Reflection #17, part 1, on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 17, part 1, in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry.  These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance.  I welcome discussion on any of them.

Reflection #17: Worship leaders are using Trinitarian language more and more in their prayers and transitional comments, a good sign.

Where Trinitarian worship is concerned, the contemporary American church has shown signs of healthy progress in the past 20 years or so.  To be sure, some of the peripheral-fringe excesses of the charismatic renewal of the 70’s and 80’s caused many evangelicals to be careful about attributing too much of the saints’ activity in worship to the Holy Spirit, causing some to forgo attributing anything to the work of Holy Spirit in corporate worship.

Most worship songwriters of that era did a fine job putting words of praise to the Father 51kAL6f-LTLand the Son on the lips of worshipers, but the Holy Spirit got excluded from sung praise more often than not.  Several years ago, one of my worship grad-school profs, Dr. Lester Ruth, did a fascinating study of Trinitarian language (and the lack thereof) in contemporary worship music (cwm).  His findings were published (along with the findings of a slew of other worship theologians, on topics ranging from male perception of romantic lyrics in cwm to the artistic worth of worship song melodies) in a fascinating book edited by Robert Woods and Brian Walrath, The Message in the Music: Studying Contemporary Praise & Worship.  Not all the chapters are equally compelling, and the study is now over 10 years old, but the book still makes fascinating reading–the central theses hold up today–for anyone who wishes to think more seriously about what the lyrics in our cwm songs are actually saying–and, by extension, how they are forming us individually and corporately as we sing them.

In the event you don’t have time to read Ruth’s whole chapter, here are the questions he asks that drove his study:

  • Do the Songs Name the Trinity or All Three Persons of the Trinity?
  • Do the Songs Direct Our Worship toward the Trinity as a Whole or toward One of the Persons of the Trinity?
  • Do the Songs Remember the Activity of the Divine Persons among Themselves?
  • Do the Songs See Christian Worship as the Participation of Believers in Inter-Trinitarian Dynamics or Activity?
  • Do the Songs Use the Character of Inter-Trinitarian Relationships to Explore a Desired Character for Relationship among Christians, for Example, Unity, Love, Sacrifice, or Humility?

At the very least, in 2018 the answer to Ruth’s first question is “more regularly than before.”  I would love for cwm writers to ponder all five of his questions as they write for the Church in the years to come.

Why is this important?  More intelligent folks than I have weighed in on why worshiping through Trinitarian lenses is so important, so I won’t reinvent the wheel.  One of the oft-cited texts on this subject is James B. Torrance’s Worship, Community & the Triune God of Grace.  He states what often happens in contemporary American worship services.  See if you recognize his description.

Probably the most common and widespread view is that worship is something which we, religious people, do–mainly in church on Sunday.  We go to church, we sing our [songs] to God, we intercede for the world, we listen to the sermon . . ., we give our money, time and talents to God.  No doubt we need God’s grace to help us do it.  We do it because Jesus taught us to do it and left us an example of how to do it.  But worship is what we do before God.

In theological language, this means that the only priesthood is our priesthood, the only offering our offering, the only intercessions our intercessions.

Indeed this view of worship is in practice unitarian, has no doctrine of the mediator or sole priesthood of Christ, is human-centered, has no proper doctrine of the Holy Spirit, is too often non-sacramental, and can engender weariness.  We sit in the [seats] watching the minister “doing his thing,” exhorting us “to do our thing,” until we go home thinking we have done our duty for another week!  This kind of do-it-yourself-with-the-help-of-the-minister worship is what our forefathers would have called “legal worship” and not “evangelical worship”–what the ancient church would have called Arian or Pelegain and not truly [universal].  It is not trinitarian.

At this point, I can see that this is going to need to be a two-part reflection, so I’ll save Torrance’s rejoinder for next week.  But please note, among all the rest of this good stuff, the end of the first sentence in the third paragraph.  The language Torrance uses here is for me, at this stage in my life, the most compelling reason to reject non-Trinitarian-informed worship:

“[T]his view of worship . . . is human-centered . . . and can engender weariness.”  How often I have found myself–both as a leader and as a congregant–weary after participating in corporate worship.  If you hear nothing else in this blog, please hear this: Failure to embrace a Trinitarian view of worship leads us to extremely unhealthy worship behavior that, at its core, is contrary to the Gospel itself.  Antidotal rhetoric to follow next week, Lord willing!

The Lord be with you!

About Warren Anderson

Emmaus Road Worshipers is written by Dr. Warren Anderson, Director of the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts at Judson University (Elgin, Ill.), where he also directs the Judson University Choir. A Judson alumnus, he has served his alma mater in a number of capacities over the past 30+ years, especially the chapel ministry, which he led for 22 years. From 1982-2016, Dr. Anderson served six different churches--American Baptist (X2), Converge, Evangelical Free Church of America, Roman Catholic, and United Methodist--as a "weekend warrior" worship musician/pastor. He is a former member of the editorial board of Worship Leader magazine. The views expressed in this blog are not necessarily the views of Judson University.
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