Theology in Praise Choruses?
If you read my blog regularly, you have probably discovered that one of my favorite things to study is lyrical theology. I love to think through the words of Christian songs, breaking down their theological content and discovering what value they have in the worship of the Church. For the most part, the blog posts I have written center on the lyrics to hymns, such as my latest post, “Dissecting a Thousand Tongues.” In a recent facebook discussion, someone asked, “Could as much theology be unpacked from a praise chorus like ‘Come, Now is the Time to Worship’?” This is a great question, especially as contemporary songs tend to be criticized often for their lack of theological content.
Since the question has been raised and an example given, let us take a few moments to consider what theological content and benefit to the church is there in the praise song, “Come, Now is the Time to Worship.”
Compared to a Charles Wesley hymn, a song like “Come, Now is the Time to Worship” is quite short and simple. It only has two stanzas which when sung often get repeated over and over again. Yet, even though there are only eight lines of text, there is still much to ponder theologically.
The Importance of Gathering
In his book, Planning Blended Worship, Robert Webber breaks down the structure of a Christian worship service into four parts: Gathering, Word, Table/Response, Sending. Perhaps I will look at each of these parts of a Christian worship service in a later post. For now, I want to focus specifically on the Gathering.
Webber begins his chapter on the Gathering fold of worship with this line: “Worship always begins with an ascent into the presence of God.” In other words, as we come together in Christian worship there is (or should be) a movement toward a heavenly realm of worship where we encounter the glory of God’s presence. Or as Alexander Schmemmann’s puts it, worship moves us into the very real Kingdom of God present on this earth.
Worship begins with acts that assemble the people of God and narrate their journey into the presence of God. The gathering orders the experience of the worshiper. This is exactly the purpose of the song, “Come, Now is the Time to Worship.” Consider the first part of the chorus:
Come, now is the time to worship.
Come, now is the time to give your heart.
Come, just as you are to worship.
Come, just as you are before your God.
The call in the song is clear: come and join God’s people in their ascent to a heavenly place. And the call is to do it right now. As the people of God convene before the throne, they invite you to join in the assembly, lending your voice and heart to the worship of God.
This same idea is clear in the scriptures, specifically in Psalms 120-134, which are known as the Psalms of Ascent. The Psalms of Ascent were psalms sung by the ancient Israelites on their pilgrimages to worship at the Temple. The reason the collection of psalms is called the Psalms of Ascent is twofold: In a very literal sense, the Israelites had to “ascend” a mountain to reach the Temple; In a more spiritual significance, this collection of psalms focused on a movement from worldly concerns to heavenly praise. Worship for the Israelites had a destination – the Temple. This is why Psalm 121 begins with the statement, “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”
In the same manner, Christian worship has a destination – the Kingdom. Our acts and words of worship help move us and focus us toward that end. In worship, we get a glimpse heaven. I believe this thought is captured in the next section of the song, “Come, Now is the Time to Worship”:
One day every tongue will confess You are God
One day every knee will bow
But the greatest treasure remains for those
Who gladly choose You now
In these lines, we see both the anticipatory nature of worship and the present reality of worship. The first half of the lines anticipate the final truth of what worship will be as they allude to Philippians 2:10-11 – at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. The second half reminds us that we don’t have to wait; we can join in that heavenly chorus of praise right now through the worship of the Church. Thus, the song serves as a call to come worship, serving the same purpose as many short, spoken liturgies that begin services of worship in more high-church settings.
Look Who’s Talking
If we understand the song as a call to worship, then it is important to understand who is doing the calling.
The most obvious speaker in this song is the Church. As the Church gathers to ascend to the presence of God, it invites all people to join. This is not unlike what Isaiah writes about the glory of God arising on Israel in Isaiah 60: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you… Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you.”
In “Come, Now is the Time to Worship,” the Church claims Isaiah’s sentiment as truth – As God’s glory rises in worship, we invite all people to come just as they are to give their hearts and bow before the Lord.
Though the Church’s voice is a clear one in the song, I believe there is another speaker to consider in this text. Perhaps we can also look at the song as an invitation from the Holy Spirit. In other words, maybe the song serves as God’s invitation for his Church to come before him in worship. It is God who calls us, through his Holy Spirit, to journey to his throne by bursting forth in prayer and praise.
