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FAQ about Worship: Seekers, Emotions, and Me-Songs

Some students at Taylor University, where I taught the last two years, have asked me eight questions about worship.  Their questions touch on a number of issues related to contemporary worship but also worship in general.  Here are my responses. 

  • #1: What is your definition of worship?
    • It is not really a definition but I like 1 Corinthians 14:15 (TNIV) "So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding." Paul here is arguing that there should be an affective (emotional, hearty, tongues) part of worship but also a part that is cognitive (intellectual, heady, prophecy).  He actually thinks that tongues are a good thing but if you do focus too much on emotional stuff in worship that only resonates with you (uninterrupted tongues) than a lot of other people will be annoyed and not edified (built up). 
    • I think Communion/Lord's Supper/Eucharist is probably the best example of what worship is.  It is centered on Christ, communal, symbolic, looks forward to him coming again, tangible (you eat and drink something), involves prayer, and singing (in the gospel accounts), remembers back, and builds on the Old Testament (Passover).  You can't go wrong with this as a starting point. Catholics and Anglicans/Episcopalians center their worship around the Eucharist for this reason.  Jesus told people to celebrate it in the gospels and then we see people doing it (Paul in 1 Cor 11). 
    • With regard to definition: one Hebrew word means work/worship; a Greek word means bow. 
    • Declaring to God what he's worth (worth-ship = worship). 
    • The chief end of human beings is to worship God and enjoy him forever (Westminster Catechism). 
    • People often look at Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4-5 as other paradigm examples on which to build your theology of worship.   
  •     #2: How do you wrestle with the "me" focus and making a meaningful response to God?
    • Some people go crazy turning "me" songs into "we" songs but I think this is too simplistic.  Even if we are a community, we are still a community of individuals, right?  Also, the Psalms have lots of first person singular language (me, I) and they were used in the temple and then in the church (John Calvin especially) as the corporate prayerbook.  Monks have prayed the whole Psalter (all 150) every week.   However, those who think that they would be better off worshipping by themselves on a mountain top rather than joining a community, have missed Christianity.  But again, there is a place for personal retreats.  The thing to emphasize is that we become part of the people of God when we become Christians.  Becoming a Christian is not just fire insurance for when you die someday, then you can go to heaven.  Yes, it is that but it is about being part of a community of disciples of Jesus who God has called to be his ambassadors here on earth and that we embody the kingdom of God already but not yet fully.
  •     #3: How do you choose worship music? Are there certain themes that you look for? Does that change depending on environment?
    • By the way, these are excellent questions.  Yes, choosing worship music. I have a blog post about some of the practical ways we tried to plan worship at the church.  I would recommend reading that.  It is very practical. 

