My hus­band and I ran into some friends who are deeply frus­trat­ed with the cor­po­rate wor­ship cul­ture at their church. As younger mem­bers of the con­gre­ga­tion, they want to employ more cur­rent music. They also think it might be help­ful to turn down the lights dur­ing the singing. But they are encoun­ter­ing resistance.

As we talked I found myself flash­ing back to 1980 when I watched as a church dea­con, con­vinced rock music was of the dev­il, inter­rupt­ed our youth ser­vice with a ham­mer and destroyed the drum kit of a vis­it­ing wor­ship band. The event left no small amount of wreck­age and a last­ing impression. 

We’ve come a long way. These days the wor­ship wars are more like wor­ship skir­mish­es. But we’re still often entrenched on oppos­ing banks of gen­er­a­tional and cul­tur­al divides The tur­moil is sub­tler, but a con­gre­ga­tion’s capac­i­ty to wor­ship in com­mu­ni­ty remains as vul­ner­a­ble to destruc­tive forces as that doomed drum kit. 

There are some tricky fac­tors when it comes to the role singing plays in cor­po­rate wor­ship. Music is a pow­er­ful expres­sion of cul­ture, and cul­ture is large­ly uncon­scious­ly assumed. As a result, we spir­i­tu­al­ize our pref­er­ences believ­ing the Holy Spir­it is more able to work with­in a style we con­nect with easily 

So how do we get past the tyran­ny of pref­er­ence? How can we eval­u­ate our cor­po­rate wor­ship on the basis of some­thing oth­er than famil­iar­i­ty, asso­ci­a­tion or unex­am­ined cul­tur­al assumptions? 

What if we could tem­porar­i­ly table the ques­tions of form and style and ask our­selves what, exact­ly, is the pur­pose of our wor­ship? What if the ques­tion after each ser­vice was not, Did peo­ple like the wor­ship today?” but, Did we ful­fill our pur­pose as God’s wor­ship­pers this morn­ing?” Might that com­plete­ly move the goalposts? 

Dr. Daryl Bus­by and I once worked to craft our own list of wor­ship essen­tials for a course at ACTS Sem­i­nary. We not­ed, first, that true wor­ship is cen­tered in God’s acts in his­to­ry — it tells God’s sto­ry. After a ser­vice we might ask, Did our wor­ship help us remem­ber what God has done and is doing?” 

Sec­ond, true wor­ship is a God-ini­ti­at­ed dia­logue of rev­e­la­tion and response. A ser­vice that is all rev­e­la­tion may ren­der us too pas­sive, while a ser­vice that is all response may ren­der us self-dri­ven and exhaust­ed. So, we might ask, Was the beau­ty and won­der of God revealed to us through the read­ing, singing, preach­ing and trea­sur­ing of His Word? Were we open (per­haps even through a time of silent lis­ten­ing) to the imme­di­ate wit­ness of His Spir­it? And were there times we could respond to that rev­e­la­tion — through singing both joy­ful and sor­row­ful, through con­fes­sion and through prayer?” 

Third, true wor­ship is pro­found­ly Trini­tar­i­an and pro­found­ly Chris­to­cen­tric. If some­one print­ed out all the lyrics we’ve sung over the past month, would that per­son dis­cov­er all three per­sons of the Trin­i­ty? Would the pre-emi­nent role of Jesus as our high priest and wor­ship leader (Hebrews 10:10 – 12) came into view? 

Fourth, true wor­ship must be par­tic­i­pa­to­ry and com­mu­nal. All church­es have a litur­gy (for­mal or infor­mal), and litur­gy means the work of the peo­ple.” Wor­ship has been tru­ly com­mu­nal when the con­gre­ga­tion has done the work of telling God’s sto­ry, respond­ing to His rev­e­la­tion and mag­ni­fy­ing all three per­sons of the Trinity. 

Here is where fac­tors of form and style come into play. Dur­ing times of cor­po­rate singing, is the con­gre­ga­tion actu­al­ly singing? If not, we must sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly adjust the vari­ables (low­er or high­er keys, more or less vol­ume, lights up or lights down, new­er or old­er songs) until they do. 

When our frus­trat­ed friends said they want­ed to turn the lights down dur­ing wor­ship, I was bit­ing my tongue. In my expe­ri­ence, to do so is to sig­nal pas­siv­i­ty to the con­gre­ga­tion. And yet my daugh­ter tells me the dimmed lights at the youth ser­vices she attends reduce self-con­scious­ness and encour­age par­tic­i­pa­tion. It turns out if true wor­ship is com­mu­nal, that means it’s also contextual. 

So, what would hap­pen if our frus­trat­ed friends could sit down with their church lead­er­ship and prayer­ful­ly craft their own list of wor­ship essen­tials? Maybe then they would dis­cov­er both the free­dom and man­date to exper­i­ment over time, ham­mer­ing out — gen­tly and redemp­tive­ly — the way their par­tic­u­lar peo­ple, in their par­tic­u­lar time and place, are called to par­tic­i­pate in God’s sto­ry together.

The Worship Architect

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Faith Today, Nov/​Dec 2018.

Originally published October 2018

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