The Prophetic Challenge of Christ-centered Worship
In worship and in life, disciples of Jesus are called to “look to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb 12:2). Jesus Christ is both the clearest revelation of God’s glory and one who accomplished our salvation. It is impossible to imagine faithful Christian worship without Christ at the center-the center of our praying and preaching, singing and communing.
It is crucial for us to regularly call each other to Christ-centered worship, to challenge practices that unwittingly place Christ at the periphery of worship. Focusing on Christ-centered worship helps us correct some major-league distortions that sometimes develop in worship. Christ-centered worship resists narcissistic worship, which is mostly about us. It resists vague deistic worship, which speaks only vaguely about God and refuses to admit that God acts in the world. It resists moralistic worship, which is mostly about receiving helpful advice for living a better life.
Deepening our convictions about Christ-centered worship can also help us with a further problem-the problem of subtle distortions that creep into our use of biblical language about God. Praise God for a biblical vision of God’s power, beauty, glory, majesty, and justice! But we run into a problem when we let our culture define these terms, and then use these terms-as our culture thinks of them-to describe God. God is brave and powerful, but it is not biblically faithful to think of God as a cosmic Braveheart. No, instead, we look to Jesus Christ, “the reflection of God’s glory” and “the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb 1:3). Jesus redefines what bravery, power, and majesty look like. True power has the capacity to conquer evil, but is exercised quite differently than we might expect (see 1 Cor 15:43, 2 Cor 12:9).
Not long ago, I was thrilled to find a worship team that began to question their practice of putting only slides of clouds and national park scenes behind lyrics about God’s majesty and holiness. They said, “If God’s majesty is perfectly revealed in Jesus, perhaps our songs about God’s majesty should be sung against the backdrop of faithful caregivers in an Alzhiemer’s unit or leprosy colony.” What a profound insight! (And perhaps it would be most faithful to make sure we interrelate both sets of imagery to convey God’s majesty.)
The Vision of Christ We Put at the Center
If worship is going to be Christ-centered, it matters a great deal what understanding or vision of Christ is put at the center. It is clearly not enough to merely “focus” on Jesus Christ in worship. Moviegoers who watch The Last Temptation of Christ or The Jesus Film focus on Christ, think about him, are puzzled by him, and perhaps are inspired by him. Worship takes another step.
In fact, to say Jesus is the center of our worship challenges us to embrace a sweeping range of biblical teaching and images about how we relate to Jesus. The Bible calls us to 1) contemplate and fix our attention on Jesus, 2) to acknowledge Jesus as Lord, 3) to orient our desire away from self, away from others, away from material things and instead toward Jesus, 4) to see Jesus as the true worshiper of God, 5) to long for and sense our union or communion with Christ-the Christ who dwells in us, 6) to offer our prayers and praise “through Christ,” who mediates and perfects our otherwise imperfect offerings, and 7) to learn from Jesus’ prophetic, counter-cultural teaching. (Consider taking your 50 most frequently sung worship songs and see which songs focus on each of these seven themes-a helpful way to see what may be missing in your worship diet!)
Note, these seven aspects of Christ-centered worship are not optional. Christian worship should invite us to relate to the person of Jesus in each of these ways. Claiming Christ as Lord but not as priest leaves us fearful. Claiming Christ as priest, but not as Lord leaves us in the despair of self-centeredness. Claiming Christ as both Lord and priest, but failing to realize that this Christ indwells us can still leave us with the idea that we have to generate worship on our own strength, rather than participate in God’s work through Christ’s power. We need an “all of the above” approach to Christ-centered worship. One way that theological study helps us as worship leaders is that it challenges us to embrace the whole gospel rather than just one part of it. And while at first this may seem a bit complicated, this kind of reflection can be powerfully life-giving, showing us aspects of the gospel of Jesus that can transform, deepen, and encourage us for faithful ministry.
Christ-centered Worship = Trinitarian Worship
The phrase “Christ-centered” worship can be misunderstood, though, when it used in a way that diminishes our awareness of and gratitude for the fullness of the Trinity-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In human terms, when we focus on one person, we inevitably take our focus away from another. But this zero-sum logic makes no sense when it comes to God.
After all, when we see Jesus, as the New Testament describes him, we see “the perfect image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), the one who sends the Holy Spirit, the “comforter” (Jn 15:26). We see someone who “prays to the Father rejoicing in the power of the Spirit” (Lk 10:21), someone who told us to worship “the Father in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:24), the one whose baptism was a dramatic Trinitarian event (Lk 3:21-22), the one who told us to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Mt 28:19), and the one whose authority comes from the Father (the one who prayed that his disciples, including us, would be “one, as we are one”) (Jn 17:2, 21-23). When we embrace Jesus, it is the Holy Spirit who has made it possible (1 Cor 2:11-16).
To see Jesus apart from God, the Father and God, the Holy Spirit is not to see Jesus accurately. Jesus-centered worship, apart from the Trinity, too often treats Jesus as a cosmic boyfriend, or some other person that we make in our own image-a terrible distortion that we should be eager to fix as a bad case of visual astigmatism.
When we attend to Jesus, we inevitably “see” God the Father, and come to discover the work of the Holy Spirit that has already been going on in and around us. “Christ-centered” and “Trinitarian” each refer, ideally, to the very same thing.
For this reason, people who practice Christ-centered worship pray that God will send the Holy Spirit to help us see Jesus accurately and compellingly. We picture Jesus as not only the one before whom we worship, but also the one who leads us in worshiping the Father (Heb 2:12). We celebrate the grace of God for the hope we have because the Holy Spirit poured into our hearts (Rom 5:5), and we celebrate the power of God at work within us because it is Christ who lives in us (Gal 2). Praise God from whom all blessings flow.
John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of worship at Calvin College and Seminary. He is the author of several books, including The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship, and is currently visiting congregations throughout Southern California as part of a research sabbatical.