James Hart: Right Worship

The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies forms servant leaders in Christian worship renewal and education through graduate academic praxis, grounded in biblical, historical, theological, cultural, and missiological reflection in community.

Dr. James Hart
Dr. James Hart

So, what is Christian worship renewal? I submit to you that it is a call to right worship, to “orthodoxy,” to “right doxology,” to “right glory.” It’s a call to right “adoration.” The word “adoration” comes from the Latin word adoratio, or “ad ora,” which means “to the mouth of,” or mouth-to-mouth. Adoration is this intimate mouth-to-mouth relationship which is the essence of right worship. The Song of Songs begins, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!” According to Fr. Robert Barron, the Great Tradition interpreted this as the song of the soul singing to God for union. Union with God through Jesus Christ is the aspiration of right worship. Celebrating the mighty works of God in Jesus Christ in the posture of adoration is the proper aim of right worship. Right worship leads to the rightly ordered or integrated life, the rightly ordered family, the rightly ordered city, culture, even cosmos. If you want the key to reading the entire biblical narrative, this is it—God calling his creation to right worship. What does God ultimately want for his people? He wants them to worship him aright. Because he needs our praise? No! He has no need of our praise. But, WE need to worship because in that great act we become aligned to God through Jesus Christ, the primary worshipper.

Several months ago, one of our IWS professors, Jeff Barker, wrote an e-mail posing a question: what do we teach our students about worship, particularly about the 4-fold order of gathering-word-table (or alternative thanksgiving)-dismissal? Is this perspective in danger of becoming another rule to be obeyed or a list or grid for worship leaders to simply plug in appropriate songs? He offers a solution by stating this, “The fourfold order is the framework of a story in which God gathers, acts, feeds, and entrusts. Worshipers join in, remember, eat and obey.” Good stuff.

Well, this started a thread of several e-mails on this topic. Another IWS professor, Greg Wilde, wrote, “Regardless of how rule-oriented or flow-oriented we tend to be by virtue of our individual personalities, all of us have that Pharisee-instinct. If we know we have a goal, we never leave it at that, but we construct additional rules to follow to help us meet the goal, and then we construct more additional rules to help us keep the first rules to help us meet the goal, and on and on. Much of our denominationalism in Christianity just boils down to which set of rules makes the most sense to us. The problem, of course is that every time we make [additional] rules for ourselves we unwittingly distance ourselves a bit further from the goal. . . . We are not built for the sake of being built. No, we are built for fire! Maybe the question is—are we setting people on fire?”

Are we setting people on fire? That really is the key to worship renewal. Are we firing adoration? The historic liturgical 4-fold order we study at IWS simply gives an appropriate “orthodox” structure to our relationship with the Great I Am, who wants to fire us with his love and passion to set things right. When things are set right, the created order is re-Edenized, brought back to its original intent and order in the Garden of Eden. Fellowship, Word, Table, Mission, all elements of right worship serve that end—the reconciliation, or Edenization of the created order.

St. Irenaeus stated, “God did not ask us to follow him because he needed our help, but because he knew that loving him would make us whole.” We need to worship to be rightly aligned to God. St. Augustine famously wrote: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.” In truth, we are all hardwired for God, even the most Godless atheist! In adoration, right worship, we become reconciled to the one who made us and loves us.

One of the seminal ideas from scripture and the Church Fathers is that humans were created to offer right praise to God. The Garden of Eden was centered on right praise, and Adam and Eve were tasked to multiply and be fruitful, Edenizing the whole world. What happened? Sin interrupted the project. In response, God chose Israel, called them to right worship centered on the tabernacle first, then the temple, and gave them the task to Israelize creation. But, it did not reach fulfillment—sin again entered the project. However, Israel was promised a Messiah who would fulfill that call. He would gather the tribes and cleanse the temple, restoring the right worship of Yahweh. Of course, this is accomplished by God himself in the incarnation, God taking on flesh in order to perfect the praise of the entire created order—in essence, Christifying the world.

We have the great privilege of engaging the world, telling the world its true story, and bringing it to the right worship of the only God who is ultimately true, good and beautiful. Right worship leads to the rightly integrated life. God wants right worship so we can be rightly ordered. This is what IWS is about, and this is why the focus of IWS on right worship is at the very core of the Christian faith!

In light of this, what is sin? I submit to you that it is bad worship, worshipping the wrong things. Paul Tillich said that all you need to know about someone can be learned by asking one question: what do you value most highly? He was right about that. What is of highest value to you, your family, your city, your culture? That’s what you adore, what you are mouth-to-mouth with. Bad worship leads to a disintegration of the self, the family, the city, the culture, and even the cosmos. We sinners know how this feels, don’t we? We are scattered, divided, double-minded, disintegrated. My public life goes one way, my private life another.

What is the original, primal sin? I would suggest to you that the primal sin of Adam and Eve was and still is arrogating to ourselves the prerogative, which is rightly God’s alone, of determining what is good and what is evil. It’s a grasping after God instead of receiving God’s grace as a gift to be then given away. We all know this arrogance well. At its worst, bad worship can even lead to ascribing godliness (or the nature of being “Holy Spirit led”) to our own determinations of good and evil, determinations that lack any biblical or historical veracity. Dangerous territory, that; perhaps even blasphemous.

The Bible is the story of God calling creation to right worship. The Bible is God’s story of how he chooses and shapes a people with his heart and mind to praise him aright. The 4-fold liturgical order simply summarizes the Biblical narrative where God’s people are called to Edenize, Israelize, Christify, the entire created order. And what is right worship? It is participation in that story of God’s saving work in Jesus the Christ. It is the submission of humankind to God, to be cleansed, forgiven, changed into his likeness revealed in Christ though his word and table, sent into the world in mission with fire to love the world to the God who is perfect love, perfect truth, goodness and beauty. Ecclesiasticus 43:27 states, “However much we say, our words will always fall short; the end of the matter is: God is all.”

Stream or download the audio of this Presidential Address by Dr. Hart.

About the author

Dr. James R. Hart has served as President of the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies since 2007. Dr. Hart was a member of the first IWS doctoral class, the Alpha class, and served as Dean of Students during his matriculation. After graduating from IWS, Dr. Webber appointed him as the Dean of Administration, and then Provost in 2006. In June of 2007, he was inaugurated as the second president of IWS. Dr. Hart holds a B.M. in Sacred Music from Oral Roberts University, an M.M. in Trumpet Performance from the University of Tulsa, and a D.W.S. from the Institute for Worship Studies. He was critical to the formation of IWS in Florida and has held administrative responsibilities since its inception in 1999. He is a professional trumpeter, choral director, and worship leader, and a published composer/arranger, songwriter, and author. He has been involved in worship leadership in various contexts around the globe for over 40 years and has taught in the areas of worship, theology, and music in various conferences, colleges, and seminaries. Dr. Hart and his wife, Carol, have three daughters and three grandchildren.