Defining Worship 29

An encounter between God and his people, in which God graciously initiates the relationship, and the people respond with praise, thanks, and love.

—Mary L. Conway, “Worship Music: Maintaining Dynamic Tension,” McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry” 7 (2006):133

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Contaminated Worship

As daily consumers of popular media culture, we have learned to be egocentric in our selection, selfish in our evaluation, impatient for gratification and eager for novelty.

—Mary L. Conway, “Worship Music: Maintaining Dynamic Tension,” McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry 7 (2006): 147 www.mcmaster.ca/mjtm/pdfs/vol7/MJTM_7-7_Conway.pdf

[We have been] catechized by consumerism.

—E. Byron Anderson, “Worship and Theological Education,” Theological Education, Vol. 39, Number 1 (2003):120

The Priority of Participation

The current generation of Christians, having been raised in a culture of television, radio, CDs and personal listening devices, has slipped into the habit of living life vicariously. We no longer gather around the piano for an informal sing-along, but just slide a CD or DVD into the player. Our “sophisticated” tastes have come to expect and be satisfied only with polished symphony orchestras, high-profile singing idols and technological bells and whistles. We are dissatisfied with our own often imperfect attempts to make music and want to be “ministered to,” if not by professionals, at least by the more competent and gifted in our congregation. . . .

Indeed, many great pieces of music were never intended to be sung by a group at all, but rather by soloists. Meditating on the words of a song performed by others can be a significant spiritual exercise, as much as reflecting on the words of a book written by a Christian author of acknowledged wisdom and insight. The value of listening to beautiful music itself, apart from the lyrics, should not be underestimated. We are created in the image of a creator God, as creative beings ourselves, and the exercise of our creative gifts can bring glory to God as well as edification and pleasure to others.

Performance of sacred music certainly has a valuable place in the worship service. Problems ensue, however, when performance dominates the music at the expense of participation. Morganthaler warns, “We are not producing worshippers in this country. Rather, we are producing a generation of spectators, religious onlookers lacking, in many cases, any memory of a true encounter with God” [Sally Morgenthaler, Worship Evangelism, 17].

–Mary L. Conway, “Worship Music: Maintaining Dynamic Tension,” McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry 7 (2006): 145-46  www.mcmaster.ca/mjtm/pdfs/vol7/MJTM_7-7_Conway.pdf

Music and Culture

All music is a product of culture, past or present, and . . . previous historical cultures were as deeply flawed as our modern Western one. Even the Israelite culture that produced the Psalms, the ultimate book of praise songs and the only one to achieve canonical status (something even Bach and Isaac Watts have failed to do), was constantly corrupted by syncretism, apostasy and sin. . . . The tendency to use what is familiar and popular—the musical vernacular—and sanctify it for holy purposes, has powerful precedents throughout church history.

–Mary L. Conway, “Worship Music: Maintaining Dynamic Tension,” McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry 7 (2006): 150-51  www.mcmaster.ca/mjtm/pdfs/vol7/MJTM_7-7_Conway.pdf

An Audience of One

Søren Kierkegaard originated the idea that in worship, the congregation is not the audience; they are the performers. The worship team members are not the performers; they are the promoters. God is the ultimate audience. . . . When we purchase a ticket to a concert we have the right to base our choice of performer and music on our personal tastes and preferences, whether that be Renaissance motets or acid rock. We have the right to criticize the performance, and evaluate whether we got our money’s worth. We have the right to sit passively and expect to be entertained. Depending on our mood and personality, we have the right to have our expectations realized, whether that involves being intellectually challenged by a complex work brilliantly performed, or experiencing emotional catharsis brought on by a deeply moving and evocative work. We even have the right to leave at the intermission if we are disappointed. If Kierkegaard is right, however, this all changes when it comes to worship.

If Yahweh, the true and living God, the King of kings and Lord of lords, is the audience, and we are the performers, then we must approach worship with infinitely more humility and reverence. God initiates the conversation in this encounter. If he makes us aware of our sinfulness, we should lament, and if he reveals to us his majesty and goodness, we should offer praise and thanksgiving. If he speaks to us and says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4), we have no right to sulk or sigh if we prefer contemporary songs and other believers like traditional hymns. If we are told, “Sing
to the LORD, you saints of his; praise his holy name” (Ps 30:4), we have no right to sit and expect others to entertain us or make us “feel good.” If we are to tell of his greatness to unbelievers, then we must welcome outsiders into the context of our praise, and speak the truth to them in love.

–Mary L. Conway, “Worship Music: Maintaining Dynamic Tension,” McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry 7 (2006): 156  www.mcmaster.ca/mjtm/pdfs/vol7/MJTM_7-7_Conway.pdf

The Case for Choruses

There is a significant difference, however, between simple and simplistic; profound truths can be simply and powerfully stated. The sheer density of theological ideas in some traditional hymns, and the abstract literary techniques used in their composition, would place them out of the conceptual range of many people, especially the young, the new immigrant and the new believer, who have not yet developed fluency in “Christianese.” Focusing on one or two well-stated ideas at a time could actually promote depth of understanding.

–Mary L. Conway, “Worship Music: Maintaining Dynamic Tension,” McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry 7 (2006): 149  www.mcmaster.ca/mjtm/pdfs/vol7/MJTM_7-7_Conway.pdf

Catechized by Consumerism

As daily consumers of popular media culture, we have learned to be egocentric in our selection, selfish in our evaluation, impatient for gratification and eager for novelty.

–Mary L. Conway, “Worship Music: Maintaining Dynamic Tension,” McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry 7 (2006): 147  www.mcmaster.ca/mjtm/pdfs/vol7/MJTM_7-7_Conway.pdf

[We have been] catechized by consumerism.

–E. Byron Anderson, “Worship and Theological Education,” Theological Education, Vol. 39, Number 1 (2003):120