There is a central image in the worship-scape we present each week.
The Image of the Invisible
A truncated version of Paul’s great passage on the centrality of Christ, Colossians 1:15-20, would read like this:
“He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God…so that in everything He might have the supremacy.” (NIV)
We begin with an oxymoron: Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Is Paul out of his mind Or, is he trying to translate spiritual truth into a language full of material images?
The translation of spirit into truth is what public worship is all about. As worship leaders and lead worshipers, this is what we do. This is the job our songs, confessions, and liturgies are designed to do: To bring into clear focus something that is invisible.
This translation of spirit into truth is what we celebrate at Christmas—“God (invisible) with us” (visible.)
• Angels sing to shepherds who then kneel in worship.
• Wise men mount up and ride as the star leads them. On arrival at the image of God, writhing against the restraints of humanity in the swaddling clothes, they lavish their treasure before Him.
• At the Temple the ancient Simeon and the elderly Anna rejoice.
In the Christmas narrative, the invisible God comes into view. When the image was clear, humans responded with worship. So must we.
Life smudges the lens. We get gunk on the glass and the image is distorted. This is no surprise to the Lord. As part of the New Covenant, worshipers are assisted by the Holy Spirit in a way that was impossible under the Old Covenant.
Because of Calvary, our sins are now truly forgiven, atoned for, cast away and now our lives are clean. This cleansing allows the Holy Spirit to come alongside and help us see invisible things clearly.
The Disciples witnessed the resurrected Jesus and the ascension, but they still were not ready to go into the world to tell His story. Jesus told them to go back to Jerusalem (remember that phrase!) and wait until they received power from heaven to be witnesses. (Acts 1:3-8)
They did and they did.
After the morning of Day of Pentecost, spent in prayer and praise under a Holy Ghost flame, Peter got up and preached his heart out. All of these who ran from the authorities, now stood in the market place shouting praise to the one they thought had disappeared into a cloud. (Acts 2)
Why? Because the indwelling Holy Spirit made the invisible Jesus more real to them than He had been when he was with them in the flesh, even in his resurrected body! Jesus could walk through walls but people needed the ministry of the Holy Spirit to break through the walls in their spirits, walls of logic and naturalistic thinking.
Unlike today’s automatic cameras, worship leaders do not have an autofocus button; our focus on Him is manually maintained. The Holy Spirit functions like a focusing ring. Sensitivity to Him requires intentionality on the part of the artist.
In other words, when we sing Christian songs or confessing ancient words or read Holy Scripture, the clearest image seen still might not be Jesus. Other focal points are possible:
• Sometimes the artists are the most clearly seen image.
• Sometimes the music is the center of focus.
• At other times the technology distracts from the message rather than enhancing it.
• Tradition or innovation, which are such powerful forces in our thinking, may actually hold the center point in our worship.
• The clock can be the real moderator of public worship, giving the impression the main idea is to the get through the service on time.
• Some worship leaders are in boxes created by the expectations of the congregations they serve. It takes great effort and skill and much prayer to make sure Jesus shines out clearly from the center of the cultural boxes they are given. But it can be done!
The danger for all of us is found in getting so caught up in the routine that we fail to prayerfully turn the focusing ring, taking a careful look at what we are presenting:
• Is it a clear picture of Jesus?
• Is the image clouded by careless artistry?
• Does the technology show? Does it attract attention to itself?
• Are we making decisions based on the comfort and pleasure of a power group or are we led by the Spirit in choices that clear the way for Jesus to be seen, clearly seen?
• Do we give our own preferences the central role?
Foreground, Mid-ground, Background and Framing
Four elements of an artistic image have relevance in our worship leading.
- Foreground is the part of the image that everything else is about. This is the message of the piece, what the eye sees first and last and for the longest time.
- It takes great skill to keep the mid-ground in its proper perspective. Things located alongside the central image share the foreground but are shaded and positioned in ways that add to the emphasis on the central image.
- Background images are lighted and positioned in ways that provide the proper context for the central image. You would not want to see a beautiful image of a square rigger sailing ship breaking through deep waves with a desert horizon behind it.
- Well done visual images are framed by elements that focus the eyes toward the central image: tall trees to the right and left, branches out of focus to one side or the other, often held by the photographer or an assistant, archways, window frames, etc. Like the background material, the supporting images provide context for the message of the piece.
There are many elements in the contemporary worship service. There is nothing wrong with this. The artistic challenge is to give each element its proper place. By moving the presentation of Jesus, the Image of the Invisible God, to the foreground, we can more easily see if the other images are on a plain with Him, or if they are background, or if they should frame Him. The basic artistic test is this: Is Jesus the organizational center of our worship leadership?
Peter and the Flame
How did Peter leap from fear to fearlessness on the Day of Pentecost? How did he know what to say to the people gathered there? How long did he spend in preparation for the greatest presentation of his life?
In the Upper room an individual flame of the Holy Spirit came to rest upon him. Fear, even the survival instinct so deep in each of us, cannot withstand the impact Spirit-revelation. His fearful heart was flooded by revelation. Suddenly, he knew what it was all about. He understood Jesus better than he ever had before. More than a historical reference, he took Joel’s prophecy as an introduction to the Jesus Story.
Back to Jerusalem
It is the same for us. The biblical road to revival begins with personal renewal. That means returning to Jerusalem again and again, not in a travel sense, but in the Spirit:
• Private prayer where the Father is waiting to engage us.
• The reading of Scripture listening for the Shepherd’s voice.
• Fellowship and service with the saints who walk “the Path of Life” with us.
In the language of Acts, we must find our flame and rest beneath it until all images in our mind become clear. We focus on the Lord until we see him so clearly so that we can present him clearly in our art. We realize when something meaningful to us, may really just be suited for the frame or the background. We can fearlessly demote it from the center of the picture to its proper place.
Now we are ready for the unedited words of Paul:
• He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.
• He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
• And He is the head of the body, the church.
• He is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything He might have the supremacy.
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. Col 1:15-20NIV
See you in Jerusalem!
Follow my blogs each Friday and Tuesday as we continue to explore the renewal of Spirituality–the Path of Life at The Worship Renewal Center.
Dr. Stephen Phifer has a doctoral degree in Worship Studies from the Robert Webber Institute for Worship Studies. He currently serves as Creative Arts Minister at First Baptist Church at the Mall in Lakeland, Florida. Dr. Phifer has written numerous musical and literary works which have had extensive use in churches. He is the founder of TheWorshipRenewalCenter.com.
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