Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship & the Arts (Part 1)

    -- by Harold Best, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003, 226 pages.

“Why another book on worship?” Harold Best asks this question in the introduction of his latest book. In this case, the question is rather like asking why Albert Einstein in 1905 should have written another book on physics. The publication of Best’s Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts marks a significant addition to the evangelical literature on worship. In my estimation, it should be required reading, not only for musicians and artists of all sorts, but for pastors, worship leaders, and ethnodoxologists everywhere. Readers who are familiar with Best’s earlier book Music Through the Eyes of Faith (Harper 1993) will recognize a continuity between the richly biblical aesthetic articulated in that book and the artistic insights of the present volume. There is much in these remarkable pages to cause us to think deeply and humbly about our worship and our art; indeed the book requires more than one reading to begin to mine the wealth of wisdom it contains.

Unceasing Worship is first and foremost a statement about the meaning of worship, and only secondly a book on the aesthetics of worship. For the Christian, the arts are not ends in themselves (a pagan notion of secular aesthetics), nor are they the primary vehicle or high point of our worship. They are simply one kind of offering among many in our outpouring to God—an offering which reaches beyond the bounds of “time and place” worship and comprehends all of life: a “continuous outpouring.” In fact, the author devotes fully the first half of the book to defining authentic worship before turning to the role of the arts in worship. I would heartily recommend the book for that part alone.

As Robert Webber has intimated, Best breaks new ground by defining worship in terms of “continuous outpouring.” He indicates that human beings, Christian or not, are all worshipers, whether or not their worship is directed toward God, showing that all of life expresses the fact that we were created as worshipers. This concept cuts through the preoccupation with the public and corporate aspects of worship that dominates most of the current discourse on worship renewal, and emerges, in my opinion, as the ultimate paradigm for a holistic theology of worship. If worship is a universal human instinct, then both our theology and our practice should be informed by something much bigger than what happens in the corporate setting. As Best points out in his Introduction:

I find that throughout most of [the growing body of material on worship] the subject of worship is limited to what happens in the corporate assembly in its assigned times and places. While it is currently popular to say that all of life is worship, there seems to be little thought given to a theology of worship that makes comprehensive sense out of this statement… The burden of this book develops the concept of continuous worship as the rubric for our worship. (pp. 9-10).

The book is laid out in two sections: Part 1 (Chapters 1 through 6): “Unceasing Worship as Continuous Outpouring” and Part 2 (Chapters 7 through 14): “Unceasing Worship and the Arts.” I will attempt to give a general summary of the contents of Part I in this issue, and address Part 2 in the next issue.

Chapter 1: “Nobody Does Not Worship”

The theological mainspring of the book is the concept of “continuous outpouring,” which Best identifies as the source and essence of all human worship, true and false. The author argues that if from eternity the triune God “cannot but give of himself, reveal himself, pour himself out,” and if humans were created imago Dei, then it follows logically and theologically that humans bear his image as outpourers. We began to pour ourselves out towards God from the instant of our creation. “We are, every one of us, unceasing worshipers and will remain so forever” (p. 17). Humanity was created as outpourers “as evidence that we were imago Dei—created to act the way God acts” (p. 23). We were not created to worship, implying God needed to be worshiped. We were not created for worship, with that being one element which can be separated. We were “created continuously outpouring”… and all that we “pour out” is intended as worship. Worship is “human outpouring” in response to the divine “outpouring of lordship” (p. 24).

While the essence of worship before the Fall was that of unhindered mutual outpouring between God and imago Dei, Best stresses that the Fall did not spell the end of worship or continuous outpouring, but rather signaled its redirection towards another object. As he says, “Our outpouring was falsified. But it continued, with one telling difference: we exchanged gods” (p. 25).

The fact that the entire human race worships someone or something, either the true God or some substitute for God, emphasizes that the impulse to worship is rooted in the creative purpose and action of God. This fact lays the groundwork for an understanding of worship that is not dependent on times, places, and methods. This understanding of worship acknowledges both the work of God and the work of humanity “as these together eventually inform a biblically complete concept of worship” (p. 19). It also sheds light on the relationship between worship and evangelism, because

…as an intrinsic part of our nature [worship] remains with us and is ceaselessly at work, even as we choose death in pouring out toward false gods. As mysterious as this fact is, we can well consider it a grace, because it is a ready highway for the coming of the Redeemer (p. 26).

For ethnodoxologists, the implications of this reality are foundational to all that we do.

Chapter 2: “Authentic Worship”

How does the concept of our continuous outpouring shape our understanding of authentic worship? In this chapter, Best traces the principle as a continuum throughout the whole of Scripture. While the Old Testament emphasizes time and place more than the New, there is no contradiction between the two. Rather, there is “a gradual, inevitable unfolding, preparation, and peering ahead that finds fulfillment and satisfaction in every precept that gathers around Christ” (p. 212). However, although the relationship between “time and place” in the Old Testament and “Spirit and truth” in the New, are reversed (John 4)… “nothing of the former [is] cancelled out”:

Time and place are not swept aside but are swept up in Spirit and truth, in continuous worship, in living sacrifice and in the verities of faith, love, and hope. (p. 47).

Continuous outpouring, then, is the nexus which brings together authentic corporate worship in all its manifestations:

Once we understand that, in Christ, authentic worship is continuous outpouring summed up in personal holiness, we must conclude that the Christian needs to hear but one call to worship and offer only one response. These come exactly with new birth and, despite our wanderings and returns to the contrary, they suffice for all our living, dying and eternal outpouring. We do not go to church to worship. But as continuing worshipers, we gather ourselves together to continue our worship, but now in the company of brothers and sisters (p. 47, emphasis mine).

