by James Pringle
Shofar Worship Leader
Warning: this blog post originated as a Facebook tirade. Thankfully, the inflamed rhetoric has been reigned in and the adjective-to-noun ratio reduced, but the conviction and urgency remain.
Reading through the Gospels, it’s not difficult to see that much of what Jesus said was counter-cultural. His wisdom turned cultural wisdom on it’s head – the greatest is the one who humbles himself like a child and the one willing to serve; to find your life you must lose it; don’t store up treasures on earth… If Matthew, Mark, Luke and John had used hashtags, #micdrop would have needed a whole page in the index. Christ wasn’t afraid to confront the status quo when it didn’t align with His Kingdom. For this reason, it’s vital that we as Christians don’t just accept the assumptions we live with, but constantly challenge our cultural beliefs with the Word of God.
There’s one main reason I wrote this article: I fear we’ve lost reverence for the Word of God as the ultimate authority, the Book with the first and final say when it comes to what corporate worship “looks like.” And if we’re willing to hold lightly to what we’ve assumed, to humbly ask the Holy Spirit to reveal God’s heart for worship to us, we may be in for a few surprises. We cannot worship God without a love for the truth of His Word. If we don’t know Who we worship as He has revealed to us in His Word, we worship a god of our own making. That is idolatry, and Scripture has a pretty clear stance on that.
So let’s be honest: when it comes to corporate worship in the modern Western church, we have a culture that is so firmly embedded, we’re mostly not even aware of it. Our church background, endless YouTube videos, blog articles (yes, like this one), websites, podcasts and more, constantly inform us as to what worship “looks like”. We feed ourselves on this constant barrage of information. On the one hand, it’s our generation’s privilege to have access to countless resources. We can stream worship services and songwriters can write songs with believers living on the other side of the globe. But on the other hand, the world trains us to become consumers, and our diet is filled with opinions. Do you see the danger? Sure, we sometimes feel uncomfortable with the concert-like worship “performances” and Christian “celebrities” (an oxymoron if there ever was one), but after a while they become the norm. When it comes to learning about corporate worship – what are we eating? What shapes our understanding of this sacred act? Is it popular opinion, or the lyrics from the latest Christian mega-band’s bestselling album?
If you’ve read this far, you may have picked up that I’ve become a bit cynical about the Christian music industry. Because in many cases that’s exactly what it is – an industry, driven and supported by many of the same pillars as the secular music industry: marketing, consumerism and profit margins. I’ve been at Christian publishing conferences where “anointing” is used as a marketing tool – each new artist announced was so “anointed” that we should promote their albums.
Before I go further, don’t get me wrong: There really are countless worship teams and bands faithfully and humbly building God’s Kingdom rather than their own – both those known only to their local congregation and those known around the world. Fame doesn’t necessarily imply compromise. In fact, it’s astonishing that God chooses some songwriters to write songs not just for the local church, but for the Church, capital “C”. Consider Chris Tomlin’s How Great is Our God – a song sung around the world in so many different languages. What a beautiful taste of what we can expect in heaven one day – every tribe and tongue singing together!
But there is a critical tension between being accessible to our culture and affirming all that’s good and godly, and challenging everything that detracts from God’s truth. Of course we must be accessible to the culture surrounding us, presenting the truth of the Gospel in a language that people can understand. However, I’m wary that we often throw discernment out the window in our desire to be relevant. We tend to trust the content of Christian music just because it comes from a Christian label, or we revere all the lyrics of a major worship-album-releasing church just because that church has a massive following on YouTube. Much of what I say in this article won’t be applicable to every culture or every generation. But we cannot ignore our culture – both the good and the bad elements. When we worship, we need to understand our blind spots so that we don’t reinforce our wrong ideas about God. For example, if we only sing and teach about God’s love in a culture of self-obsession, we’ll disciple a community of believers into an understanding that the purpose of God’s love is to serve us. The truth is it’s not. Every aspect of God’s character and attributes is always primarily concerned with one thing: His glory. Yes we may joyfully encounter, experience and rest secure in His love (and what a love it is!), but only with the understanding that He loves us for the glory of His name. Context is everything, and I fear that we’re becoming painfully inept at providing context in our worship sets.
What does this mean practically for worship teams and worship leaders? I write this as a challenge to myself as much as to anyone else. Firstly, spend time in Scripture. Every day, and not in just your favourite parts. Drink the water of the Word deeply, drink often. Approach the Word with humility and a teachable heart, honouring the Holy Spirit as the One who leads us in truth and breaks our preconceived ideas. Secondly, read trusted commentaries and books by authors whose fruit have stood the test of time. Let’s be humble enough to realise that all of us need to grow in our theology, and that requires us being intentional with our time. Thirdly, take time to evaluate the lyrics of songs against Scripture. Does the song cast any doubt on the character or works of God? Throw it out. It doesn’t matter how catchy the melody, how brilliant the arrangement, or how great your voice sounds on the octave-jump: throw it out. You don’t necessarily have to disqualify the church or the songwriter, but I urge you to be cautious. I know that songs are often open to interpretation, but most times we don’t have the luxury of explaining context to the congregation. A song lyric may not be untruthful, but it’s unhelpful to your congregation to sing it if it has to be understood in a certain context. Is there any doubt? Throw it out.
That may seem harsh, but it’s essential that we understand the responsibility we have when putting words in the mouths of worshippers, because the songs we sing shape our theology, our understanding of God. Is there anything more important than what we believe about God? Or in the words of AW Tozer – “what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” We forget sermons but we remember songs and therefore they shape our understanding of God. Allow that to sink in for a moment.
