The first thing we confront is that "worship" in evangelical culture has become synonymous with music. I never would have intellectually assented to the notion that worship always means music, but I will never forget how pleasantly jarring it was to me back in the mid 90's as I was listening to a Vineyard "Winds of Worship" live album, which recorded one of the leaders (my favorite at the time, David Ruis, I think it was) closing the music time and transitioning into whoever was about to preach with the words, "We don't stop worshiping now. We keep worshiping all through the preaching of the Word . . ." As I said, I wouldn't have denied that notion before hearing it, but somehow hearing it was a necessary thing.
Worship has become a bona fide movement, a cottage industry. Worship music has become a standalone genre. Whereas you used to have to go to church or to a worship service of some kind to hear specifically-worshipful worship music, now you can go into your local bookstore and buy a recording of worship music. Up and coming musicians now don’t have to feel called into the quote-unquote “ministry,” and they don’t have to necessarily be attached to a church as an on-staff director of worship – they can go right into a studio and be a singer of worship music. (For the most part, I am steering around the reality that all art, including all kinds of music, can be worshipful, can be created and enjoyed as an act of worship. As a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, I don't deny that. But this post is specifically about explicit worship and music that is meant specifically to be sung in direct worship to God.)
As a result, the culture of worship in the American Church has enjoyed a great liberation. We can take the spirit of musical worship wherever we go. We don’t have to wait until Sundays to be led into worship music. We can do it in our car, or in the gym, wherever.
On the other hand, this inundation, this popularization of worship music as a genre and as a movement, has a very real danger of becoming a fad. A trend. And what grew up out of the Jesus Movement in the 70's, the youth ministry movement of the 80's, and the recent charismatic renewal in the mid to late 90s (Third Wave, etc.), has resulted in an almost unconscious equating of “emotionalism” with “worship.” You know what I’m talking about: if you grew up, as I did, in the result of a revivalist Baptist background, in the student ministry culture – in camps and worship services, etc – you know that if you can provoke an emotional reaction in kids, you can move them toward decisions for Jesus. Right? Play the right songs, with the right fervency, and you can make them emotional.
And emotions can be addictive. The danger in this is that we end up craving the emotions associated with emotional worship, not necessarily the spirit of worship itself. And as my good friend Bill Roberts, an occasional worship leader himself, once said, "The potential is always there for people to worship worship."
Things can go off the rails gradually or crazily, the more emphasis that is placed on emotionalism and “freedom in worship” and the less emphasis that is placed on the object of worship. It becomes less about connecting with God and ascribing worth to Him, and more about experiencing or enjoying a heightened sense of spirituality or emotions. In the late 90s this happened with vivid effect at the Vineyard Church in Toronto. A new outpouring of spirit-filled worship began there and people, especially within evangelical charismatic circles, were touting it as the beginning of a revival. There were reports of healings and miracles taking place there, people were coming in the thousands, and hundreds were getting saved. Articles and books were written, journalists did news stories, advocates championed it and critics condemned it.
And for a while, what happened there was very good. But there was a danger unrealized in the sort of experiences taking place there, and the danger became realized. What started as spirited worship with a charismatic flavor became complete chaos. People laughing uncontrollably. And "holy laughter" turned into animal noises. Men and women were flopping around on the floor in convulsions in the hundreds and walking around roaring like lions and chirping like birds.
Now, I'm not a cessationist. So it is not the charismata that is offensive to me; it is the abuse of the belief in it and the complete lunacy involved in saying anything goes lest we be labeled Spirit-quenchers or deniers of "strange fire."
To an outsider looking in, it looked chaotic. It didn’t look like worship any more. It looked, honestly, demonic. The Church had begun worshipping worship, which is idolatry. And as Paul says “can one worship God and demons?”
Eventually the founder and leader of the Vineyard Churches, John Wimber, had to cut the Toronto Airport Vineyard loose. Rebuke them, disfellowship them.
Of course evangelicals today aren’t roaring like lions and chirping like birds. But we are in very real danger of worshipping worship. We are in very real danger of divorcing the act and style of worship from the object of worship.
Those of us serious about reforming the discipleship culture of the American Church must work at reforming the way the Church not only does music, but more generally, reform the way the Church views worship. Worship must really be worship, which is to say worship of God, the tri-une God. And this worship encompasses more than music.
What is worship? The problem in these emotionalistic, faddish, trendy times is that worship becomes more about us -- even if the subject of the song sung is God, the object in our spirit and approach can be us -- than about God. You'd think this goes without saying, but just mention the phrase "theo-centric worship" to some church worship leaders and see how many puzzled faces you get.
