This is post number 37 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 #37: The upside of contemporary worship’s come-as-you-are informality and spontaneity is often mitigated by worship leaders’ off-the-cuff rhetoric that, if not outright heretical, can paint a very insufficient, incomplete, or ill-informed picture of our Triune God.
I have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English/Communication Arts. I appreciate those truths conveyed in my communication theory studies regarding the value of understanding your audience members and their real and felt needs as you craft your message. I acknowledge that studied perceptions (accurate or otherwise) of 21st-century parishioners’ needs motivate much of what we do in contemporary worship these days. And I accept that all the above often leads to dressed-down rhetoric that eschews any semblance of formal scripting.
In practice, however, the applications of this well-intended theory often lead to verbiage that is suspect, at best, where theological truth is concerned. Say what you want about centuries-old liturgies passed down through the ages. Decry how, in the hands of passion-bereft worship leaders, such creeds, prayers, and recitations promote dry, tired worship. (And, I confess, I was in my late 30’s, in my grad-school studies at the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies, before I experienced liturgy routinely and regularly effected well.) But by the time those well-worn scripts–amended, edited, and shaped over time–reach us in the year 2019, they have, almost always, been shorn of any obvious theological inaccuracies (applied universally, recognizing distinct denominations’ various perspectives and those points of Truth about which Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians disagree).
In most churches my wife and I have attended over the past two and a half years of our church visits, it seems as if a desire to avoid stiffness unwittingly leads to unintended flippancy. Mark Galli, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, puts it this way in an article from his ongoing series on the current state of evangelical Christianity, The Elusive Presence, entitled “The Temptations of Evangelical Worship”:
We sing various choruses that say, “Bring down your glory” and “show us your face.” But we do not know what we’re asking for. People in the Bible who actually encountered God’s glory fall on the ground in fear. For example, after the miracle of the fishes, Peter knows he has seen glory and that he is in the presence of the Glorious One. He doesn’t give God an ovation. He doesn’t weep with joy. He falls on his knees, begging Jesus to depart from him. The glory of Jesus has made it clear to him that he is a sinful man (Luke 5).
The same thing happens to Isaiah in the Temple. When Isaiah is given but a glimpse of God’s glory, he doesn’t break into song, singing a praise chorus. He actually thinks he is about to die: “It’s all over! I am doomed, for I am a sinful man. I have filthy lips, and I live among a people with filthy lips. Yet I have seen the King, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies” (Isa. 6:5).
Transforming Presence: How the Holy Spirit Changes Everything–From the Inside Out, a new book from Daniel Henderson to which my mother introduced me, has some practical suggestions for avoiding both stiffness and rhetoric that promotes any number of inaccuracies re: the presence of God in our worship (particularly the notion that unless we do certain things when we gather God might not “show up” in our midst, the corporate worship version of putting the cart before the horse). This instead-of-that-try-this list (from which I am cherry-picking particular examples) appears in an appendix at the end of the text entitled “A New Covenant Worship Vocabulary”:
“Lord, we welcome you” vs. “Lord, we are grateful for Your indwelling presence” or “Thank You for welcoming us at the cross.”
“The Holy Spirit came” vs. “The Holy Spirit worked powerfully in our lives.”
“Release Your Spirit” vs. “Bring us into complete submission and responsiveness to Your Spirit.”
“Holy Spirit, fall” vs. “Holy Spirit, fill, control, and dominate our lives.”
“Pour out Your Spirit” vs. “Take charge of our lives as we submit to Your indwelling Spirit.”
“Welcome to the house of the Lord” vs. “Welcome to the gathering of God’s people.”
“Flood the atmosphere” vs. “Take control of our hearts.”
“Let Your glory fall” vs. “Jesus, You are our glory. We seek Your will and word.”
“Let our praises fill this temple” vs. “May the indwelling Spirit inspire our praises.”
“Thank You that we can come into Your presence” vs. “Thank You that Your presence has come into us–through the work of Christ.”
Nit-picking? Arguing semantics? I don’t think so. More like putting the same kind of effort and energy into carefully choosing the words we use in our services that most of us put into doing our best to make every aspect of church-weekend life culturally relevant–from the parking lot to the nursery to the gathering for corporate worship. Worship leaders, I encourage you to think carefully about these matters that are, I would argue, as important as your song selections and band rehearsals. The Lord be with you!
Coming next week, Lord willing: More observations on worship in the contemporary American church.