Is it just me? Am I the only one thinking that so much of modern worship is reduced to privatised, personal, emotional encounters with God? This Saturday I will be teaching on worship. It has been a very long time since I last did some public teaching on worship. In preparing for the talk I revisited some of my favourite passages on the subject, including Psalm 1, and Colossians 3:12-17:
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (NIV)
The first thing I note is that Paul sees worship as a corporate activity, something that is done by God’s chosen people. Worship that is acceptable to God comes from a people who know they belong to Him and who know they are dearly loved by Him. Of course there is a place for private worship but Christian worship is primarily communal, where the horizontal and vertical dimensions interface. Nothing here of the “privatised personal encounter with the divine.” We worship as a family. That is why I like worship songs that use “we” rather than “I.”
We may assemble as a congregation when we worship but often we happen to be a group of individuals who just happen to be in the same place at the same time. When we close our eyes we might as well be singing along to some live music streaming, alone in the comfort of our own homes. For Paul, the worship he had in mind arose from the altars of communities where the people are clothed with “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” toward one another. It seems that when it comes to worship, it is more important that our people are in harmony than for our music instruments to be in harmony.
Next, Paul tells us that gratitude is to be our primary motivation for worship. Note the number of times “thankfulness” appears in this short passage. So many worship songs today seem to portray God as some fickle boyfriend, songs driven by the angst of those who are not sure if God will hang around, not sure if He will come through for us. The worshippers that Paul had in mind here are those who know they are dearly loved by God. These are people who know that their God is a loving Father who will never let them go. Indeed He has already given us His Son. He will withhold no good thing from us. Our job is to remember His goodness and to praise Him with our lives and with song.
And praise Him with song they did, with a whole spectrum of music, with “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” Nobody knows for sure what the terms refer to but the psalms probably referred to the Old Testament psalms; hymns were songs being composed in New Testament times including songs of worship to Jesus; and spiritual songs were songs that came extemporaneously, inspired by the Holy Spirit. God is worthy of praise and we will want to use all kinds of music to do that. I pray that we have left the “hymns vs choruses wars” behind us. I like blended services where good music of different genres are sung, where people understand that the divide is not between new and old music but between good and bad music.
We also note that the content of their singing was important. Their singing was to be an overflow of God’s truth in their lives. Feelings are a gift from God and any holistic response to God should include deep feelings but note that apart from the call to gratitude, little is said about feelings. Instead the content of the music used is to be doctrinally robust enough for the singing to be a factor in spiritual formation. When they sang they were singing to God but what they sang, taught and admonished each other. Imagine a situation where your church had no Christian education programme and all the teaching anyone received were the songs they sang every Sunday. What sort of people would that produce?
I am grateful for the emergence of contemporary hymns, hymns that are singable yet doctrinally sound. Here is a verse from one of my favourites:
Speak, O Lord, as we come to You
To receive the food of Your Holy Word.
Take Your truth, plant it deep in us;
Shape and fashion us in Your likeness,
That the light of Christ might be seen today
In our acts of love and our deeds of faith.
Speak, O Lord, and fulfill in us
All Your purposes for Your glory.
(“Speak, O Lord,” by Keith & Kristyn Getty, 2005.)
I think Paul would approve. Hymns like these give me hope and I plan to share this hope in my teaching this Saturday.