Look at Moses’ encounter with YHWH in Exodus 34:5-8:
The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation." And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped.
The first thing to notice here is that Moses is worshiping in the beholding of all that God is. It’s not some caricature of God or some misinformed idea of God that Moses is worshiping. It’s not just one aspect of God in view. It’s all of God. It’s God in His fullness. Verse 6 says it’s God who is merciful and gracious, yes. It’s God who is slow to anger and who is steadfast and faithful and loving and forgiving. But verse 7 says this is also the God who is holy, who does not treat sin lightly, who allows the repercussions of sin to reverberate through history. This is not just God the forgiver, but also God the judge. It’s not just the loving God, but the holy God. That is the whole Person of God. And that is what prompts Moses to bow his head in reverence and to worship.
In the next few verses (34:9-14) God warns Moses against idolatry. He warns Moses against directing his worship, his reverence, his awe, his submission, his desires to anything or anyone else but God. So he tells him that he will drive out these foreign idolaters, these foreign peoples who are corrupting and compromising the holiness of God’s people. The peoples whose cultures are infecting God’s community with the customs and rituals geared toward worship of gods or objects who are not the one true Living God. He tells Moses to tear down the altars, break the pillars, cut down the idols. Kill your idols, he says to Moses. Because YHWH God is a jealous husband who will have no cheaters.
This is why authentic worship always begins with God.
This is so important that we get the God thing right. It begins with God, not with us. We have an innate desire to worship, which is why we fall into self-worship and idolatry so easily. Because we are designed to worship. We are never not worshiping. That comes from God.
So when we approach worship, we should always remember that it begins with God, that it is our response to God’s planting in us that desire, that urge. Our worship is initiated by God. See how Moses is responding to God, responding to God’s calling him into covenant. If you remember, Moses was kinda minding his own business, having fled into the wilderness after killing the Egyptian. And God intervenes with the burning bush. Same deal with Paul. Just walking to Damascus, and God interrupts. The awe and the reverence is a response to God’s calling upon us.
The danger we face when we worship is coming into the experience assuming we are summoning God. Assuming worship is our initiative. Assuming we are somehow the ones in control, that we are bringing the best of ourselves and our holy desire to worship. When the reality is, worship does not begin with the worshiper. It begins with God. It is a response to God’s calling upon us.
In addition, because authentic worship begins with God, it must have the real, one true living God as its object. We cannot worship the god of our preference, or the god of our pleasing. We must worship God for who he really is, not for who we’d like him to be. This means that when we come and worship, we’re not just worshiping the God who is touchy feely and is all lovey dovey and would have died for us if we’d been the only one, we’re also worshiping the God who sends people to hell. We’re worhsiping the God who controls the universe. We’re worshiping the God who has the power and authority of all eternity. This is not your own personal Jesus. That God is manageable. No, we worship the God who is the Great I AM, the God who was and is and is to come. The God who created the universe out of nothing. The God who gives life and takes it away. The God who sends rain on barren lands and the God who is a consuming fire.
This is why worship cannot be a-theological. Meaning, it cannot be divorced from truth, from right belief. Worship is not just about singing and emotions and feeling a good vibe in connection with God. It must be about knowing God, and knowing who He is.
Remember when Jesus was speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well, and she tried to sidetrack him in his speaking about her sins by talking about worship? She was talking about worship in a ritualistic sense, in a stylized sense. Do you worship here? Or there? Where’s the best place to worship to make worship real?
And Jesus said the real worshipers worship in Spirit and in Truth. So they’ve got the spirit of worship down, but they also worship in the full knowledge of who God is, and in that instance who God is in the Person of Jesus Christ.
When we worship with right theology, with getting the God thing right, we are giving God his worth. That’s what worship is, by the way – ascribing worth to someone or something. So if we are saying we’re going to worship God, we must ascribe to Him his full worth, his full glory, not just the stuff we like most about him.
If you worship God with a less than clear or doctrine-less sense, you end up worshiping another god. You worship the god made in your image. When we divorce theology from worship, when we fail to cultivate a theology of worship, we compromise our worship. It may look great, but it is hollow and shallow.
Ponder this recurring biblical phrase: “in the splendor of his holiness”. Worship God “in the splendor of his holiness.” That’s the sense in which we worship God, that’s the sense of knowing him in his fullness. He is holy. He is glorious. He is GOD.
Check out Revelation 4:8-11:
And the four living creatures each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,
"Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!"
And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
"Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created."
This is worship in the splendor of God’s holiness. The center of worship is the perfect and eternal God -- the character of the Creator, not the achievements of the created.
