On Ascension Theology and Material Wealth

For my final issue as editor, I took the liberty of choosing the questions for Q&A. The first question was wide open, and John’s response sends us to the ongoing work of Christ. The second arises out of my opportunities to worship these past twenty years with many congregations—some across town, others across the world. The more I have tasted the love and diversity in the body of Christ, the more hungry I become for worship that bridges human barriers. My hope is for every congregation to taste more of that love and diversity, building hunger for the day when we all worship together at the feast of the Lamb. Thanks, John, for your continuing pastoral wisdom in this column.    —ERB

If you could name one theological theme that worship committees could well spend time reflecting on, what would it be?

A  Christ’s ascension. As our ascended Lord, Jesus not only receives our worship but also perfects our prayers. In fact, Jesus “always lives to intercede for us” (Heb. 7:25). Jesus (and not any other human worship leader) is the true lead worshiper. As we worship it is fitting to think of Jesus as active: praying for us, perfecting our prayers, giving us full access to God. This is pastorally significant because it welcomes us to offer worship even in weakness (Heb. 4:14-16).

Importantly, when we imagine what our ascended Lord is like, we need a balanced view, remembering the one who appears like both a Lion and Lamb (cf. Rev. 5), the one who is both cosmic Lord (Col. 1) but also “who has been tempted in every way, just like us” (Heb. 4:15).

As you study this theme, ask yourselves how well your congregation’s musical diet conveys these themes. Ask worshipers how they imagine what Jesus is doing today (we often fail to realize how active in prayer Jesus is today). Finally, ask whether and how your congregation celebrates Ascension Day. Most of us can do better at giving attention to this remarkable event.

And when we do celebrate Ascension, we need to do a better job of keeping in mind not only Christ’s ongoing role as King, but also his role as Priest (and Prophet). For more insights and practical suggestions on this theme, see Gerrit Scott Dawson’s Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation (Presbyterian and Reformed), and the fine article by Laura Smit in RW 79.

Q  In a culture that is so obsessed with making and spending money, how can we promote excellent worship, but not promote the idea that it takes hundreds of thousands of dollars to worship God well?    

A  This troubling area resists easy answers and challenges nearly every community to reconsider common practices. In the last generation, the church has worked at bridging barriers of color, race, ethnicity, and gender. But we have not done well with socio-economic class. This may turn out to be the most vexing of all divisions among people.

How can we genuinely celebrate the gift of music that is possible at a cathedral or megachurch (the cathedrals of free church Protestantism), with all their resources, without implying that this worship is somehow better than the worship offered at the small congregation eight blocks from the cathedral or two suburbs over from the megachurch, across the tracks?

In 1853, Presbyterian Magazine extolled the virtues of Cincinnati’s new Seventh Presbyterian Church as having a belfry “not surpassed for richness and beauty, an interior illuminated by a superb chandelier of original design and chaste workmanship, and a gallery of the most costly and imaginate [sic] specimens of its kind.” All of this gentrifying language may be true, but the impression it creates is deeply troubling. One wonders how Christians in the next century may read the Internet-archived newspaper headlines about today’s worship practices.

Of course, these vexing economic questions can be wrongly used in an utterly Philistine way. Resources and the costly use of them in the service of God are not bad. What is bad is the persistent implication that it takes money to worship God truly.

Thoughtful consideration of the economic implications of our worship may lead congregations toward very different strategies. What if our cathedrals and megachurches hosted a festival service in which the orchestras, sound systems, and organs were set aside for a time as a witness to the virtue of Christian simplicity? What if large distributions of funds for worship practices were paired with equally large distributions of funds to communities with fewer resources? And what if the staffs of huge suburban churches and church-related colleges attended worship conferences at small, rural churches, eager to learn about the virtues of smallness and simplicity—rather than just the other way around?

John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.