Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Damaging Ambiguity in Modern Worship

After living in Scotland for about a year and a third, attending a Church of Scotland church where the worship music is primarily hymns and an organ, I spent most of December and January back home in Santa Cruz, Ca.  It was great in those months to be back at my home church where my wife and I both grew up and have tons of friends and family, but something I had struggled with for years in the kind of modern worship we do at our home church was brought fresh to my mind in its contrast with more traditional hymnody.  (Generalization alert: just go with it).  Hymns are focused on who God is, what he has done, asserting the worshippers' faith in him and asking for God's blessings in faith.  Modern worship is primarily concerned with the worshipper's (notice the different placement of the apostrophe) subjective response to God's being, presence and/or blessings.  Where hymns sing things like...

See from His head, His hands, His feet, Sorrow and love flow mingled down! Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Modern worship sings things like...

The fullness of Your grace is here with me, The richness of Your beauty’s all I see, The brightness of Your glory has arrived, In Your presence God, I’m completely satisfied
There is an important difference here that I think causes a significant amount of spiritual anguish for many who participate in modern worship.  The modern worship song is describing a state of mind that the worshipper is claiming for him/herself, one in which God's beauty is all they see so that they are completely satisfied.  How does one sing that if what they actually see is the ugliness engulfing their lives leaving them anything but satisfied?  A spiritual pressure is put on the worshipper to feel that way, to manipulate their own psychology to conform to that feeling.  Some do.  Some are somehow able to play that part with relative ease.  I won't speak to their own spiritual situation because I simply can't relate to it, but I usually suspect that they are forcefully hiding something from themselves - I realize, however, that it really isn't my place to judge.  Others are faced with a crisis.  They are led to the conclusion that this kind of elevated feeling is what faith looks like, and they either need to drum up some good vibrations or deal with the fact that they might just not be capable of faith.

Notice how the hymn doesn't demand that kind of psychological conformity.  It calls the worshipper to think about the gospel, not to feel a certain way but simply to recognize it.  It is speaks of the grace, beauty and glory of God's presence in the creaturely realm and even elicits an emotional subjective response, at least from me, but the hymn isn't about that subjective response, it occasions it.  The modern worship song is actually about the subjective response; one gets the sense that the feeling is the actual intent or object of the song.

There is a theological ambiguity at play here that I want to address.  As biblical as it is to speak of the faithfulness of God and the satisfaction that comes in receiving it, we must pay constant attention to the lingering effects of sin.  That we worship God as sinners means that his beauty will never be all we see until our redemption is made complete when Christ returns.  We will never be completely satisfied in God's presence this side of Christ's return because we are not yet in his presence free of the entanglements of sin.  We are in his presence in Christ and his presence is in us by the Spirit, but that reality is hidden with Christ in God for the present, the Spirit being present in us as the promise that we will one day be satisfied.

These thoughts have been brought to mind for me as I have been reading Karl Barth's commentary on Paul's Epistle to the Romans, a troubling book in many ways but nonetheless filled with theological insight.  Speaking to my frustration over modern worship, Barth has this to say about people's assumption of experiencing God:
Whenever men suppose themselves conscious of the emotion of nearness to God, whenever they speak and write of divine things, whenever sermon-making and temple-building are thought of as an ultimate human occupation, whenever men are aware of divine appointment and of being entrusted with a divine mission, sin veritably abounds - unless the miracle of forgiveness accompanies such activity; unless, that is to say, the fear of the Lord maintains the distance by which God is separated from men.
Later, he quotes Calvin:
Everything by which we are surrounded conflicts with the promise of God.  He promises us immortality, but we are encompassed with mortality and corruption.  He pronounces that we are righteous in His sight, but we are engulfed in sin.  He declares His favour and goodwill towards us, but we are threatened by the tokens of his wrath.  What can we do?  It is His will that we should shut our eyes to what we are and have, in order that nothing may impede or even check our faith in Him.
Calvin's call to place our faith in what we hear in the gospel rather than what we see in our experience brilliantly captures the heart of the gospel.  If we are consciously aware that we are intentionally negating our experience of seeing ugliness and being unsatisfied in faith, then I think we can joyfully sing the modern worship song (though we'd still probably favor the hymn).  I can sing it not as a description of how I feel, but as a statement of faith, faith in the reality of the new creation I am in Christ, the one that really does only see God's beauty and really is satisfied in God's presence.  The problem is that I don't see modern worship services making this contradiction clear; I see them feeding the confusion, making the worshipper think that it is their job to drum up the feelings rather than having faith in the promise despite their feelings and perception.

