We live in a world that is completely customized to our liking. Social media takes note of what I “like” to expose me to further options that they think I’d enjoy. Concurrently, Google is tracking my searches and the webpages I frequent, so that they can make my experience completely tailored to my tastes. Yes, even by being on parkingspace23.com helps the internet know more about who I am. Our world caters to our desires and habits. Grocery stores track what we regularly purchase, and provide appropriate coupons. Now, you can even have a fridge that will tell you what’s inside, when food is about to expire, and the ingredients you’ve got to buy to create a terrific main course dish. With the evolution of Pandora radio, Spotify and iTunes Radio, we have customized music playlists for whatever are our current musical mood. Even the education system is continually developing to meet the needs of the individual child. We live in a society that’s completely customized to us, like something straight out of Minority Report.
The advancements in a personalized world make our lives convenient, but they have also created a self-centered culture that is supposed to cater to my every whim and desire. I don’t have to put up with anything that I consider a waste my time or that simply doesn’t interest me. This has gone as far as including the church I attend and the music I utilize in worship. Investigate a lot of churches in North America, and you’ll find that they present a smorgasbord of musical assortments. You can choose from traditional, blended, modern energetic, or even relaxed acoustic or hipster worship, depending on what you best identify with… and sometimes you can do it in a one-stop shop church.
The question we should be asking ourselves is, is this healthy and does it honor the Lord? You’ll often hear people say “worship is not about me, it’s about Jesus,” but then, almost in the next breath they’ll talk about how “the music of that church just doesn’t do anything to help me worship.” I often get asked what my worship-style is like, and the only answer that seems appropriate to me is, “Biblically informed.” There’s a part of me that could care less about the genre, even though genre and style do communicate a message, but that’s another blog post at another time.
So what should the criteria of our musical expression of worship look like?
1. Is worship informed Biblically?
This seems like a no brainer to me, but a quick survey of the CCLI top 100 songs used in worship does not seem to indicate that others feel the same way. The majority of music for worship is now being written by people with a cursory understanding of theology and only base their lyrics upon devotional thoughts. The totality of the scriptures is being ignored, in favor of that which is pleasant and acceptable to the masses. Gerald Wilson provides a phenomenal assessment of the trajectory that the Scriptures have had in the modern praise choruses.
Throughout the history of the church, hymn-writing has provided a way of transferring the experience of an individual to the community. Great hymns explore a whole variety of human experience — praise, lament, thanksgiving, confession, and so on. The last twenty years or so have seen a marked shift in many churches to the use of contemporary praise choruses rather than the classic hymns of the faith. One consequence of this shift has been that, because most choruses are concerned with a more limited spectrum of human experience (praise), the community gathered to worship is led to a rather one-sided experience of Christian faith. Early criticism of the praise-chorus movement, to the effect that they were superficial and did not reflect a sufficiently biblical foundation, was blunted by the introduction of more and more choruses relying primarily on scripture texts (especially the psalms!)
But the problem is that even these biblically based choruses are selective—choosing bits of psalms rather than the whole. They are still praise-oriented, often ignoring those portions of psalms that reflect anger, confession, sin, and need. By quoting snippets of Scripture as they do, choruses can leave the impression that they provide a more comprehensive understanding of the Christian faith than their selective approach makes possible, leaving the singer and the community with the false impression that worship is only (or primarily) praise and thanksgiving.
Many of the older hymns drew on the psalms and other biblical passages and themes to provide the foundation of their reflections. Rather than quote Scripture directly, however, they sought to expound the scripture themes and insights in ways that reflected their contemporary context. What we need is a new generation of hymn writers who will use their skills to translate the breadth of individual experience into communal moments of confession, lament, thanksgiving, confidence, and question as well as praise. 1
Not only does the whole scope of scripture get lost in a good deal of todays modern music, but the language and vocabulary is also jumbled. For example, it concerns me that so many churches lack discernment by utilizing music written by outspoken Roman Catholics, such as Matt Maher and Audrey Assad, whose definitions of “grace” are still tied to works-based salvation; a far different understanding than that of the the reformed protestant, evangelical definition. In addition, it’s interesting to consider that the idea of “burning” is what many authors consider a heart of worship in CCM music.
