The Presence of God in Worship—What Many of Us Miss

“Rather than criticize worship leaders, let’s seek to encourage their heart for invoking and celebrating the presence of God.”

In many years of leading worship, there have been a few theological conversations that have repeatedly surfaced. Lately, there have been numerous articles raising problems within “contemporary” worship. I have read many of these articles and have been saddened by the lack of depth and blanket statements made with these reactionary opinions. I have spent the last year reflecting on my years in worship leadership, and what I have learned and experienced along the way. My hope in writing on subjects pertaining to worship is to encourage the church and its leaders.

One of the common conversations that has circulated is around the presence of God. There are countless songs that describe God’s presence, invite and invoke his presence, and celebrate when he “shows up.” On occasion, I would receive emails from people in the church asking me to stop singing these songs because, “Don’t you know that he is God and he is already everywhere?”

Yes, I do know that. Recently, another article surfaced from Pastor Jared C. Wilson that criticized worship leaders for their use of presence language, among other phrases that worship leaders often say. You can read the article here: “10 Things Worship Leaders Need to Stop Saying.”

I don’t know Jared Wilson, and my purpose in writing this is not to start a debate or argument. I know what Wilson is trying to say with his criticism of how worship leaders communicate the presence of God, but I think it would be helpful to further unpack what worship leaders are trying to say.

I am no theologian and don’t presume to be an expert. Much of what Wilson says is true, and I agree that there are inherent words and phrases that many worship leaders tend to use that aren’t always helpful to those they are leading. However, I do want to share some thoughts in order to give a better understanding of God’s presence, and why these songs and statements are actually quite accurate and important.

Rather than criticize worship leaders, let’s seek to understand and encourage their heart for both invoking and celebrating the presence of God.

While worship leaders’ use of presence language may be overused and at times borderline voracious, it is absolutely correct theologically (whether the worship leader realizes it or not). A very important aspect of gathered worship is the experience that comes when God inhabits the praises of his people. If we ceased singing songs that invited and celebrated God’s presence, we would be at danger of limiting the very purpose of corporate worship.

When we consider God’s presence, we must start by distinguishing two types of God’s presence. The first type is omnipresence, or what I call God’s transcendent presence. This presence of God is a foundation of Christian belief; that God is everywhere-present at all times. He is Emmanuel; God with us.

The second type of presence that needs to be understood and distinguished is often called God’s manifest presence, or his immanent presence. Immanent presence, simply put, is when God draws near to his creation. It is God, the Holy Spirit, choosing to reveal his presence at one place and at one time in such a way that leads to a divine revelation of his goodness, mercy, love and compassion.

There is a necessary difference between saying, “God is everywhere,” and saying, “God is here.” Both realities of his presence help us to understand a God who is all knowing and all powerful, yet is accessible and draws near to his creation. We must embrace God in both his transcendence and his immanence, recognizing that he is near and far. As C.S. Lewis put it in The Problem of Pain, “God is both further from us, and nearer to us than any other being.”

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My hope is to further unpack the distinctions, overlap and mystery of God’s presence, while encouraging worship leaders and their congregations to further seek the presence of God in their gathered worship and individual lives.

Recently, I was at a church service where the pastor said, “We don’t ask you (God) to show up because we know that you’re already here.” While this statement is not false, I found it interesting that just minutes before, we sang a song inviting and asking for more of God’s presence.

This happens often in churches, where we will sing one thing and then nearly contradict that in another song or prayer. Both of the statements are theologically correct and simply need one more sentence that acknowledges the distinction, overlap and mystery of God’s presence.

Understanding that there are two types of God’s presence is just the beginning. The more that we know, the better we can seek his presence in our daily lives and in our corporate gatherings. To suggest that God is already present, and that all we need to do is become aware of his presence is often correct—but also a limiting statement.

Similarly, to suggest that we have to somehow coerce God to show up in our gathered worship can be erroneous. It is crucial that we understand more about God’s transcendent (omni) and immanent (manifest) presence. While there is much we cannot understand, there are clear Biblical truths around God’s presence that are necessary to know if we truly want our worship to be expectant and responsive.

Transcendent Presence

We know through Scripture that God is omnipresent (Ps. 139:7-8; Jer. 23:23-24). He is before all things, created all things, above all things and holds it all together. God’s presence is everywhere. There is nowhere we can go to escape the transcendent presence of God.

There are many great songs that acknowledge this aspect of God’s presence and celebrate the otherness of God. One of my favorite accounts of God’s transcendence is Matt Redman’s album and book Facedown. Facedown is a journey through acknowledging and responding to God’s transcendence, otherness and absolute glory.

We need songs and prayers that remind us that no matter where we go, or what we’ve done, God is present and in control. But God’s presence does not stop there. He is not simply a massive force that set the world in motion and now sits at a distance watching his creation. No, God is intimately involved with and wants to interact with his creation, which leads us to his immanence.

Immanent Presence

The immanent presence of God emphasizes his closeness and nearness to his creation. Similar to the transcendence of God, we see countless examples of God’s immanent presence in Scripture. The Old Testament is full of stories of God drawing near to a person or place in a tangible way, where his presence was manifested to the human senses.

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Abraham, Joshua, Gideon, Jeremiah, Isaiah and, of course, Moses are prime examples of what happens when God chooses to make his immanent presence known. Old Testament examples are not just a series of stories of what God used to do, but they are meant to encourage us to seek God’s presence in our lives today. The New Testament gives us a glimpse of what happens when we encounter the immanent presence of God and how that can transform individuals, churches and cities.

Although God is completely holy and set apart from creation, he also has chosen to be active in the world and to draw near to his people. God desires to be with us, to guide us and to work his will in and through us. Immanent presence is when God’s universal presence becomes particular; from abstract to concrete; invisible to visible.

These are those instances where we may feel, hear or sense without a doubt that God is present and at work in us. A true encounter with God’s immanent presence goes far beyond our emotions and will always call us into transformation and action.

Overlap and Mystery

One of the major questions that this understanding then begs is whether we are asking for God to “show up,” or if we are changing our posture and asking God to make us aware. I would suggest that both are true and both are necessary—unique, yet complimentary.

There are times in Scripture, regardless of the posture of humans, when God reveals himself in a tangible and sensible way. There are also times when people posture themselves and appeal to God’s presence, and God responds. In both examples, it always involves a measure of divine initiative as well as human responsiveness.

Richard Rohr, in his book Simplicity, writes:

God never comes uninvited, it seems to me, and our little projects are an invitation and welcome to the final action of God. Because why should God give us something that we don’t want? Why should God give us something for which we’re not ready to work and do our utmost? Why should God give us something that we at most pray for, but don’t strive for?

I love much of Richard Rohr’s writings, and while I mostly agree with this statement, I do believe there are times when the Holy Spirit does break through, regardless of our posture or intentions.

This is where I have resolved to believe that both are true when it comes to the presence of God. Yes, God desires to be welcomed and invited and inhabit the praises of his people, and yes, God is often already present and simply waiting for us to turn our attention to him.

Like so much in faith, this is ultimately a mystery, and our job is not to try to figure it out, but rather to seek God and pray for wisdom in the midst of the mystery. He is in all things, but not equated with all that is. God is not only personal, dwelling within us, but he is also exalted above all creation.