The answer?  I don't know, but I think getting more people in leadership in modern worship churches to read Barth couldn't hurt.  Keeping the dialectic of God's faithfulness and our faithlessness as a more explicit theme in modern worship would be helpful as well.  Your thoughts?


  1. "I can sing it not as a description of how I feel, but as a statement of faith, faith in the reality of the new creation I am in Christ, the one that really does only see God's beauty and really is satisfied in God's presence."

    And how are you a Baptist again?

  2. Snarkiness aside - I fully agree with your assessment of "worship song spirituality." I've experienced nothing but oppression by such things.

  3. I will mark this day on my calendar as the day Justin made a sincere comment of agreement with me on my blog.

  4. C'mon now - I can't think of one time when I've ever disagreed with you. To be honest, I've always thought of us as the theological equivalent of the Crimson Twins from GI Joe. Not true?!

  5. I don't know if I can comment after the "Crimson Twins" remark but I enjoyed this post for saying in enough of a layman's terms what I think of modern worship music as a whole. We have often discussed this point and I see the way forward being that the worship leaders take their jobs as seriously as the pastors do. That is to say, that they treat the words we sing as a congregation (stress on congregation and not a single soloist's band on stage) with gravitas and scan each one dutifully for being theologically sound, that they attend college and beyond to also study what should be the backbone of any leader of a church--the careful and joyful study of God's words and how we should always carefully proceed with any venue of a service.

  6. Good article Adam. I agree with you, and have felt the pressure you speak of. In the "modern" worship setting, we are led to feel pressured to participate in the physical responses the songs are supposed to elicit, such as raising hands, dancing, etc. I feel uncomfortable with it, and often times find myself thinking, "gee, I don't raise my hands, so I must be doing something wrong." At that point, my whole worship experience is interrupted with sin, because I worry, and then I get a critical spirit. I am in a very conflicted space right now with modern worship.

  7. It's strange to me how the word "worship" has taken the place of "singing". If the singing part of a service is worship, what is the rest of it? It sounds like a quibble, but words and titles matter and in this case, I think, contribute to the fuzziness. I've struggled for years with the complete abandonment of hymns and the uneasy peace I've reached is to treat the "worship" portion of the service as a performance to listen to. Otherwise, I just get angry.
    I agree with Rachel that one step forward is for the music pastors to approach their portion of the service as the pastors do. Please understand that I believe that the "worship" leaders hearts are certainly in sincere service to God, but something has to change. If persecution comes, these songs and feel good attitudes aren't going to help us.

  8. Mr. Nigh, this is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant and succinct commentaries on worship I've read. I always hear polarized arguments for why modern worship is superior and why hymns are superior, but, going back to the line Justin first quoted, I appreciate how you leave a place for modern worship songs as long as they are sung as a statement of faith not a description of how you feel. Great post, I enjoyed.

  9. I think the subject matter of the music is at issue as well. Older Christian songs (not just hymns) spoke of hard doctrinal truths--that it takes blood sacrifice to atone for sin, that to follow Christ is to take up a cross, that love of the world hinders love of God. Such subjects prompt introspection and self examination, sometimes repentance. We should be able to feel as close to God while sitting in traffic as while sitting under a redwood tree.

