I love Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s vision of love — ‘Love is not just looking at each other, it’s looking in the same direction.’ Sung worship in the church context should do that.
I have been prompted to write some reflections regarding sung worship in our faith community. Some of them are based on questions that I have received from you — others just observations that I have. They are fairly practical in their content — and certainly not exhaustive. Oh, and I am unashamedly biased — writing as a pastor and not as a worship leader…
What’s our aim in sung worship?
Often people ask this question: who are our services aimed at? The believers or the visitors? My answer is both, but with a clarification. The main aim of our Sunday and small group gatherings is the edification (pastoral) of one another as disciples of Jesus and an encouragement to live for His renown (missional).
That is our main and primary focus. But we also want to encourage those who are non or new believers to see the beauty of who God is (evangelistic). The bulk of our songs should, therefore, focus on who He is and what He has done. Those songs should be presenting us with objective truths that the believers can declare.
There is room for response songs but they should most of the time follow the preaching and be a smaller percentage of the service. These songs will be subjective as not all of us feel the same things at the same time, even as believers — nevermind those who aren’t believers. Let’s try not to exclude people or make them sing false declarations.
The aim of our sung worship is both vertical: exalting and glorifying God and horizontal: encouraging discouraged believers or exhorting those who have grown apathetic.
Because our aim is congregational engagement as opposed to just personal encouragement — the songs should have a very singable anthemic musical line — probably similar to stadium gigs or sports events.
Maybe we also need to have musical segments (still pretty standard in the African American tradition) that we can listen to as the musicians and singers perform pieces that are musically more challenging in vocal range.
What sources can you use your songs from?
Another question, often asked is: how do we decide which theological pool is ‘kosher’ when it comes to worship songs origins? Do you use a song that comes from a church that has a different theological stance on some doctrinal issues than yours?
One can become black and white and only allow some streams and bar others. It’s simple but probably quite limiting. A healthier and preferred alternative for me is to think through each song individually, assessing its theological content and musical congregational suitability.
Should we sing more hymns or new songs?
Some of the old hymns have great theology and some are very confusing due to their archaic language. Some of the new songs have beautiful melodies but repetitive vague lyrics with utterly forgetful poetry.
It’s not an ‘either-or game’. Once again, it comes to individually assessing hymns and songs and using what is most suitable for our people, right here and right now. We want to maintain a link to our roots but also branch out into the future.
In our church, the gravitational pull will always be towards the past so in order to create a healthy tension — I would push for more new songs. There should always be the accountable willingness by the worship leaders to submit their new song proposals to the the Lead Pastor & Worship Director beforehand.
Ideally, local church communities should develop worshipful artists who write good (theologically, lyrically, musically) songs reflective of their church makeup (social, age, education) that will enrich the sense of contextualisation of worship.
How aware should we be in our worship of our non-believing guests?
While this is a healthy tension between authenticity and relevance — politeness dictates that we should be welcoming and accessible without feeling the need to cosmetically change everything for the sake of the visitor.
Always best to adopt the same thinking as when we have people visiting our homes. We don’t move rooms around but we make sure that people know where things are and that our environment is tidy, friendly and hospitable.
We need to be aware of language and concepts that are archaic, romantic, warfare referencing or, confusing, using theological concepts like ‘lamb of God’, ‘blood of the Lamb’, ‘in heavenly armour we’ll enter the land’. Some of those songs might be best retired and some need a simple, brief explanation — maybe anchored in a Biblical verse.
The foundations of sung worship ministry in a local church should have this values:
- be God-glorifying
- be Jesus-centered
- be Biblical
- be Spirit-empowered
- be nurturing for disciples
- be invitational to non-believers
“Worship is never a step on our way up to any other experience. It is not a door through which we pass to get anywhere. It is the end point, the goal.” John Piper