bring to the Bible and to our worship planning a distorted, culturally-shaped definition of power and glory rather than letting the Bible redefine our understanding of divine power and glory. Without the Bible’s corrective lens, we can too easily see Jesus’ life as an exception to the pattern of God’s glory rather than the very best example of it. In the world of politics and pop culture, humility, gentleness, and sacrificial love are very often the opposite of power and glory. In Jesus Christ, we see a different way. As we study God’s Word, we are all on a lifelong journey of learning and growth.
- Cliché: Our language for divine power and glory can become cliché. We sing the word “glory” so often that we become immune to all it means. It joins words like “amen” and “hallelujah” as part of the jargon of the church’s worship life. This is not a reason to set aside this language, but it is a reason to look for both ancient and recently written lyrics that convey God’s glory in fresh and faithful ways.
- Coercion: When we are inspired and grasped by God’s power and glory and experience a certain emotional register, we can be tempted to engineer or coerce that same kind of experience for others. The inner landscape and outer gestures of “beholding” may well look and feel quite different given the vast range of personalities, dispositions, and cultures across our common humanity. It may look and feel like Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” or like the chorus “Be Still and Know.” It may be expressed by raised hands or by closed eyes. It may be loud or quiet. One practice I have learned from several wise colleagues is that of noticing the many different ways that “beholding God’s glory” can look and sound across cultures globally. Learning to notice and celebrate differences frees us from the burden of thinking that we even could engineer or coerce that kind of depth.
In all of this, we are pursuing an approach to worship that is “self-forgetful” in the deepest, healthiest sense. But rather than simply challenging worshipers to decenter their own concerns (which often leads us to think even more about them) this God-centered approach invites us into lifelong practices of paying deep attention to the goodness of the Lord.