Stumbling Into Mystery: Toward A Theology Of Worship

front-angel-statueSTUMBLING INTO MYSTERY: Toward A Theology Of Worship
Dan Wilt, M.Min.
Director, The In
stitute Of Contemporary And Emerging Worship Studies
St. Stephen’s University

To formulate a rich and powerful theology of worship is to engage the most essential questions of humankind, the most vital revelations of human history, and the most practical activities of human experience. In short, to embrace that a clear theology of worship is not only helpful, but of highest human necessity, is to begin to see the full scope of the silver thread of worship that weaves throughout this magical universe.

Found On Other Planets: Worship
Cosmologist George Ellis once suggested that if we communicate at some point with sentient life on other planets, we will find two things. Firstly, we will find that these creatures understand mathematics. Using their own terms, and building on their own histories, storytelling, discoveries and biology, these beings will understand the majestic order that provides a framework for understanding the shape and tendencies of such a rambunctious, chaotic universe. Secondly, Ellis suggests that these creatures will understand what he calls the “Kenotic Ethic.” The word “kenotic” comes from the Greek word “kenosis,” which means “to empty.” Ellis suggests that our new celestial friends will understand that giving oneself, emptying oneself, epitomized in Jesus’ self-offering in the garden of Gethsemane, is the only true way to peace, healing and restoration in any given universe.

While these two ideas are bright with beauty and possibility, I would add at least one more probability to Ellis’ duo. I would add that upon meeting these creatures, and hearing about the nature of their life, history and daily experience, we would begin to hear – very soon into the conversation – words and ideas related to worship. In the fabric of the universe is an impulse – an impulse to live in, return to, and reclaim the proper order of things. It is an impulse toward Eden, toward origins and beginnings. Our destabilization (what we call the Fall on earth) has created a sense of longing vibrating in every human cell (Scripture also suggests it resonates in the entirety of this creation) for a relationship that encompasses other human beings, creation and yet something beyond. That impulse and intuition seems to largely endure in individuals, guided by particular visions of faith and stories of reality, if not consciously restrained.

It is a desire to return to love, to return to the dance, to return to the life of adoration (and the life that flows among us when we live in this state) for which we are made. Worship is the completing of the circle of love into which we have been invited by a self-revealing God. To misunderstand worship, to fail to articulate its content and themes well, is to fail to find the meaning pregnant in every spousal kiss, act of kindness, mundane chore, serendipitous glance and invigorating breath.

Everything we are, and everything we do, hinges on our conscious approach to developing a living theology of worship that takes into account the wildest gifts and deepest rifts that exist in the human consciousness – and in the creation in which we find ourselves.

Digital And Analog Worship Theology
Let’s get something out of the way, for starters. Theology that is digital – that is all 1’s and 0’s- makes no living sense to this generation. Digital theology is surgically precise theology. It is manifest in ways of seeing, thinking and talking about God that leave little room for error, aberration or dissonance. Something in our makeup tells us that holy mysteries, as Peterson puts it, should never be reduced to slogans or simple answers.

Analog theology, however, is filled with the hiss and the sounds of the stories in which we live. In analog recording, there is no objective, musical “perfection” with which all things line up neatly and are defined as “the perfect music.” There are options, with principles leading, guiding and ultimately shaping the music. The stories of your life and mine are filled with the raw noise of experience, and the experience of those who have gone before us. The Bible seems to affirm that this kind of experience is not only common, but it may be at the very center of the way that God interacts with His world.

If theology is approached as a systematic math equation, leading us to a true understanding of God and our place in His world, then it had better be the longest, most obtuse, most breathtaking and infinite math equation of them all. The reason we as human beings are storytelling creatures (and are drawn to stories like bees to honey), is because we innately understand that we live in a relational narrative, rather than a concise equation.

Theology that is rich, strong, true, and ultimately biblical, is theology that holds in it the analog hiss, the mystery, the wonder, the pain of being a human being in a shared cosmic and communal story. If worship theology will begin to take us toward envisioning the God of heaven and the earth from the foundation of expressed revelation (the Scriptures), then we had better get this straight from the top. Any  journey in worship theology worth our time will be messy, wonderful, exhilarating and sickening. Worship theology that is pristine and polished is all 1’s and 0’s – helpful for doing the math of theology, but ultimately inadequate for incarnationally living it out in the world we inhabit.

To say it one more way, if for a moment we believe that essence of worship can be fully captured in a few slogans, scriptures or quick statements, then we had better dismiss the complexity inherent to the cosmos, or even the incomparable mystery of the Sovereign Father, Resurrected Son and Indwelling Spirit active in this very moment of your life and mine.

