Invariably in a church gathering, at some point, there will be congregational singing. It might be four songs up top followed by a “closer” after the message. It might be one or two up top followed by a message and then a chunkier bit of singing at the end.
However it happens, without a workable philosophy to guide and inform why we sing and what it is we’re doing when we gather to sing, invariably our worship will be led astray by powerful forces foreign to gospel concerns. That is, unless we have some idea of what we’re doing, our worship is going to be driven along by entertainment-based concerns, and “putting together a worship service” will likely amount to scouring the Wow Worship Top 20 list for whatever 4-5 songs are really trending at the time. I think we can do better.
With that in mind, here are four things I think the Scripture calls us to when we worship, that can help form and inform just how our worship gatherings come into being and the particular shape that they take:
1) We worship to “bear witness”. Worship is the reflexive response of human beings who have seen and known and tasted the goodness of God over their lives in concrete ways, who then articulate their understanding of said “concrete ways” by attributing them – joyfully, explosively, publicly – to God. When YHWH delivers his people from Egypt, they explode with “I will sing unto the Lord for he has triumphed gloriously…” We sing to bear witness… that all that is and all that we see… that every goodness we taste, every good gift we’re given, every breath we take, every time our heart beats… all of it is PURE GIFT. It is grace… given by the hand of the One “from whom all blessings flow.”
James says that “every good and perfect gift comes from above”, which is why at Bloom we choose songs that “name” the goodness that come into our lives as gifts from God. Society, and even our own hearts, constantly try to bracket God out of the warp and woof of daily life… and hence, despair has an easy entry into our souls. “Where is God?” we say. “Why isn’t he active and at work in my life?” we fret. By worshipping well, we train our hearts to scream back in response to our despair – Did you breath today? Did your heart beat? Do you have sight in your eyes and sound in your ears? Can your tongue speak and taste? Are you surrounded by people who love you? Have you had a meal in the last 24 hours? A roof over your head? KNOW WELL THAT ALL OF THESE THINGS ARE SO BECAUSE YOUR GOD HAS WILLED THEM OVER YOU. That is to say, He is always as near to you as the last “goodness” you’ve tasted.
2) We worship to train ourselves in ways of seeing the world that are peculiar to our Christian identity. That is, there’s a TEACHING FUNCTION to worship. We take profound, rich, expansive, and carefully arranged and articulated words on our lips in song as a way of having our imaginations formed in ever more complex and nuanced ways for the world as it exists under the Reign of God in Christ so that we can walk more faithfully, carefully, and boldly. In other words, WE SING SO THAT WE CAN SEE, AND IN SEEING WE ARE MADE CAPABLE OF FAITHFUL ACTION! The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann put it thus:
When the New King rules, it is new song time…New song time is a way to sing a new social reality as the freedom songs stood behind every freedom act. The energy (for this action) comes from the song that will sing Yahweh to his throne and Babylon to her grave. (Prophetic Imagination, 74)
COME ON! Through our songs we envision a new world and find our souls bestowed with the kind of energy required for engagement with this new world BURSTING upon us through Yahweh’s victory.
The early Christians understood this, which is why their early songs had a robust and decidedly theological bent. They sang songs like this:
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Col 1:15-20)
…and it gave them energy for mission. This is why at Bloom we reject theologically shallow and conceptually emaciated “worship” songs comprised primarily of trite and poorly thought through strings of cliches:
Jesus you’re the best,
You’re better than all the rest,
With my whole life I confess,
That you are God…
You are God, you are God, you are God (17x)
Seriously? We reject songs like this because in being imaginatively atrophied they promise to keep our imaginations perpetually infantile. WE HAVE MORE AND BETTER THINGS TO SING ABOUT THAN THIS. Creation, Fall, Redemption… Judgment, Salvation, Justification… The Spirit, the Bride, the Church… The BIG THEMES of Scripture and our place within those themes.
Pastor/worship leader – let me challenge you: YOU CAN DO BETTER. And your people will appreciate it if your song selection is intentional and guided by the question of “How will this or that song form us and what will it form us for?” Refuse and reject an infantile worship gathering.
3) We worship to encounter the Mysterious Divine Presence in our midst. If an error on one extreme is thinking that worship is ALL ABOUT the “existential encounter” (making the evisceration of theological content okay), then an error on the other extreme is making worship a PURELY CEREBRAL EVENT. I think that is beyond misguided. It is blasphemous. Jesus says in John 4 that our worship is to be “in Spirit and in Truth”, which I think means that there is an INERADICABLE EXISTENTIAL ELEMENT to our worship. We worship to encounter and be encountered by the God who aches – ACHES – to be present to us to save and help and deliver and redeem and restore and encourage and… well, you get the point.
This is why our worship gatherings at Bloom “trend” the way that they do. We generally begin with songs that give thanks and acknowledge the goodness of God over our lives… we move into songs that declare the “big themes” of Scripture… and all the while… we see ourselves as moving ever nearer into the deepest recesses of divine holiness and love, where we encounter and are encountered by God… that is, we journey towards the Table in our gatherings, where we not only “believe” that we are but also “practice” interacting with the Risen Christ, for He is truly among us whenever “two or three gather” in His name.
This is also why we are okay with letting a worship service “breath” a bit. Because you can’t “microwave” encounter. We need spaces of quietness and reflection. Places to pause and rest and stop anxiously wiggling about before the Mystery in front of us. Pastor/worship leader – particularly if your church has multiple services and operates on a more or less rigid timetable, let me encourage you: FIGHT FOR ENCOUNTER. If the restrictions placed on you only permit you to have 18 minutes of singing, then put on your big boy or big girl pants and FIGURE IT OUT. How will you create space for your people’s eyes to be opened to the Glorious Divine Being – the Risen Christ – who walks among them? Refuse to settle for “3 fasties and a slowy”. Be more imaginative than that. Remember, for God’s sake, that GOD IS WHY WE GATHER. Not just to talk about Him, but to know and experience him together, so that anything less than “fight for encounter” is simply an insult. He is the Vineyard Owner (Mk 12). So don’t, in your haste to “get things done”, throw his Son out.
4) We worship as “anticipation.” It’s a remarkable thing. For all of the talk among the “new evangelicals” about recapturing the Grand Narrative of Scripture, the Biblical Story in all of its fullness, as an “arch” that runs from Creation to New Creation, we tend to miss the fact that the thing that LIGHTS UP the New Heavens and the New Earth in Revelation, what ANIMATES it and gives it BRIGHTNESS, is purely and simply doxology. In the same way that when the people of God in Exodus REFLEXIVELY exploded with doxology when they were delivered from Egypt, so it will be that when the Redeemed – and ALL CREATION with them – are finally and fully delivered from Sin and Death INTO the New Heavens and the New Earth, they will reflexively explode with doxology, and their song will never end… When we gather for worship, we anticipate that.
This is why, pastor/worship leader, you ought to refuse narcissistic, me-centered worship tunes. Because THE HORIZON OF OUR WORSHIP IS NOTHING LESS THAN GOD, HIS GLORY, AND HIS FINAL, ESCHATOLOGICAL VICTORY. Your folks need to learn how to find their place within that horizon, and the songs you choose will play a big part in whether or not they are able to be so trained.
Well, there you have it. I think we can do better in worship. Your thoughts?