What makes for ‘good’ corporate worship?

There are far too few choruses and services and sermons that expand our vision of God…

This point is acknowledged in a praise chorus like “Let’s forget about ourselves, and magnify the Lord, and worship him.” The trouble is that after you have sung this repetitious chorus three or four times, you are no farther ahead. The way you forget about yourself is by focusing on God–not by singing about doing it, but by doing it. There are far too few choruses and services and sermons that expand our vision of God–his attributes, his works, his character, his words. Some think that corporate worship is good because it is lively where it had been dull. But it may also be shallow where it is lively, leaving people dissatisfied and restless in a few months’ time. Sheep lie down when they are well fed (cf. Ps 23:2); they are more likely to be restless when they are hungry. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus commanded Peter (John 21); and many sheep are unfed. If you wish to deepen the worship of the people of God, above all deepen their grasp of his ineffable majesty in his person and in all his works.

-D. A. Carson, Worship by the Book, 31.

About that EDM…

“What ought to make worship delightful to us is not…its novelty or its aesthetic beauty, but its object.”

An earlier post made note of a CT article detailing the emergence of EDM (electronic dance music) into corporate worship settings. When making light of the latest fad, conscientiousness can sound an awful lot like crankiness, and since no one gives serious thought to the arguments of a crank I thought I might offer reasons for my dissent.

My antagonism toward EDM has very little to do with style per se. I do think it’s naive to act as if all styles are created equal when it comes to a corporate worship service but, objectively speaking, my dissent has less to do with what it is than why it is.

The CT article leads me to believe that a major reason why EDM has been brought into the church service is because we’re hoping to keep up with the cultural trend. Now a trend isn’t necessarily sinful but, like a man-bun, that’s no excuse for accepting it. Years ago Os Guinness astutely noted:

A common reason many people are uncritical today is that they see trends as simple, straight, and short–almost like the flight of a missile. But in fact, trends are much more like the bounce patterns of a ball in a pinball machine. Where it comes from, where [it] is bouncing to, and what it is hitting on the way are more important in interpreting a trend than seeing precisely where it is at any particular moment.

Read through the article with an eye toward answering the Guinness questions and you might just see the EDM trend in a different light. But beyond a general wariness of all things trendy, we have many other reasons to keep EDM out of a church service:

(1) Spiritual ≠ suitable. In a nuanced discussion on the appropriate use of tongues in the church Paul says “I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1Cor 14:18-19). Notice that Paul (a) affirms the gift and (b) claims to make use of it personally but (c) curtails it’s use in a corporate setting. So even those things which have spiritual value are not necessarily suitable for an assembled church. The test, Paul says, is what’s edifying for the body (14:4, 26). The relevance of the edification principle to EDM is worth considering. Maybe we could take a cue from Paul and say “I listen to EDM praise more than you all but in the church I’d rather do something different.” Of course, this assumes that EDM shows signs of an edification deficit. Read on.

(2) Aesthetics vs. articulation. From the article: “the aesthetics and structure of EDM also present challenges in terms of balancing instrumentation and the articulation of the message through text.” Like it or not, the Christian faith is word/text based and that has to shape the way we use music in the assembly. See, for example, Col 3:16 where song is a means of instruction.

(3) Delighting in novelty. Quoth D. A. Carson: “What ought to make worship delightful to us is not…its novelty or its aesthetic beauty, but its object.” Try finding the object of worship in the CT article. See also the quotes in #4.

(4) EDM’s contribution to a corporate service is trivial (at best). To wit:

But it’s the effect the music has on congregants . . . that has worship leaders most    intrigued. “It just brings more of a liveliness to the worship atmosphere,” [a worship pastor] said. “When you hear it, you just kind of want to move a little bit more.”

“[EDM] gives permission to have fun and jump around . . . When you look out into the congregation or the crowd, everyone is just jumping to the music. And I feel that is the beauty of EDM—you can’t not jump to the beat.”

(5) Ironically, EDM advocates are sowing the seeds of their own irrelevance. What stirs passions today will be passe tomorrow. What then–identify & adopt the next latest trend? [On the whole, I think Christians are more likely to pick up a trend on it’s way out but that’s a discussion for another time]

(6) EDM is more exclusive than inclusive. Being far removed from my club days I’ll go out on a limb and say that the EDM crowd is a decidedly small demographic in our population. Unless we’re ok with generational segregation, EDM seems to be a poor medium for corporate worship. Again from the article: “People in the crowd dance, clap, and sing. Others stand statuesque, as if wondering what’s happening.”


A necessary caution & comfort

These days it’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate misguided sincerity from crass advertising, but differing motivations can share the same deleterious effects.

