Worship in Truth – Nobody Said It Would Be Easy

mr-bean-falls-asleep-in-church1 I recently re-discovered a book by Wesleyan pastor-theologian, Michael Walters entitled Can’t Wait for Sunday: Leading Your Congregation in Authentic Worship. I highly recommend the book for anyone responsible for planning worship. One chapter deals with “Current Trends,” and is subtitled, “Why Worship Isn’t Easy.” I won’t recapitulate the book, of course, but rather recommend its reading. I will, however attempt to draw attention to Walters’ premise, and then consider what and how we sing in worship, and how such singing can either serve to enhance our biblical worship, or can serve to fuel the very attitudes and piety that get in the way.  This first post deals more with the predominance of a falsehood, and is foundation for other coming posts.

Walters begins this chapter reminding us that we are made for worship. The ancient church understood lex orandi, lex credenda, the rule of prayer is the rule of faith. The world has always been turned away from God, and the gospel has always faced cultural challenges. There are cultural forces that affect our ability to lead people in authentic worship of the Creator. I want us to consider the first of these force in today’s post, and consider how our songs and singing engage or disengage us in authentic worship in this regard. We will consider other forces in coming posts.

Relativism: Worship Divorced from Truth

Walters rightly notes the dominance of relativism that saturates modern culture. The humanism that rests sovereignty in the individual self, rather than the sovereign God, is the predominant religion of our day. Any authoritative claims are only considered valid insofar as they are “true for me.” Such self-centered relativism flies in the face even of the idea of a holy other, who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. Walters skillfully reminds us that “Jesus claimed not only to know the truth but to be the truth.”[1] Polls and surveys reflect clearly that absolute truth and authority are not presumed givens as they once were among the general public. The fact of cultural resistance to absolute truth should come as no surprise to students of the Bible. In fact, such resistance highlights the most fundamental issue of life in Christ, which worship purports to address, namely Lordship of Christ.

I would draw attention back to what is for me a basic definition of worship as articulated by David K Peterson, “an engagement with the living God on the terms He proposes, and in a way only He can provide.” Jesus told the woman at the well that the Father is seeking worshipers who will worship Him in spirit and truth. That truth is absolute. It surely cannot be what is true for you, or what is true for me, where the controlling point lies within our individual selves. Rather the absolute nature rests in the living God who sets the terms of our relationship and, thanks be to God, has provided for us the means, the heart of the Gospel. The message permeates the entire scripture where He is our God, we are His people. Worship rehearses our rightful relationship to Him. New Covenant worship rejoices in the Gospel gift given in Jesus Christ through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Worldly culture seeks to position us in opposition to God our Father, whereas authentic worship re-positions us to right standing where we are humbled before Him. He is Lord and Christ lives in us, and we have life in Him. We can come into His presence boldly because of the finished work of Jesus.

The conflict with culture is often overwhelming and baffling. Walters points out that the church can become caught up in attempts to win a culture war, which is significantly different than winning persons to Christ. Indeed, the Christian community may influence the culture, but surely it will not be by imitating the culture itself, a means that likely has little or no chance of displaying the power and grace of the Christian gospel. This is not to be misunderstood as ignoring our cultural surroundings, or worse yet actually being disinterested. The apostle Paul is an example of remaining sensitive, but he never crosses the line to surrender the truth of the Gospel. I have heard use of Paul’s commitment to become “all things to all men in order to save some,” as a polemic for changing worship. First, Paul is not referring to worship in the statement, and secondly, he never in any way watered down the truth in order to appease cultural norms.

So, where does worship singing fit in to this discussion? It seems the first attempts at updating worship have been with changes in music. Much of this process began by modernizing the beat and the language to be more understandable to the modern ear and mind. At first, it seems to me that most of this changing was with presentational or performance music for worship. Later the modernization became common in congregational music as well. Close behind these changes were lighting, video projection, and participatory practices that more closely resembled the theater and concert hall. As contested practices on either side of a worship music style dividing line, old vs. new, traditional vs contemporary, contemplative vs celebrative, became more entrenched we entered the “worship wars” era that has subsided in some arenas and continues in others. What must remain is a prayerful valuation guarding against relativism that ushers in worship divorced from truth. Song language that regularly values personal feelings above lordship has drawn worship away from truth. Overuse of nebulous pronouns and flowery adjectives as substitution for the names and attributes of God appear rooted more in relativistic blather than biblical certainty. Intended consequences of this worship seem rooted in feeling over obedience.  Consider stronger worship singing that involves faithful references to the name, character, and attributes of the triune God.  Consider the singing of proclaimed truth, and the clear declaration of the mystery of our faith, Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!  In fact, let’s think about some of the considerations* that might help us plan worship rooted in truth:

  1. Biblical accuracy – Can we verify the veracity of the song’s message in the Bible?
  2. Doctrinal and Theological Considerations – is what we will sing in keeping with the doctrinal statements and theological teachings upon which we stand?
    • Is it true to your denomination or church’s doctrinal distinctives?
    • Do we sing attributes of God and His character regularly?
  3. Liturgical Considerations – what function does each song play in our shared communion of worship with God?
    • This seems particularly important for those who worship in the free church tradition where worship is less prescribed by lectionary or other pre-set plan, but rather set by pastoral leadership and sensitivity. A good question to ask at points through the service is “where are we in our communication with God at this point?”
    • Sensitivity to calendar and to existential factors – church calendar or season, tragedies and joys that effect members of the congregation, community occurrences effecting congregants
  4. Congregational Capability – can this congregation sing the song as authentic expression? Musical considerations as well as lyrical

*For a well-developed list of considerations for song selections by Theological, Lyrical and Musical considerations see Selecting Songs for Worship: A Guide for Leaders by Constance Cherry, Mary Brown, and Christopher Bounds, (Triangle Publishing 2011)

I also highly recommend Dr. Cherry’s seminal work, The Worship Architect: A Blueprint for Designing Culturally Relevant and Biblically Faithful Services (Baker Academics 2010)

[1] Michael Walters Can’t Wait for Sunday: Leading Your Congregation in Authentic Worship (Wesleyan Publishing House 2006) 51.

Explore posts in the same categories: Choir Ministry, Church keyboard players, Congregational Singing, Leading Worship, Music Ministry, Singing Worship, Spiritual formation through singing, Worship Leaders, Worship Pastors, Worship Reminders, Worship theology, Worship thoughts, Youth Worship

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