Oh, wait…


Here are some of the things I really hate in a worship song.

  1. Too simplistic, banal, lacking in depth, shallow, doctrineless: Consider that one that just talks about unity among brothers that only mentions God in passing at the very end.
  2. It’s so repetitive. I mean, come on, how many times can you repeat “His steadfast love endures forever” before you start thinking the song is going to go on forever? Examples: here and here.
  3. For some songs, the focus is too much on instruments, and the sheer volume leads to its seeming more like a performance than worship and prevents quiet contemplation.
  4. There might be too much emphasis on too intimate a relationship with God, using first-person singular pronouns like “me” and “I” or second-person pronouns like “you” instead of words like “we” and “God”. This fosters a spirit of individualism, and it generates an atmosphere of religious euphoria rather than actual worship of God. Worship should be about God, not about us. Or what about the ones that use physical language to describe God and our relationship with him? Can you really stomach the idea of tasting God?
  5. Some songs have way too many words for anyone to learn.
  6. It patterns its worship on experiences that not everyone in the congregation will be able to identify with. If you’re not in the frame of mind or don’t have the emotional state in question (e.g. a desperate longing for God. Then what are you doing lying and singing it? Worship leaders who encourage that sort of thing are making their congregations sing falsehoods.
  7. Then there’s that song with the line asking God not to take the Holy Spirit away, as if God would ever do that to a genuine believer.
  8. Then there’s that song that basically says nothing except expressing negative emotions.

At this point I’m so outraged that people would pass this sort of thing off as worship that I’m almost inclined to give in to the people who think we shouldn’t sing anything but the psalms. Oh, wait…

—Jeremy Pierce, https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2010/08/rant-worship


Fit for the King

The God whom we meet in worship and whom we serve in all of our lives is the risen ascended, exalted, and glorified Lord Jesus Christ who reigns over all, and this ought to produce confident peace, joyful hope, and powerful purpose in all that Christians do as we “set our minds on things that are above: where our life is hidden with Christ in god (Col 3:1).  In the specific context of corporate worship, it implies that public liturgy must maintain elements of grandeur and majesty fitting for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, for the one who calls us and leads us in worship is none other than the resurrected and ascended Lord of glory that John sees in his apocalyptic vision (Rev 1:12-20).

—Michael A. Farley, “Jesus’ Ascension and Christian Worship,” 2

A Community of Song (2)

When we sing together, each voice provides the setting for every other; each is the room in which every other dwells, even as each dwells in the room provided by all the others. The sopranos provide a house in which the basses dwell, and the basses lay a foundation for an aural space within which other voices live, move, and have their being. The sounds of the whole choir penetrate each singer, even as the singers inhabit the sound they produce. Voices resound and circle back, so that the sounds that go out turn back to fill the singers’ souls. Music is a Möbius strip, where inside and outside exist on a continuum, and music making is the form of mutually indwelling society, all sweetly singing together.

—Peter Leithart, Traces of the Trinity, 95-96

Out of Many, One

Singing is an enactment of the differentiated unity of the body of Christ. It is the Voice of the New Humanity—One Voice composed of many voices; the “one new humanity out of the two” (Eph. 2:15). As Jew and Gentile sing together they sound out the reality of the new person fashioned in Christ. The restored image of God is made sensible, manifest in time.

—Steven R. Guthrie, “The Wisdom of Song,” in Resonant Witness: Conversations Between Music and Theology (ed. Begbie), 397


Body Building

Paul told the Corinthians that Christian worship is primarily a corporate (and corporeal) affair; it expresses and forms the Body. If worship does not strengthen the community (the Body), it is not Christian worship (see 1 Cor 1:2; 14:26).

—William Willimon, Worship as Pastoral Care, 20

The Life of the Church

After the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in the conception, life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we find the ‘other Paraclete’ (John 14:16) given to the apostles (John 20:22-3), the ‘Promise of the Father’ (Luke 24:29; Acts 1:4-5) made good at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21; see also 33).  Henceforward the Holy Spirit will be the Life of the church, itself the ‘first fruits’ of God’s new creation (James 1:18) and an instrument in God’s hands for the achievement of God’s purposes among humankind.  The Holy Spirit works from the very beginning to constitute and compose the church and its members, coming to them and abiding in them corporately and individually, starting to transform them in the direction of God’s kingdom and enabling them to bear witness to the gospel for the sake of its extension.

