Mar 092011
 

I'm hoping to start blogging more about worship and church music in the near future. Meanwhile, enjoy this from a while back.

A while back on Internet Monk's website, there was a fascinating conversation on worship–you could do worse than to check it out–prefaced by this zinger:

(The theological term for this, if I recall from my ecclesio-doxological studies, is EPIC PWN3d!!)

Let's overthink this a bit, though. As a church musician, I think about worship more or less all the time, so we may as well have our own discussion. The point of the cartoon, in a nutshell, is that there's a problem with the way we (church people in general) do "worship." That much I certainly agree with. For every awe-inspiring moment of genuine worship, it seems that there are many more moments of church politics, superficial songs, complaining and criticism, rote and routine, tradition vs. innovation, "worship wars," and…. uh…. this

But what is the problem, exactly? The cartoon could be read a couple of ways here. The most obvious reading, and probably the answer you'd get if you polled most church folks or even most worship ministers, is that the problem is in the song the congregation is singing. They've been given the wrong sort of song to sing–one that has the apparently silly phrase "We just want to worship You"–and, as a result, they've been kept from really worshiping God. (Actually, I think whether or not that phrase is genuinely silly depends on its context, but that would probably take us too far afield.)

Which leads, logically enough, to the question, "So what is the right sort of song for worship?" 

You'd better get our your flame-retardant suit, riot gear, combat boots, and gas masks if you're going to ask that, though–because of course the only possible correct answer is…

Songs that are theologically rich. No, songs that are simple and accessible. Played by a high-energy rock band. No, the band's too loud, play them on an organ. No, the organ's too old fashioned, get a Southern Gospel quartet. No, that's too lame, get a classical string quartet. Get a choir and do motets. In Latin. Nobody understands Latin. Salsa? Too hot. We can't hear who's singing over the band. We can't follow the old-fashioned liturgy. The song was too high. (High church or high pitch?) The soloist was showing off. That style is too secular. That style is out of touch. The chorus is too simplistic. The hymns are too archaic. That's too 1987! That's too new, nobody knows it! That's too ____ and it would be better if ___! That's too———!

(Are they done? Can I come out again?)

Of course, we've all seen these discussions if we've ever had anything at all to do with worship. It can become a regular Holy Flame War, with people on any and all sides going at each other with all the ferocity that religious zeal can muster (which is a lot). And yet, all sides are really making the same basic statement, with the same simple, fundamental, foolish error: The quality of our worship depends solely on the songs we sing. The quality of our worship depends on whether we have enough songs that have properties A, B, and C, preferably with musical features D and E, and lack quality F (which is a bad one). The right songs plus the right music equals the right kind of worship.

No, it doesn't.

And I'm not just talking about musical styles (or "worship style" :gag:) either. That one's been discussed to death, and these days most everyone gives at least lip service to the idea that the style of music doesn't matter in worship (though of course God has a secret preference for mine, not that He'd ever admit it). I'm challenging the total equation. 

The act of singing is not the same as the act of worshiping. Furthermore, the act of singing a very good song with unimpeachable theological content and exemplary musical setting is not the same as the act of worshiping. 

Instead of worship songs, if you like, think of it with another very broad musical category: how about love songs. You can find love songs in just about every kind of music there is–folk music, rock music, jazz music, classical music, ethnic music, country music, you name it. Some love songs are schmaltzy and lame, and other love songs are simply fantastic; insert your own examples here. (Mine, if you must have them, might include Schubert, Cole Porter, and Pink Martini, though nobody comes close to what Chopin did with his delicate little instrumental melodies.) 

But is singing a love song the same as being in love? Obviously not. Being in love means having a special relationship with a certain someone. A singer may have that kind of relationship, or they may not, but either way, it has absolutely no inherent dependence on whether they're at that moment singing Sinatra. Of course if you start by having a relationship, you may sing love songs to your somebody, or you may draw on them for inspiration in songwriting. Or you may not. But if you really want to talk about love, you need to look at the relationship, not the songs about it.

Can you guess how this applies to worship? Sure you can. The prophet Isaiah put it this way:

The Lord says: 
      "These people come near to me with their mouth 
       and honor me with their lips, 
       but their hearts are far from me. 
       Their worship of me 
       is made up only of rules taught by men." (Isaiah 29:13, NIV)

It's not just that "worship is a matter of the heart"–another good idea that we like to give lip service to. It's that worship depends not on whether you're singing that you love God, but on whether you really love God, if you really have that deep intimate relationship with Him. If you do love God, then it's great to be able to say so, or sing so. But if you don't, the only thing singing about it will do is make a hypocrite of you.

I don't for a moment mean to discount the importance of music in our worship of God– as anyone with an ear can tell, it's a wonderful, beautiful, powerful, and deeply spiritual way to express our worship to God. But that's just it: it's an expression, so it's only worthwhile if you're expressing something that you truly have. 

