The Problem with Our Critique of Modern Worship

The Problem with Our Critique of Modern Worship

What are the repeated critiques you hear about modern worship?

It is so noisy. Why is every bridge a monosyllabic chant? (eg. ‘whoa…oh oh…) It looks too much like a concert. The songs are so repetitive. It’s too much about ‘me’.

I am sure there are more, but let’s just start here.


Noisy and Non-sensical

Modern worship practices have some very interesting parallels to ancient Israelite worship. John Goldingay writes:

“The onomatopoeic verb most commonly translated ‘praise’, halal…which lies behind that noun tehilla, suggests that praising means saying lalalala. The derived expression ‘hallelujah’ is thus an [eruption] combining this verb with the short form of the name of Yhwh…”

Wait… so ancient Israelite praise was often an eruption of repetitive monosyllabic sounds? It gets better. Goldingay continues:

“Alongside the formlessness of shouting and ululating that expresses the untamed and undomesticated fervor of praise is the form and order or music that also enhances praise as it channels and thus enhances that fervor…”

And what sort of musical accompaniment ‘enhances that fervor’? Why, a rhythmic noisiness, of course.

“The key musical aspect to Israel’s praise is rhythm. We have little evidence of melody or harmony in Israelite music; the musical aspect to worship would likely not strike a Western person as very musical at all… The function and nature of sound would thus resemble those of the crowd at a football game or the work of a rapper more than those of regular Christian worship.”

The parallels with ancient Israelite worship are not insignificant or incidental. I grew up in non-denominational, Pentecostal/Charismatic churches, and almost every teaching on worship I heard was rooted in the Old Testament: patterns of the Tabernacle of David and the Temple of Solomon, the stories about the Ark of the Covenant, the Hebrew words for praise, the Psalms, and on and on. This is not to say that there was no reflection given to what makes worship Christian. We understood how the three symbols/figures central to Israelite worship– temple, priest, and sacrifice– are fulfilled in Christ.

And what’s more, we understood (if only dimly) that what is true of Christ is true of us: because He is the temple, the priest, and the sacrifice, we have become the temple, priests, and living sacrifices. The influence of Old Testament worship texts was not set in isolation from or in opposition to the New Testament or a Christological understanding of worship.

But it was set in opposition to personal preferences or cultural norms of ‘expressiveness’ (or lack thereof) and loudness. For instance, in many non-denominational worship settings– especially those of a Pentecostal or Charismatic persuasion– the congregation is exhorted to not stay silent but to ‘make a joyful noise’ or to ‘lift up a shout of praise’. Psalm 150 is read to encourage the use of any and all instruments–and by extension, the full range of musical creativity– to “let everything that has breath praise the Lord!”

While Goldingay notes that in some Calvinist traditions, music that overpowers the voice is problematic (as it was for Barth), for those steeped in ancient Israelite worship, the louder the better! Goldingay states it strongly:

“Its systematic insistence on noisesome worship issues the Psalter’s closing exhortation to intellectual and socially activist readers of the Psalms, reminding us that sharp thinking, heartfelt sincerity, moral integrity, joyful feelings, loving commitment, willing obedience and social involvement are not the only important things in the world…”

Where does this leave us? Perhaps it should chasten us from being too hasty in condemning a certain worship style or musical approach as being ‘unbiblical’…when what we really mean is that it doesn’t fit our culturally-conditioned mode of expression. (Would it be painting with too broad a brush to suggest that Western European approaches to music in worship favor a quieter, ‘accompaniment’ approach, while Eastern– and perhaps African– approaches to music accentuate rhythm and volume?)


It Feels Like A Rock Concert

For those loosely familiar with my work over the past few years, you know that I have challenged the church— at times quite sharply— to work more attentively to align the visual elements of a service (lights, stage, layout…even architecture, where possible) with the verbal elements. Too often we say it’s all about Jesus while the image magnification continues to put our worship teams in focus.

