I always knew there was a more ‘traditional’ crowd that preferred hymns over worship choruses, but I kinda always figured it was an ‘older’ crowd that didn’t like the more rock and roll approach of contemporary worship. Well, I’ve recently come to find out that’s not necessarily the case. I’ve been kind of surprised to find out that plenty of people my age and younger, people who came through the contemporary/modern worship boom of the 90’s, people that do listen to plenty of contemporary pop and/or rock music, that strongly prefer more traditional worship over contemporary…and not just prefer it, but actually detest a lot of contemporary/modern worship…and not just because of musical style/genre preferences. A lot of people insist that contemporary worship songs are just too syrupy and feelings based…that they don’t contain enough deep theology and biblical truth. They often especially despise the implications of romance in the song lyrics. Because of these differences in preferences of worship music, material, style, and lyrical content, the modern church is finding itself in the middle of what has come to be known as, the “worship wars”.
Of course, this is a bit hard for me to take, because one of my greatest desires for us as Christians and The Body of Christ/Kingdom of God, is for unity. In addition to that, the relational, emotional, and even romantically metaphorical side of worship is what I relate to most. I’ve found myself getting defensive and overactive, thinking that people are dismissing the kind of worship music that resonates with me. Coming from a charismatic background, I’ve been accustomed to choruses since the mid 80’s…but it wasn’t until I discovered some Christian alternative artists that wrote lyrics that seemed to combine a sense of romance with intimate worship and spiritual exchange, that I started to feel truly connected to worshiping. And as my passion for worship has grown over the years, I have always found the relational elements of worship and spiritual exchange to be what most effectively connects me to the Holy Spirit and a true sense of worship.
In trying to understand worship better, I became familiar with Jesus’ words “But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him.” As I pondered what it could mean to worship “in spirit and in truth”, I felt those words could apply to our current “worship wars”. The context of that scripture is when Jesus is talking to the woman at the well…discussing how the Samaritans would worship on a local mountain, while the Jews insisted that worship must happen in Jerusalem. Jesus tells her that the Samaritans worship what they do not know, while the Jews know what they are worshiping. I found that interesting…clearly the Samaritans knew there was something worth worshiping, otherwise why would they bother to worship? Yet, Jesus says that they don’t know what they worship. So, they knew of God, but they didn’t KNOW God…kind of like the difference of knowing someone as an acquaintance, versus truly knowing someone intimately as a friend or loved one. Jesus goes on to say that “God is spirit, and His worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”…I think what He is saying is that the only way to truly KNOW God adequately enough for true worship, is to know Him “in the spirit”. So, maybe it could be said that the Samaritans were worshiping in truth…knowing the truth that there was a God worth worshiping…but not truly worshiping as intimately as they should be…maybe not worshiping in spirit.
I remember a time when we used to use the phrase “Praise and Worship” to talk about worship music. It sorta seemed like there was a bit of a difference between the music we considered “praise” versus what we considered “worship”. On the surface, (or at least for my young, simple mind) it seemed like the “praise” songs were the more uptempo, almost rocking songs…while the “worship” songs were the quieter, slower, ballad like songs. But what real difference between the two might exist? The word “worship” is defined as a noun as “the reverent love and devotion accorded a deity (god), an idol, or a sacred object” or “enthusiastic or passionate devotion; adoration”…and as a verb it’s “to honor and love as a deity” or “to regard with enthusiastic or passionate or adoring esteem or devotion”…it comes from two Old English words that basically mean “worth-ship”. In contrast, “praise” is defined “to express approval or admiration of; commend” or “to proclaim or describe the glorious attributes of (a deity) with homage and thanksgiving” So, it seems to me, that praise is expressing admiration, or proclaiming God’s positive attributes or ‘worth-ship’, while “worship” seems to be the admiration/devotion/love itself, seems more relational in nature. Maybe, it could be said that to praise, is to proclaim the positive truths of God, while worship is the internal, intimate recognition of God’s goodness and Glory. Maybe, the word “praise” represents worshiping in truth, while what we refer to as the “worship” songs might represent worshiping in spirit.
In Romans, Paul writes “You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.” and then a few verses later, “For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,” That last verse is one that my pastor uses quite frequently to discuss the idea of spiritual exchange between God’s Holy Spirit and our spirit. I find these scriptures useful in the context of worship, because I see Paul describing a scenario where God’s Spirit speaks to our spirit, to reveal to us that we are His children and His love for us…and in reaction to this spiritual exchange/revelation, we cry out “Abba Father”. This is what I see as worshiping in spirit.
