Thy Kingdom Come: Beyond Dialogue and Drama to a Kingdom Vision for Our Worship

It's Sunday morning. All over the city Christians are leaving their homes and gathering in churches. For the next hour or more they will meet and perform a number of liturgical acts together. They will pray, sing hymns, read Scripture, listen to a sermon, and more—a stylized series of actions that we call "worshiping God."

We've all participated in these liturgical acts thousands of times. We're intimately familiar with all their details. But what actually are we doing during that Sunday morning or evening hour? If we were asked to describe our actions in one word, what would it be? Praise? Thanks? Service? What is worship?

Definitions exist. For example, James A. De Jong, president of Calvin Theological Seminary, describes worship as "a prescribed, corporate meeting between God and his people in which God is praised and his church is blessed" (Into His Presence, p. 13). But although such definitions can be helpful, an analogy or model usually works better.

Two Models

The most common Reformed model for worship is dialogue. This image perceives worship as a sort of formal conversation between God and his people. God speaks (in Scripture reading, the sermon, the law, the promise of forgiveness, and the benediction), and the people answer (in confession, prayer, offerings, and hymns). The gist of worship is this talking back and forth between God and a group of Christians.

Notice several things about this dialogue model. The emphasis is on speech, not actions; on thoughts, not feelings; on understanding, not experiences. Not that these latter items are wholly lacking. This model does involve actions (such as singing, praying, and giving), feelings of awe and respect, and experiences of God's presence and the people's unity—but the primary weight is on speech, thought, and understanding.

Notice also the strongly vertical orientation in this model. God, the sovereign Lord, speaks from on high (from heaven, his Word, and the pulpit—all located above us), and we sit below and listen. When we reply, it is to speak or sing upward to God.

This dialogue takes place between God and God's prophet (the minister), on the one side, and the people on the other. While dialogue indicates a talking back and forth, most of the speaking in this model appears to be from above; the people remain relatively passive, only replying in formal ways. The word dialogue calls to mind the academic lecture hall.

In recent years a second image of worship, the drama model, has begun to find a place in our Reformed churches. Drama calls to mind, of course, the theater. And worship, according to this model, is a sort of play or spectacle with God watching from a box seat (although his Spirit is very much present among the actors). The worshiping people perform the liturgical acts together as an offering to God, a performance that God watches, a tapestry of praise and prayer that they lay before God's throne.

Notice how this drama model emphasizes actions, not speech; feelings, not thoughts; experiences, not understanding. There are, of course,speech (one of the actions); thoughts about what God has done, is doing, and will do; and understanding of who God is—but the primary weight is placed on actions, feelings, and experiences. Gestures, rites, colors, images, forms, and interactions are all very important in the drama model.

Notice also the strongly horizontal orientation of this model. God is watching from on high, but the action takes place on the level of the people. Here we find the sacraments, the interchanges between pastor and people, and the fellowship of believers. In all these, the Spirit is presumed to be present and working.

Neither of these models fully satisfies my own sense of worship. The majesty and intellectual emphasis of the dialogue model appeal to me. On the other hand, I like the greater participation by the people and the emphasis on symbols and colors present in the drama model. The dialogue model seems to isolate the individual in each pew, with other worshipers serving only as a context. The drama model makes interaction with others essential, but tends to limit God to the role of spectator.

Neither model seems to explain the relationship between the hour of worship and the rest of the week. Both the lecture hall and the theater are in some sense a retreat from real life. Neither seem to speak of the role of worship in preparing us to live as Christians from day to day. The liturgy ends with instructions: "Now go out and…" what?

Israel's Praise

I find a different model suggested by Walter Brueggemann in Israel's Praise. This new model supplements, not supplants, our existing ones.

In studying Israel's worship, Brueggemann concentrates on the Psalms and especially on the so-called Hallel Psalms, a group of hymns to the great King, Yahweh, who reigns in Zion (Pss. 47, 93,96-99). These were used in the temple liturgy at the Feast of the Tabernacles (Lev. 23:24). The people of Israel would parade to the temple in a formal procession, accompanied by a chorus of priests, chanting the words of these Hallel Psalms.