So, this critique has considerable merit.

And yet, we are too careless in applying it. See a church with lights? Ah, it must be a rock show. See a band front and center? They must be ego-maniacs. Yet it is not simply the presence of a cultural form in Christian worship that matters; it is how Christians inhabit that form.

There is a parallel here in Biblical studies. When a young bible student discovers that there were Babylonian stories of a ‘Job’-like character, he may be initially dismayed. Oh no. The Bible is not true after all. It is simply borrowing well-known ancient myths and reworking them. But such a conclusion would be a mistake. For it is not simply the presence of the myth that matters; it is how the Israelite storytellers ‘inhabited’ that myth— how they made it their own and re-worked it. And the differences make all the difference. With Job, it matters greatly that YHWH speaks to Job, whereas the Babylonian god, Marduk, does not. YHWH is not simply transactional, giving back what was lost; YHWH is fiercely personal.

And so in worship services, we must not be lazy and look only for similarities between a church service and a rock concert. We must also pay attention to the differences.

Here’s an example. At a recent conference our church hosted, our worship team came out to lead after a well-produced, creative and inspiring video opener. Now, the genre of conference opening sessions says, “Open big! Capitalize on the excitement! Build the momentum!” To be sure, there is nothing evil about doing that. Yet, Jon Egan—my friend and the worship pastor at New Life Church— chose to subvert the script. They came on stage unspectacularly. Jon was hidden behind the other leaders playing a floor tom drum for the first song, a mid-tempo number with no added hype.

Think more deeply: What are the other elements of the ‘rock concert’ cultural form? A front man or woman, lights (focused on the lead singer), perhaps music that capitalizes on the emotion. But you know what our team did? There were six people across the front, and the darn thing about even numbers is no one becomes the center. When Jon— surely the one in everyone’s mind who should be the leader— finally did speak, we were four songs in and in a worshipful frame of mind. And during the song that he did lead, the lights all of sudden went dim, silhouetting the band, drawing our focus further upward on God.

Now, this is simply one example. You can think of others. And it does not solve all our problems with borrowing the rock concert form. But that’s the point: there is no easy way through this— no easy critiques and no easy defenses.

We must constantly wrestle when we borrow cultural forms; we must work intentionally and attentively to let all the elements— sight and sound and action— center on Christ and proclaim the Gospel.

But such carefully work won’t be the result of cheap critiques of modern worship.


It’s Too Repetitive

No one would deny that this is true, is true, true, true…(Sorry). The question is whether this is in itself problematic. While studying for a series on 1 John at our church, I came across these paragraphs from N. T. Wright on how John’s writing style is repetitive and why repetition can be a good thing:

“Sometimes when we sing hymns, the hymns tell a story. They move from one idea to another, in a linear fashion. There is something satisfying about this. We all like stories, and even when the ‘story’ is a sequence of ideas, it makes sense to us. We feel we have been on a journey. We have arrived somewhere where we were not before. But sometimes, in some traditions at least, the things we sing in church are deliberately repetitive. We use them quite differently: as a way of meditation, of stopping on one point and mulling it over, of allowing something which is very deep and important to make more of an impact on us than if we just said or sung it once and passed on. Quite different traditions find this helpful: the Taizé movement in France, for instance, uses some haunting brief songs or chants; but you find the same thing in many branches of the modern charismatic movement, where repetition is an essential part of worship. True, some people find these tedious, and want to get back to old-fashioned hymns as quickly as possible. This may be partly a matter of personality. But it may also be that such people are unwilling to allow the truth of which the poem speaks to get quite so close to them. Repetition can touch, deep down inside us, parts that other, ‘safer’ kinds of hymn cannot reach, or do not very often.“

Wright compares the modern charismatic movement– certainly a primary seedbed for modern worship music– to Taize traditions in their use of repetition. He even notes that many find it tedious and prefer the linear narrative structure of older hymns. But– and here’s the point–this may be due to personality rather than (a superior) spirituality. The New Testament writers demonstrated similar differences in personality and thus writing style. Paul is (largely) linear, building his case methodically. John is poetic, repeating his themes of light, life, and love by weaving them in and out of his teaching.