We Start With Something
To our great benefit, and in contrast to the what the voices of the new atheism may say, I (possibly ‘we’ if you are a Christian reading this) believe that the God of the universe has not remain hidden, nor will he suffer Himself to be disconnected from His works of art. He doesn’t play games with humanity, thrusting us into this undulating universe and then throwing away any description of why we might be here.

How vile this thought would be, to stare into the stunning starfields at night and to believe that our gift of consciousness for beholding these wonders will simply to lead us to the ultimate trap of meaninglessness and further unknowing. One would think that the joy of discovery for any scientist is just that, a joy, because it feels as though it is leading us somewhere. The Celtic Christians would have lifted their voices centuries ago and cried out, “No! Leading us to Someone.” A destination that ends in a Person was all that the Celtic believers could perceive not only as an accurate way of knowing and being, but as a truly worthwhile form of knowing and being.

The God we worship as Christians is a God who self reveals – who invites us into revelation by not remaining hidden, not remaining distant. This is a God who suffers with, suffers for, suffers among. This is a God who takes on flesh and blood, who incarnates to make His point. This kind of God is the opposite of the “unknown force” that leads us to discoveries only for the purpose of acquiring knowledge, feeling good about the progress of the race, heightening our evolution (to what end?) and placing ourselves on the throne of the All-Knowing One because we found hydrogen in a dust cloud. Majestic as science is, and fantastical as human spirituality and intuition can be, a God who leaves us to fend for ourselves seems to me to be the ultimate Poor Parent.

We are given a guide – the Scriptures – to lead us forward as living communities welcoming the Spirit’s leadership. Despite our diverse understandings of these authoritative letters, histories, songs, prophecies and stories, we are rooted by the Bible in a vision of God offered across tumultuous time through a single tribe in our ancient human family – the Jews. If we have enough imagination to recognize that this is indeed what God has done to self-reveal – He has particularly selected a people through which to speak a story into the world (in an age where the faulty concept of tolerance is deified, this is untenable) – then we have begun our journey toward becoming truly human in the way of Jesus.

Getting Beyond The Music
Because this God draws near, there is purpose to a life, to our relationships, to the creation and to the dance into which we are invited with God Himself. This is the foundational theme that should run through any theology of worship to which we come. The cosmos has a purpose – it is part of a Story, not existing as its own story.

As we begin to consider a theology and worldview of worship (the theme of our Essentials Blue online seminar), there are a few factors we must always come back to if we are to be thorough. We must get far beyond the music of worship, the liturgies of worship, the affections we may have for certain types of gathered worship. In fact, we must even get beyond simplistic visions of the “living sacrifice” of worship that is our current ruling framework for a worshipper’s life in the Church. While important and beautiful in its reflection on worship, it is only one idea about worship (and again, a stunning and magnificent one at that), and one that makes us the Subject of the sentence, and God the object.

Embracing this, we must begin to formulate a narrative voicing of worship theology that makes God the Subject of the sentence, the one who enacts all the verbs of relationship, toward the Objects of His affection. Worship begins in God, finds its definition in God’s actions, and its fruit and welcoming opportunities in us – the objects of God’s pursuing love.

I will note here how we begin to approach such an expansive idea as worship theology here at the Institute Of Contemporary And Emerging Worship Studies. All of our online seminars, courses, webinars and Masters courses seek to pursue the articulation, and sacramental embodying of these ideas, in creative spiritual leaders across the planet. It is my hope that our framework, though flawed, can serve as a starting point for the integration of the vast worlds of faith, the arts, history, the sciences, culture, anthropology, ecology and all spheres of human relationships and experience in our approach to worship.

Toward Formulating A Theology Of Worship
While any grid for approaching the wide and wild world of worship will have its flaws, this approach has proven very helpful to hundreds of worship leaders, creative artists, musicians, pastors and worship leaders across the world. Drawing on N.T. Wright’s book, Simply Christian, we seek to frame a worship theology and worldview that is understandable and compelling to the postmodern mind. From the reflections on worship theology and worldview that flow among our groups, a wide variety of artistic, creative and innovate embodiments of worship theology rise from the hearts of participants. If the artists speak a living Story that is more compelling than the stories of the age, we may have a chance to lead people to encounter with the God who injects His life into each person’s unique Story, and seeds it with the holy virus of New Creation.

Here are our three categories, forming a trinity of ideas that tumble over one another in formulating what might begin to be a more comprehensive worship theology than we may have embraced to date.

1. Our Theology Of Worship should first articulate a clear view of who we believe that God has revealed Himself to be.
As human beings, seeking to perceive Who God is and how we are to relate to Him, we turn to reflection on:

  • God as Creator (the God who makes),
  • God as King (the God who reigns),
  • God as Trinity (the God who relates and reveals) and
  • God as Savior (the God who acts).