God’s call is for us to come to him and give ourselves fully to him. There is a great treasure to be found when we do. Our singing of song like, “Come, Now is the Time to Worship” is our acceptance of the invitation and also our way of joining in God’s song, proclaiming his desire for the world. And there is something beautiful in the idea that God extends to us a means of grace through worship by which we are able to join in God’s declaration to world.
My wife and I are currently in the midst of transitioning into a new job at Asbury University with World Gospel Mission, so unfortunately the busyness of the week has kept me from updating my blog. A few weeks ago, Asbury Seedbed, (part of Asbury Theological Seminary), published an article I wrote on the importance of the pastoral role in worship leadership. In lieu of updates this week, here is the link to that article entitled “Desperately Seeking Worship Pastors.”
If you are not already, I highly recommend keeping an eye on Asbury Seedbed and checking out their materials. They are working hard to continue spreading scriptural holiness across the land. I look forward to the impact they will continue to have. Here is their site:
In his book, A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer notes the following statements as markers of a divided life:
“We hide our beliefs from those who disagree with us to avoid conflict, challenge, and change.”
“We conceal our true identities for fear of being criticized, shunned, or attacked.”
Palmer ends by saying:
“Dividedness is a separation from our own souls.”
Palmer’s reflections on “dividedness” are appropriate to concerns in the 21st century American church. Worship settings are often divided in terms of style. Attentions can be divided between a biblical/historical liturgy and a cultural liturgy. Theologies are divided on sacramental purpose, meaning, and practice. Perhaps in future blog posts I will try to address some particulars of these concerns, if I dare to be so presumptuous.
There is, however, one topic of dividedness that has recently been on my mind. I mention it now, if for no other reason, to spark conversation.
A common method of practice in the American church is age segregation. Whether for discipleship purposes, evangelistic techniques, formational opportunities, or crowd control, most American churches find ways to divide by age. The intent may be worthy, but what happens when this practice becomes overly pervasive?
Ageism is an issue not often spoken of in the church, but one that should be a serious concern. Ageism is defined:
The stereotyping of and discrimination against individuals or groups because of age; a set of beliefs, attitudes, norms, and values used to justify age-based prejudice and discrimination.
Perhaps the argument can be made that a culture of ageism is being established in the American church. Or at least it can be said that age segregation is all too common. I offer the following examples as possible support:
- Younger or older church members are denied opportunity to lead in worship or participate in gatherings.
- People are denied opportunities to share music because of style and/or instrumentation.
- Older generations are ignored or pushed out of the church because their style of worship is considered not relevant or seeker-friendly enough.
- Age is a determining factor in new pastoral hires.
- Staff roles are geared toward specific age groups.
- New services are created or church plants started with the purpose of reaching specific age demographics.
- Existing worship services are divided by age – i.e, children, youth, young adult, older adult, etc.
- Younger generations are not asked to attend meetings where important decisions are being made, or when they do, are uninterested or feel they cannot voice their thoughts.
- Discipleship patterns, Sunday school classes, small groups, etc are age-specific.
- Families spend the majority of their time separated by age group once arriving to church.
- “Intergenerational worship” is thought of as innovative.
Admittedly, some of these examples tend to generalize, however, every single one is a scenario I have at some point personally encountered in the church. I could spend quite some time further detailing background to each, but leave them as written for now. Many of you may very well disagree that these examples promote ageism in the church. Others may have more to add.
Going back to Palmer’s descriptions of dividedness, it is important to ask whether or not age segregation is reflective of a divided life. I argue that in the church it is. Undeniably, there are benefits to age-specific approaches, but what happens when abundance of age segregation enters the life of the church?
First, age segregation hides the identity of the church as the body of Christ, the family of God. The church ceases to reflect Kingdom living. The body of Christ is presented as segmented. The family of God goes to their separate rooms, seldom to interact as a full family.
Second, age segregation hides the belief of the Church. The church misses out on opportunities to learn from, share, grow, and serve with people of all generations and experiences. Children and adults do not interact with one another in prayer, song, sacrament, etc. Adults no longer realize their responsibility to mentor children and youth in the faith. Older generations seldom hear questions and insights from younger generations. Belief is treated and addressed as age-specific and not as the truth of the community of faith.
