Worship and the Reality of God: A Critical Engagement


Worship and the Reality of God, written by John Jefferson Davis, is a wonderful book that addresses a central problem of the American church: namely, a lack of awareness of the presence of God in our worship.  Throughout the book, Davis argues that this problem leads to a variety of issues including trivial, low views of God and detrimental man-centered emphases in our worship.  His conclusions are fascinating and are well worth considering in an effort to rectify some of the difficulties that plague the current evangelical scene.  The purpose of this paper, then, is to analyze and evaluate the major arguments presented in Worship and the Reality of God in order to formulate helpful, practical ways in which to think about the deeper realities of evangelical worship.

The Centrality of God’s Present in Worship: Missing

The central and controlling premise around which Davis’ argument revolves is the notion that “A variety of historical and theological factors, to be explored in this book, have unintentionally conspired to deflect our attention on Sunday morning from the invisible, holy, living God who is present in the midst of his people, to the human preacher, the musicians on the stage, and to the expectations and responses of the ‘audience’.”[1]  More than this seems to be an official declaration by churches that they are abandoning God in their liturgical expressions, it seems that this problem manifests itself in the actual practice of virtually all of the Protestant traditions.  That is, each of the churches that Davis visited in wrestling through this issue did not formally assert that they were intentionally omitting God from their worship; rather, despite the fact that their statements of faith accounted for the vibrant reality and work of God in the midst of his creation, their practice in worship seemed to implicitly deny this truth.  The lack of awareness of the presence of God in worship seems to be the content of the problem.

And to show that this is not simply the problem of one particular denomination or tradition, Davis visited thirty-five different services.  He notes, “These thirty-five worship services ran the entire gamut from very traditional to very contemporary, from the very quiet to the very loud, from the very large to the very small.”[2]  The purpose behind this is to demonstrate that Davis does not come to his conclusions in a vacuum; the problem, so it seems, spreads across the entirety of the contemporary church.  This reveals that Davis is operating with a broad base of research data from which to gather his conclusions.  Let it be known at this point that the force of Davis’ arguments are backed by the vast amount of personal “research” he conducted.

While the general argument the book makes is that there is a lack of awareness of God in worship, Davis claims that there are at least six ways in which this problem manifests itself:

(1) a deficient understanding of the importance and priority of worship, (2) a deficient understanding of the nature of worship, (3) a deficient understanding of the participants in worship, (4) a deficient understanding of the elements of worship, (5) a deficient understanding of the ‘ontologies’…of modernity and postmodernity and how they undermine true worship, and (6) a deficient understanding of the need to learn new behaviors and new ‘doxological skills’ for the enjoyment of true worship.[3]  

Thus, the problem overall is that the American church has a deficient understanding of the importance, priority, and elements of worship, as well as an underdeveloped theology of the participants in worship, and the ontologies that inform our understanding of worship.  Having adequately discussed the driving force, focus, and content behind Davis’ arguments, it is appropriate now to turn to his proposed solutions.

The Need for a Better Ontology

The foundational proposal to solve the problem is this: “A new way of perceiving reality more Christianly is needed, together with new cognitive skills that need to be intentionally formed (‘doxological intelligence’) to enable authentic worship.”[4]  The root issue is that contemporary churches have a weak theology of the real, and this lends itself to a vast amount of theological and doxological errors.  In an effort to curtail this rather impotent theology, Davis offers that the following attributes need to be reclaimed in order to have a robust understanding of the ontology of God: “God as ‘heavy,’ God as holy, God as joyful, God as beautiful, God as relational and God as available.”[5]  It is important for Davis that we hold all of these attributes simultaneously.  If one is missing, we will have a deficient view of God, and our worship will suffer greatly as a result.

Yet the proposed solutions do not stop there.  To be sure, false views of the majesty and wonder of God lead to a mass of errors.  But there are more causes to the problem than simply false views of God.  According to Davis, we need new ontological views of the church, the self, and worship as well.[6]  Speaking of the church, Davis argues, “The significance and weight of a human activity depend greatly on the context in which the activity takes place.  A higher and weightier view of worship flows from a higher and weightier view of the church.”[7]  This means that a low or even vague view of the nature of the church will lead to underdeveloped views of worship and the presence of God.  Regarding the ontology of the self, Davis claims, “Believers, when they walk through the door of the church, should do so with a consciousness that they are adopted sons and daughters of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, in the communion of the Holy Spirit, living members of the living body of Christ—and chosen from eternity for the specific purpose of enjoying communion with God (Eph 1:4).”[8]  Over against modern and postmodern ontologies, this biblically-shaped ontology of the self is crucial for our understanding of the self as a participant in worship.  Finally, Davis says concerning the ontology of worship itself: “As to the nature of time in authentic biblical worship, the assembly acts not in ordinary time, but in what can be called kingdom time—for with the advent of the Messiah, the ontic reality of the heavenly kingdom has begun to enter into ordinary time and history.”[9]  This means that something fundamentally different is going on in our worship.  We are not simply adoring a king who is far off; rather, we are adoring the risen Christ who is presently bringing his kingdom into the world.