2. Our Theology Of Worship should articulate a clear view of who we believe that human beings are revealed to be.
As human beings perceiving and exploring the wonders of the God who makes, reigns, relates/reveals and acts, we next turn to reflection on:

  • Human beings as SubCreators (people who make and share),
  • Human beings as ImageBearers (people who reign and steward),
  • Human beings as CommunityBuilders (people who relate and reveal) and
  • Human beings as SalvificStorytellers (people who tell and act)

3. Our Theology Of Worship should articulate a clear view of what worship is given that God is the subject of worship, and people are the object of God’s affection.
Finally, as human beings who now, from our vantage point, seek to be in the center of “the design of things,” we move toward reflection on:

  • Worship as a Creative Act (to worship is to make and to share the gifts of that making),
  • Worship as a Royal Act (to worship is to steward and benevolently reign in creation),
  • Worship as a Relational Act (to worship is to relate rightly to God, people, the creation and the whole community of living and non-living things), and
  • Worship as a Narrative Act (to worship is to tell and retell a story that provides the optimal context for the universe, and to act in accord with that story).

In light of these three steps toward developing a theology (and practice) of worship, I believe that we can safely find a haven for all of the experiences that mark the human condition, the revelations that God has so generously distributed to us in the Scriptures (and in creation), the creativity that flows from us as we seek to commune with the invisible God in this world, and possible solutions to bear to the world for moving us toward the New Creation that is to come – a new creation inaugurated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

For Those Interested In More
For those interested in furthering their reflection on this vision of worship, we offer our online Essentials Course. Online via Facebook, iTunes U and blogs we explore ideas in Worship Theology and Worldview (Essentials Blue – Simply Christian), Worship History and Creative Vocation (Essentials Red – Ancient-Future Time) and Worship Values and Spiritual Formation (Essentials Green – Devotional Classics). All courses are offered in a 5 week, innovative seminar format for worshipping Christians in any stream of the Church, with an emphasis on musicians, worship leaders and creative artists. The Essentials Course is also available for university credit through St. Stephen’s University in New Brunswick, Canada.

We also have an upcoming, full year Essentials Worship Team Subscription for any local church wanting us to help them to nurture their worship team or creative ministry’s vision of worship. This subscription includes the Essentials Course, monthly webinars, group study tools and more, and is already being piloted with hundreds of worship musicians around the world. Contact us for more information at the site, sign up for our newsletter, and look for info to come.

The Institute Of Contemporary And Emerging Worship Studies seeks to be a nexus of worship past, present and future for the equipping of the contemporary and emerging Church of the 21st century.

Email this article to a friend.

On Pilgrimage: Destinations Of The Soul

front-st-brendanIt has been said that a pilgrimage is a physical journey with a spiritual destination. A “mystic,” from the word “mystikos,” means “to see with the eyes closed,” and at times, and in places, we are called to a blind wandering of sorts. The ancient Celtic Christians called this wandering, this pilgrimage of the soul, a perigrinatio. A perigrinatio is a journey, a wandering, whose destination is not primarily a physical location, but rather is a Person.

In following a Person, the trajectory is not always a straight path from one point to another. There is seemingly erratic movement when one is following something as unpredictable as a Personality. There is the revisiting of old places, the discovery of new places in the same neighborhood, the encountering of the Person in places we would never expect to find them. From an aerial view, this kind of “journey,” would look less like a straight line drawn across the map of a life, but rather would look more like a dance, in which one follows, and the Other leads.

A few recent pilgrimages, physical journeys with spiritual destinations, spring to mind for me. At present a group of students from St. Stephen’s University is on a pilgrimage to Asia. We sent them out in a beautifully crafted Sending service, replete with laughter, music, eucharist, prayers from the senders, prayers from the goers, private prayers exchanged between the two, challenges to the leaders and the ordination of all to be followers on a sojourn on which we are guests – the guests of God, the guest of countries, and the guest of people and cultures whom we have never encountered before. Another friend is preparing to visit family, hoping to see old places with new eyes. My wife travels back and forth to her job teaching young children – a journey occurs every day for her that may be more important than either of us realize.

Preparing For Pilgrimage
Just as in each of these physical journeys mentioned above, there is preparation that is also necessary for the spiritual journey that accompanies the one we trek with our feet.

