Several weeks ago we purchased a tent. We scored a real bargain on a huge family sized behemoth. Our purchase comes as we prepare to camp over the Christmas break with some close family friends – it’s going to be a great time! Actually, this will be the first lot of camping we have done since we (Jodie and I) started having children. We used to do a lot of camping with friends and family, but over the years (nearly a decade) we have sold our small tent, and most of our camping gear. We are now slowly rebuilding our camping equipment stock.
One of things I love about camping is walking through the camp site and viewing all the different ‘set-ups’ that people have. For instance, our set-up will be very family friendly with a few creature comforts such as a gas-powered ice-box and perhaps a small generator for the recharging of mobile phones etc. (not exactly roughing it!). Almost certainly at the same camp site will be the young couple with a two-man tent and very few accessories, while another group might have all the mod-cons including solar panels for electricity which in turn runs fridges, microwaves and even a TV. Essentially, everyone at the camp site will be ‘camping,’ but we’ll all do it differently according to our needs, experience and budget.
As we prepare for our big camping adventure I am conscious that in many respects, camping is not too dissimilar to worship. We all approach it differently. Personal backgrounds, experiences, personality and even education all contribute to our individual choices of worship style. Over the past decade Jodie and I, along with our young family, have had the good fortune of celebrating God’s greatness with three different churches, each with a distinct worship style and form. As I survey our short worship history, I can see that each of these church families and the construct of worship that they employ have been timely for both our spiritual formation and personal maturity. For example, when we were DINK’s (double income, no kids) our camping set-up was simple; a small tent and limited accessories. Now that we have three children ranging in ages of 9 down to 2½ we have a much larger tent, bikes, toys, swimming paraphernalia…and the list goes on! Our original set-up when compared with the set-up we will erect over Christmas was not wrong; it fittingly met our needs for the time. Likewise our previous worship environments were not wrong; God used them in order to continue His good work in us (Philippians 1:6).
Those of you who know me well can attest that I have not always had the maturity to review my spiritual journey with such pragmatism and grace. I’m learning and growing. I think Jesus’ friend Peter was on a similar journey of growth when he suggested some camping. Matthew records the Transfiguration of Jesus in the following passage,
[17:1] And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.  And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.  And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.  And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (Matthew 17:1-4; ESV)
Why not? It seems like a good idea to build some tents and prolong the experience. But Peter, in his zeal to honour Jesus, Moses and Elijah by building tents, also reveals his “weakness and ignorance” (Henry, 1871, p. 243). Simply, no man-made tent could house Moses and Elijah who had both passed through to eternity, and Jesus was keen for the three friends (Peter, James and John) not to tell anyone of the occurrence until he had risen from the dead (Matthew 17:9). I think we all fall into the same trap of Peter’s enthusiasm when we experience God’s tangible presence in our corporate meetings. I am confident that each worship style, whether new or old, contemporary or traditional, can point to a time when God’s presence was experienced in a tangible way by His people. I know that I have personally felt God in a range of worship constructs. The temptation is to then erect a tent in order to capture the moment. God will not be housed by man’s constructs whether it is the Anglican prayer book or a Pentecostal church’s week of ‘prayer and fasting.’
Another interesting point to be considered is Jesus never returns with the three disciples to the same place; possibly Mount Hermon (Green, 2000, p. 185). In fact the next time we see Jesus inviting his three closest disciples to join him in prayer like this is in the Garden of Gethsemane – a place of sorrow and trouble. Ultimately, Jesus requires us to leave the ‘worship moment’ and re-engage with our society. Tents are temporary structures. With time and exposure to the elements, any tent will eventually wear and tear exposing its inhabitant’s to the buffeting of life’s general concerns.
As we prepare for our Christmas camping trip I am starting to see where I have built many tents over the years to house God’s glory. Our current worship experience is not, and never can be, designed to be complete and perfect. That experience is reserved for another time and another place.
Green, M. (2000). The message of matthew: The kingdom of heaven (Vol. 2). Leicester, UK: Inter-Vasity Press.
Henry, M. (1871). Matthew henry’s commentary on the whole bible (Revised ed. Vol. 5). McLean, VA: MacDonald Publishing Company.
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.