  10. "And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
    The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
    The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
    Even so, it is well with my soul."

  11. Amen--
    Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word
    I ever with Thee and Thou with me Lord
    Thou my great Father, I Thy true son
    Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

  12. @Wife - I certainly agree about content evaluation being taken seriously as a part of the music leader's job description. For that to happen, though, and for them to be held accountable on that score, there needs to be a basically agreed upon theology of worship that puts a higher premium on corporate confession of the objective content of the gospel than on expression of personal feelings about that content. That means some actual staff meetings on that subject and quite probably some debate. I'm not sure if those kinds of conversations have gone on or not, but I wish they would if they haven't and if they have I wish they would invite input from the church beyond the staff.

    @Aunt Teresa - Thank you. Actually I wouldn't have a problem raising my hands if someone before the music started was to invite everyone to do it and explain what the significance of it was, its biblical precedents (Psalm 134 for example) and that we do it as an expression of obedience, not our feelings. In our current context, it is left to the individual if they want to do it or not and so ends up being more an emotional expression. To be clear, I'm certainly not against emotional experiences in worship - I frequently have them - its just that they need to follow from worship, not be its basis or even its goal.

  13. @Steve - You've made this point before about calling the music "worship" and thereby isolating the concept of worship to our singing...and you're absolutely right. I don't know why I keep relapsing into that terminology other than I hate using awkwardly long expressions like "when we worship through singing". Its really just for brevity's sake - we need a single syllable word that means "singing praise". I propose "pring" (see discussion below).

    @Aaron - Thanks. I do leave a place for modern pring because there actually are some songs (though relatively few) that are more focused on Christ himself, singing about who he is and what he has done, than on how my life is complete now or how I feel him all around me, which are just lies. I have to say I think if more pring leaders had a better eschatology (theology of Christ's return and the fulfillment of redemption in its contrast to our present state of waiting), most of the songs currently being prung in our churches (and chapels *wink*) would go away and hopefully be replaced with more gospel-centric...prongs. All of that being said, having prung in a more traditional church for the past year and a half I can say with some confidence that hymns may be more theologically robust than modern pring, but the vast majority are aesthetically horrible and I do think that matters. So I don't really think a return to exclusively hymns is the answer. Rather, I think this current generation of prong writers needs to soak themselves in the best of pring throughout the church's history and just start doing a better job all around. Even apart from the lyrics, modern prongs are musically horrible. The same sentimental chord progressions and lame melodies. (Most hymns are musically horrible too, but for a different reason - I think some of us just romanticise them because only the really good ones have survived in the memory of modern churches). No more songs that sound like rejects from a late 80's U2 album with vapid emotional drivel for lyrics. We need some prongs that press the central themes of the gospel through fresh musical forms that actually fit their content and might even display some creativity! Rather than mimic pop radio, why shouldn't prong writers be developing a distinctive sound that fits the unique lyrics content of praise?

    I know this is going long, but just to illustrate, the closest thing I've heard to what I'm talking about is Delerious' album Glo. I really don't listen to almost any modern prusic because I just can't stand most of it, but somehow that album got in my hands and I was really impressed by how they were consciously trying to creatively blend the best of historical church music, Gregorian chant, black gospel choir, and hymnody, with contemporary worship stuff. I still thought most of it was sentimental and relying too much on early 90's U2 and Radiohead, and the lyrics were still pretty feelings oriented, but it was a gesture in the right direction. Aaron, I'm putting it to you - someone needs to turn this ship around and go the next step toward theologically robust and aesthetically creative worship. Go!

  14. Adam, agreed. Sometimes I think (and I could be wrong) that the worship leader may see the outward expression of the music (such as raising hands, dancing, etc.) correlated to how "good" they are as a worship leader. Again, I could be wrong.

  15. Adam, question for you: I am beginning to hear of worship not in terms of "modern worship," but "prophetic worship." I am assuming you have heard this as well. I am curious as to what your definition of prophetic worship is...and if you see is at the same thing as modern worship.

