Thinking Out Loud

January 7, 2018

Worshiping a Generic ‘God’ vs. Worshiping Jesus

On Thursday we looked at the trend in vertical worship and how it has moved us away from songs of testimony and songs of proclamation. I ended with the question,

In your church, do you think there is thought given to the horizontal-vertical dichotomy? Or the distinction between “I” and “we”?

which produced a handful of responses both on and off the blog.

One of these was from Kaybee, a freelance writer herself, former missionary, longtime reader here, and personal friend of ours. (I hoped we could catch her between assignments so that she could flesh out her comment in greater detail but that will have to wait!) She wrote,

Not an answer to your question – but I have always felt it important to specify in hymns and songs just exactly which God we are worshiping. In our multicultural age/society, where multiples of ‘gods’ are worshiped, it’s quite conceivable for someone of another faith/religion to come into our church for the first time just as we are singing a song with no mention of the name of Jesus, only ‘God.’ Jesus may be implied, but that’s not sufficient for those who don’t know Him. They need to know that the song’s message applies to Jesus, the Saviour. They need to know it is Jesus we are worshiping, not just any god. Out of your list of 12 hymns/songs – so inspiring for those of us who know Him and love Him – if my calculations are correct, 9 do not explicitly mention Jesus’ name.

I had not given this much thought. What distinguishes the music at our gatherings from something that could be sung at a Unitarian service? (I’ve been to one; they did sing.)

My wife Ruth responded,

I agree to a certain extent, but as a “worship leader”, I have to embrace and acknowledge the whole personhood of the Trinity. Choosing songs that only speak of or to one of the three seems lacking. This is part of the challenge we face: touching on the multi-faceted nature of individually and corporately singing to and about an ineffable and complex God. No song is ever going to be theologically complete and no Sunday service is long enough, so it falls to the “worship leader” to choose wisely and lead well.

There’s merit in that, but I think Kaybee’s comment is addressing the times when perhaps none of the Godhead are being referenced. Besides the religious pluralism now present in Western society, why is that? I have one answer.

Where the traditional hymns had an advantage it was in the multiple verses. The more words written and then sung, the more specific the God being addressed, right?

Not always. Consider this song, pretending you just walked into the “Community Church” for the first time and as a unchurched person have no idea as to their theology and values:

O worship the King all-glorious above,
O gratefully sing his power and his love:
our shield and defender, the Ancient of Days,
pavilioned in splendor and girded with praise.

O tell of his might and sing of his grace,
whose robe is the light, whose canopy space.
His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
and dark is his path on the wings of the storm.

Your bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light;
it streams from the hills, it descends to the plain,
and sweetly distills in the dew and the rain.

Frail children of dust, and feeble as frail,
in you do we trust, nor find you to fail.
Your mercies, how tender, how firm to the end,
our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend!

O measureless Might, unchangeable Love,
whom angels delight to worship above!
Your ransomed creation, with glory ablaze,
in true adoration shall sing to your praise!

If we truly can abandon our Christian perspective for a moment, the God addressed is only clear in the context of other hymns sung at the service, and in the prayers, the scripture readings and also the sermon. By itself, it’s not entirely clear.

Even the classic How Great Thou Art is not initially clear:

O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art!

When through the woods, and forest glades I wander,
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.
When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur
And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.

Then sings my soul…

That second verse is immensely vague, don’t you think? But the piece is redeemed in the third verse,

And when I think, that God, His Son not sparing;
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.

as well as the fourth.

Think about it. I think the best way to end this for today is to repeat Kaybee’s words one more time:

…In our multicultural age/society, where multiples of ‘gods’ are worshiped, it’s quite conceivable for someone of another faith/religion to come into our church for the first time just as we are singing a song with no mention of the name of Jesus, only ‘God.’ Jesus may be implied, but that’s not sufficient for those who don’t know Him. They need to know that the song’s message applies to Jesus, the Saviour… not just any god.


Somewhat related:

When we say we begin with God, we begin with our idea of God, and our idea of God is not God. Instead, we ought to begin with God’s idea of God, and God’s idea of God is Christ.

~E. Stanley Jones


Lyrics from Hymnary.org and Sharefaith.com. Never trust the results appearing on the Google landing page for any research you’re doing; in this case O Worship The King is attributed to Chris Tomlin. (And these computers want to drive your car.)


Homework:

Make a list of your twelve to twenty favorite all time hymns and then rank them in terms of

  • vertical or horizontal
  • “I” vs. “We”
  • specificity of God worshiped
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November 11, 2014

How Things Look From the Platform

Filed under: music, worship — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:36 am

aka What the Worship Leader Sees

This is something my wife came up with four years ago. Have you ever wondered what the congregation looks like when you’re standing at the front leading? Fortunately, the ones the team notice most are the people really entering into worship; but if you look more carefully — and it’s not recommended — it probably looks like this:


February 23, 2012

An Open Letter to the Worship Team

Filed under: Church, music — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:20 am

Yes, you’ve heard some of this before, but with the weekend approaching, there are some things that can’t be said enough. It’s just so easy to fall into certain routines and patterns. Your best option is to read the whole article in context at it source, the blog of James K. A. Smith, philosophy professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI. (Now in his 8th year of blogging!)  But some of you won’t click so here’s the focal point of Smith’s open letter:

1. If we, the congregation, can’t hear ourselves, it’s not worship. Christian worship is not a concert. In a concert (a particular “form of performance”), we often expect to be overwhelmed by sound, particularly in certain styles of music. In a concert, we come to expect that weird sort of sensory deprivation that happens from sensory overload, when the pounding of the bass on our chest and the wash of music over the crowd leaves us with the rush of a certain aural vertigo. And there’s nothing wrong with concerts! It’s just that Christian worship is not a concert. Christian worship is a collective, communal, congregational practice — and the gathered sound and harmony of a congregation singing as one is integral to the practice of worship. It is a way of “performing” the reality that, in Christ, we are one body. But that requires that we actually be able to hear ourselves, and hear our sisters and brothers singing alongside us. When the amped sound of the praise band overwhelms congregational voices, we can’t hear ourselves sing — so we lose that communal aspect of the congregation and are encouraged to effectively become “private,” passive worshipers.
 
2. If we, the congregation, can’t sing along, it’s not worship. In other forms of musical performance, musicians and bands will want to improvise and “be creative,” offering new renditions and exhibiting their virtuosity with all sorts of different trills and pauses and improvisations on the received tune. Again, that can be a delightful aspect of a concert, but in Christian worship it just means that we, the congregation, can’t sing along. And so your virtuosity gives rise to our passivity; your creativity simply encourages our silence. And while you may be worshiping with your creativity, the same creativity actually shuts down congregational song.
 
3. If you, the praise band, are the center of attention, it’s not worship. I know it’s generally not your fault that we’ve put you at the front of the church. And I know you want to model worship for us to imitate. But because we’ve encouraged you to basically import forms of performance from the concert venue into the sanctuary, we might not realize that we’ve also unwittingly encouraged a sense that you are the center of attention. And when your performance becomes a display of your virtuosity — even with the best of intentions — it’s difficult to counter the temptation to make the praise band the focus of our attention. When the praise band goes into long riffs that you might intend as “offerings to God,” we the congregation become utterly passive, and because we’ve adopted habits of relating to music from the Grammys and the concert venue, we unwittingly make you the center of attention. I wonder if there might be some intentional reflection on placement (to the side? leading from behind?) and performance that might help us counter these habits we bring with us to worship.

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