In preparing for a journey, and in seeing it as a pilgrimage,

  • Packing is important. Clothes are necessary to meet the climates, cultures and challenges of the trip. Maps, event calendars, and basic instruments of hygiene are also needed. Likewise, journals, scriptures, books, sketchbooks, blogs and reflective aids (a candle, music or images, perhaps) are just as necessary for a pilgrimage to be embraced to its fullest.
  • Prayer is important. Requests for safety, divine appointments and ease of travel are the content of vital dialogues one should have with God when one embarks on any trip. Many have experienced the miraculous enriching and easing of simple journeys seeming to be the overflow of even simpler prayers. Likewise, corporate prayers, meals, conversations and embraces (gestures of affection and shared life) are vital components not to be forgotten in preface to a pilgrimage.
  • Perspective is important. There is listening to be done prior to an excursion of any length. Study, discussion and research form a vital trinity of perspective-givers before one leaves for a physical destination. Others who have gone before us may have insights that will keep us physically well and heighten the adventure. Likewise, a pilgrimage may demand that we engage voices that are silent until a book is opened, an image considered, a reflection is meditated upon. If we carry with us only the perspective we have acquired to date, to a new situation into which we have been invited by God, we have fewer gifts to both offer and to receive when we arrive.

On Being Drawn To A Pilgrimage
Students often come to our small university community, to attend programs from around the world, because something about the “thin place” that is St. Stephen draws them to this place “on the margins.” We live in the most economically poor county, in the most economically poor province, in Canada. And yet, there seems to be a reason to live, learn and even stumble here in our small portion of the world. Friends of mine travel to various places in Europe on pilgrimage, often to places rich in Celtic spirituality, at the beckon of God. A few years ago, my wife and I were in the same country (Turkey) in which her Armenian grandmother was born and in which her family greatly suffered – for us, it was important. For still others, an event, or a gathering, draws them to a location. Pilgrimages of the heart occur when we crack open a book, step onto a street, attend an event, or open the doors of a museum – every day of our lives.

Whatever the reason, pilgrimages – physical journeys with spiritual destinations – will whisper to us throughout our lifetimes. These journeys should be considered with the aid, support and direction of those around us. Our hearts are tricky and fickle, and spouses, spiritual friends and respected guides can help us to tease apart our motives for travel. The financial and time implications of a trip should always be considered as well, as the practical challenges may themselves be an indication from God that a desired trip is to be deferred to another time, that a state of our hearts to be considered, or that our reasons for traveling may be convoluted.

Yet, a portion of those destinations may actually be in your heart because an invitation has been issued. God may have whispered, or a person may have been prompted to welcome you, and one should never be quick to dismiss the inclination to move when an inner voice seems to compel us. Even if the journey is not to be, the fact that our souls are drawn toward it tells us something of the interior workings of our own spirit in conversation with God. There is more than one way to travel. A favorite quote says “The art of travel is not in seeing new places, but is in seeing old places with new eyes.” Sometimes the liminal locus, or the threshold place of experience, is no farther from us than the ground beneath our next step – often in very familiar surroundings.

We Are All On Pilgrimage
We are all on a pilgrimage. Life is the classroom, someone has said, and love is the lesson. I find myself increasingly agreeing with this vision of the human journey we all share as I age. My home will always, on some level, be a place I have been privileged to visit. As a guest, I regard my wife’s invitation to friendship with all due respect and afford it the etiquette due between those who seek to dignify and honor one another. My brief journey to my office today I will consider likewise, as a moment within what is a very brief span of life to be regarded as an invitation to transformation, holy and pregnant with possibility.

In the spirit of pilgrimage, walk today as one whose destination goes beyond the see, taste, touch, smell and hear world to which we limit ourselves. Listen to the interior Voice, the whispering, indwelling Spirit of God. Peer, with your eyes closed, into the moments that remain a gift, a present, from the God who loves you. To see our moments as such, as physical journeys with spiritual destinations, will ultimately result in a life that becomes a generous gift to God and those to whom we have been sent.

Essentials RED partnership with

We’re announcing an entirely new pricing for our ESSENTIALS ONLINE COURSE, in celebration of our partnership with

It’s a big shift, and I wanted my blog readers to know about it, as the RED module is just about here. If you want to dive in, go to the LEARN MORE, and then when you want to apply, ask us about the discount. Here it is. Starting at $99, Essentials RED. See below…

THE ESSENTIALS COURSE is a unique, 15 week online learning experience. Study the arts of worship theology, history, creativity, spiritual formation and leadership with internationally respected worship leader Dan Wilt, M.Min., with media from N.T. Wright, Robert Webber, Matt Redman, Brian Doerksen and others. LEARN MORE or CLICK HERE TO REGISTER.