St. Augustine put it splendidly in his Confessions:

When I recall the tears that I shed at the song of the Church in the first days of my recovered faith, and even now as I am moved not by the song but by the things which are sung–when chanted with fluent voice and completely appropriate melody–I acknowledge the great benefit of this practice…. Yet when it happens that I am moved more by the song than by what is sung, I confess sinning grievously, and I would prefer not to hear the singer at such times.

Confessions 10:33, (trans. James McKinnon) 

Can we worship God without singing a song about it?

Can we worship God with a musical style that's OK but not our favorite?

Can we worship God just as well with a song we don't know as with a song we love?

Can we worship God with the same intensity when a given song is played by an amateur guitarist as we do when it's played by a full professional ensemble?

Can we hold a good worship service if something incapacitates the sound system, or if the musicians don't show up?

Can we worship God if our favorite celebrity "worship leader" isn't in the house… or if our favorite hymnal isn't at hand?

Can we worship God without any music at all?

If the answer to any of these is "no," then I think the problem with our "worship" has been completely diagnosed by Jesus:

"Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first." (Revelation 2:4-5 NIV)

If we've let our love for Jesus slide, then no amount of musical excellence or innovation will help us. When we really love Jesus the way we used to, and really love our neighbors the way Jesus would, worship tends to take care of itself. 

"So, what's stopping you" from worshiping? It's that we've let something get in the way of Jesus. Maybe it's a good thing, like a song, or music, or ministry, or service, or church, or worship itself. It doesn't matter. Get it out of the way. Return to your first love. You'll find what real worship is about when you see Jesus.

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 
(Hebrews 10:19-23, ESV)
 
(Thoughts or questions? I know you've got 'em. Go to it!)
 
Image credit: ASBO Jesus
  • This is excellent! I can’t wait to hear more on this topic. As a church musician, I often wonder what is missing. I’ve even been trying to write a blog post on “performance-based worship” but haven’t been able to form my thoughts coherently. I was wondering….is there any way I could print this article off to distribute to our worship team? I just think it’s really needed right now. You can e-mail me if you’d like to answer that way instead of here.

    • Use the “Share and Enjoy” links above: one will take you to a site called printfriendly.com, which will generate a nicely formatted document suitable for printing or emailing.

      I’m so glad this was helpful for you! I’m looking forward to writing more about it, as I’ve been seeing quite a need lately too. My own church has spoiled me a bit worship-wise, in a good way, but I’ve had to do a lot of wrestling with these issues in the past. Thanks for the comment!

  • Oh, and I didn’t necessarily mean it’s needed in my church…I think we do pretty well. But that the message is needed everywhere right now.

    • Gotcha. Yes, this is one that I constantly have to remind myself of as well.

  • I agree with what you’ve said here.
    For many years I sang songs in church without the capability to worship. It’s not that I didn’t love God, it’s just that I didn’t know Him. When I really began to know Him, of course love naturally flowed from it and worship naturally flowed from the love. The love of God has led me to worship Him in every setting. I don’t even mean musical settings, I mean life settings. I wish that Christian leaders/teachers would teach about everyday worship of the heart. This has made me think that I want to blog soon about my own experience on the matter of true worship.

    • Thanks, Lauren! I think you’ve put your finger on a problem for a lot of people. It’s easy for us to get preoccupied with the mechanics of ministry (e.g. music) and neglect the most foundational things like loving God. But Jesus said “One thing is needful”…

      I’d enjoy seeing what you write on this whenever you get it online. Thanks for your comment.

  • Lisa

    I have always viewed Worship as “dancing/singing with daddy” sometimes it’s a ballet sometimes it’s a rock concert. There is always a love and a desire to be with “daddy” as you draw in and in some instances there need be no sound. I remember from my old Methodist upbringing the song “Lord of the Dance” I think When I was little I new that you needed to think about God and praise as love songs to our Savior, but it makes me so crushed to see the same is not the attitude of worship most places that the focus is on let’s get through the three songs and thank God for certain things so we can get on with the message when the message is to romance the lover of your soul. Thank you So much for this post Eric!

    • You’re welcome, Lisa! Very good thoughts.

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  • Julie

    Thank you so much for posting this. I really miss the old hymns. I detest the repetitive “praise” music because I honestly believe it’s keeping people away from church. Who wants to listen to the same simple lyrics 100x? The hymns link us to those who have gone before us. Trying to appeal to the youth with “modern worship” has not worked, so why continue this trend?

    I was in a church this morning. I walked out when the “worship” switched to salsa and the “worshippers” in their special garments began shaking their hips. Unbelievable! The altar was desecrated!

    • I do see where you’re coming from, Julie, although I think there are good and bad aspects to all kinds of music. It’s just easier to see the “warts” of the ones that are closer to us. Certainly I agree that we need to exercise care and discernment, not just follow trends because they’re popular or appealing. I’m hoping to write some more about worship not far in the future, so maybe I’ll get to some of these issues too! Thanks for your comment.

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