Does our worship lack a realistic edge? John Sweetman’s thoughts (page 6, The qb June 2012).
I have written quite a few articles on worship recently. This is mainly because I am teaching a unit on worship at the moment and am thinking constantly about it. The unit finishes at the end of semester one and I promise that I will move on to other issues.
This is a new concept (to me at least) that I am still working through. But my thesis is that no matter what we say about our understanding of God and the gospel, our worship inevitably preaches our true perspective in an unmistakeable way that worshippers will grasp at a deep level.
Feel free to disagree, but my hunch is that if the messages of our preaching and worship are not congruent, worshippers will believe the message of our worship rather than the content of our preaching. If this thesis is true, the nature of our worship is absolutely vital to the gospel we preach and the theology and values we present.
In 386 BCE Aristotle supposedly wrote, ‘You take control of the government, education and religion. Give me control of the music and I will control the destiny of the nation’ (Dennis Prince 2008, p. 16).
I will try to offer a few brief historical examples of this theory and then look at the gospel that our contemporary worship may be conveying.
Late medieval worship saw the priests taking over all the holy worship actions and the congregation resigned basically to the role of observers. The service in Latin revolved around the Table (altar) with the re-sacrifice of Christ in the elements and actions of communion ateach mass. The gospel portrayed in this worship was that of a holy, angry God who was distant from sinful man but who could be appeased by the actions of special, holy people (the priests) who worshipped and acted on behalf of the congregation. People could receive the sacrifice of Christ on their behalf and be saved, but they were mainly excluded from a personal relationship with God and had little incentive to grow in God.
The worship in the camp meetings on the American frontier was moving and challenging. After some stirring singing, a dynamic preacher would present the gospel and call for repentance and commitment (often with a good deal of emotional manipulation). The gospel encapsulated by this form of worship was a ‘four spiritual laws’ gospel. People were sinners and needed Jesus to save them so that they could go to heaven. Passion for God and burden for the lost were prized (often resulting in revival), but the worship placed little emphasis on Christian thinking and service. Going to heaven, avoiding hell,and passion for Jesus was what really mattered.
The traditional Pentecostal worship of the 20th century encouraged a powerful spiritual experience of God in worship and provided the opportunity to enjoy the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit through the exercise of spiritual gifts. The gospel presented through the worship was that of a powerful, immanent, intervening God who wants to fill Christians, give them victory over Satan and empower their lives. Salvation was more about Spirit power and victory than forgiveness and security.
So what gospel are we presentingthrough contemporary worship in Queensland Baptist churches? Here are some tentative thoughts. This is a difficult exercise because every church has different emphases, but consider my ideas and see whether you think they may apply to the gospel presented in your worship services. I’m mainly reflecting on the worship led by the worship leader. Different themes may emerge in Communion, pastoral prayers and other parts of the service.
- God is powerful and incredible. He created the world and he continues to work in his creation. We really praise him for his magnificent greatness.
- God is a good, approachable person who loves us deeply and wants the best for our lives. He is like a friend who you can talk with at any time and in any way. He enjoys a good joke and is not too high and mighty. He deserves our praise because he is working in our lives.
- Jesus died for us so that we can have a personal relationship with God. We deeply appreciate what Jesus has done on the cross because through him we will be right with God forever. Jesus is great and we really love him.
- Sin is not a huge issue for us now. Our sin has already been dealt with by Jesus. The important thing is to keep on loving God and doing the best we can to please him and serve him and thank him.
- The Christian life involves praising God, enjoying God and living constantly for God. Everything we do is filled with God’s presence.
- It’s really good living for God. Most Christians are passionately following Jesus and are enjoying the way God fills their lives with many good things.
If my ideas are right, there are many important gospel truths that are clear in contemporary worship, especially the truths about Jesus, the significance of his death, and the need to passionately follow him. God is great. God is close and does care deeply about us. He is powerful and is working in our lives. We should be thanking him and offering ourselves to him. All this is good theology.
But perhaps this gospel presented in our worship lacks a realistic edge.We do struggle with sin. We do find it difficult to obey and follow Jesus. We are spiritually slack. We do face many disappointments and discouragements. God does not always seem caring towards us. We do struggle with doubt in God’s protection of us. Sometimes God seems far away or silent. We may need a place in worship for confession and lament.
Perhaps our worship gospel also lacks a sense of the separateness (holiness) of God. Our best anthems do move in this direction and we do frequently use the word ‘holy’ in describing God. But respect and reverence flowing from our fear of God is probably not all that prevalent in our worship. Our God is fantastic but not all that frightening.
So like the worship at any point in history, contemporary worship has its strengths and blind spots. If my thesis is correct, it is likely that our theology will have similar strengths and blind spots.
My greatest concern is that the gospel we present in contemporary worship could easily become a consumerist gospel that invites us to personally come to Jesus because he is a good, loving God who will accept us and give us lots of blessings (good things). I hope that this is not the gospel message that our worshippers are taking to heart.
John Sweetman, Principal, Malyon College, email@example.com