      How to plan and lead worship

    • Does it change depending on the environment?  Yes.  I think as worship leaders we should think of ourselves as missionaries or educators. (Here is where your Christian Educational Ministries classes might help.  We need to know our audience / students, etc. and help them to praise the Lord.  We need to speak their language and begin where they are at.  As Thomas Groome, in Shared Christian Praxis would say, we need to bring people from where they are at (their "present action" = Movement 1) to reflecting on that (Movement 2 = Confession) to God (Movement 3) to action (Movements 4-5).  In order to do that, we need to know the people.  For many years before Vatican II in the 1950's, all Roman Catholic worship services or "mass" as they call it, were in Latin. But most people couldn't understand it.  They decided at Vatican II (a big conference of Catholics) to let the mass be done in people's everyday languages!  Similarly, I think we should lead worship in a way that "speaks the language" of teenage African American kids (hip-hop) or whatever language the group understands.  This is what a good missionary does and what a good educator does.   
  •    #4: How do you react to the statement "One cannot sing praise songs without noticing how first person pronouns tend to eclipse every other subject?"
    • I think the person who is saying it (I don't know who but I know the type) wants to beware of narcissistic (self-centered) tendencies.  They want to correct the excesses of consumer culture which says everything only has value in what it can do for me.   But I think they are reacting in the wrong sort of way.  Like I said above, the Psalms are often first person singular.  We/us songs can be just as vacuous (shallow) as I/me songs.   I would be sympathetic to the person's concerns in that we want people to focus on God, not themselves, but the pronouns I and me are just part of the way we speak and are not inherently bad.  Again, I would want to sympathize with the person making the criticism that Christianity is more than just praying a prayer to go to heaven. It is not just individualistic one-time thing that excludes ethical commitments, commitments to Christian friendships/community/church/accountability/critique. Again, the danger of the individualistic thing (me and my Bible on a mountaintop  - I don't need anyone else ever in my life) is not generally the problem with people who are passionate about contemporary worship in my opinion.  But there may be exceptions.  I see the Vineyard, Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin worship folks as quite committed to Christian community despite some of their I/me songs. 
  •    #5: How does the corporate worship that occurs on Sunday morning differ from the corporate worship of chapel or other Christian formation experiences throughout the week?
    • Again, excellent question.  I think it makes sense to worship with those who are your primary community.  I think it makes sense that those who hold you accountable (those who would call you on sin in your life) that those people are the people you worship with.  Thus, I think there is some rationale for chapel at a Christian college or even worship in a small group. 
    • There is some reason by Christian tradition to worship on Sunday (the Lord's day) but I don't think this is crucial.  I think Sat night services (or any other day) is fine!  Additionally, I think that Sunday worship in a church may offer some things you don't get in chapel and dorm floor prayer and praise.  For example, intergenerational relationships (we can learn from older people and from kids); stability (it is not an entirely new group of people every four years); and locality (ministry to people locally).   Again, I think there is great value in extended evenings of singing (it teaches musicians new music, people learn to sing better, it is good to refocus, etc.) but just a worship night and never being part of a community would be a deficient Christianity (need discipleship, evangelism, ministry to the poor, and community care). 
  •     #6: What can seekers gain from worshiping?
    • See 1 Corinthians 14:23-25 (TNIV).  23 So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? 24 But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, 25 as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, "God is really among you!"
    • What Paul is saying here is that worship should be comprehensible to non-Christians.  That does not mean it should be watered down.  Paul is simply saying that new people will probably attend every worship service and the basics of the service should be fairly understandable to them.  If everyone in the room is speaking in tongues, than the new person would understandably be confused.  Paul thinks that it is possible that the observer will be moved by what he or she sees when they observe Christians in worship when the service is intelligible. Now there is a wide range of applications of this that I think are legitimate.  A Roman Catholic feels they have made it understandable enough by having the liturgy in the hymnal and in the common language. Andy Stanley / Willow Creek / and Granger Community Church (Granger, IN) would say these verses are their primary purpose.  Their primary goal is to inspire and intrigue seekers to come back and to say, "God is really among you!"  In order to do that, they meticulously plan their worship services to praise God and tell about his truth but doing so in a way that the average non-Christian in their community would understand.  They try to rid their services of extraneous theological jargon while still conveying accurately the truths about God.   Some would say that this is putting the cart before the horse or having the tail wag the dog, "Why would you let non-Christians decide what Christian worship is?  Worship is for Christians!"  But the seeker driven people would respond, "But aren't we supposed to be 'the one organization that exists for non-members' (William Temple)?  Isn't the point to 'make disciples' (Matt 28:18-20 Great Commission)?"  I would urge the seeker-driven church proponent people to make sure they are not just reaching people where they are at but also helping them develop into sacrificial close imitators of Jesus.  I would urge the worship purists to make sure they have other ways of reaching non-Christians for Christ (such as the Alpha course or vibrant personal evangelism).  I think either approach can be legitimate. 
  •     #7: What kind of music we should sing, particularly in regards to worship music?
    • There was a time that drums were seen as the music of the devil.  But people responded by saying, "Martin Luther put hymns to bar tunes" and redeemed that musical genre.  (I'm not sure if that Luther thing is actually true.  Perhaps it is.  People repeat it a lot though).  I think it is conceivable that some music in itself is incompatible with Christian worship.  I think of shrieking heavy metal where the words are incomprehensible.  I think this is comparable to the discussion by Paul in 1 Cor 12-14 about tongues.  That just because it moves you emotionally and it is done with a Christian motivation, doesn't mean it is appropriate for Christian worship.  But maybe those people who shriek the 23rd Psalm can do it by themselves or with a small group of people who appreciate that in a setting outside of corporate worship. They should still be going to a church service where there is in Paul's words "intelligible" content to the worship services.   
  •     #8: What part do you think that traditional worship should play in corporate worship?
    • Again, as an educator or missionary, you are trying to help the whole audience understand the message.  Thus, I think if you have lots of older people who have difficulty comprehending the words and singing contemporary worship, then it is your job to help them do so or to incorporate aspects of worship that they do understand (like hymns).  This is what we did in our church as you can see from the worship guidelines I mention above in number 3.   However, I would also try to make the case to the older people that "the church is an organization that exists for the purpose of its non-members" and thus we need to continue to pursue methods that make it more likely that when "inquirers or unbelievers come in" (1 Cor 14:23) and young people come in, "they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, 'God is really among you!'" (1 Cor 14:25) because the service is designed to be intelligible (1 Cor 12-14) to them.