“Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down” (Part 5): “God as the Center of Worship”

If you’ve missed it, we’ve been blogging through the book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time by Marva Dawn.  For reference, here are the links to the previous chapters:

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

In chapter 5, Dawn begins the book’s third section which focuses on the culture of the Church itself.   The present chapter is entitled: “God as the Center of Worship: Who is Worship For?”  She mocks her own poor grammar in the title, meant to emphasize that the purpose of worship is not a “what” but a “who.”


Dawn’s thesis in this chapter is that “in genuine worship God is the subject” (p. 76).  She emphasizes that God is both the subject of worship, meaning that worship is about the revelation of God’s character, as well as the object of worship, meaning that worship is focused on praising God.

While such statements may sound obvious to some, Dawn identifies the way that worship services have shifted from God as the center to man as the center.  And if we pause to reflect, we know this: how often do we hear someone say, “I got a lot out of today’s service,” or, negatively, “I just didn’t really get much from the service today.”  Such attitudes only reinforce Dawn’s earlier critiques about the consumerist impulse that seeks religious ceremony as a means to satisfy felt needs.


Dawn highlights four key reasons for such a loss:

(1)   Conception of the self: In today’s narcissistic culture, it’s difficult for anyone to see past their own needs and see the needs of others.

(2)   Authority: Absolute truth resides only in the individual.

(3)   Meaning Systems: We have abandoned the historical revelation of God for a God of our own imagination and preferences.

(4)   Spiritual Styles: There is a divergence between those who emphasize traditional spiritual discipline and those who wish to abandon all tradition to better adapt to the culture.


The bulk of the chapter is focused on the ways that the Church has often missed the mark in reclaiming God as the center of worship.  The chapter is among the longest in the book, so I’m summarizing in a few broad strokes:

Praise and Lament: While the Psalms contain a wide range of emotion, contemporary music has largely jettisoned the language of lament.  At the same time, praise has been equated with happiness, resulting in a style of music that is assumed to be praise solely because it is upbeat.

Should this surprise us?  In a narcissistic, consumer-driven, self-esteem culture, how could we expect anything but such a trend?  The problem, of course, is that the Church suffers when it loses the language necessary for Godly sorrow.  In the wake of 9/11, songwriter Michael Card raised the question: “Why do churches have praise teams but no lament teams?”  Probably the most spiritual response to this suffering was the performance of U2 at the Super Bowl that following January.  During a time when prominent, outspoken Christian leaders were arguing about why such a tragedy occurred, U2 gave voice to the brokenness that was felt by a nation, and offered hope for a place “where the streets have no name.”  I’m hardly suggesting that their message was distinctively Christian – only that the language of lament was found in the rock stadia rather than the walls of the Church.

Worship Styles: Dawn argues, quite convincingly, that worship styles are not the real issue, because both “contemporary” and “traditional” assume that the appeal of worship is human creativity.  She cites the fact that traditional churches (Catholic and Orthodox) have seen a recent increase in young Christians despite the repetitiveness of their liturgy – the appeal instead, according to research, is that such liturgies invite participants into the presence of God.

The Kind of God We Worship: The content of worship has often focused on personal feelings about God rather than God’s character.  As in our earlier post, lex orandi, lex credendi: the way we worship often forms our attitudes about what we worship.  The result is that God’s holiness is often minimized and marginalized.

Such a critique is nothing new to me – let’s be cautious that we don’t criticize with an air of spiritual superiority.  The issue has more to do with the imbalance of God’s attributes as described in worship, which often emphasize love to the neglect of other attributes.  If we do not fully understand God’s holiness, righteousness and, yes, even the politically-incorrect doctrine of His anger, how then can we truly understand the magnitude of God’s grace?

Mystery, Awe and Reverence: Ironically the appeal to personal feeling has numbed the worshipping community to the awe-full experiences of God’s majesty.  We’ve allowed the language of the marketplace to dominate God’s worship, and the result is the loss of a true, vivid encounter with who He is.  Dawn cites a lecture by Martin E. Marty in which he argues that while contemporary, seeker-driven worship services may draw crowds, they run the risk of allowing worship to become “measured by the aesthetics and experience of those who don’t yet know why we should shudder.”

The Language for God: Dawn concludes her chapter with a discussion of the way we describe God in our worship, both in music and in the sermon.  Much of her discussion relates to the way we describe God in masculine and feminine terms.  I’d prefer to sidestep this issue for the time being, for no other reason than the fact that this issue ranks much lower on the list of priorities for the church at present.


While I would have greatly preferred an appeal to scripture as much as sociology and tradition, Dawn articulates a genuine need in the content of contemporary worship.

But because I don’t like to align myself with critics without also pointing toward solutions, I conclude with a small sampling of music recommendations.   The following are simply some albums that I have found to be both musically appealing as well as theologically rich.  And they vary in style and genre, so don’t assume the list to be a monolith.  In no particular order:

David Crowder, “B Collision

Sandra McCracken, “The Builder and the Architect

Bifrost Arts, “Come O Spirit! Anthology of Hymns and Spiritual Songs

Derek Webb, “I See Things Upside Down

Gungor, “Beautiful Things

Red Letter, “Red Letter

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