Worship ought to appeal to our cognition; but there is also a need for worship to go deeper than our understanding, to lead us into a mystery. Often the way that happens best is through repetition, so that we are no longer focused on connecting the ideas but on letting the truth work its way in us. (Another example of this is the Christian practice of ‘breath prayers’.)


It’s Too Me-Focused

Once again, we acknowledge the legitimacy of such a critique. We must be careful to make our worship Trinitarian and Christ-centered. But is the inclusion of ‘me’ language’ inherently dangerous? Should we avoid the personal pronoun, or at least singular personal pronouns (I, me, my)?

Enter, St. John, again.

John’s Gospel is different from the Synpotics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) in several ways that are relevant to our discussion.

For one, John overlaps with the synoptics in roughly only 10% of its material, leading one scholar to call it a ‘maverick’ among the Gospels.

Secondly, John depicts Jesus in remarkable personal settings. Matthew gives us Jesus’ lengthy ‘Sermon on the Mount’; Mark shows us Jesus on mission, doing miracles on the way; Luke gives us Jesus’ stories. But John gives us extended one-on-one encounters with Jesus: Jesus and Nicodemus, Jesus and the Woman at the Well, Jesus and Mary, Jesus and Martha, Jesus and Pilate, Jesus and Thomas, and finally, Jesus and Peter. Melanie Ross, a professor of liturgical studies at Yale Divinity, highlights John’s ’emphasis on personal faith’, drawing a parallel with non-liturgical evangelicals.

Thirdly, John is less sacramental than the Synoptics. If the shape of the Gospels are an expression of the worship in early Christian communities, then the Synoptics are where we find the ‘fourfold shape’ of Christian worship: baptism, word, prayer, table. The story of Jesus is told along this shape. But John, says Robert Gundry, downplays ‘sacrament and liturgy’. Jesus’ baptism goes unmentioned; the ‘Words of Institution’ are missing from John’s passover scene. The emphasis instead is on the words of Jesus and the work of the Spirit, an emphasis that many modern worship settings embody.

Melanie C. Ross summarizes her reading of John with both an affirmation of evangelical worship styles and a caution within it: ‘If the one event of Jesus requires four Gospels’, then ‘the single confession of faith requires a diversity of liturgical expressions’.

So, yes modern worship can be too ‘me-focused’. But worship must make room for a personal encounter with Jesus. And when we do, we find the power of Jesus’ words and the presence of the Spirit to give life. This is what we learn from the Gospel according to St. John.


Be Constructive

To say that our critiques of modern worship are thin and cheap is not to say that (a) there is no truth to them, nor (b) that there are no critiques of modern worship. If you know me and my work, you know that I think that we should be diligent in wrestling with the way we worship because the way we worship becomes the way we believe. Corporate worship is not a throw-away, do-as-you-please sort of thing. It is the center of our life together as the people of God, and it is what shapes us and prepares us for mission.

Don’t mistake this post as an apologetic for modern worship. I have not come close to that. All I have done is to say that none of these things– loudness, rock concert aesthetics, repetitive words, and personal language–are in themselves enough to dismiss modern worship. We cannot be lazy and look for one of these elements and then rush off to the blogosphere to roundly condemn the whole movement.

I believe the best critiques come from within. If the people within the modern worship movement refuse to think critically about what we are doing and why, then the ones who critique us will be the ones who don’t really know us or understand what we’re up to. So, pastors, worship leaders, songwriters, music publishers, record labels: Don’t shy away from the hard work of critical reflection on our calling. It is our life’s work. Let’s make it great for the glory of God and for the good of the Church.


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