Reflections on Musical Worship

Throughout Christian history, the way we worship God has changed enormously. Many of these changes have taken place due to the influence of surrounding cultures, which is not necessarily a bad thing. However, I’ve recently been reflecting on which aspects of our culture are influencing the way we worship God, and I’m growing more and more concerned by the influence of consumerism.

Over the last weekend I had the privilege of worshipping God in four very different ways:

The first was choral Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral on Saturday.

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The interior struck the fear of God into my heart, leaving a profound sense of awe that stayed with me throughout the service.

The angelic voices of the choir seemed to lift the congregants into a transcendent reality, and the golden ceiling gave us a glimpse of the beauty of heaven. If one thinks this scene was magnificent, one can barely imagine what it will be like to one day walk in the City of God, where the streets are paved with gold and the ocean is like glass.

The experience significantly lifted my spirits: I had walked in feeling bogged down and gloomy, but I left with a fresh appreciation for God’s beauty and holiness.

 

 

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The second was a child-friendly service on Sunday morning, involving “action songs” led by someone dressed in a bear costume.

Did it feel “holy”? No.

Did I have some kind of profound revelation? Not really.

Do I enjoy doing actions to up-beat worship music? Nope.

 

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The third took place later that evening. It was a semi-spontaneous session with my vicar, a worship pastor, and eight other people who mostly come from a Pentecostal/Charismatic background.

It had everything a good “Spirit-filled” worship session ought to have: an acoustic  guitar, singing in tongues, occasional wailing, intercessory prayer, visions and words of knowledge, foot-stomping, raised hands, scrunched up faces, you name it. It had just the right amount of touchy-feely vibes to make me feel like I’d had an encounter with God, and I was tired enough afterwards to feel like I’d somehow given him something.

 

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This leads me to the fourth, which I admit is a rather generous use of the term “worship”. In a nutshell, I napped on my sofa while listening to playlist of worship songs on Spotify. In Charismatic circles we often refer to this as “soaking.”

Given that I was utterly exhausted, I think it is no surprise that this was by far my favourite way of getting into the presence of God.

I finished the weekend feeling fluffy and “spiritual”. I’d picked and chosen which aspects of each service I had liked, and fell asleep pondering all the nice things I’d felt during each of the different worship experiences.

Now, if you’re not angry or offended by the way I just reviewed each worship style, you should be. Worship was never meant to be a tapas menu. It’s an offering.

I argue that the plethora of options available to us when it comes to styles of worship has turned it into a consumer-orientated marketplace rather than a sacrificial offering to the Lord. 

As consumers, we now have the power to choose how we worship. We can pick what songs inspire us to raise our hands or sing in a piercing falsetto. We can choose which services to attend. We can create our own playlists at home based on which songs make us feel like that first time we ever heard Oceans. Most of us have a favourite worship leader that we follow on Instagram.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe it is important that people across the denominational spectrum feel like they can be themselves when they come before God. I also believe it is important to be picky when it comes the theological statements made in the lyrics. However, my problem is that the variety of styles of Christian worship on offer are being treated as though they were products for our consumption. This turns our focus back to ourselves: worship is now about how I feel.

Something God has been challenging me with is my ability (or perhaps inability) to give him an offering of worship in all circumstances. In order to do this, I need to surrender my denominational snobbery and give God his due, regardless of my feelings.

Action songs led by a bear may not be my cup of tea, but Jesus had a lot to say about the faith of little children. If we are instructed to learn from kids, then perhaps I ought to watch their enthusiasm with each song and do likewise? Bringing children into the service to worship alongside the adults is probably a genius idea.

Similarly, I am not used to high church. But I have to admit that Evensong at St Paul’s is the most Bible-orientated way I worshipped this weekend. Every song was a Psalm. Every piece of liturgy was straight out of the New Testament. Christian worship has been offered to God on that site for over 1400 years. Perhaps joining in with this tradition is not about me after all?

If we think worshipping God is always supposed to feel a certain way, then I think we are profoundly mistaken. Sometimes it is indeed a life-changing emotional experience. Other times it feels like boring same-old-same-old. My point is that God is glorious, regardless of how we feel.

Our subjective perception of life ought not be the thing that governs the way we offer worship to the Lord. Worshipping the Lord ought to be what governs our perception of reality.

Let’s stop kidding ourselves.

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