Third, age segregation both creates and avoids conflict. Stereotyping can become common based on assumed generalizations. Good conversations are not held to work through issues together as a whole congregation. Opportunities to listen to, work with, and care for the whole community are not considered. Relationship, unity, and community are lessened as priorities. Thus, to avoid conflict, each age is given its own space to worship, grow, and serve within its own demographic.
Gary A. Parrett and S. Steve Kang write of the dangers of age segregation, “Without full commitment to holistic and intergenerational discipleship as a congregation, the church will likely become like a revolving door—people coming and leaving based on their satisfaction level: how their needs and preferences are addressed and met.” Certainly, this has been all too common in the American church. Though age segregation has been done for worthy purposes, the American church has been on its greatest decline since it became common practice.
Parrett and Kang’s conclusion is important in light of this fact: “We are called to live as a “congregation,” a local gathering of the family of God and the manifestation of the kingdom life. This means that we are called to model for one another how we are to live as a kingdom family in the context of the various aspects of life together: prayer, worship, teaching, service and so on. This can happen only when we submit ourselves to one another across generations, genders, socioeconomic status, ethnic and racial “differences,” and so on.”
Age segregation is a complex issue and one that cannot be resolved through a simple blog post. (I highly recommend taking time to read Parrett and Kang’s article as it addresses the issue in great detail.) What are your thoughts? Is age segregation a true problem in the American church? What are further dangers? In what ways does it benefit the church? Are those benefits mainly pragmatic or do they separate us from the soul of the Kingdom?
For further reading:
Parker Palmer. A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009.
Gary A. Parrett and S. Steve Kang. “From Generation to Generation.” http://www.crosswalk.com/church/pastors-or-leadership/ageism-in-the-church-11627398.html
What do I expect in worship?
While travelling a few years ago, I attended worship one Sunday morning at a church where a good friend of mine was employed. Knowing that I was completing a doctorate in worship studies, he told me as we ate lunch, “I apologize that our service this morning wasn’t very impressive. Our regular music leader is out of town and the associate pastor, who has little experience in the pulpit, was given the opportunity to preach today. And our media isn’t very state-of-the-art like I’m sure you’re used to.” I responded to my friend, “You know, I honestly thought it was a wonderful service. The Holy Spirit’s presence was there. Jesus Christ was glorified and praised. I didn’t need to be impressed for that to happen.”
Later that day I met with a couple other friends. Their reflections were quite different. As we talked, they proceeded to insult the worship leaders, scrutinize the multimedia displays, and generally relay all the horrors of the hour they had to endure in worship (though I do think they said the sermon was quite good). As I listened to them talk, though thought ran through my mind, “Surely God was more pleased with and honored by that service of worship than with this discussion taking place right now.” Unfortunately, I didn’t say this out loud.
I write these anecdotes not to put myself on a pedestal nor to deny the importance of planning or giving our best in worship. Both are valid topics, but are not the conversation I wish to currently engage. Rather, I use these anecdotal examples to point to another topic I believe to be fundamental in worship – expectation.
Consumerism is defined as that which promotes the consumer’s interest and meets the consumer’s expectation. When applied to Christian worship, consumerism makes worship reliant upon the response of the individual. At its most essential level, worship is response. As God is revealed, his people respond. Thus, perhaps there are different manners by which Christian worship can be evaluated as consumeristic.
In a positive sense of the term, worship is consumeristic by the way it promotes the community’s interest in God. The Christian community should always enter worship with the expectation of meeting God’s presence. If the holy, mysterious presence of the Triune God is truly revealed in worship, interests will most certainly be piqued.
In the negative sense, a consumerist understanding of worship is very dangerous. When an individual looks for worship to be impressive, to evoke emotions, or to be cognitively stimulating, his/her expectation has been critically misdirected. Interest in God becomes second-hand while a preoccupation with interesting presentations of worship becomes the primary objective. This results in music, inspiring videos, challenging messages, or impressive presentations becoming synonymous with the movement of God, though each may be nothing more than a clever way of stimulating a response. (Pixar mastered this type of response in the first ten minutes of the movie Up.) To an even greater danger, we might even begin to believe that the Holy Spirit becomes completely reliant upon these methods for true worship to take place. Church leaders then feel the pressure to make worship “relevant” or “appealing” through these means.
Perhaps the issue boils down to how each person can honestly answer this one question: What do I expect in worship?
