Embracing the Biblical Scope of Worship
Over the years I’ve loved becoming a part of my wife’s family. Often our time with her parents and siblings have included involving me in some unique family tradition. On one particular trip to the family cabin in the mountains, my (then) fiancée and her family introduced me to a favorite Hallmark Christmas movie. Whether it was the summer weather or the introduction of an outsider into the audience, after it ended everyone realized just how unrealistic and cheesy the Christmas movie was. The lives of the characters portrayed did not seem like anything a viewer would experience in his or her life. The movie instead worked towards giving the audience an emotionally satisfying experience. To be fair, the Hallmark Channel does not generally set out to create films which encourage deep reflection or provide any sort of serious cultural commentary. Rather, the company (along with many others) understands that viewers often want to simply feel good—and they have brilliantly played to that desire.
Many have scoffed at our modern worship culture because they view it in a similar light. Indeed, our music often appears shallow because it fails to give a full picture of the reality of human existence. The “positive and encouraging” motto of K-love has so influenced our Sunday gatherings that we refuse to meditate on any subject that does not guarantee a smile plastered on every face in our rooms. Any honest evaluation of current American worship culture confirms our love for the upbeat and uplifting message to the neglect of all else. A cursory glance at the top fifty most popular worship songs this week reveal songs of praise and thanksgiving, songs of resolve and comfort. Some will indeed touch on the reality of human suffering (usually in quite vague terms) yet refuse to delve into the grief in any real way before jumping to an encouraging chorus. Almost none could be called songs of confession or lament. Consider your own experience over the last several weeks. What portion of your singing caused you to reflect, to weep, to confront sin, to consider evil in the world, even if culminating in praise? Like Hallmark, Western evangelicalism (and its accompanying worship industry) has discovered that messages of hope, comfort, joy, and love sell.
Yet the worship of the Bible opens our eyes to a vast array of emotions and topics common to the human experience. Psalms that call us to praise God for who He is (Psalm 8) and offer thanksgiving for what He has done (Psalm 105) certainly find their place in biblical worship alongside messages of comfort and hope for the believer (Psalm 91). The largest category of Psalms, however, focus on lament (e.g., Psalm 142). David (alongside others) wrestled with the painful realities of living in a fallen world. These writers freely expressed those hurts and frustrations to God, allowing them (after a fair amount of reflection) to lead them to praise and declarations of trust. Many of these Psalms do exactly the opposite of what current music does—they linger on the suffering we experience only to leave us with the hope of God’s rescue at the very end. These songs of lament, both individual and corporate, do not advocate for a pessimistic or dark view of life. Rather, they force the worshiper to engage in reflecting on evil and its effects so we can honestly deal with them with the hope and joy of a sovereign and loving God.
Other passages handle the subject of confession (Psalm 51). Though we often find it awkward to call others to acknowledge, confess, and forsake their sin, biblical worship knows no such discomfort. Part of acknowledging God’s holiness includes understanding our own place before Him. Both as individuals and the gathered body the church must confess that she dishonors her Savior by particular choices and actions. Rather than dampening our praise, however, confession instead fuels more passionate adoration. Understanding our sinfulness helps us stand in greater awe of God’s holiness. Wrestling with how frequently and flagrantly we break God’s law leads us to even greater rejoicing in His forgiveness and love for us. In fact, many traditions follow confession with a time of celebrating our assurance of pardon in Jesus. We come ready to explode with gratitude at Jesus’ feet when we recall how much we have been forgiven.
Even in celebration we recognize how our worship often misses the full expression of the Bible. The praises of Scripture call God’s people to dance, bow, clap, and even shout for joy because of who God is and what He has done. The writers of the Bible understood that God’s goodness and greatness demand the highest expression of celebration humanity can give. While not calling for a manufactured emotional experience, the Scriptures challenge us to engage with how the reality of a good and great God should cause us to respond to Him. Whether in joy, lament, or confession, the worship of the church must reflect the truth of life in a fallen world as well as the joy of life with God.
Perhaps the artistry of our services has been painted only with one or two colors. Most find it difficult to engage with a canvas splashed with just reds of praise and yellows of thanksgiving. Maybe our worship would come to life with the inclusion many different hues. Strokes of blue lament and purple confession could infuse new life into our singing. Utilizing the shadow of sorrow and the shading of pain could present a picture true to life.
For those who serve the congregation in worship (and those in the congregation!), reject the temptation to be a mere consumer who seeks only the emotional highs of upbeat praise songs (though the church certainly needs these!). Be willing to engage with the difficult truths of life—with suffering and sinfulness. Allow God to utilize different forms of worship in drawing you to Himself.
Leaders, consider what prevents you from incorporating these types of songs into your services. Perhaps fear of being disliked or a conformity to current worship industry standards causes you to avoid particular topics. Plan how to teach your congregation the importance of worship in the spirit of the Psalms and begin working to change your worship culture.
Songwriters, recognize that the majority of the time the church engages in confession, lament, and grief she does so through the reading of Psalms and prayers. Be fearless in addressing such topics in your music. Let the Psalmists inspire you to be honest with your congregation about life in our world. Let the reality of sin and pain lead you to more passionate expressions of trust and rejoicing.
How would an unbeliever be affected if he or she walked into a service where believers not only genuinely praised God but also wrestled with the reality of pain in our world? Would the charge of hypocrisy begin to crumble in light of a church that engages not only in thanksgiving but also in a ready acknowledgement of our own sinfulness? Perhaps those in our neighborhoods would be drawn to a Christianity that does not gloss over suffering but honestly deals with it in God’s grace. Worship that reflects the emotional breadth and depth of the Psalms not only pleases God but acts as a tool of His mission.
Hallmark movies may give us a temporary emotional high, but stories that truthfully wrestle with real love and heartache engage us in a much deeper way. Consider our own story with God. Sinful humanity spurns His unconditional love. Jesus displays patience and sacrifice to win His bride. Yet we constantly betray Him, hurting ourselves and others. He constantly pours out his passionate grace on us, and we respond in love and commitment. Though our fallenness keeps us from full communion with Him now, we hold dear the hope of a perfect existence for eternity together. Would God help us to tell this story in our worship with the same breadth and depth of emotion that we see in His Word. Would He use our singing to change the church and our world.