Some time back I posted a quote from Thomas Weinandy on a pitfall of modern theology:

Many theologians today, having embraced the Enlightenment presuppositions and the scientific method that it fostered, approach theological issues as if they were scientific problems to be solved rather than mysteries to be discerned and clarified.

This statement made a lasting impression on me as I realized that the problem-solving quest isn’t unique to theologians but is part of the Christian culture in general. With decreasing attention spans and sound bite theology exploding on social media, it should come as no surprise that we have a very low tolerance for the mysterious, the unanswerable, the unmanageable.

Nowhere is this more evident than in so much talk about spiritual encounters in a worship setting. These days it’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate misguided sincerity from crass advertising, but differing motivations can share the same deleterious effects. So for those tempted to buy into the hype that exhilaration is proof of God’s presence, Lewis offers a word of caution. And for those tempted to despair because they have no proof of God’s presence, Lewis offers you a word of comfort.

The presence of God is not the same as the sense of the presence of God. The latter may be due to imagination; the former may be attended with no “sensible consolation” . . . The act which engenders a child ought to be, and usually is attended by pleasure. But it is not the pleasure that produces the child. Where there is pleasure there may be sterility: where there is no pleasure the act may be fertile. And in the spiritual marriage of God and the soul it is the same. It is the actual presence, not the sensation of the presence, of the Holy Ghost which begets Christ in us. The sense of the presence is a super-added gift for which we give thanks when it comes.

Worship in ‘the age of authenticity’

Philosopher Charles Taylor has called this period of Western secularism “the age of authenticity.” From his explanation in A Secular Age:

I mean the understanding of life which emerges with the Romantic expressivism of the late-eighteenth century, that each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority.

Unless you’ve been in a coma for the last 10 years it’s hard to argue with Taylor’s assessment. But we Christians are adept at dichotomizing the secular and the spiritual so that we attribute the authenticity quest to the godless while we saints float above it all. Of course, this is naive. We’re shaped by our culture more than we like to admit–even in the church.

In an early chapter of You Are What You Love, James K. A. Smith depicts Christian worship as a formative process that is especially effective when encountered through a traditional liturgy. The problem, according to Smith, is that too many of our churches think of worship as an expressive endeavor:

…we also assume that worship is basically an expressive endeavor. This is why we now constrict “worship” to the song service of our gathering, the time in our service when we can express ourselves. . . When we think of worship in this way, then we also assume that the most important characteristic of our worship is that it should be sincere. If worship is expression of our devotion to God, then the last thing we want to be is a hypocrite: our expression needs to be honest, true, fresh, genuine, “authentic.”

We might protest that Smith paints with too broad a brush but his basic point rings true. The discomfort of having our foibles exposed becomes slightly unnerving when we also consider how neatly an expressive worship fits in with Taylor’s “age of authenticity.” One would be forgiven for connecting the dots and concluding that secularism has seeped into the church more than we like to think.

In one sense, Smith is suggesting that we do exactly what our culture tells us not to do–surrender to conformity with a model imposed on us from the outside. But maybe what the culture sees as surrendering to conformity is actually submitting to the Creator’s design. As Smith explains:

If worship is formative, not merely expressive, then we need to be conscious and intentional about the form of worship that is forming us. This has one more important important implication: When you unhook worship from mere expression, it also completely retools your understanding of repetition. If you think of worship as a bottom-up, expressive endeavor, repetition will seem insincere and inauthentic. But when you see worship as an invitation to a top-down encounter in which God is refashioning your deepest habits, then repetition looks very different: it’s how God rehabituates us. In a formational paradigm, repetition isn’t insincere, because you’re not showing you’re submitting. This is crucial because there is no formation without repetition. Virtue formation takes practice, and there is no practice that isn’t repetitive. We willingly embrace repetition as a good in all kinds of other sectors of our life–to hone our golf swing, our piano prowess, and our mathematical abilities, for example. If the sovereign Lord has created us as creatures of habit, why should we think repetition is inimical to our spiritual growth?

Maybe real authenticity comes not by expression but by submission. Maybe surrendering to conformity isn’t always a bad thing (Rom 8:29).

Deeper delights in corporate worship

God has so created man that there are deeper delights and more intense inspiration in the worshiping congregation than in individual devotion.

When there are a number of worshipers present, there is a participation in worship which is more intense than is the individual passion of any one when he is by himself. It is common knowledge that a mob is is more cruel than any individual in it would be by himself. Similarly, the enjoyment of an elite company of music lovers at the symphony is more intense than that of a single music lover sitting by himself listening to the same music. God has so created man that there are deeper delights and more intense inspiration in the worshiping congregation than in individual devotion.

