Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Worship and praise

Picking up on some thoughts from last time, I'd like to explore some of the developing situations I see in current "worship music" trends - both for good and for ill.

First and foremost, I think it's important to note that worship and praise are not synonymous in their usages in Scripture, however much they have become interchangeable in evangelical circles. Even in the dictionary, the definitions differ in important ways.
Worship: reverent honor and homage paid to God or a sacred personage, or to any object regarded as sacred. (

1. the act of expressing approval or admiration; commendation; laudation.
2. the offering of grateful homage in words or song, as an act of worship. (

Looking at the approach through Scripture, we note a distinction between praise and worship that complements these definitions. Worship is a heart attitude of reverence and awe directed toward God. It is frequently accompanied in Scripture by bowing of the head or body. Praise, by contrast, is verbal proclamation of the glorious attributes of God. What we frequently call "worship music" is more accurately called "praise music," and worship itself is a practice all too frequently neglected. (Remedying that is something I plan to address in a future post.)

Our praise music today is a subject of considerable controversy throughout evangelical circles (and the more so when one is on the edge of evangelicalism, as in the case of "low liturgical" churches). Older members of the congregation tend to prefer older styles of music, some even to the point of rejecting any that includes a guitar. On the other end of the spectrum are those - usually younger - who want little to do with hymns or organs and prefer their music louder and with a stronger rock sound. Some churches have dealt with the situation by splitting their services, others by attempting to incorporate both styles into the equation. Ultimately, both camps need to compromise and meet each other in the middle, realizing that God is far less concerned with style - which has varied drastically over the ages - than He is with our hearts: whether our praise is delivered with an attitude of worship.

Far more important than style is the content of our songs. If I have noticed one particular problem with the songs being written and sung in popular Christian praise music today, it is this: that there are far too many songs written about us and far too few written about God. Over and over again, I have seen songs that had immense potential to glorify God, and turned instead to focus on our feelings, our desires, even our response to God. But our feelings, desires, and even response to God are not the point of praise: exclaiming the greatness of God is. To be certain, there is a place for calling out our own feelings in song before God - the psalmists did so frequently. Ultimately, however, even those declamations must turn to true praise. Over and over in the psalms, an author will proclaim the injustices done to him, the travails of his heart, and so on: but always they conclude with the glories and greatness of God, not with their own feelings. Unfortunately, even songs that by and large are God-centric have a bad tendency to turn back to us at the end. This self-centeredness and egoism are immensely detrimental to our praise and inhibit us from truly worshiping even outside the context of praise. I sincerely hope (and I believe it is and will continue to happen) that songwriters will increasingly focus on God and not on man. Insofar as we are a partial focus of the songs, it ought to be such that our hearts in the end are turned back to God. Not all worship occurs in the context of praise, but all praise ought to be worshipful - and so we must be careful who we are worshiping: ourselves, or God.

Nonetheless, it is worth being attentive to style as well as content. Worship must be reverent, filled with awe of God. If we wish our praise to be worshipful - as it ought to be - then we must be careful in how we write the music with which we are praising Him. While I do not believe that the classic hymns are all perfect, they are often more reverent in lyrical content than our new praise music, and as such are worth preserving and relishing. There are several reasons for this: first, all hymns once had to be approved by a committee of theologians before inclusion in the hymnal, at least hypothetically assuring their theological conformity to Scripture; and second, the hymns we regularly sing today are those that have survived the test of time.

Stylistically, I think hymns may also more readily lend themselves to attitudes of reverence and awe in our times of praise. Note: I do not believe that the melodic and harmonic content is inherently more reverent (to the contrary, in some cases! - some of our greatest hymns were intentionally set to bar songs' melodies to catch people's ears). However, in our cultural context, they have a grander sound to them, and a sense of age and majesty associated with them that often helps our minds shift into a more reverential mode. I do not think that a rock band is by dint of character necessarily less reverent than a choir and organ: but the latter may have a power to suggest reverence in our minds more readily than the former, and that is no triviality.

(Tangentially related is another concern: that for many "worship bands," playing in front of the congregation can all too easily become just another gig. It is hard work to not merely play well but to worship well while bringing praise before God: and to lead others in truly worshiping is harder still. I pray often for the band at Paradigm and at the church God calls me to attend, that as well as working to achieve technical excellence, they would be attentive to the Holy Spirit and themselves worshiping in spirit and in truth. This is an area in which we all must strive to improve!)

Worship, beyond praise, ought to fill every moment of our lives. We ought to be living our lives in a worshipful way: that is, living in a way that is reverential and filled with awe of God and all He has done and all He is. On that theme I will be spending much time over the next weeks! I pray that we all seek to worship God with everything in us: that His glory will become our greatest desire and the praise of His name our great goal in life.

- Chris


Jessica said...

It would be good to also note (not to undermine your writing, but to add to it) that our public worship should be a spillover from our private worship, not a whole new event. I'm sure you'll touch on it; you elluded to it when you spoke of worship being an attitude and the need to have a life of reverence.
Too often, with modern schedules, we live life as a to-do list. Worship becomes item #3 and we check it off and then we're done and run off to item #4. We don't take time to absorb the reality of the relationship that we have with the Creator of the Universe, the Saviour of our souls. It should be an attitude that consumes our lives and you are very right, for too many of us, it isn't.

Anthony Plopper said...

As I'm sure you know from conversations we've had, I agree with you on this. As a composer, and as a person interested in leading worship, I have to pay attention to these issues.

It is SO important to have good words set to a melody that facilitates worship. And yes, there are technical things that can be done to minimize distraction and focus the worshiper. As you said, though, the intent should always be worship, not technical or stylistic excellence. Good post!

Brian Biggs said...

I'll make this simple: the body needs organs! No, but seriously, I agree with you.

Also, many songs these days treat and phrase our relationship with God as if it were a romantic one. Granted, we are the bride of Christ; but as a whole, not individually. And more and more I find these songs to be creepy.

You and Anthony should write good, reverent, biblical, worshipful songs. I like those kind. You two should also continue to write good posts!

OneoftheServens said...

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