Come Let Us Worship (Together)

Do our Christian songs do the job well? Do they tell our story? Do they tell the story of all of us/of each of us? Do they give us memory? Do they tell our future? Do they tell the gospel? Do they tell our experience of the gospel? Do they reflect the Psalms’ complaints or are they only happy and good-news songs?

In Rodney Reeves’ new book, Spirituality according to Paul: Imitating the Apostle of Christ, Reeves probes what early Christian worship and singing (he connects the two; he doesn’t equate the two) were about — and he does so knowing those early Christians were standing on the shoulders of the Israelites and their Psalter and their synagogue services. Here are some themes he finds to be part of Christian worship and singing:

Worship isn’t complete when done alone.

Singing songs to Christ is subversive. Pliny later said the Christians gathered to sing songs to a crucified man as to a God! And Paul’s great quotation of a song in Philippians 2:6-11 is pure gospel music: it celebrates God’s work by telling the Story of Jesus (see my The King Jesus Gospel). And Reeves points out that anyone who sang that song was saying Caesar was not the Lord, Jesus was.

Which leads to another theme: genuine biblical worship and song complains. He says Caesar will someday celebrate Christ as Lord, though he think Caesar will be lamenting when he sings that song (end of Phil 2′s song).

Worship should evoke memory, our common memory especially. And here we have a steep hill to climb: for many the stories of the Bible are either such a distant fading memory or unknown completely that the songs we sing can’t make sense. Read the Bible and the songbook will come alive; ignore the Bible’s stories and the songbook will gravitate to personal experience songs.

Singing should be inclusive: that is, it should reflect all of us — Jew and Gentile, slave and free, man and woman, adult and adolescent, native and foreigner, rich and poor. I wonder if we could think through our songs to see how inclusive they are. Now let me include another dimension of inclusiveness: the glad and the sad. (Sorry for the rhyme.) On any given Sunday a good number of the folks in church who are being asked to sing will be asked to emote in ways they are not feeling or cannot be feeling: some will be grieving, some will be sickened by joblessness, some will be worried about children — while others are riding the waves of victories. How can we include those who struggle? And what about introverts and extroverts (think of Adam McHugh’s book, Introverts in the Church)? Does our worship/singing reflect some sensitivity about personalities?

Worship and singing come to the focal point in the Lord’s Supper (if your church does this often – as it should be done often): there we all join together and participate in the saving deeds of Jesus and ponder anew what Christ has done for us – - new covenant, forgiveness, Passover liberation, etc.

This means our worship needs to be examined to see if it reflects our unity in Christ and our equality in Christ. Does it?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Jerry

    Scot,

    If we are talking about contemporary “Praise and Worship” music, it seems that we have a hit and miss telling of the gospel. Some do well such as “Once Again” and “Here I Am to Worship” while others seem to be just “happy, clappy.”
    Classic hymns seem to tell the gospel better than a lot of the modern stuff. Now before anyone jumps on me, please understand that I say this as a musician and contemporary worship leader for over 10+ years.

    Too many Christians want to turn worship into a rock concert by looking for a spiritual “high.” Someone told me today that they don’t like it when we include “Be Thou My Vision” because it was too “meditative.” I like worship that includes a good balance of “new songs” and classic hymns. It reflects the “Communion of the Saints.”

  • Phillip

    I appreciate that the author does not collapse Christian worship into the singing/music. Too often I see leading worship understood almost exclusively as the musical presentation.

    I also appreciate the reminder that in order for singing to evoke memory, we have to know the biblical story. I once heard a church member suggest that we should no longer sing the verse “Here I raise my Ebenezer” when we sing “O Thou Fount” because no one knows what an Ebenezer is. My response was: read your Bible. I have also heard the same objection to “Days of Elijah.” I have joked with my intro OT classes that their final exam would be to locate all the biblical references in that song.

  • http://youtube.com/psalms4guitar Psalms4guitar

    I’m the music leader at my church for our contemporary service (ugh! hate that phrase). I’ve been finding that reading parts of the lectionary text before songs brings much added depth to the music.

    For example, a song like “Mighty to Save” seems to pack a lot more meaning when it’s sung as a response to a soul-wrenching Psalm.