Often, this spiritual exchange, must be initiated by us. In Chapter 12 of Romans, Paul says “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” That concept of being a living sacrifice as a spiritual service of worship, reminds me of the old praise and worship chorus “We bring the sacrifice of praise into the House of the Lord. And we offer up to You, the sacrifices of Thanksgiving…and we offer up to You, the sacrifices of Joy”. That last line is interesting…”the sacrifices of joy”. How could “joy” be a sacrifice? Shouldn’t joy be something we willingly experience or give instead of consider “sacrifice”? Well, sometimes, we just don’t naturally feel joy…we might feel pain or sorrow or anger or discouragement…any number of things other than joy at any given moment. But we are called to always be joyful and to always be praising…so sometimes, when we don’t feel like it, we have to make that sacrifice and proclaim joy that we’re not feeling at the moment. So, that’s when we offer up a sacrifice of praise. We make it a point to proclaim the ‘worth-ship’, glory, and positive attributes of God, despite whatever negativity we might be feeling at the moment. As we give that sacrifice of praise, God’s Spirit bears witness with our spirit, to express His love and admiration for us as His children…and in response to His Spirit sharing those things to us, we begin to ‘feel’ the praise we are are lifting up…our spirit recognizes the truth that we are proclaiming…and THAT is when true worship takes place. I believe that true worship, is a 2 way exchange between us and God…that as we offer up our praise and acknowledge His truth, His Spirit returns that truth to us, and we can actually experience and ‘feel’ that truth at an intimate level.
But what does this have to do with worship wars??
Well, as I see it, Jesus is saying that we need both worship in truth and worship in spirit in order to fulfill true worship. So in other words, I think that it is quite appropriate, and maybe even a little necessary, to use ‘praise’ music that proclaims the truths of God, as well as ‘worship’ songs that reflect the more relational and emotional effects and spiritual exchange of praising and worshiping.
One of the biggest arguments against contemporary/modern worship choruses, especially concerning lyrical content, is that it typically focuses too much on self and not enough on God…uses way too many “I” and “me” pronouns…that instead of addressing and proclaiming the deep theological truths about God and His Majesty and Glory, it merely talks about how God makes me feel or what He does for me. First of all, I would say that anyone making that argument, hasn’t really done much searching through worship chorus catalogs, because even though there is a lot emotional and relational/semi-romantic lyrical content in a lot of the songs, there are many songs that do indeed proclaim more about God and less about ‘me’. But besides that, I think that insisting that church/congregational worship is supposed to only be about proclaiming praises and truths about God, is missing out on the essential element of what I believe is worshiping in spirit. If you read the Psalms, you can see David and the other writers, frequently reflecting on their emotional and relational worship to God. Yes, those writers wrote and boldly proclaimed the positive attributes and ‘worth-ship’ of God…but they went on to reflect their emotional and relational reactions to those praises. And as for taking issue with romantic metaphors and language in worship, King Solomon did that quite extensively in the Song of Songs, and The Church is often referred to as The Bride of Christ, referring to marital relationship as an allegory of our relationship to Christ…so I fail to see why that would be inappropriate to sing about in the context of church and congregational worship.
So, here’s what I have come to think. I think that proclaiming the deep theological truths, in the context of congregational worship, is an important thing. I see that as fulfilling what Jesus referred to as worshiping in truth. But I also believe that reflecting on and singing about our emotional and relational response to the spiritual exchange, i.e. worshiping in spirit, is just as appropriate and important in collective/corporate worship. If we insist on having the kinds of deep theological truths that traditional hymns provide, then we must also insist on including the kinds of emotional and relational reflection that the contemporary worship choruses provide. Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t any hymns that provide that kind of worship in spirit reflection, (in fact, one of my absolute favorite classic hymns, also one of the most criticized hymns for its lyrical focus, is In The Garden, which is a perfect example of reflecting on that emotional/relational spiritual exchange), and as I claimed earlier, there are contemporary choruses that proclaim the truths and ‘worth-ship’ of God.
Most importantly, this brings me to the conclusion that not only is there room for both the deep theological truths of more ‘traditional’ hymns as well as the more emotional and relational elements of contemporary/modern worship, but I would argue that we need both elements in order to be fulfilling what Jesus said was true worship. To dismiss contemporary worship choruses simply because the lyrical content is too touchy feely or romantic sounding, seems to go against what Jesus is describing, as well as what is considered to be some of the most worshipful books of the Bible.
Now, if it is a matter of a musical style/genre/sound preference, that’s a whole different discussion…and trust me, I’ve heard plenty of arguments why Christians shouldn’t be involved with or exposed to ‘rock music’ over the years…