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.”


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.

Agitators, subversion, & the Sunday service

A couple of weeks ago our church conducted a panel interview on a Sunday evening. The panel consisted of two couples who recently walked through some significant physical trials (actually, the trials aren’t really over for either couple). For nearly an hour we were privileged to hear fellow members bear witness to God’s faithfulness and goodness in miserable circumstances.

By all accounts the evening was very profitable. I was struck, however, by the report of a comment from an unidentified member–something like “I wish we could do this on Sunday morning.” Stodgy traditionalist that I am, I can’t seem to muster a visceral response in the absence of further testimony indicating subversive intent. [Make no mistake: proof or no proof, anyone who would suggest a change to the regularly scheduled Sunday morning program is subversive–and an agitator.] Even so, this isn’t the first time that someone has countenanced a Sunday morning makeover so I thought it might be helpful to tease this out a bit.

I assume that the thinking behind “I wish we could do this [i.e. extended personal testimonies] on Sunday morning” consists of two interrelated parts: (1) if we did this on Sun morning we would reach more people (2) if we did this on Sunday morning it would have a big impact on our church. It seems axiomatic that (2) is the key thought in all of this. After all, you wouldn’t really care about reaching more people unless you’re convinced the message would have a big impact.

But the assertion that an hour’s worth of personal testimony would have a big impact on the church is subjective and relative. Subjective because we measure “impact” or “effect” in so many different ways (laughter/tears, positive feedback, etc.); relative because almost anything can be big so long as you find something small to set beside it.

And that brings us to the real rub in all of this: to call something big you must call something else small. So how shall a church tag their activities (and their impact)? What practices in our corporate gatherings will we label “small” and what practices will we label “big”?

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