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The Problem With Today’s Worship

Try not to judge me, but nearly everywhere I look, the corporate worshiping of God is being practiced in ways that increasingly trouble me.  For starters, the concept of “worship” continues to be understood  primarily as “singing.”  This reflects a very limited understanding of how Christian worship has been practiced historically, biblically, and  theologically down through the centuries. A more accurate and holistic view of worship should include scripture, prayer, eucharist, ministry to widows and the poor, and the use of our spiritual gifts (charismata) for the sake of others, among other things.  

Chris leading worship_Fox_Theater_cropWhen I first began leading worship in the 1970’s (yep, that's me in the photo!), the “contemporary worship” movement was gaining momentum.  The movement -- and the changes it brought -- was a corrective to how heady, ritualistic, and rather impersonal worship seemed to be in most churches.  As Lester Ruth (a former mentor) and Lim Swee Hong have stressed in their book, The History of Contemporary Praise and Worship,

"The breadth of change was matched by the breadth of churches seeking to change. ...[not] just by theologically conservative evangelicals seeking to make new converts.  Moderate and even liberal mainline Christians, driven by a general anxiety about people's disinterest in and boredom with church, jumped into the pursuit of measures that would make worship more exciting, interesting, and relevant to the pressing matters of the day" (p.200).

The heartfelt intimacy brought on by the singing of fresh, contemporary worship choruses was undoubtedly a long overdue “pendulum swing,” apart from the positive effect it had on attendance and church growth.  An unfortunate long-term result, however, was that “worship” became almost solely associated with the singing of “praise and worship choruses.”  Despite decades of uplifting, feel-good choruses -- as well as some deeply worshipful ones -- many of today's "worship songs" are written as petitions to God or as celebrations of what He has done for us rather than songs that directly exalt, extol, and adore Him for who He is.  Don’t misunderstand – petitioning God is important and good, and so is recounting what He has done for us (e.g. Ps. 103:2-5).  But far too many of our songs end up sounding like many of our prayers --  a “To Do List” for God.

Thanks to a plethora of worship services being offered online by churches each week, I’ve been able to listen in to a wide variety of them.  As a result, I repeatedly hear worship tunes that are focused on “us” rather than on God.  Sure, they may be catchy tunes and many stir up deep emotions within congregants, but this does not automatically make them exemplary worship songs. When the people of the Lord gather on the day of the Lord in the house of the Lord to sing in worship to the Lord, I believe there needs to be much more direct focus on the Lord --  more adoration and not so much petition.  When we do sing, our songs need to consistently be more Christocentric, more Trinitarian, and more focused on declaring God’s supreme greatness, holiness, and worth.  This is the worship He deserves regardless of how we feel or what we need.  

Once again, we need a pendulum-swing adjustment.  In their book, Trouble at the Table: Gathering the Tribes for Worship, Carol Doran and Thomas H. Troeger put their finger on the problem, writing,

"...we observed the disillusionment of people who were originally attracted by the idea of completely innovative worship.  What starts with a burst of enthusiasm begins to wear thin because people cannot come up with an endless supply of new ideas and because ritual by nature is repetitive.  Innovators who get rid of one tradition usually settle into their own, which often fails to stand the test of time.  The new songs that were so appealing upon their introduction grow tiresome for lack of musical substance... The absence of prayers, words, and music inherited from ancient tradition gives the service a flimsy feeling, as if faith and worship were simply one more passing fashion among the myriad fads that come and go." (p.117)

Our understanding and practice of Christian worship needs to no longer be focused exclusively on music. While we must be careful not to abandon the personal and intimate expressions of worship that singing helps provide, we must return to intentionally connecting our worship to the full compliment of biblical worship expressions that have been passed down to us through the centuries.  Yes, our corporate times of worship should be characterized by the singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19), but also by teaching, fellowship, Eucharist, prayer, and meeting each other’s needs (e.g.Acts 2:42-47), and this in addition to living lives of holiness -- both socially and personally (e.g. Jas 1:27).

As you can tell, I am passionate about the Church’s current need for worship renewal. After spending over three decades in worship ministry, I specifically focused my post-graduate and doctoral studies on this central expression of our Christian faith. In addition, I continue to read and research broadly in the discipline of worship studies and enjoy teaching the same as time allows. My hope is that the Church will reattach herself to her ancient worship roots:  "Well, my brothers and sisters, let’s summarize. When you meet together [for worship], one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must strengthen all of you" (1 Corinthians 14:26, NLT).


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