The problem of worship

Every so often there appears an article lamenting the state of contemporary worship. One came across my desk last week with the usual complaints about trite songs, too much showmanship, a lack of congregational involvement, keys being too high, and so on. As a worship leader myself who recognises all these things, all such articles do is make us all feel more guilty—participants for not joining in more, leaders for doing a bad job.

To give some perspective: I have led worship at major events in the UK (with a couple of thousand people) as well as for small home groups. Here in the beautiful city of Prague I lead worship in a small church occasionally, and (for twenty years or more) have been teaching on the subject of worship and Christian creativity. I would like to suggest a few thoughts to ponder.

First, that shortcomings in corporate worship are not causal but symptomatic. In other words, high keys and trite lyrics etc. etc. no doubt contribute to the lack of buy-in from the congregation, but if the average church punter wanted to join in, there is nothing really to stop her. I suggest that rather the issue is ‘spiritual’, mental and, above all, cultural.

In some settings, getting people to sing together is like squeezing blood from a stone.  I sometimes lead from the floor, to one side, to ‘get out of the way’; I choose simple songs; I give people space to join in, and so on, but often people still sit there like lemons, somewhat—or so it seems—embarrassed at the whole exercise.

One issue is clearly that community singing, as such, is no longer a cultural expression—at least among the majority of Western Europeans. I grew up singing folk songs in my local pub-based folk club, singing lustily to Reformed hymns, and sometimes singing (in harmony with my bearded folkie friends) while washing up (my sister still hums constantly—it runs in the family). This would appear weird to the average teenager today.

[And by the way—a brief aside—many of those Reformed hymns were pretty desperate, but I was grateful for whatever musical input I could get. To nostalgically look back to the ‘good old hymns’ might be misguided. Scotland in the 1850s was described as a country with ‘the best singing in its cottages and the worst singing in its churches of any country in the world’, and Nietzsche remarked (not that he could be considered in any way unbiased), ‘better songs would they have to sing to make me believe in their redeemer’. (In Nietzsche’s case, I don’t think any song would have impressed him.)

These days, in our wider everyday environment, we settle for ubiquitous computer-based background ‘music’ that pulses obediently in time with the internal clock: the irony is that music is marginalised, devalued, by its own pervasiveness, and has become a background noise. Add to this the constant use of auto-tuners and you have ‘music’ (including vocals) that is perfectly in tune and in time, most with even triter lyrics than the average worship song. The ‘perfect’ expression of expressionlessness.

I sincerely believe that, like an inoculation, this drip-feed of noise has anaesthetised us to the beauty and power of real music. Of course there is the other side of the coin—the amazing Beethoven symphony, The Rock Mass (shameless marketing) or Peter Gabriel gig (or a Dylan who appears to be running short of cash and needs to raise a few pennies) — but these are professional shows we watch, just as we now contemplate art in a museum. Grass-roots community song is now alien to many.

Be that as it may, I suggest there are even deeper issues—two issues to do with psychology.

The first is this: that when you open your mouth to sing, you are making yourself vulnerable. Many people are simply unable to sing because they live in a self-centred world of fear—fear of being noticed, and fearful that if what is inside comes out, it will not be acceptable—to God, or to those around them. The lack of community singing is a symptom of this psychic fearfulness.

Secondly, the lack of engagement is a corollary of the postmodern view of the individual (as David Bentley Hart colourfully phrased it) as a ‘punctiliar psychic monad’. It is not that community singing is alien to us, but that community is alien to us. To phrase this theologically: in the church, we take bread and wine without ‘discerning the body’ (1 Cor.11:29).

So in many ways the poor worship leader is in a lose-lose situation: desperate to be ‘culturally relevant’ she uses modern technology as well as songs played primarily in G-major (sometimes with a capo) and is then blamed because people sit there like vegetables.

What is the solution?

Dismantling the paraphernalia surrounding the ‘performance’ can help, although from my own experience I have engaged in profound times of worship in settings where large sound systems and lights were appropriate. [Although, as another brief aside, it must be borne in mind that biblically there are three sizes of Christian (or Jewish) meeting that each require a different approach—home group, local church, and conference/festival (family, synagogue and temple): what works in a home group will not work on a big stage and vice versa. The problem is that the oxymoron of the ‘mega church’ (which aims for a ‘festival’ every week at the expense of communal expression and cannot really be called a ‘church’) is also awash with money and feels it has a duty to flood the world with its brand of triteness.] But it seems to me that we need to address this issue theologically. Let’s explore this.

Worship is, by definition, an expression of something, not its substance. And it will not do to naively say that it expresses devotion to God—rather, communal worship expresses a community’s devotion (or lack of it) to God (or, indeed, to some idol such as money). As someone often called in to help churches ‘improve’ their worship, I have realised that unless the church as a whole gets behind the ‘improvement’ project, it will not work: worship always reflects the sub-strata of social and theological bias, and if it doesn’t (like singing ‘charismatic’ songs in a high Anglican church) tension (and, normally, the dismissal of the worship leader) results. You can’t force people to express something that feels alien to them.

The problem, in short, is nothing to do with worship as such, but with some elements of the modern church — a church which has lost sight of two important things: community and grace. It is only by ‘discerning the body of Christ’—in all senses of that rich phrase which points not only to Christ’s sacrifice but to our connectedness as part of his earthly ‘body’—that worship will begin to be a genuine expression of both the community and of the individual. Secondly, a true understanding of God’s grace frees us as individuals from the self-preoccupied fear of self. We find life ‘in Christ’—an amazing place to be!

But one final thought. We live in a world which, to be frank, is a tough place to live. There is a marked disconnect between trite Sunday songs which declare that God is in control, that God is good, and the reality of quotidian life. The world is not only escalating towards, at minimum, another world war, but mass communication immerses us daily in depravity, rubbing salt into the wound. Until we become thirsty for the real gospel, and live it both in our personal lives and in our communities, there is no hope for ‘worship’.

But I refuse to let the negative have the last word. Here in the beautiful city of Prague many across the city are choosing the costly option of living as a worshipper: some, for example, doing their best to help those fleeing from Syria, others ministering to the homeless, offering support for marriages, or lobbying government—or simply living as an ‘ordinary’ believer. Here, in one of the supposedly most godless nations of the world, grace is alive and well. Why do I say this? Because portraying worship solely in terms of the devotional dimension is misguided: in the Bible ‘worship’ is always described in terms of both devotion and service (google ‘worship’ and ‘serve’ and you’ll see what I mean) —l ifestyle, in other words. We do not come to church to worship; we come to church because we are worshippers.

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