ESSENTIALS RED is a 5 week module that makes up 1/3 of The FULL ESSENTIALS COURSE (Blue, Red and Green). RED is the study of foundational worship values, leadership and spiritual formation.


  • ADD ancient worship ideas to your worship leading tool box.
  • GAIN fresh, timeless approaches to holiday worship expressions, communion and more.
  • SERVE your local church with creative riches inspired by history.

Nov. 3 – Dec. 5, 2008 (5 weeks)
Register by Oct. 25th
Note: Register by Oct. 25th and get a free Dan Wilt and N. T. Wright Reclaiming Worship CD!

Worship Pastors, worship leaders, worship musicians, pastors, artists and worshippers

Approx. 1 hr./day (Approx. 6 hrs. or less per wk.!), for 5 weeks

TUITION (with code)
Non-university credit
Essentials Red (5 week module only): $99 USD
FULL ESSENTIALS SEMINAR (15 weeks, Blue/Red/Green): only $149 USD

For university credit
Essentials Red (5 week module for university credit): $249 USD
FULL ESSENTIALS COURSE (15 weeks, Blue/Red/Green for univ. credit): only $599 USD

Click below, fill in the form, and then pay via PayPal. It’s that simple.


In ESSENTIALS RED, Everything has a story – Worship has a powerful one.Consider the influence of just one worship song – Amazing Grace – in reshaping history. Consider how communion, a symbolic action in worship, has shaped lives for 2000 years! Consider how the art and music has led people of all ethnic groups in worship – across centuries. Our worship history has much to teach us for today.

ESSENTIALS RED is a life-changing, online, 5 week module course for contemporary and emerging worship leaders with Dan Wilt, M.Min., studying essential values in worship and the spiritual formation of leaders. Packed with media from N. T. Wright and others via iTunes U, Facebook, Blogs, readings and more, the course only takes 6-8 hours a week, connecting with an international class of peers. RED is the study of worship through the ages, giving tools for today.


“I love Dan’s passion for worship and enthusiasm to train and equip others. He is a gifted communicator and has inspired many worship leaders over the years. Here is a man who is living to make God’s praise glorious.” Tim Hughes (Here I Am To Worship)

“Dan Wilt has a clear vision of what the church needs to recapture and deepen in worship. He is a gifted communicator and leader. I have known Dan for over ten years and I heartily recommend Dan and his Worship Institute to you!” Brian Doerksen (Come, Now Is The Time)

“It should be illegal to be a worship leader without doing this course! I wish I could have had this exposure 20 years ago!” Jamie Appleton (Essentials Blue, WL, Texas, USA)


Essential Worship History: The Language Of Time And Space

How have Christians used the language of time (daily, weekly, yearly and lifetime) to order their worship around Jesus over the millenia? What roles have holidays such as Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter played in the worship life of the Church? How have life journeys and passages such as birth, death, marriage, adolescence and other common human experiences played in the historic worship of the Church? What roles have landscapes, architecture, atmosphere and each age’s cultural experience played in cultivating a living worship expression in each age?

Essential Worship History: The Language Of Prayer And Scripture

From the early Church through to the 21st century, the importance of God’s people praying together, and hearing the Scriptures read aloud have played a vital role in engaging the Church in her mission with God in the world. What creative approaches to these forms of worship could strengthen us today?

Essential Worship History: The Language Of Baptism And The Eucharist

The language of sacraments and symbols may be unusual for many contemporary Christians growing up outside of liturgical churches. What are the real meanings, biblically and historically, behind the worship acts of Baptism and the Eucharist (communion)? In what ways could we reclaim their vitality in our worship expression today?

Essential Worship History: The Language Of Art And Music

The role of the creative leader expressing worship through the media of art and music has been diverse across the history of the Church – from early church symbols, to Michelangelo’s Pieta, to Isaac Watt’s hymns, to Newton’s stunning Amazing Grace. Snapshots of worship history give us insight into how the Church has utilized art to further the missional worship story of every generation.

Week 5
Essential Worship History: Creative Projects

Our final week of the course will involve the creative distilling of our historical learning into a final project that will serve one’s local worshipping community. This is a favorite part of the course for all!

Join us for a season of transformation, either in RED or the FULL ESSENTIALS COURSE.


Live: The New

It’s a new incarnation. A fresh invitation. A blossoming conversation.

The new is live.

Hosting an ever effervescent conversation on emerging worship ideas, ancient insights for today, future trend reflections, Church/culture interface meditations and both prosaic and poetic renderings of what it means to be fully alive to God, the new is about it’s business.

Welcome friends.

Note: The site now features original photography from Dan Wilt, Matt Frise and a few other pals. The new look is a WordPress template retool by designer Matt Wiebe at Soma Design.