There are many wonderful tensions in the Word. One such tension is observed in the worship orientation of God’s immanence (closeness) and God’s transcendence (distance). “The theological term immanence speaks of God’s nearness, His pervading presence in the space where we live [emphasis in original]”(Wilt, 2009, p. 186). The term transcendence recognises God’s supreme sovereignty and ‘otherworldliness’. Prior to God becoming man in Christ Jesus, God’s presence was expressed through the cultus of the Old Testament law and its tent/tabernacle/temple rites (White, 2000). God’s immanence was experienced by virtue of his transcendence. But then God became flesh. The transcendent became immanent. As David Peterson (1992) rightly acknowledges, “…‘it is not only his glory, his name or Shekinah, but God himself, God the Word, who dwells with his people. Now at last the longstanding tension between the transcendence and the immanence of God [was] resolved’” (p. 94).
The ‘longstanding tension’ has been resolved in Christ. Amen.
Unfortunately we still grapple with the practical expression of this resolution in our churches. Two thousand years after Christ’s ascension we are still unable to hold the pendulum in balance. We find ourselves swinging from one position to another. This oscillation is seen clearly in the lyrical content of our worship repertoire. Mark Evans (2002) identifies that, “another consideration of the theological (lyrical) analysis of contemporary congregational song takes into account questions of immanence or transcendence, that is, is the repertoire focused more on our intimate relationship with God or his transcendent holiness?” (p. 101).
It has been my general observation that in the modern church we have settled into camps of either/or. The conservatives celebrate God’s sovereign transcendence, while contemporary models seek to focus on God’s felt presence. It would seem I am not alone in making similar observation. Warren Wiersbe (2000) highlights the generational differences by stating,
I’m generalizing, but it seems to me that the younger generation leans towards the immanence of God, a God who is more a present Friend than an exalted Sovereign, while my generation is more accustomed to a transcendent God who is worthy of our worship and praise. (p. 179)
Whether it is denominational or generational one thing remains certain, we continue to seek balance and assurance in that which God has already accomplished. Sadly, our meanderings and squabble have led to the following observation by Michael Lawrence and Mark Dever (2009).
For far too many evangelicals, worship has been reduced from service to God to an experience of God [emphasis in original]. As a result, we have become obsessed with questions of aesthetics and style. When we move to a new city, we church-shop based on the style of music or service. When we grow dissatisfied with our current church, we assume that the problem, in part, must be that we need a different style of worship. What all of this betrays is that in public worship, what we are fundamentally after is an experience. That experience no doubt differs from person to person. Some are searching for that spiritually ‘orgasmic’ wave of emotion that carries them along for the rest of the week. Others are seeking a profound experience of transcendence and awe. Others are looking for a feeling of warmth and acceptance. Attached to each of these experiences that we have defined as ‘worship’ is a style, often musical but sometimes more that produces the emotional state we are seeking. (p. 251)
I quote Lawrence and Dever at length because they state succinctly the core of the issue. We have become selfish in our worship. It has become about what ‘I’ want. The argument has deteriorated to the ‘self’ determining what is right and proper as opposed to what God and His Word says.
Jesus promised that where two or three are gathered in His name He would be among them (Matt 18:20). Often used as a supporting scripture for God’s immanence we must also note its acknowledgement of Jesus’ claim to deity; His omnipresence and thus his transcendence. It is not in our strength that either His immanence or His transcendence is experienced but by His grace.
14And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15(John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) 16And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (John 1:14–18; ESV)
Can we throw off the shackles that so easily ensnare us? With humble reflection and necessary repentance of selfish ways – perhaps! Firstly we must recognise that our focus of the corporate gathering is to celebrate together a God who is omnipresent; a God who is with us, a God who is transcendently immanent.
Evans, M. (2002). Secularising the sacred: The impact of Geoff Bullock and Hillsong church on contemporary congregational song in sydney, 1990–1999. Unpublished Thesis, Macquarie University, Sydney, AUS.
Lawrence, M., & Dever, M. (2009). Blended worship. In J. M. Pinson (Ed.), Perspectives on christian worship: 5 views (pp. 218–268). Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Publishers.
Peterson, D. (1992). Engaging with God: A biblical theology of worship. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
White, J. F. (2000). Introduction to christian worship (3rd ed.). Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Wiersbe, W. W. (2000). Real worship: Playground, battle ground, or holy ground? (2 ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
Wilt, D. (2009). Contemporary worship. In J. M. Pinson (Ed.), Perspectives on christian worship: 5 views (pp. 143–217). Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Publishers.