Consider the focus of worship in Scripture. Whether it’s Abraham offering Isaac, the Levites bringing sacrifices in the temple, King David’s anthems, Jesus surrendering His will in Gethsemane, or the elders in heaven casting their crowns before the throne of God: the overwhelming direction and motivation is that of every created thing humbly, joyfully, and fearfully glorifying God. We read of men, aware of their complete inadequacy without God’s grace and mercy, and God, the One to Whom all praise, all thanksgiving, all worship, all adoration is exclusively due. Without question, the God of Scripture is the centre of worship.
Now, compare this with many of the most popular songs sung in churches today. A song may address God, but the focus and theme, the primary meditation of the song, can easily be “us” or “me” – my plans, my blessing, my struggles, etc. Of course honesty and vulnerability are a key part of our worship, but as a whole our songs should always turn our eyes to God. The laments in the Psalms are beautiful examples of desperate, intimate prayers and songs, written by authors who are fully aware of their humanity and write honestly about how they feel. But if you look at their themes as a whole, it’s clear that God and His purposes are the focus. It’s not whether or not a song uses the words “us” or “me” that makes it man-centred, but the conclusions that may be drawn from the lyrics. Is there any doubt about whether man exists to serve God, or God exists to serve man? We have become so desensitised that we don’t even notice anymore that we can sing a song completely focused on ourselves. In fact we can sing several in succession. We buy the albums and esteem the artists.
Along with this, a prominent trend in countless new songs is an instruction for God to fall down on us (or our venue) with His presence or Spirit or fire or [insert abstract pseudo-spiritual imagery here]. Now Scripture has awe-inspiring examples of God manifesting Himself in a real and undeniable way (consider the pillars of cloud and fire with the Israelites in the desert; the temple that was filled with a cloud; and evident even in His promise to be with the righteous, but not with the wicked), so I’m not denying that He can and does reveal Himself tangibly. My concern is with the motivation behind the instruction. His holy, treasured, abiding presence is not a commodity or a platform, yet these songs imply that God is not present with us unless we tell Him to manifest Himself. Scripture tells us this is not true – God is present everywhere and it’s not Him who needs to be present, but us! Sometimes we’re so distracted in worship that we are present in body but our minds and hearts are disengaged. Like Jacob, we must awake from our sleep and say: “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.”
These songs emphasise a need on God’s part to do more, as if we’re dissatisfied with what we have, and we approach the Creator with the expectation that He should serve us. But God is God and we are not. Here is the key: we don’t invite Him into our presence; He, in His unfathomable mercy and grace, invites us into His. How can we make demands of God when He has already demonstrated to us in the most agonising, incomprehensible way just how far He went to give us His presence and His Spirit? Where is the centrality of the cross in our worship? Or humility, thanksgiving, surrender to His agenda and a laying down of our lives?
Along with that, many modern Christian songs have a tendency to be written with a subtle-to-overt romantic undertone. I know many will argue that Christ died so that we can have intimate relationship with God, and our songs need to reflect that. While I can’t agree more that the Love that found us is worth singing a thousand songs about, I believe “intimacy” has become a loaded sentiment in Charasmatic circles. Words like “love” and “intimacy” have become sexualised in our culture, often without us even noticing it: an example of a cultural blind spot. Therefore, we cannot sing romantic love songs to God that aren’t hedged in with the truth of His holiness, His glory, His wrath. In fact, we cannot truly know the love of God without knowing His wrath. Without wrath, His love becomes sentimental “greeting-card” love. When we understand the wrath that our sinfulness deserves (and dare I say, sing about it), and the fact that Christ took the judgement that was rightfully ours, His love is elevated to the glory it deserves. We’re not Christ’s girlfriend, singing love songs inspired by feelings that are here today and gone tomorrow. We’re His Bride, purchased at the greatest cost with His precious blood, sealed with His Spirit and waiting in hope for the great day when He returns. Surely a song written from that revelation shouldn’t remind us of a love song we heard on the radio?
I’ve focused a lot on worship teams and songs in this article, and of course worship is so much more than singing. But the songs we write and sing reveal so much of who we are and what we believe. We therefore cannot tolerate songs that mislead us into a narcissistic and shallow interpretation of worship. Will we get it wrong sometimes? Yes! I’m painfully aware that I see and know in part and I’m still growing in my theology. But let’s settle this in our hearts: to revere and treasure the Word of God in our lives and our worship teams. Believers, let’s use discernment when listening to Christian music. Let’s ask ourselves “What food am I eating?” Worship leaders, let’s be intentional with the songs we introduce in our congregations. Songwriters, let’s allow Scripture to be our wellspring so that our songs faithfully reflect who God is and what He’s done as revealed in His Word. If God’s Word is all that He says it is and God’s Spirit does what He promises to do, far from stifling our creativity, we’ll discover truth that sets us free.
 Matthew 18:1-4
 Luke 22:24-27
 Matthew 10:39
 Matthew 6:19
 1 Corinthians 2:10-12
 John 4:23-24
 Romans 11:36; Isaiah 48:11; Ephesians 1:3-14
 Genesis 22:1-19
 For example, Numbers 18
 For example, Psalm 103
 Matthew 26:36-36
 Revelation 4:10-11
 For example, Romans 7:22-25
 Exodus 13:21
 2 Chronicles 5:13-14
 Psalm 34:15-16
 Psalm 139:7-12
 Genesis 28:16
 1 Philippians 2:5-8; Isaiah 53
 Romans 3:23-26