Too often the "new" church music (and some old) is nothing more than a celebration of how happy we are, how excited we are, how willing we are, how worshippy we are. We've got to gently urge our leaders to see that that is self-worship.
But self-worship in music derives from the deficient state of evangelical thought and culture in general. It's a pulpit problem, a pastoral problem. Self-celebratory worship music is the result of self-celebratory teaching and discipleship. So to reform worship music, we must reform our thinking about where worship begins and what it encompasses, and this will involve teaching each other and reminding each other that authentic worship is not a great 30 minute set once a week but a quality of life.
Day and night the creatures in Revelation 4 never stop worshiping. They are constantly living and believing in the splendor of God’s holiness. Worship for them is not about just singing or having a time out of the week. It’s day and night, never stopping.
Worship is a way of life, or a quality of the believing heart. It’s not just what we do, it comes from who we are. It stems from our hearts, our character, not just our feelings or behaviors. It’s not a going through the motions once every now and then, and it’s not merely a ritual, no matter how sincere, we do in worship services or set to music. We don’t need music to worship, we just need God and heart for him. So that everything we do, eat sleep breathe play live work create, is an act of worship.
Prayer is worship. Creating art is worship. Working is worship.
Our life is to be lived as an act of worship. When we consecrate ourselves to God, when we humble ourselves before him and submit to his authority and to his will, then everything we do, 24/7 is worshiping God. Our whole life is to be a living, breathing worship service.
At the same time, even though our worship is to consume our whole life, it is meant to be selfless. Look at the second part of that Revelation passage again. What did they do? They cast their crowns down before the throne.
Coming before God, they reflect humility, they don’t come before him with a worship that is self-involved and self-centered. They come before him, in the splendor of his holiness, and he is increased while they decrease.
Modern church worship is characterized by an exaltation of the self, but authentic worship is marked by an emptying of ourselves. The problem we have these days with worship is how self-involved, how humanistic it can be. From the pursuing of an emotional high to the glorification of worship leaders/singers/musicians, the act of worship becomes more and more about highlighting the act itself, or the worshiper him or herself. So in churches a lot of times what passes for worship is really just a performance. Get great musicians to sing creative songs and worship might happen, but it’s not really the focus. Putting on a good show is. That’s an idolatrous worship, even if you say it’s for or about God. The proof is in the pudding, isn’t it?
But authentic worship says “This isn’t about me.” Like the worshipers in this Revelation passage, authentic worship comes before God and says “I’m not worthy.” A lot of worship songs these days are about our thoughts our feelings our achievements our work. And while, as the Psalms indicate, a personal reflection is not wrong in the act of worship, a personal focus IS. The focus should always be God and his work. The Bible says our righteousness is as filthy rags. Our works are like garbage compared to the perfect work of the sinless Jesus Christ. So when we come before God to worship, are we celebrating ourselves and our achievements? Are we trumpeting ourselves, glorying in our own worship? Or do we thrown down our crowns, our badges, our successes before God in acknowledgment that he is the one who’s worthy to receive glory and honor and power. That he is control.
So authentic worship, in its selflessness, is done in a spirit of confession: not “God here’s what I’ve done for you,” but “God I am not worthy. Please forgive me of my sins.” Authentic worship, in its selflessness, is about submission. It’s about self crucifixion.
In Hebrews 12 worshipers are described coming to the city of God for a big feast and gathering, and that gathering is all about Jesus. The mediator of the new covenant that cleanses us with his blood. And the author of Hebrews says “Don’t refuse he who is speaking!”
So the worshipers are there to celebrate the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ and the warning is giving “Don’t refuse this proclamation.” What is that proclamation?
It is the announcement of the good news of Jesus! It is the Gospel.
Authentic worship must reflect the gospel.
It is a response to the one announcing forgiveness. It is a response to Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom. It hears the proclamation “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand” and says “Yes! I want that! I need that! I submit to that!”
Authentic worship doesn’t just focus on the fullness of who God is, but it glories in the beauty of what God has done. It is joyful, grateful, bathed in grace because of the wondrous, amazing grace of God in Jesus.
It is awed and overwhelmed and humbled by the awesome power of the Gospel. It is moved and awed and scandalized by the power of the cross of Christ.
Malachi 2:5 speaks of this gospel reverence in the same way the author of Hebrews does here: My covenant was with him, a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him; this called for reverence and he revered me and stood in awe of my name.