The Lord reigns,
let the nations tremble;
he sits enthroned between the
cherubim,
let the earth shake.
Exalt the Lord our God
and worship at his footstool;
he is holy. (99:1,5)

Israel's worship, says Brueggemann, was more than a proclamation of God's kingship. It was an actual festive act by which the people each year installed Yahweh as King—the Davidic kings serving as God's representatives. The people of Israel showed concretely the victory of God over all other gods as they placed their king upon his throne.

What actually took place here, according to Brueggemann, was a creative act of the people, a communal, imaginative enterprise. As they performed this enthronement liturgy at the Feast of the Tabernacles, the people of Israel together constructed an alternative future. They formed a world in which God reigned and Israel was joyously obedient, a world of righteousness and peace, a world in which God judged with equity and put all idolaters to shame, a world in which God showed grace and steadfast love to Israel.

From this study of Israel's worship, Brueggemann derives what seems to be a model for our worship today. While he doesn't name it, I would call it the kingdom model.

The Kingdom Model

According to this model, every part of our worship (including its order) contributes to forming an alternative world. We leave, as it were, this everyday world of buying and selling, of teaching and learning, of birthing and dying. When we worship, we enter a world in which God rules, and we rejoice in that fact.

There is, according to Brueggemann, a social reality to praising God. In worship, we define reality; or rather God does this through us and our worship. By creative, imaginative acts—in and through the liturgy—we construct an alternative world. And for the time of worship, we live and speak within that kingdom world. This is not a matter of subjective feelings; it is a dynamic creation of God's Spirit.

In this new reality, God is king. The stories we tell, the words of praise we speak and sing, the values we own, the priorities we establish, and the symbolic acts we perform all help form God's kingdom. Here God rules and we obey—joyfully. Here all are equal, for all are accepted as God's children. Here children have a place— to them belongs God's kingdom. Here the leader is the servant. Here our pains, fears, and sufferings are transformed by God. Here everything is made new.

Every part of our liturgy contributes to forming this new world. When we sing a hymn, we are not only lauding God but also affirming a complex relationship with the one who created us, saved us, and guides us. When we read the Word, we are placing ourselves like Mary at the feet of the living Word. When we bring our offerings, we are people blessed by God who return a token of thanks to the great Giver. In all of our liturgy, actions and speech, feelings and thoughts, experiences and understandings are intertwined.

This new world of our worship stands in sharp contrast to the world of our daily living. It is a better, a promised world—like the kingdom of heaven Jesus pictured in his Sermon on the Mount. In this kingdom-world, the poor in spirit and mourners are blessed, and all are called to love as God loves—perfectly and with no thought of personal profit. For us, this kingdom-world redefines reality.

During the hour of our worship, we live in this kingdom-world—according to this model. And we are called to carry this kingdom-world with us as we leave the place of worship. The values and priorities established here, the attitudes toward God and toward one another, all should mark our living each day. The order established here is one that should be established in the world of the rest of the week.

The Danger

Doxology, says Brueggemann, can lead to ideology. In Israel the king who represented Yahweh sometimes used the vision of the new world to legitimize his reign. By doing so, he transformed Yahweh into a passive idol and Yahweh's new order of righteousness, justice, and mercy into a sanctioning of the king's policies— even his injustice and oppression.

The prophets reacted strongly to such attempts. They rejected temple worship that had become a defense of the status quo. They condemned the loss of justice and reminded Israel of the God of grace and truth who broke in on our complacent world and brought a new order.

For us, Brueggemann says, the same danger exists. When our worship promotes militarism or a trust in the social sciences and political action as the way to solve all problems, then we have fallen into religious idolatry and social ideology.

If it is to remain true to the kingdom vision, our worship must remember the little ones—those experiencing pain, persecution, and suffering—the ones Jesus blessed in the Beatitudes. Like Job, we must bring our pain to God and strive with him, asking "Why, Lord?"—not resting with canned answers as Job's friends did. Our songs of thanks must come out of pain. The stories of what God has done and is doing must set the tone of thankful expectation for what God will do.

Worship makes a world; it is a constructive act. But this is a new world, a counter-world. It opposes oppression and exploitation. It is a new kingdom, contrary to our daily idolatry and false ideologies.

God will order the world anew. This we believe. And our worship should be a joyful witness to that alternative world of righteousness, peace, and love.

The late Harvey Smit was executive director of Reformed Worship and editor-in-chief of CRC Publications.