Critique 1: God’s Presence Outside of the Formal Worship Service

The first response that will be given at this point is to say that God’s presence certainly applies to more than a formal worship service on any given Sunday.  Davis himself does not deny this at all; yet his aim in the book, while primarily focused on the nature of traditional worship services, fails to adequately address the reality that God is present not only in the worship service, but also in all of life.  Though Worship and the Reality of God aims to address problems in worship services per se, it should be noted that if it is a problem in explicitly “Christian” functions such as worship services, how much more of a problem is it outside of these functions?  If a lack of awareness of the presence of God is an issue in church, it is undoubtedly an even greater issue outside of the church.  A formal treatment of this reality, even in a brief subsection, would be a welcome addition to Davis’ overall treatment of the problem.

Critique 2: Deficiency of Practice and Understanding

Another critique that could be made here is to note that Davis lists six “areas of deficiency”[10] in the American church.  Each of these areas starts with “a deficient understanding” of some aspect theology or practice of worship.  It seems, then, that Davis is assuming a rather linear relationship between understanding and practice.  This means that right practice inevitably follows only from right understanding.  While I believe this to be true on the whole, I am not certain that such clean, distinct lines can always be adopted.  To illustrate this last point, I think all wrong practice can be traced to some sort of wrong understanding.  Yet oftentimes practice informs and shapes our understanding just as much, if not more than, our understanding shapes our practice.  Thus, instead of the relationship being completely linear in nature, it seems that there can be a circular relationship between the two.

The preceding critique applies to the current discussion in this way: Davis would do well to broaden his view of causation to include a non-linear relationship between understanding and practice.  I generally agree with him regarding the specific areas of deficient understanding in the contemporary church, yet I think the issues might be a bit more complex than simply reducing them to faulty understandings.  The issues are caused by no less than misunderstandings, but they are certainly produced by more than that.  Moreover, faulty practice is sure to inform and influence faulty understanding, thus contributing to a vicious, inescapable circle.  Davis’ treatment of the issue would greatly benefit from a more thorough discussion of this point.

Understanding Theology, Ministry, Evangelism, and Mission

One of the most striking and important implications of a vibrant understanding of God’s presence in the Christian life pertains to the practice of theology itself.  Practically speaking, the task of theology can sometimes be construed as inquiring of the things of God apart from God; that is, theology can become a dry, lifeless subject devoted to learning things about God rather than the task being a means by which we come to know God more fully.  Knowledge of God necessarily contains knowledge about God, but oftentimes we can fall into the trap of using theology as an end in itself rather than as a means to knowing God.

Thus, the implication that the real presence of the risen Christ with his people means that as we do theology, the Lord of the universe is present with us in our pursuit of him.  Leading, guiding, helping, enlightening, and illuminating, God is with us as we engage in our discipline.  This means that we must realize that we are not considering the abstract realities of a deistic God who is far removed from his creatures; on the contrary, God is intimately involved in the lives of his people such that when we do theology, he is present with us to help.  This does not mean that everyone will come to exactly the same conclusions regarding his nature or being or work; it does mean, however, that we can be confident that theology done faithfully is ultimately pleasing to the God who is present.

The Presence of Jesus in Our Evangelism

Another implication of the real presence of Christ with us is when we do evangelism.  Frequently, evangelistic encounters offer a portrayal of God such that he is far off from sinners who need to choose to repent and believe in him in order for God to come near.  How far this is from the truth!  There are at least two problems that are remedied by having a proper understanding of the presence of God in our evangelism.  First, we can know that Christ is present with us.  In Matthew 28:20, Jesus tells his disciples that he is “with [them] always, to the end of the age.”  We know this applies to us for it explicitly states “to the end of the age.”  Thus, when we go and make disciples, the risen Christ is present with us in our endeavors.  We are not pointing to a God that is only far-off; rather, he is immediately present to his people because of the work of Christ.  Second, God has an active role in bringing people to himself in faith and repentance.  An orthodox Reformed understanding of soteriology necessarily assumes the presence of God’s Spirit in the work of regeneration.  That is, it takes an act of the God who is present to bring dead sinners to life.  So in our evangelism, we must rely solely upon the Spirit of God to effectively bring sinners to himself: he can do this because he is already present to us.

Mission: By the Power of God, for the Glory of God

Closely related to the previous point, we should also consider that mission is done by the power of God, for the glory of God.  Though evangelism is utterly crucial to mission, we should not think of mission as being solely evangelistic.  Its broader purposes, such as renewing and restoring the fallen world so far as we are able, are firmly rooted and established because it is God’s mission primarily.  And God is intimately present to his creation such that his mission is to redeem and restore it for the glory of his name.  This means that when we engage in these areas, God is present with us, empowering us, and assisting us in accomplishing this task.  We are not bringing about the ultimate goal of a far-off deity who is simply waiting on us to complete our commission.  Rather, God is present to us as we engage in the mission of the universe.  This enables us to work freely for the glory of God in the power of God.

[1] John Jefferson Davis, Worship and the Reality of God: An Evangelical Theology of Real Presence (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 10.

[2] Ibid., 8.

[3] Ibid., 13.

[4] Ibid., 14.

[5] Ibid., 48.

[6] Ibid., 60, 66, and 77.

[7] Ibid., 62.

[8] Ibid., 71.

[9] Ibid., 92.

[10] Ibid., 13.

Thanks for reading.  Have a question or comment?  Leave it below.

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