Dr. Tom Long has written a great article on this very issue. Here is an excerpt I found to be particularly challenging:
“Worship by definition should guide us to a larger place, should direct our gaze away from ourselves and toward the most vast, holy and mysterious of all horizons. But for all the over-the-top extravagance of many worship experiences, for all the invocations to an “awesome God,” much worship today seems curiously trivial, inward and downsized… Just so, when even tacitly we think of the dramatis personae of worship as “just us,” when there is no expectation of the whirlwind, worship becomes small and confining. True worship happens in response to the holy and dangerous mystery of God’s appearing. Annie Dillard was right to name liturgy as ‘certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed.’ Or to put it in a more modest way, if we genuinely discerned that worship takes place in the presence of the burning bush, would we really spend the time licking the glaze off of a doughnut and sipping a latte?”
True worship happens in response to the holy and dangerous mystery of God’s appearing. That’s pretty different than true worship happening when just the right song is sung. Yes, worship should engage the emotions, the mind, and the body. But if my expectation of worship is to be constantly stimulated, there will be many times I leave disappointed.
How would worship change if we truly began to expect God’s glorious, dangerous, marvelous presence with us? How would our planning change? How would our people change? For those of us who plan and lead worship, how do we allow God’s presence to be revealed and lead the congregation to respond?
For further reading:
Tom Long. “Expect a Whirlwind” in The Christian Century. http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2011-02/expect-whirlwind
Giving the Gospel its Power…
Charles Finney, a 19th century evangelist, was one of the key figures of the second Great Awakening in the United States. Known as “The Father of Modern Revivalism,” Finney was an influential speaker often pushing for social reform, especially for blacks and women. Finney has been championed in history (especially within the church) for his revivalist efforts.
Unquestionably, Finney’s impact was vast. His purpose was good and clear. His methods, however, provide an interesting case study. In one of Finney’s lectures on promoting church revivals, he stated: “The Gospel was then preached as the appointed means of promoting religion; and it was left to the discretion of the church to determine, from time to time, what measures shall be adopted, and what forms pursued in giving the gospel its power…”
The idea Finney promotes of adopting whatever form desired by the church to give the Gospel its power has become known in historical studies as liturgical pragmatism. The use of liturgical pragmatism was a common focus of 19th century revivalist efforts. The ultimate goal was to evoke a particular response from people, thus use whatever method necessary. Ultimately, this practice began to permeate worship in the church.
I fear the practice and mindset has not ceased in the church, it has only found new forms of expression.
The movement toward liturgical pragmatism in worship creates a dire problem. First of all, the idea that somehow we give the Gospel its power leaves little to no room for the work of the Holy Spirit. Second, worship becomes reliant upon the response of the people rather than the glorification of the Triune God.
Granted, many churches lean toward liturgical pragmatism with the best of intentions – usually evangelistic ones. But perhaps the answer isn’t to manipulate a service by trying to make worship more evangelistic. Instead, perhaps we should understand that when worship is done with boldness and truth, it becomes evangelism. Worship is relevant to every life. It doesn’t need to be made so.
In one sense, worship becomes evangelism through the spiritual lives true worship forms in us. In her book, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, Marva Dawn writes, “Worship will eventually be subversive of the surrounding culture, God’s truth transforms lives… Worship inverts values, habits, ideas as it forms our character… The worship response of service includes and demands social action leading to social change.” As has been written in previous posts, worship is formative.
Additionally, the very act of worship itself can also be evangelism. Walter Bruggemann writes in his book, Israel’s Praise: Doxology Against Idolatry and Ideology: “The worship of Yahweh creates a world of justice, mercy, peace, compassion…this is the real world, created in the moment of liturgy, which asserts that every rival claimant and candidate for the real world is false and destructive. Thus doxology is polemical because it means to uncreate – disestablish other worlds and affirm this is a better world.”
In other words, true worship proclaims to the world that God is real. It seeks to create a world of justice, mercy, peace, and compassion. Worship speaks against every other ruler, power, and principality in this world. Worship doesn’t give the Gospel its power – instead, in worship, the church is formed into people of the Gospel, displaying its power for salvation to a world desperately needing to be saved.
For further reading:
Walter Brueggemann. Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1998.
Marva Dawn. Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for this Urgent Time. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.