The heart of worship

I’ve been musing about this for years and have finally decided to put it down in electronic pen and paper. It concerns something I’m afraid is taken for granted by many people in the “worship movement”. I can imagine some who know me thinking that I’m just trying to justify what the generous would call my “conservative style of worship”, or what the more critical might suspect is my rebellion against a perfectly unassailable institution that I happen to have trouble participating in because – well, I must not feel enough love for God within my bones.

At ten years of age, my family stepped into the equivalent of a post-Yorktown environment at our new Baptist church: the decisive battle had been fought in the War on Hymns, but the sedition of obstinancy fomented by over-aggression was still stewing. I was a little too young to notice or care about the debate and its significance; all I knew was that we didn’t sing as many hymns as at my previous church, and people seemed to be more “into” the singing, what with holy hands and vocal interjections lifted spontaneously and frequently. I recognized the musical style as more modern (the drums), and for what it was worth, I approved of that.

The controversy had repercussions for the next 10 years at least, with Loyalists whispering among themselves, even occasionally rounding themselves up for a sortie against our progressive leadership. As I grew, my thinking began to echo the prevailing sentiments, “What is the deal here? It’s just a different style of music, people! Get over it! Get your fix of hymns and southern gospel on the radio.” I sang along, enjoying a good lyric and melody here and there, and sincerely praising God when I thought about it hard enough. When I was older, I got to where I played piano and keyboard for the services. Lacking the talent of singing and playing at the same time, I was kept from singing somewhat, since I was genuinely occupied with something that required a bit of thought, but I always prayed that what I was playing would glorify God and allow others to worship Him.

Then I went to college. A Pentecostal college. I joined the “symphonic band”, which was not interested in playing good music, but rather sought to compete with the four or five worship choirs on campus. We played such worthy symphonic masterpieces as “Majesty”, “Hallelujah! Jesus Is Alive”, “Let the Veil Down, Let the Praise Go Up”, and “Enemy’s Camp”. I had the opportunity of playing in no less than forty different Pentecostal churches across the Eastern U.S., and what I saw increasingly sickened me. Everyone talked about how important worship was, but their lives didn’t show much fruit. I began to wonder what the big hype about “worship” was.

The conviction was birthed in me that “worship” is not something you sing, but something you do. We have trained our ears so that when we hear the words “worship” or “praise”, we automatically think of singing. Yet singing “I worship You” with all the meaning and fervor you can muster no more accomplishes actual worship than saying “I wash you” to your car actually cleans it. Even in our relationships with other people, saying “I love you”, while admittedly a sugar rush for awhile, can quickly become meaningless if not accompanied by loving action. It is the Parmesan cheese which falls on the plate next to the spaghetti that children will spend too much time trying to eat while leaving the noodles and sauce untouched; it’s the crunchies invariably accompanying the fish platters from Captain D’s (or Long John Silver’s) that tempt the immature to neglect the actual meat.

I’m convinced that there is a pervasive, unconscious belief that good worship covers a multitude of sins. If the first and greatest commandment is to sing powerful praise and worship songs, then surely a generous helping of Redman or Tomlin will make up for bad attitudes gone unchecked, the nursing of unhealthy habits, and outright disobedience. Too many times have I heard someone say, “Boy, I really had a bad week! I can’t wait for worship Sunday.” Notice that by “worship”, these people mean “singing”, not the acceptable act of worship that requires living out a life of discipline and sacrifice that might well have spared them the bad week in the first place.

What does biblical praise and worship music look like? You’ll be hard-pressed to show me that singing was as integral to the Christian’s life in the first century as it is now. Paul mentions it all of three times (1 Cor 14:26; Eph 5:19; Col 3:16). Moreover, in both of those passages it is quite clear that Paul was expecting “songs, hymns, and spiritual songs” to be sung by the believers to one another every bit as much as the singing done “in [their] hearts” to the Lord, “for the strengthening of the church.”

This reflects the Psalms, which show no shortage of those whose sole purpose was to instruct or exhort the human hearers to praise God; only in the occasional (but oft paraded) example is it mentioned that this was to be done with music. When the Psalmist said “Praise the Lord” and “Hallelujah”, those were not his acts of one-on-One worship, but acts of convocation, calling his fellow Israelites to recognize God’s glory. The acts of one-on-One worship consisted of more than bland and emotive ejaculations (“I love you”, “You make me want to dance”), but were responses to specific acts or attributes of God; sometimes they were requests. In short, biblical music was intended as “horizontal” at least as much as it was “vertical”; that which was horizontal was didactic and exhortative, the vertical was specific and testimonial, and both necessarily consisted of doctrinal, not simply emotive, content.

How much does it matter? Well, do you not think that Paul would find the modern church derelict in its duty to itself and others by allowing such a high percentage of our (mostly doctrinally anemic or questionable) songs, hymns, and spiritual songs to be self-absorbed and all about one’s own feelings about God? I mean, let’s face it – some of us are afraid that if we pull away from our one-on-One songs to sing songs to one another that we’re going to miss out on some of that “sweet worship time” for which many of us inappropriately value our Sunday services the most. Why should we place so much emphasis on something Paul spent little time advocating?

Paul does talk about praising God and offering Him our gratitude, which can be set to music quite well, and Hebrews 13:15 refers to a “sacrifice of praise” that we in the New Covenant offer in place of the animal sacrifices – but how much of a sacrifice is it to stand there singing songs you love to sing anyway?

The worship and gratitude we show by sacrificing ourselves and to proclaiming His truth to one another should occupy our thoughts every bit as much as the song time of our worship services. The very existence of the epistles is a result of Paul’s enormous commitment to spreading the truth revealed to him, and this, for him, was a sacrifice in every since of the word; it is his service to God through his ministry to the Church that has lasted two millennia, not his times of one-on-One worship. Offering ourselves by living lives that are disciplined and obedient to the tasks He sets before us in the service of others is the true heart of worship. Yes, the crunchies are good, but Daddy didn’t pay for your meal to have you neglect the fish in favor of them; you’re not going to get nourished, and Daddy will have wasted money meant for your sustenance on what ended up simply as a fun experience.

So what does real worship look like?

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1, 2 NIV)

(Personal note #1: “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus.”)

(Personal note #2: On review, I feel compelled to commend the music team of which I am a part, which has made great strides in this respect and has consciously avoided most of the pitfalls I described above.)

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