    Peace, Brian

  • T. Webb

    Brian, that’s very interesting, since for many “contemporary” churches that despise ‘liturgy’, the contemporary choruses become a defacto liturgy, which can be frightening due to the frequent lack of any helpful content of many songs.

  • http://commentfromalayminister.wordpress.com/ Anne Peat

    Your point about including something for everyone in a service rings bells with me. Apart from funerals, when do we ever give people a chance to be sad in church?
    And when do we ever give them permission to express their anger towards God. The psalms do this, but are there any contemporary prayers or songs that do it?
    Traditional churches do better with the quiet and contemplative stuff, especially during communion.
    And there should be a place for silence. I find too much worship is about us talking or singing – without any space to listen to God.

  • Kristin

    As an introverted worship leader I tend to stick with songs that are more objective lyrically, so everyone is able to relate to them on their own terms. Don’t get me wrong…not long drawn out wordy hymns, but lyrics that are clear in telling the story, with melodies that are easy to follow and sing. Christ crucified, Christ resurrection, Christ our Hope. Also God the Father, Creator, etc. The story is what unifies us and this gives room for people to respond in their own way.

    Ultimately do we believe that the gospel is powerful enough to lead people to worship or do we have to manufacture happy emotional hype?

    And I agree with #3 pairing songs together helps bring out the depth of the lyrics!

    #1 it’s funny to see what various people classify as ‘boring’ worship music. Boring to me is a loud obnoxious song with lame, shallow lyrics. Some people have said “In Christ Alone” has too many words. Really? Those same words lead me to tears every time I sing them! Hardly boring.

    #2 Personally I think biblical illiteracy is the driving factor behind poor worship. How can we worship God if we don’t know the Word of God? You’d be surprised the number of people that don’t know that “Revelation Song” is named such because it’s straight out of the book of Revelation! Oh really? Those words are from the BIBLE???

  • http://singingchurch.blogspot.com/ Peter Slade

    Scot,
    Thanks for these important observations. I have been doing a lot of thinking about the ways our congregational singing demonstrates and creates our unity in Christ over on my blog . My position is that American congregations need to rediscover congregational singing as a constitutive practice and discipline of the Church. This discipline unites a community of dissimilar people in singing their ‘great Redeemer’s praise.’

    The tragedy is that so many Protestant congregations are internally segregating themselves into separate worshiping communities based on musical aesthetics. The church needs to learn how to sing with one voice again. This is more than a metaphor–it is something we can start doing this Sunday!

  • T

    Amen to the post and many comments. I especially appreciate the call for songs of sadness and complaint as well as celebration and praise. The Psalms have too many sad songs (or at least songs that include much sadness) for us to be happy-clappy all the time.

    Using scripture and the gospel to shape lyrics, incorporating a healthy amount of songs that mourn, and using old and new songs in all these ways–I love to see this kind of balance in worship.

  • http://thesometimespreacher.blogspot.com/ Andy Holt

    I love this post! I agree that worship should evoke memory of our common story, and that we should include laments and complaints in our worship. (Now let me play devil’s advocate.) But isn’t our common story, what we remember in worship, ultimately a happy story? If Jesus has died for our sins, risen again, ascended to the Father’s side where he is presently putting his enemies under his feet AND interceding on our behalf, and ultimately coming again to judge the world and set everything right–well, what’s there to be sad about? If Israel’s story is completed in Jesus, then hasn’t our historical mourning turned to dancing, and our lamenting turned to hope?

  • Susan N.

    Ann (#5) – I am more drawn to traditional / liturgical worship and music than the typical contemporary style, because I think I tend to be more reflective and serious by nature. It’s O:K with me if others prefer or want a different experience.

    This post reminded me of an incident at my former church. After sitting vigil with my grandma all one Saturday, until she passed away around 11pm that night, I told my husband that I wanted to attend church service that next morning. I felt that it would be an affirming thing for me to do, and being in that place at that time would be a comfort to me.

    Wouldn’t you know (and no one in that congregation, least of which the pastor or worship team, knew of my family’s loss), the message preached was based on Matt. 11:28-30, *and*, the opening worship song was ‘Blessed Be Your Name.’

