The Problem With Our Critique of Modern Worship, Pt. 1

What are the repeated critiques you hear about modern worship?

It is so noisy.

And why is every bridge a monosyllabic chant? (eg. ‘whoa…oh oh…)

It looks too much like a concert.

The songs are so repetitive.

It’s too much about ‘me’.

I am sure there are more, but let’s just take these five. I will focus on the first three in this post, and on the last two in the next installment.

First, the critique of noise and the use of non-sensical, monosyllabic words.
I have combined the first two because both find very interesting parallels in ancient Israelite worship. Fuller Seminary’s Old Testament professor John Goldingay writes:

‘The onomatopoeic verb most commonly translated “praise”, halal…which lies behind that noun tehilla, suggests that praising means saying lalalala. The derived expression “hallelujah” is thus an [eruption] combining this verb with the short form of the name of Yhwh…’

Wait…so ancient Israelite praise was often an eruption of repetitive monosyllabic sounds? It gets better. Goldingay continues:

‘Alongside the formlessness of shouting and ululating that expresses the untamed and undomesticated fervor of praise is the form and order or music that also enhances praise as it channels and thus enhances that fervor…’

And what sort of musical accompaniment ‘enhances that fervor’? Why, a rhythmic noisiness, of course.

‘The key musical aspect to Israel’s praise is rhythm. We have little evidence of melody or harmony in Israelite music; the musical aspect to worship would likely not strike a Western person as very musical at all…

The function and nature of sound would thus resemble those of the crowd at a football game or the work of a rapper more than those of regular Christian worship.’

The parallels with ancient Israelite worship are not insignificant or incidental. I grew up in non-denominational, Pentecostal/Charismatic churches, and almost every teaching on worship I heard was rooted in the Old Testament: patterns of the Tabernacle of David and the Temple of Solomon, the stories about the Ark of the Covenant, the Hebrew words for praise, the Psalms, and on and on. This is not to say that there was no reflection given to what makes worship Christian. We understood how the three symbols/figures central to Israelite worship– temple, priest, and sacrifice– are fulfilled in Christ. And what’s more, we understood (if only dimly) that what is true of Christ is true of us: because He is the temple, the priest, and the sacrifice, we have become the temple, priests, and living sacrifices. The influence of Old Testament worship texts was not set in isolation from or in opposition to the New Testament or a Christological understanding of worship.

But it was set in opposition to personal preferences or cultural norms of ‘expressiveness’ (or lack thereof) and loudness. For instance, in many non-denominational worship settings– especially those of a Pentecostal or Charismatic persuasion– the congregation is exhorted to not stay silent but to ‘make a joyful noise’ or to ‘lift up a shout of praise’. Psalm 150 is read to encourage the use of any and all instruments–and by extension, the full range of musical creativity– to ‘let everything that has breath praise the Lord!’

While Goldingay notes that in some Calvinist traditions, music that overpowers the voice is problematic (as it was for Barth), for those steeped in ancient Israelite worship, the louder the better!

Goldingay states it strongly:

‘Its systematic insistence on noisesome worship issues the Psalter’s closing exhortation to intellectual and socially activist readers of the Psalms, reminding us that sharp thinking, heartfelt sincerity, moral integrity, joyful feelings, loving commitment, willing obedience and social involvement are not the only important things in the world…’

Where does this leave us? Perhaps it should chasten us from being too hasty in condemning a certain worship style or musical approach as being ‘unbiblical’…when what we really mean is that it doesn’t fit our culturally-conditioned mode of expression. (Would it be painting with too broad a brush to suggest that Western European approaches to music in worship favor a quieter, ‘accompaniment’ approach, while Eastern– and perhaps African– approaches to music accentuate rhythm and volume?)

Next, the critique about the resemblance to a rock concert.
For those loosely familiar with my work over the past few years, you know that I have challenged the church— at times quite sharply— to work more attentively to align the visual elements of a service (lights, stage, layout…even architecture, where possible) with the verbal elements. Too often we say it’s all about Jesus while the image magnification continues to put our worship teams in focus.

So, this critique has considerable merit.

And yet, we are too careless in applying it. See a church with lights? Ah, it must be a rock show. See a band front and center? They must be ego-maniacs. Yet it is not simply the presence of a cultural form in Christian worship that matters; it is how Christians inhabit that form.

There is a parallel here in Biblical studies. When a young bible student discovers that there were Babylonian stories of a ‘Job’-like character, he may be initially dismayed. Oh no. The Bible is not true after all. It is simply borrowing well known ancient myths and reworking them. But such a conclusion would be a mistake. For it is not simply the presence of the myth that matters; it is how the Israelite storytellers ‘inhabited’ that myth— how they made it their own and re-worked it. And the differences make all the difference. With Job, it matters greatly that YHWH speaks to Job, whereas the Babylonian god, Marduk, does not. YHWH is not simply transactional, giving back what was lost; YHWH is fiercely personal.

And so in worship services, we must not be lazy and look only for similarities between a church service and a rock concert. We must also pay attention to the differences.

Here’s an example. At a recent conference our church hosted, our worship team came out to lead after a well-produced, creative and inspiring video opener. Now, the genre of conference opening sessions says, “Open big! Capitalize on the excitement! Build the momentum!” To be sure, there is nothing evil about doing that. Yet, Jon Egan—my friend and the worship pastor at New Life Church— chose to subvert the script. They came on stage unspectacularly. Jon was hidden behind the other leaders playing a floor tom drum for the first song, a mid-tempo number with no added hype.

Think more deeply: What are the other elements of the ‘rock concert’ cultural form? A front man or woman, lights (focused on the lead singer), perhaps music that capitalizes on the emotion. But you know what our team did? There were six people across the front, and the darn thing about even numbers is no one becomes the center. When Jon— surely the one in everyone’s mind who should be the leader— finally did speak, we were four songs in and in a worshipful frame of mind. And during the song that he did lead, the lights all of sudden went dim, silhouetting the band, drawing our focus further upward on God.

Now, this is simply one example. You can think of others. And it does not solve all our problems with borrowing the rock concert form. But that’s the point: there is no easy way through this— no easy critiques and no easy defenses.

We must constantly wrestle when we borrow cultural forms; we must work intentionally and attentively to let all the elements— sight and sound and action— center on Christ and proclaim the Gospel.

But such carefully work won’t be the result of cheap critiques of modern worship.

[Goldingay’s quotes are from his ‘Old Testament Theology, Volume Three: Israel’s Life’, pp. 173-175.]

READ PART TWO HERE.

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