Giving God the First Word


The pattern of Revelation and Response encapsulates how God relates to us as human beings. We would have no accurate idea about God without His self-revelation: witness the fanciful and grotesque images and imaginings about God that other religions have come up with. By His grace, God has condescended to reach into human history to speak and to act and to save; our position is always one of response (or refusing to respond) to God’s gift of self-disclosure.

Key to this concept is God’s initiative in revealing Himself. According to Paul, “no one seeks for God” (Romans 3:11); God is the one who seeks after man, not the other way around (see Genesis 3:8-9 and Luke 19:10). The Bible is full of accounts of God breaking into human experience and communicating with those of His sovereign choosing: consider Abraham, Moses, David and Paul, among many, many others. Biblical faith is neither a “leap in the dark” nor a conjuring up of some desired deity fashioned in our image: rather it is a reasoned response to a God who has shown Himself, and shown Himself to be mighty and merciful and gracious.

And biblical worship is, as William Nicholls put it,

our answer to God who has first addressed us. . . . Man worships the God who has made Himself known, and that worship is to be governed, both in fact and in form, by this revelation. We “praise His holy Name”—that is, we worship Him in His self-revelation. If God had not revealed Himself, we could not praise Him. (Jacob’s Ladder: The Meaning of Worship, 37)

And so revelation and response go hand in hand, but “the greater of these” is revelation, and is a prerequisite to all valid response. “God needs to be known before He can be worshiped” (Eric Alexander).

When it comes to our worship services, it stands to reason that they should reflect this basic way that God relates to us as human beings. In worship we are responding to the God who has made Himself known. Indeed, we have nothing to say to Him unless and until He has first spoken to us.

And yet our services are so often heavily laden with song, to the neglect or even exclusion of hearing from God. We do all the talking! Worship has been termed “a conversation between God and His people”; and any good conversation involves focused listening, as well as speaking.

In worship we listen to God first and foremost by hearing and reading His Word. We let Him speak to us through the words of Scripture, and then we respond with our praises and our prayers. Most evangelical churches I have visited could use more of the Word of God in their services. (This need is greatest in free churches: liturgical churches such as the Anglicans have a rich trove of Scripture already built into their liturgy.)

As in any good dialogue, there should be a back and forth between hearing the Word and responding, throughout the service—a rhythm of revelation and response. And that right from the outset: a “Call to Worship” is not simply some traditional, “liturgical” practice that can be freely discarded: rather it is an acknowledgment, at the very beginning of worship, that the God who speaks is the one who has called and invited us into worship, and that it is His revelation of Himself to which we are responding with our songs and prayers of praise. (We’re not welcoming Him into our midst—He never left! He’s welcoming us.)

And so forth through the service: repeatedly returning to the Word to guide and shape and energize our worship; letting our songs be a fitting response to truths from God’s own heart as they are read by the leader or (better yet) proclaimed together.

Corporate worship (as well as the life of worship which is our calling as believers) is a response to God’s gracious initiative in revealing Himself and providing salvation as a free gift. And characterizing our celebrations should be attentive hearing from God, letting the Word of Christ “dwell richly among us” (Colossians 3:16), and then heartfelt responses with our hearts and our voices.

Ron Man (MM, ThM, DMin) trained as an orchestra conductor, later attended Dallas Theological Seminary, and has served as a pastor, missionary, and worship pastor. He has taught on worship in 35 countries, maintains a website of free worship resources, authors a monthly newsletter Worship Notes, and posts daily Worship Quotables. He will be leading “Revelation & Response: The Shape of Worship” at the 2017 Bethlehem Conference for Pastors + Church Leaders (January 30-February 1, 2016).