It recently occurred to me that 95% of modern worship music is about God or about me. We largely sing about who God is (“Good Good Father”), what God has done for me (“This is Amazing Grace”), and what I’m going to do for God (“The Stand”). I affirm all three of these postures as deeply good and necessary.
However, Jesus didn’t only teach about God and me. Much of Jesus’ teachings were about how we treat one another and how we treat “the other.” In fact, Jesus directly tied our love for God to our love for others, and directly linked God’s forgiveness for us with our forgiveness of others. (Matt 6:15) Notice how much of his most famous sermon (on the mount) explores how we treat those inside and outside of our community, rather than our own relationship with God. We find this all over the scriptures (the laws of Moses, Paul’s letters, etc). God seems intent on creating a holy people, not just billions of holy individuals. Much of what it means to follow God in the way of Christ has to do with how we treat each other. Much of what it means to follow God in the way of Christ has to do with how we treat each other. Click To Tweet
Yet we come together each Sunday and sing individualistic songs to our personal God. We all stand facing the same way (rather than toward each other), dim the lights (so we’re not distracted by seeing each other), and have a deeply personal, one-on-one experience with our Creator.
Just to be clear, I don’t think this is a bad practice. It’s not wrong…just maybe a bit out of balance. And an unbalanced practice of worship will form us into unbalanced people. Or more specifically: An overly individualistic approach to worship will form overly individualistic people. And even though the teachings of our scriptures are bent toward what God is doing in us–the people of God—for the sake of the world, this holistic message can’t compete with our powerfully individualized medium. An unbalanced practice of worship will form us into unbalanced people. Click To Tweet [If you want to explore how worship forms us into certain kinds of people, I HIGHLY recommend ““Discover the Mystery of Faith” by Glenn Packiam, and “Desiring the Kingdom” by James K A Smith.]
There are many different ways to flesh this out, of course, but may I offer a simple practice for pastors and worship leaders? At the end of each month, look at every song, reading, prayer, and practice in your services and ask:
(1) Did we worship God for who God is?
(2) Did we help people express their personal love/devotion to God?
(3) Did we empower our community to speak to each other
with psalms, hymns, & spiritual songs?
(4) Did the worship open our hearts (and lives) to those outside of our tribe?
God, me, us, everyone.
First, our worship must begin with and be grounded in the character of God. What is God like and how does God interact with the world? A robust view of God gives us more robust reasons to worship, trust and follow Him, so this is crucially important. What aspects of God’s character does your community embrace and celebrate well? And what aspects of God does your community need to explore more deeply?
Second, we need to help people express their personal love and devotion to God. I’ve found that this often happens best in the silence and space. Since no single song can fully express what every single person in the room is experiencing at that moment, I almost always stop at one point to say “I’m not sure what you need to say to God right now, but please take the next minute to talk to God in your own words.” And then I play the piano quietly as people pray. We are continuously moved to see what God does when we leaders get out of the way and people are encouraged to personalize their worship. We must find ways to help worshipers sing to and on behalf of each other. Click To Tweet
Third, if we are a worshiping community (rather than a group of worshiping individuals), we must find ways to help the worshipers sing to and on behalf of each other. Paul calls this “speaking to each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” The traditional liturgy does this beautifully in many ways: corporate prayers, antiphonic readings, the passing of the peace, etc. But this a real challenge for our highly individualized Evangelical communities. For so long, we’ve been told to “sing like it’s just you and God.” And so we have. But there are ways to connect to each other in worship. First, making space for people to share stories is powerful. Whether it’s an “open mic” approach, or prepared testimony, stories can be a huge gift. Second, every time the worship team pulls back so the community can hear each other sing, a sense of WE is built. This sounds like a simple thing, but it’s a powerful reminder that we’re all in it together.
Finally, our worship practices must open our hearts (and lives) to those outside of our tribe. John Robinson states powerfully in Honest to God:
The test of worship is how far it makes us more sensitive to “the Beyond in our midst”, to the Christ in the hungry, naked, homeless, and the prisoner. Only if we are more likely to recognize Him there after attending an act of worship is that worship Christian rather than a piece of religiosity in Christian dress.
Whoa. This messes with me. And it challenges us to always frame our worship experience (1) Inside the grand story of what God is doing in human history, and (2) In context of a beautiful and broken world that God loves so dearly. This can happen through songs about God’s love for the whole world (which are unfortunately hard to find), praying for current events, worshiping with those outside our tribe, and hearing stories from people involved with the poor and oppressed among us. My friend Kellye Fabian created a fantastic practice called “praying through photos.” She finds 6 online photos from that week that capture the pain and need in our world (usually 3 local and 3 global), and leads our community in a time of prayer for the deeply loved son or daughter in each photo. Whether focused on Syria, Paris, Chicago, or Palestine, this has been a profoundly shaping worship practice.
If you’re not a worship leader, these questions can still be helpful. Your church is probably strong in a couple of these areas and weak in others, which will form you in a similar way. How do you need to supplement and expand your own worship practice? What other voices and traditions can you learn from and be lead by? How can you receive the profound strengths of your church tradition, and also build on it?
God, me, us, everyone.