-Robert Rayburn, O Come, Let Us Worship (quoted by R. Kent Hughes in Worship by the Book)

Sifting through our songs

Music is a formidable, formative force. Lately I’ve been thinking (not necessarily long & hard) about what counts as good music–message not style–for the church. I don’t have a robust system in place but my thinking is beginning to coalesce around three basic questions:

(1) Does the song speak well and mean well? The church should sing songs that draw from Scripture in its context. Cherry-picking words from Scripture without considering the contextual meaning is weak worship. Just because we sing God’s words doesn’t mean we think what He thinks when we sing them.

(2) Is the song’s message clear & well-defined or ambiguous & open to personal interpretation? Answering #1 in the affirmative isn’t sufficient criteria for corporate worship. If, following the popular Bible study method, your congregants can say “This is what the song means to me” you might want to find another song. Unlike Paul, it’s not good for a song to be all things to all people.

(3) Would a persecuted church sing this song? Christian worship at its best is universally true. Something is seriously wrong when our songs are so culturally conditioned that they would only work in an American church. (I sometimes wonder if our persecuted brothers & sisters would laugh us out of the room if they heard some of the songs we sing we sing with a straight face.) It’s good for us to sing like groaning sojourners instead of giddy prospectors.

Classically counter-intuitive

The advantage of a fixed form of service is that we know what is coming. Ex tempore public prayer has this difficulty; we don’t know whether we can mentally join in it until we’ve heard it–it might be phony or heretical. We are therefore called upon to carry on a critical and a devotional activity at the same moment: two things hardly compatible. In a fixed form we ought to have ‘gone through the motions’ before in our private prayers; the rigid form really sets our devotions free. I also find the more rigid it is, the easier it is to keep one’s thoughts from straying. Also it prevents getting too completely eaten up by whatever happens to be the preoccupation of the moment (i.e. war, an election, or what not). The permanent shape of Christianity shows through. I don’t see how the ex tempore method can help becoming provincial, and I think it has a great tendency to direct attention to the minister rather than to God.

C. S. Lewis, Letters (1 April 1952) as quoted in A Mind Awake: An Anthology of C. S. Lewis, 147.

Come and Stand Amazed


Come and stand amazed, you people,
See how God is reconciled!
See his plans of love accomplished,
See his gift, this newborn child.
See the Mighty, weak and tender,
See the Word who now is mute.
See the Sovereign without splendor,
See the Fullness destitute;
The Beloved, whom we covet,
In a state of low repute.

See how humankind received him;
See him wrapped in swaddling bands,
Who as Lord of all creation
Rules the wind by his commands.
See him lying in a manger
Without sign of reasoning;
Word of God to flesh surrendered,
He is wisdom’s crown, our King.
See how tender our Defender
At whose birth the angels sing.

O Lord Jesus, God incarnate,
Who assumed this humble form,
Counsel me and let my wishes
To your perfect will conform.
Light of life, dispel my darkness,
Let your frailty strengthen me;
Let your meekness give me boldness,
Let your burden set me free;
Let your sadness give me gladness,
Let your death be life for me.

–Medieval Dutch carol, translated by Klaas Hart (1906-1973), as collected in Proclaiming the Christmas Gospel: Ancient Sermons and Hymns for Contemporary Inspiration (John D. Witvliet & David Vroege, ed.), p 99

Cut the song some slack

Tuesday’s post provoked(?) responses–all of them good–but I thought the feedback from our music pastor was particularly helpful in pushing the conversation forward.

It’s a lot easier to preach on a scripture passage than it is to sing a song that is a scripture passage. A song is usually about 4 minutes max. I understand where you are coming from with these two songs but I see nothing wrong with the songs. Most every song gives scripture but it cannot give you the context and background from where it comes within the song. Amazing Grace is a song we have been singing for years and if you look at this verse The Lord has promised good to me/His word my hope secures/He will my shield and portion be/as long as life endures.“As long as life endures” does this mean that believers will only be protected when we are living on earth or that life may come to an end? Scripture tells me that believers will have eternal life. The point I’m trying to make is that there are a lot of songs that kind of leave us wondering when you look deeper into them because they are only 4 minutes long or may only have a portion of scripture in them….if the songwriter was here in front of us to defend it, we would have a clearer picture but that’s not the case. I’m sure we could criticize every song out there but I am just glad those two songs mentioned are based out of scripture and not just a love song that never mentions God or His word once.

1) 4min song vs. 40min sermon — The typical praise song is definitely at a disadvantage. Four minutes don’t leave a lot of room for nuance (neither does a 400-word blog post SO HOW ABOUT CUTTING ME SOME SLACK {easy Merritt, pull yourself together…serenity now, serenity now…}). Where was I? Oh yes, nuance. No doubt some songs are more nuanced and handle brevity better than others. So if some songs are better than others maybe we could consider two options: (i) edit our song book so that our selection is limited to the “better” end of the praise song spectrum (ii) tweak our music portfolio so that we begin to invest a little more in hymnody as a way to make up for our discarded praise songs. I think conscientious music leaders are constantly doing (i) but I wonder if some might feel hesitant in (ii).