  16. I've actually never heard of that. I just looked it up and it seems pretty to be something going on in charismatic/pentecostal churches. I really don't know anything about it.

  17. Here's an online "prophetic radio station" out of Oregon:
    Our church produced a "live" dvd and one of the songs made it into the "top 20" of what this station plays. I have mixed feelings about the whole thing...dvd production, elijahstreams, etc.

  18. Isn't pring the sound those little "ring bell for attendant" bells make? And thanks Adam about the old terrible hymns. I meant to make the point that the typical Evangelical hymnbook has about 550 hymns only about 80 of which are bearable---but I forgot.
    A good example of a modern song loaded with doctrine is In Christ Alone. But it also has an actual melody line rather than a wandering series of notes in chords. It's telling that many song leaders have difficulty leading the congregation because they are actually singing solos, and riffing on the melody. But I certainly remember suffering through many low grade hymns when I was young.
    I agree that the issue is what the motive is--where the heart is. I just wish I didn't have the same response to prongs as I do to dept store music.

  19. Great post. However, barring the (impossible) possibility that this "pring" word of yours catches on, I do think we need to lead corporate worship by naming it as such in all its elements. Thus, our singing time (if indeed we must have one) needs to be called "singing" or "worship songs" or "sung prayers" or something. Our time together for liturgy and ministry of word and the ordinances/sacraments can be called "worship service" or "liturgy" or what have you. But to overuse or blanket any single one of them as "worship" (especially the one that has been hijacked by a whole music industry) is damaging to our sense of who we are and what we are on about.

  20. Adam,
    I did a quick search on the word "me" in the Psalms (NRSV), and found that the majority of them are prayers and songs of supplication.

    Psalms 4:1
    Answer me when I call, O God of my right! You gave me room when I was in distress. Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer.

    Psalms 5:8
    Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness
    because of my enemies;
    make your way straight before me.

    Psalms 13:1
    How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?

    Psalms 13:6
    I will sing to the LORD,
    because he has dealt bountifully with me.

    Those last two verses (in the same psalm, no less!) makes your point quite well - that our songs are a response to what God has done for us. They both cry out to God to be present to us and testify that God has indeed been present to us. I wonder if modern worship fails precisely because it does not want to acknowledge the former kind of prayer. In other words, the difference between hymns and modern worship isn't so much the difference between emphasizing God's objective action and our subjective response, but between the ability to balance cries and laments with testimony of God's goodness (hymns) and the tendency to only say that God has made all things well when in fact things are not all well.

    I appreciate your post very much.

  21. I've been wondering why I find led worship so difficult at the moment and I think you may have put your finger on it. There seems to be a lot of pressure during worship to feel a particular way. As someone who struggles from depression this can be really alienating. I have spent many a service trying to make myself feel the emotion the song should elicit and time and time again I've failed. I still want to worship God because he is still good regardless of my circumstances. But I can't pretend that I'm not hurting, believe me I've tried. Personally I would love to see more songs like 'Praise you in this storm' by Casting Crowns which acknowledge God's sovereignty in spite of the troubles of life. There seem to be lots of songs which get around the problem by pretending life is always rosy.

  22. Chris, thanks for that study. I think you're right on the money about the balance.

    Sarah, thank you for your comment and for sharing your struggles.

  23. I have found the liturgical worship of the Lutheran Church (ELCA) to provide just the right corporate worship. First we confess, then we read the word (and learn) then we commune. The Book of Worship published two years ago is disappointing because it draws from too many ethnic backgrounds. It becomes "Lutheran lite". Still, I find I can worship our Lord in truth, no matter the current conditions in my life.

    Thank you for addressing this problem for I believe too that theology is being watered down because Americans are as St. Paul says "babes in Christ" and cannot fully accept the suffering the gospel clearly tells us will be ours if we follow Christ.