    It was all I could do to keep a lid on it. I knew that if my emotions broke loose, it would not be a dainty sniffle barely heard from the back row…but more likely the ungodly, sustained wail heard ’round the world. It would not have been pretty.

    On that day, I did not *want* to praise God for my “blessings”, and, I certainly did not feel warm and fuzzy and restful. I was tired/weary, and inwardly railing at the ugly reality of death and brokenness.

    I didn’t blame anyone for the message or music that didn’t fit my need that day; no one knew.

    But, I did feel at other times at that church that anything other than spiritual victory and happy/joy/praise was taboo. I think a lot of contemporary worship music lends to that atmosphere.

    But to a great extent, I think worship music is one of those issues of personal preference. If the music is the deal-breaker for people coming to church, let there be a variety to choose from. Different tastes, and different spiritual levels?

  • Joe Canner

    Phillip #2: I’ve led home group discussions on both “Days of Elijah” and “Above All” and I’ve always wanted to do a full-blown sermon on the former for the reasons you mention. The latter is useful because it contains some controversial theology (Jesus was thinking about us when he died). I’m sure there are other worship songs with dubious or obscure theology that would make good sermon material.

  • T

    Susan N.,

    I’m intrigued by your story. One of the patterns that I often see in churches (but that this post and comments seem to be speaking against) is a form of denial that Christians ever experience pain in this life, expressed and maintained in significant part by only singing happy-clappy music when we gather.

    Now, I realize that relationship, tone, particular church culture, etc. can easily overshadow explicit lyrics and scriptural verbage, but “Blessed Be Your Name” with it’s express link to the story of Job, and Matt. 11:28-30, with its express call to the weary and burdened are anything but happy-clappy denial messages. It seems, if anything, the song and message were too on point, too directly targeting people in pain, rather than denying Christians are ever in pain and have cries in their heart.

    If its too personal to discuss, I understand, but I’d love for you to elaborate. Was it the Matt. passage and the song lyrics that got you going or the church culture or something else?

  • Andy J. Funk

    I think that when the community comes together to worship, we are no longer engaged in the lives of our brothers and sisters. This, of course, is not the case everywhere, but essentially we are quite detached from each other. We don’t really know each others’ sorrows, joys, and struggles. When our two year old daughter died of brain cancer, we had family surrounding us on Saturday as she died in our arms at home…the next day, the only thing that made any sense to me and my wife, was to go to church and be with our spiritual family. We cried bitterly, and so did every other person who had shared in our journey with cancer. Do I remember the songs sung, the message preached, scripture read from that Sunday? Not a chance! What we remember is that we worshipped in our brokenness and our church family worshipped with us in their brokenness. I am a musician, so usually I am very conscious of how it is used and expressed, but in this case, all we knew was that we were in a place we NEEDED to be. That’s just one other take on a very specific experience, which is not to take away from any other comment here. Peace!

  • Steph

    There is one song that I think resembles a Psalm-like complaint, but I have never heard it in church. It is the late Rich Mullins’ “Hard to Get,” which begins: “You who are in heaven, hear the prayers of those of us who live on earth.”

    I wonder, though, if people would want to sing it. I think that many would have a real problem voicing those thoughts. (Obviously, since that song came to my mind, I know it and appreciate it.)

    I was raised in a church that freely sang songs of lament. (I don’t recall songs of complaint). Some words that come to mind (translated): “Source of life, peace, love, To you I cry, night and day. Hear my complaint. Uphold me. Calm my fears. You, my only good.” It is set to a mournful (kabyle – North African) tune.

    I think some of the difference (why we sang songs of lament, and often) is cultural. For example, one of the hit songs on the “top 40″ chart nationally was a song eulogizing miners. I remember another song examining the concept of how identity is shaped by our localities and using that to temper judgment: what would I have been like if I had been born in 1917 in Leidenstadt, or if I had been born in Belfast, etc.? Not exactly songs of lament, though the one about miners was quite mournful, but certainly different from what US singers sing about. Added to that cultural context was the fact that we were aware, as a small evangelical church, that we represented less than half of 1 percent of the population, and that we were viewed as a cult. Being with believers was a breath of fresh air. We sang songs of lament, we sang Bible verses, and we sang triumphant songs about the resurrection and about God’s glory.