—Geoffrey Wainwright, “The Holy Spirit,” in ed. Colin E. Gunton, The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine (Cambridge Companions to Religion), 284

From the Inside Out

There is no physical posture which can guarantee to us acceptable worship. Physical posture in Scripture is only significant when it is a reflection of the inward posture of the heart. . . . Now that inward posture produces in Scripture an outward posture, which is its reflection. The great error is to try to produce worship by affecting some kind of physical posture or physical gyration or something of the sort—false worship comes from that, you see. The prophets of Baal flayed themselves and danced up and down to work up an ecstasy that God might hear them. But that’s the wrong way around. You see, every physical posture is to be an expression of an inward spiritual posture of the heart. 

—Eric Alexander, sermon #5 on John 4 (https://www.ericalexander.co.uk/sermons/acceptableworship.php)

Filling the Mind, Enlarging the Soul

Enlarge your soul with the glories of God by filling your mind with thoughts of His greatness as you bow together with His people; enlarge your soul with His love and goodness and mercy and ask, Where am I? I am in the presence of the eternal God and under His smile. Where ought I to be? I ought to be under His judgment and banished from Him forever. What shall I do? Why, I shall say, what shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits toward me? I will take the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. 

—Puritan writer

A Holy Expectancy

We worship with our sails raised, expecting great things of God, and enjoying, rather than engineering, a contagious spiritual energy. When worship is not about how hard we pray, how comprehensively we confess, how beautifully we sing, how much water is used at the Easter Vigil baptism, or how carefully we follow a rulebook. When instead it is about how open we can try to be to the Spirit’s power, recognizing that the Spirit can work with forms and patterns, norms and names, but is not bound by them—then we can worship with a kind of holy expectancy.

—Ronald Andrew Rienstra, Church at Church: Jean-Jacques von Allmen’s Liturgical Ecclesiology, Location 2737

Formative Worship

By “formative,” I mean worship which does acknowledge where a congregation is at, but is also eager for a congregation to grow beyond where it is into something deeper.  The focus is on growth, discipleship, and sanctification—even when these words aren’t explicitly used.  The question that leaders in these congregations ask is not simply “What will connect with people?” but also “What kind of people are our liturgical practices forming us to be?”

—Ronald P. Byars, What Language Shall I Borrow?: The Bible and Christian Worship, xi-xii

Expressive vs. Formative

I used to think that the largest worship-related division among Protestant churches in the northern hemisphere was between worship in so-called traditional and contemporary styles.  One set of churches is filled with organ music, processing choirs, and robed pastors.  The other is filled with praise teams, drum sets, and pastors dressed in beachwear.  To be sure, that division remains significant, however much it is complicated by the thousand of churches whose worship is a kind of hybrid of the two, or whose worship resists easy categorization by style.  But I no longer think that this is the most significant division among congregations.  Another, more subtle division emerges over time as far more significant, I believe, for the health and well-being of both individual congregations and Christianity as a whole.  This is the divide between those churches that see worship as primarily expressive, and those that see it as primarily formative.

—Ronald P. Byars, What Language Shall I Borrow?: The Bible and Christian Worship, xi

Formative Choices

While hymns reveal what the Gospel means to their authors in some measure, and the choice of hymns in hymnals reflects both the judgements of the responsible editors and (where applicable) of their sponsoring Churches, the most influential factor is the choice made week by week by leaders of worship of the hymns to be sung in services, a choice which determines almost entirely which hymns will form the mind of each generation of congregants.

—David Tripp, “Hymnody and Liturgical Theology: Hymns as an Index of the Trinitarian Character of Worship in Some Western Christian Traditions,” The Forgotten Trinity: The BCC Study Commission on Trinitarian Doctrine Today (Kindle Location 3243)

The Body Made Audible

What was unique about the New Testament church, then, was not that it was a group of people experiencing community, nor that this community manifested itself in song.  What was extraordinary was those among whom the “boundaries” were being crossed and which parties were experiencing “fellow feeling.”  In its congregational song one would have been able to hear the gathered church of Jew and Gentile—with all of its various regional accents, all the distinctive pronunciations of aristocrats, slaves, and free people; male and female voices, voices of young and old—all of these perceived at once in a single melody.  This congregational song is not a metaphor of the socially ethnically diverse church.  It is this gathered body; or at least, this body’s voice, this body made audible.

—Steven R. Guthrie, “The Wisdom of Song” in Resonant Witness: Conversations Between Music and Theology, 398