Chapter 3: “Mutual Indwelling: The Final Geography of Worship”

Chapter 3 explores the metaphors of “temple” and “body” in relation to the biblical understanding of the “place” of worship. The New Testament effectively shifts the focus from temporal/spatial concerns to the ultimate “location” of our worship—in God and among his people. The triune God, who “dwells within himself in an infinite glory and continuous outpouring,” also dwells within us, and we in him. “In Christ, we are [also] members of one another. We not only worship, serve, and participate together, we do so at one with each other, even in each other, even as we are commonly in Christ” (p. 52). The theological certainty of mutual indwelling is what brings us together and guarantees the authenticity of our corporate worship, even among the “flawed and mended” members of the church.

Christ comes to us; Christ redeems us; Christ is in us; we are in each other; God is our sanctuary; Christ is the everlasting Temple; the body of Christ is a living temple; Christ is knit into it as chief cornerstone; each believer is a living stone and yet a temple; each believer indwells all other believers; and Christ is all in all. It is with this full promise that we are to go to the place called church and to the necessary times of corporate gathering. We take these unshakeable verities with us (p. 57).

Chapter 4: “The Corporate Gathering and Authentic Worship”

What are the implications of continuous outpouring for the corporate gathering? In what ways is continuous outpouring enriched and “curiously brightened” by gathering together? Best maintains that even without church buildings and regularly scheduled services, Christians would still seek each other out, “for the sheer pleasure of finding Christ in each other…. In such a gathering there would be little need at some point to say, ‘Now let us worship,’ because no one would be able to locate the dividing line between ‘now’ and ‘always’” (p. 62).

If we gather together fully outpouring, then nothing taking place in the gathering can ever replace the truth of Christ in us and God already within us. To an authentic worshiper, any thought about liturgical or artistic environmental “aids” to worship should be seriously questioned. The only aid to worship is the Lord himself… Everything undertaken turns from an aid to a direct, faith-driven act of worship. The burden shifts from our dependence on what is around us to our trust in the One at work within us. We now depend on the Giver, instead of the gifts. (p. 61).

The significance of the corporate gathering is also rooted in its potential for celebrating the widest diversities, transcending stylistic and generational preferences, integrating evangelism, teaching, and prophecy in the same gathering.

We gather to learn of the entire counsel of God through the structures and liturgies we devise. We gather as one body—young and old, feeble and strong, rich and poor—undivided by the little things of life like style and music. We gather around the unifying power of the Word and bring our praise to the King of kings and Lord of lords. (p. 76).

Chapter 5: “Worship and Witness: the Indivisible Task of Continuous Worship”

The concept of continuous outpouring offers a much-needed corrective for our tendency to separate worship from evangelism. On the personal level, “a practicing Christian is someone who is so skilled and widely competent in being Christian, and so committed to continuous outpouring, that whatever the situation, he or she speaks fluently and ardently to it” (p. 83). On the corporate level, “the corporate gathering should proceed in its fullest prophetic condition, irrespective of the ratio between saints and sinners” (p. 80). In both cases, there is no disjunction between worship and mission:

If the whole world is continuously outpouring before its plethora of gods, and if (for the Christian) personal holiness and authentic worship are one and the same, then this can only mean that Christian witness is overheard worship. . .witness is about worship, worship is about witness, and both are about the presence or absence of a quest for personal holiness (p. 77).

Chapter 6: “Worship, Praying and Preaching”

If worship is continuous outpouring, the command to “pray without ceasing” is ultimately inseparable from our understanding of worship—in fact, the one is a manifestation of the other. I heartily recommend the principles of prayer in this chapter for their God-centeredness, for their prioritizing intercessory prayer for the spread of the gospel, and their emphasis on sanctification and service. Such praying itself can be a powerful witness to the unbeliever, not as “a mini-sermon or a recitation of the plan of salvation,” but as the expression of “a full heart and fertile mind,” which “cannot be without its impact” (p. 102). In the same way, while preaching is central to worship, it is also but one of the many offerings of the corporate community:

Preaching is not the high point of worship to which all prior actions are meant to point or for which they prepare. It is not a chosen oracle or an automatic apex that towers in importance over the Word, the sacrament or the simple singing of a hymn, because, in fact, truth is at stake in all of these actions. For that matter, there are no preset high points in worship, because authentic worship is not a series of points, high or low. It is an ongoing and organic call to pour out toward God through Christ (pp. 106-7).

Further to preaching, “if preaching is but one kind of continuous outpouring, and if continuous outpouring is to mark the life of every believer, then all preaching should be tuned in one way or another to this central idea” (p. 107). Therefore according to Best, it should be the preacher, not the worship team, who provide the primary teaching about worship. To which I say a hearty “Amen!”

Summary (Part I)

Who should read this book? The author recommends it especially to

…pastors, worship leaders, ministers of worship and the arts, musicians and artists, students and professors (especially in the seminaries), traditionalists and contemporists… Christian laypersons [able] to go deeper and deeper into Christian thoughtfulness and to make their way into territory that may at first seem unfamiliar or threatening (p. 11).

To this I would add “all who minister cross-culturally. Unceasing Worship echoes, reaffirms, clarifies, amplifies and draws together much that is at the heart of missions and ethnodoxology. It gathers in the widest possible range of worshipers (including those whose worship is totally misdirected but redeemable), practices, styles, giftings, and cultural diversities, and celebrates God’s redemptive call to worship in the midst of it all. Its God-centered, Trinitarian biblical exegesis offers a perspective from which to comprehend and move towards authentic, personal, corporate, and global worship that fulfills the purpose for which we were created.

    --reviewed by Vernon Charter, Prairie Bible College

(link to Part 2 of this review)

Published in Vol.3, No.1 of

http://EthnoDoxology.org

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Artists in Christian Testimony
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