The covenant of grace, the incredible gift of the Gospel – while were yet sinners, Christ died for us – calls for reverence, for standing in awe of the name of God. "Oh wow, God, how can you who are so holy and mighty and powerful and eternal and incredible lower yourself to become a man and die an excruciating death just to bring me into relationship with you?" That’s crazy. That’s bewildering. That freaks me out.
The God who does that is awe-some. The God who does that provokes worship from me. "You deserve worship for who you are, but I also am moved to revere you and consider you awesome because of this scandalous thing you have done for me. This covenant relationship you initiate with me through the blood of your only Son – that calls for my worship."
Do you wonder why Paul at one point urges his readers to work out their salvation with fear and trembling? Because the gift of salvation can be so heavy, so overwhelming. When you really get the depth of your sin in the light of God’s perfect holiness, then you really get how amazing and scandalous it is that Jesus would die for you, then you really are moved to authentic worship. If you don’t get the Gospel, your worship will always be less than it should be. Because you don’t fully see your place in the light of God’s holiness. The Gospel is such a table-turner, it’s such a disturbance.
The Gospel is a burning bush in the middle of our silent wilderness. The Gospel is a blinding light interrupting our minding our own business on a lonely road. The Gospel is a call to people going about their everyday, workaday lives to come and die.
And when your world has been rocked by the Gospel, then your worship becomes so much more authentic, so much more heartfelt, so much more vibrant. Then it becomes the quality of your life, because you know God didn’t just save you to some tools for helpful living, but from the depths of death and sin itself. He has turned your life around, given you new life and the response must be a life lived in obedience, in submission to God.
Don’t refuse he who is speaking! He’s given his life; our response should be the gift of ours.
Authentic worship reflects the Gospel. It reflects the Gospel in another way too, especially when we gather together corporately to worship God in a worship service or in any gathering of believers. Because the Gospel is about reconciliation – reconciliation of us to God, and reconciliation of us to each other. When we gather together to worship in music and in the preaching of the Word, we are making a living picture of reconciliation.
We are foreshadowing heaven when we gather to worship.
We are bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth whenever we gather. We get, in our earthy, fallible, finite way a taste of what it will be like when we gather together in eternal worship.
So here are the questions we must ask in whatever ways we find appropriate within our local congregation contexts:
When we gather, as we gather, do we do it in a spirit of worship and truth? Do we do it with the full weight, the gravity of eternity behind it? Is it just a trendy, emotional, ritualistic behavior we do because it’s just what Christians do? Or do we come, believing in the one true God, in awe of who he is and what he’s done, as an outpouring of a life dedicated to worshiping him at the cost of all other idols and objects of worship, and in the anticipation of the glory, the splendor, the beauty of heaven?
So how to work this reformation of the worship culture? What do we do?
1. Ditch the prevailing notion that a good musician/vocalist makes a good worship leader. The guy or gal could even be a godly person, but worship leading has suffered from a lack of pastoral care and what we need are more leaders who understand worship holistically, who care about theology, and who can not only shepherd a congregation into a time of responsive worship but who can shepherd fellow musicians/leaders in their own discipleship.
2. We've got to raise up worship leaders in congregational contexts. The rise of worship music as a genre and a career means a talented young musician can go straight from learning some chords to trying to cut a record as a "worship artist." That's all well and good, but the context for worship should overwhelmingly be congregational, not consumerist. Established worship pastors should identify future worship leaders in their church and disciple them, mentor them, nurture them, the same way pastors ought to be mentoring future pastors in their church. The professionalization of ministry is an enemy of community endurance.
3. In addition to thinking theologically and pastorally, worship leaders have got to start thinking more discriminatingly and thoughtfully about technology and other artistic elements. Technology is good; art is good. Creativity is good; innovation is good. But thoughtlessness is not, and many an artistic element has been okayed for worship based merely on its cleverness, cuteness, or coolness. Program-driven ministry leads to entertainment-driven worship. Worship leaders have to act as gatekeepers and ask more questions about worship elements than "Is this cool?" or "Will people like this?" or "Will this flow with the rest of our set?", etc.
4. As worship leaders develop strength theologically and pastorally, an encouragement of original art for worship should occur. Congregations creating their own worship music is a great way to both fulfill an artist's gifting and to cultivate community. In the same way a pastor crafts his own sermons with the intent of his specific flock hearing from God, a worship artist can craft his own music with the intent of leading his specific flock into responding to God.
The Formation of Reformation is a weekly series surveying the overarching theme of this blog -- namely, "reformation of the discipleship culture of the American church." New posts in the series appear each Wednesday.
The Formation of Reformation, Part 1: Pastoral Culture
The Formation of Reformation, Part 2: Experiencing Community