Last week we noticed the dialogical structure of worship manifest in the terms “spirit” and “truth” in John 4. So let’s unpack this two-part, dialogical structure of worship.
First, God speaks. One of the most remarkable statements Jesus makes in this conversation is what he says at the end of verse 23: “The Father is seeking such people to worship him.” If worship is communion with God, who initiates that communion? Do we? No. Romans 3 says that “no one seeks for God. Not even one.” We are not the seekers, God is the seeker. He initiates the relationship and calls us to draw near in communion with him through his Son in his Spirit.
Left to ourselves, we would never seek God, we would continue to seek satisfaction in broken cisterns that can hold no water. But God’s words have power to create life. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:6: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” With just his words, God spoke the universe into existence, and with just his words, God speaks life into dead hearts, causing us to seek him as the source of all-satisfying communion. And so worship without God’s words is impossible.
Only after God has spoken his words to us, do we respond to him. Worship is not only hearing God’s truth, it is responding to him with our spirits—with our hearts. Worship is not a monologue; it is not simply God speaking to us, though it must begin there. Communion with God necessarily involves our spirits responded to God’s truth. Jesus is emphasizing the inward, immaterial part of our being with this word. Our inner spirits respond to God’s truth in communion with he who is spirit. We hear him speak to us through his Word, and then our hearts respond. That is the dialogue of worship.
But neither is worship monological from our side either; worship is not simply “performing” for God—that actually is what characterizes pagan worship. In pagan worship, there is some deity out there, and the worshipers want to get his attention in order to appease his wrath or receive some sort of blessing, and so they perform before the god. Like Baal’s prophets on Mt. Carmel, they dance and sing and perform all sorts of rituals to please their God. However,
4 Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. 5 They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. 6 They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. 7 They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. (Psalm 115:4–7 ESV)
False gods don’t talk back. This is monological worship.
Unfortunately, some Christians approach worship this way. We think that we are the ones initiating the worship, and we pray and invite God to come down and join us. And we have a whole worship service consisting of us performing before the Lord with very little, if any, words from God. I’ve even heard some Christians say that too much Scripture reading actually gets in the way of the worship experience. But this, too, is monological worship; actually, it is not worship at all.
In true dialogical worship, we do not invite God to come down to us; God calls us to draw near to him. God speaks first; only then do we respond back to him. And even our responses should be based, not on the natural, authentic expressions of our hearts, but rather our responses should be framed by the words, forms, and affections ordained for us by God in his Word. Our natural, “authentic” responses are often immature, undeveloped, fickle, sometimes even sinful, and in need of reform. Corporate worship is the means through which God forms our image of him and matures our responses toward him.
As we discussed previously, communing with God is like eating with someone around your table in your dining room. In that kind of setting, you can let your guard down; there’s no need for pretense. Dining with someone is an opportunity for you to listen to them, to get to know them, to enjoy their company. It is an opportunity to share your heart, to communicate something of yourself. There is a mutual give and take that happens around a table. You listen as the other person speaks, and then you respond in dialogue with that person. And as you do, your relationship with that person grows deeper as you get to know them better.
This should describe the nature of our relationship with God: conversing with him. We listen intently as he speaks to us through his inspired Word. And our goal in listening to his words is not simply to gain more knowledge; our goal is to know him better, to learn his likes and his dislikes, to enjoy his company. And then we speak back to him; we tell him how much we love and adore him; we share something of ourselves and cast our burdens on him. And as we share this communion, our relationship with God grows deeper. This is why worship is profoundly relational; all true worship is communion with God, but that communion is not mystical, it’s not an energy we feel or a trance that we enter.
Commune with God is a conversation, a dialogue.