Burn in my spirit,
Burn in my soul,
Oh God burn in me 2
While it might sound sentimental, open your Bible and notice that fire and burning is not a symbol that bodes well for most people. It’s often a symbol of judgement, NOT blessing (Genesis 19:24, Exodus 9:23-24, Leviticus 10:1-3, Numbers 26:10, Judges 9:20).
2. Is it worship (or just emotionalism)?
This may come as a surprise to some, but worship≠music. Biblically, it has very little to do with true worship. For a more in-depth look at a what the Bible calls worship, read this. So much of what is called worship today is simply sappy emotionalism.
And I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise
My soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine 3
What does this mean? Sure it sounds stirring, but it’s pure emotional mumbo jumbo, and I know it’s one of the most popular songs sung in churches today. Why does it grow in such popularity though? Because it says nothing, and therefore it can be sold to everyone. We pride ourselves on standing for truth and not being swayed by political correctness, yet our music says absolutely nothing about what we hold to be faithful and true. What distinguishes our music from that which is sung in the background between two star-crossed lovers in the latest romantic drama? We have forgotten what worship is, and have cheapened it to a marketable product for the masses. What happened to the command in Colossians 3:16? “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Our music should teach us truths informed by the Word of God, not merely sentimentalize us.
That word above all earthly pow’rs
No thanks to them abideth
The Spirit and the gifts are ours
Thru Him who with us sideth
Let goods and kindred go
This mortal life also
The body they may kill
God’s truth abideth still
His kingdom is forever 4
3. Is worship focused on Christ? Again, a cursory look at the CCLI Top 100 songs reveals a lot about the heart of worship. First person pronouns (“I”, “me”, “my”) dominate the lyrical content. These pronouns are necessary for the english language and “God, how I need You” is not a wrong, or bad statement. Yet a constant diet and focus in this personal direction reveals a heart that is not geared toward the worship of Christ. It’s self-centered. It’s about what I give to God, it’s about how I am affected, it’s about the benefits I receive. Who is the central subject of this message? Well Jesus is talked about, He’s simply secondary and is there to make me feel good about myself or my situation, without Biblical discernment or support. Case and point, “You took the fall, and thought of me, above all.”5
These selfish attitudes prop up our egos and cause us to forget that “nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the cross I cling.” They also cause us to forget the corporate aspect of worship. Worship becomes privatized, and completely void of community. But with Christ as the focus, we understand our place before a Holy God.
I will glory in my Redeemer,
whose priceless blood has ransomed me,
Mine was the sin that drove the bitter nails,
And hung Him on that judgement tree. 6
In this case, while first person pronouns are employed, Christ is the focus. His redemptive work on the cross is first and foremost, the central theme. This is Holy Week, one of the most special times of the year in the life of the Church. As believers, the Body of Christ, we have a tremendous opportunity to worship in spirit and in truth as we reflect on the cross of Christ and His glorious resurrection. Corporate Worship is not a hand-tailored, customizable and private experience, meant to cater to my desires and personal felt needs. Worship is laying aside that which I want catered to me. It is difficult, because worship is submission. This is why we desperately need His help to do it. I need the Lord to “Tune my heart to sing Thy grace.”
- Gerald H. Wilson, Psalms, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 1:244-45. ↩
- Torwalt, Bryan & Katie, Burn ©2013 Jesus Culture ↩
- Houston, Joel; Matt Crocker, Salomon Ligthelm Oceans, ©2012 Hillsong Music Publishing (Admin. by EMI Christian Music Publishing) ↩
- Martin Luther, A Mighty Fortress is Our God Public Domain) ↩
- Leblanc, Lenny and Paul Baloche, Above All ©1999 Integrity’s Hosanna! Music (Admin. by EMI Christian Music Publishing) ↩
- Cook, Steve and Vikki, I Will Glory in My Redeemer ©2001 Sovereign Grace Worship (Admin. by EMI Christian Music Publishing) ↩