There seem to be a lot of bloggers commenting on the paucity of good worship songs at present; consider John Stackhouse's harsh comments about Chris Tomlin, Ben Myerson hymn writers and Steve Holmesirenic tour of some lowlights from previous generations. I’m sure that there are positive contributions to be made to the debate but in the meantime here are some random thoughts about elements that are important to whatever songs / hymns we use in worship.
Transcendence: Some people draw a distinction between singing words to or about God on the one hand and the experience of singing songs as a vehicle for a felt experience of God (and the criteria upon which much modern worship music is judged is its perceived ability to facilitate the later). Whilst emotional experiences are subjective being moved by music is not bad. At its best worship points us beyond ourselves; our confession that Jesus is Lord and that God is ‘abba’ is evidence of the Spirit drawing us to participate in the worship of the triune God.
Creativity: Worship styles are reflective of our culture and history. Since these are elements of what it means to be created as human beings we should not view them negatively. Yet worship is also about us offering our best, not because worship is fundamentally about what we do for God (it isn’t) but because we believe that giving the best of our artistic, creative and intellectual endeavours is honouring to the God who is worthy of our praise. Worship is of course about what God does in us through the Spirit enabling us to participate in Christ’s worship of the Father. At its best worship evidences the creativity of the Spirit, changing us in the process.
Body of Christ: Whatever the early church did in worship (and let’s face it the evidence is that they didn’t sing much) the Scriptures encourages us to recognise our locatedness within the body of Christ. In Christ, we who are many form one body, we are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit, and our worship gatherings should both recognise the body of the Lord and seek to edify and build up the Church. At its best all church worship is Eucharistic.
Glory: The content of our worship gatherings should be God. In declaring our faith in God we are declaring the virtues of God’s character and, in particular, the faithfulness of Christ; in confession we recognise our own sin as falling short of God’s glory; in prayer we ask God to show aspects of his character as the one who loves and reconciles, brings healing and justice, recognising both God’s freedom and eschatological anticipation. In preaching we seek to set forth God’s self revelation as witnessed by the Scriptures, trusting that the Spirit will make this God's word to us. At its best worship is about the glory of God.
So what use might these thoughts be as we wrestle with the practicalities and limitations of preparing worship in a local church context? As a minimum they suggest a check list for every song/hymn we might choose:
- Is what this song/hymn says about God actually true and would it make sense to most people singing it? (The list of lines which are either gross distortions of God’s nature, sheer drivel or which make no sense is so long examples are superfluous).
- Is this song something the congregation can sing as a corporate expression of worship or is it essentially a performance by the music group with some congregational involvement? (If so, don’t sing it corporately, why not get the music group or choir to sing it like an anthem).
- What function does this song/hymn have in worship? If corporate worship has a structure and flow then the selection of a particular song isn’t based on it being a favourite but on the contribution it makes to the service.
- How does using this song/hymn bring glory to God?