We might also consider that the perceived weakness of certain songs may have something to do with its genre. It strikes me that the two examples from Tuesday’s post–“Overcome” & “I’m Trading My Sorrows”–would both be classified as praise choruses. Songs of this genre are typically shorter (unless you repeat 50x!) & simpler which can be both a blessing & a curse. I think we need to be careful that we don’t allow the admitted weakness of a genre to serve as an excuse for a lackluster message. [This isn’t to imply that songs from the hymn book are universally impeccable. It’s just that the praise chorus & hymn differ in their points of weakness. Read the lyrics to “He Lives” with 1Cor 15:1-8 and tell me Paul doesn’t roll over in his grave every time he hears bright-eyed Christians sing You ask me how I know He lives/He lives within my heart. Good grief–whatever happened to “according to the Scriptures”, 500+ eyewitnesses, & the historical record?]

2) songs can leave us wondering — Ambiguity can be an effective tool in writing (whether prose, poetry, or lyric song) and is itself something of an artistic skill that is useful in drawing the reader/hearer in. But in our case the question is not so much whether ambiguity is a useful tool but whether ambiguity is a useful tool for teaching. Again, I think it’s helpful to consider that we are to strive to do in our corporate singing what the preacher does in his preaching–that is, to clearly and convincingly impart God’s revelation into hearts & minds by the use of words. If we agree on this point then we will probably agree that we would want to minimize ambiguity in our singing and in our preaching.

But when a song contains some measure of (unwanted) ambiguity we need not reject it out of hand. Maybe the music leader could introduce the song in its proper context, or clarify a part of the message that might be too vague, or read & comment on the Scripture behind the chorus to be sung. [we’re fortunate to have a music pastor who practices these techniques on a regular basis] This might even be a way to “redeem” some songs which have real potential but languish under a messaging haze.

3) at least the songs are based on Scripture & not just a love song that never mentions God or His word — Yes, a sincere effort at incorporating Scripture is better than offering a song so shallow as to be worthless. Nevertheless, this allowance can only go so far. I’m better off wrestling with a passage of Scripture even when I mangle it than I would be in setting Oprah’s “theology” to music, but hopefully we’re in the process of raising the bar as we grow in the Word by His Spirit.

I guess that would be a good note to end on: the realization that as we talk this through we need to allow our churches room to grow in their practice of teaching and admonishing one another through song. To that end we graciously meet each other where we are even as we call for increasing maturity in all things.

speaking [and singing!] the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ (Eph 4:15).

Song vs. sermon

Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. {Col 3:16, NAS}

The singing of songs is not insignificant. In the 17th century a Scottish politician by the name of Andrew Fletcher surmised that “if a man were permitted to make all the ballads he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.” Hyperbole? Maybe. But no one can doubt that the statement contains a large measure of truth. For this discussion we’ll rework Fletcher’s comment for a church context: “if a man were permitted to make all the songs he need not care who should preach the sermons for the church.”

On that sobering thought we turn to Col 3:16 and make two observations. First, the result of Christ’s word richly dwelling in us is that we teach & admonish one another. Second, music is the means by which we teach & admonish (at least in this verse). From these observations we should assert the following: (1) if teaching/admonishing is the result of Christ’s word living in us, the teaching/admonishing will be true to Scripture (2) if this teaching/admonishing is done through song, our songs will be true to Scripture (3) a church is to sing for the sake of sound teaching.

In light of all this it strikes me that a huge disconnect exists when we demand biblical precision in our preaching while defending poetic license in our singing. We sing We will overcome by the blood of the Lamb/And the word of our testimony, everyone overcome. Does it matter that such language is a biblical reference to martyrdom (Rev 12:11)? Let’s all die a martyr’s death–everyone overcome! We confidently declare I’m trading my sorrow/I’m trading my shame/I’m laying them down for the joy of the Lord. The message sounds more like Peale than Peter & Co. (1Pet 2:19; 2Cor 4:7-10, 16-18; 12:10) not to mention the assumption that God doesn’t give sorrow (Job 2:10; Lam 3) & that all our sorrows can be erased in this life (Rev 21:4).

A song can’t teach everything but it will always teach something. If preaching mishandles biblical content & context the long-term health of the church will suffer. We would do well to consider that our singing may present a similar health threat. “What the song means to me” is an insufficient standard by which we make our song selection. The justification is myopic, sacrificing the good of one another for the sake of my song. So sing well and sing wisely.

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