    I have my doubts about whether the current US evangelical church culture (drawn in broad strokes) would support songs of lament in light of complaints about “love songs” and “girly” worship services. But perhaps I misunderstand the critiques.

  • Susan N.

    T (#12) – You are right, that the message and the song lyrics were very meaningful. The timing was more the issue. I did, actually, feel that to not be “up” at all times spiritually would be seen as “whining.” We had not been living in this community or attending that particular church for more than a year, so, unlike Andy (#13) who had deep connections with the people at his hour of need, that wasn’t true for us. As time went on, and we got more involved and acquainted in various groups, a sense of deep trust never happened for me. I was wary for a variety of complex reasons, not entirely unfounded, I still believe in retrospect. And that’s not to “complain” or lay blame. That’s a dead horse for me.

    I am able to see my complicity in the failures that we knew, which I regret. I think that I/we were trying to pound a square peg into a round hole by forcing our place in that particular community. I wish I had seen that sooner.

    It has been very different for us at our current church…an easy fit. There are separate contemporary and traditional worship services; we attend traditional, but that’s really only a part of what has made us feel at home. We went from evangelical to mainline, so that may explain some.

    There are some of the same debates in the congregation over contemporary vs. traditional hymnal music, though. I think that this question over music must be affecting (most) every church, whatever the denomination, nowadays.

  • http://www.crispinschroeder.blogspot.com Crispin

    Great posts. I am in the middle of that book right now but haven’t read that part yet. Looking forward to it. I have been a worship leader and songwriter for many years but am only a couple of years into being the senior pastor. I find that I am wrestling with worship in a much more pastoral way now. I really got alot out of The Pastor by Eugene Peterson where he wrote of one of the primary jobs of a pastor is leading the congregation in worship (he wasn’t simply referring to singing but the whole thing from message to music to communion).
    Our church spent the first half of the year going through Philipians. As our conclusion of that series we did a service which included re-reading through the whole book of Philipians (minus a few verses here and there) but with pauses to worship with songs inspired by or that connected topically with the text. It was an amazing experience. Many people told me how everything we had been covering in such detail for months suddenly became alive in a whole new way. Though our church isn’t really liturgical I find myself thinking a lot lately about how to tie in more scripture readings in worship, and more songs with communion. This approach seems to be so enriching for our community of faith.

  • AHH

    Another part of the inclusive aspect would be to not exclude those of us who are not musically gifted. We had a worship leader for a few months who would arrange songs in ways that might have been great for people like him, but that were so complicated that even my wife (who played in high school band) would often get lost, so a total non-musician like me had no chance.

    Then there is the exclusion that happens when the worship is done like a rock concert, so that instead of singing in community with your neighbors all you can do is listen to the band and maybe shout along. But I think to some extent my preference for “community singing” rather than “rock concert” style may be generational; youth don’t seem to mind if the vibe is just you and the band without connection to those around you in worship.

  • JT

    @#17 (AHH) – I would also add that another part of the “inclusive” aspect would be to not exclude those of us who ARE musically able, and to not just assume that the entire congregation is not capable of note reading. Even untrained singers generally realize that notes that are higher on the staff are also higher in pitch, and that notes (rhythms) that are closer together will be sung faster. I happen to be one who recognizes that God has gifted me musically. When I am in a worship service, and songs are sung, the tunes of which I am unfamiliar, then I feel I am being excluded and worship is being “dumbed down” when only words are projected on a screen. It causes me to have a very negative worship experience. Being musically gifted or trained does not give us ESP. With the notes presented, we can be leaders in the congregational singing, rather than being left to stand and simply be entertained like the others just standing and listening. That is when the service becomes entertainment and not worship at all.

  • Kristin

    These comments really got me thinking. Personally I can do a better job of acknowledging those in the body who are hurting as I plan and lead worship. Part of unity of the body is sharing in burdens along with the joy and along with the story.

    I’m not saying insert a token sad song. I’m saying openly acknowledging those people in prayer and offering songs of comfort and hope.

    Yes?


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