Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Stumpy Worship

I recently attended a half day conference on worship and leading worship. It was conducted by a well known worship leader and musician (or perhaps he was a musician and worship leader). I say "well known" but that really is a relative sort of thing. That is to say he is well known in certain praise-and-worship-leading worship leading circles. Yes...I meant that sentence to read that way.

I suspected that I was in for something less than stellar, but I went into it saying that I was not closed to his message. I really was "openish" to what he had to say. I must say that I was not disappointed.

His initial message, about an hour and fifteen minutes of expounding on 2 Chronicles 29 was actually pretty good. Not earth-shaking, but a reasonably solid sermon on how YHWH calls us to worship Him and how he uses worship to shape us. Then we went to the Q&A and this is where we began to part ways. Every question and every answer was about music. The underlying assumption was a basic equation: music=worship. The reflexive property applies and it is an exclusive relationship. Worship is music and only music. There was no discussion of the reading of scripture, sermons and homilies, coporate prayer and confession, or even of sacraments. In his explanation of the text, he focused on sections like this:

As the offering began, singing to the LORD began also, accompanied by trumpets and the instruments of David king of Israel. The whole assembly bowed in worship, while the singers sang and the trumpeters played.
Yet he completely ignored these sections, and their implications for Christian worship:

They brought seven bulls, seven rams, seven male lambs and seven male goats as a sin offering for the kingdom, for the sanctuary and for Judah. The king commanded the priests, the descendants of Aaron, to offer these on the altar of the LORD. 22 So they slaughtered the bulls, and the priests took the blood and sprinkled it on the altar; next they slaughtered the rams and sprinkled their blood on the altar; then they slaughtered the lambs and sprinkled their blood on the altar. 23 The goats for the sin offering were brought before the king and the assembly, and they laid their hands on them. 24 The priests then slaughtered the goats and presented their blood on the altar for a sin offering to atone for all Israel, because the king had ordered the burnt offering and the sin offering for all Israel.
It was as if all that other stuff, the altars and the utensils and the blood and the animals and the sacrfice...that's not worship. It's something else.

Of course, Jesus is our sacrifice. We make different kinds of offerings than Hezekiah's priests, but our offerings ought not be limited to the musical kind. At one point, he even said something like, "I led them in worship for about 30 minutes, and then Paul preached..." I managed to not scream -- but just barely.

It's all just too truncated. Not wrong really, because music is and can be worshipful. But it is like playing basketball without any arms, just legs. You can do the running around part, but there are huge sections of the game that are simply missing. It would be easy, if you didn't know better, to think you were actually playing the game, because you could certainly still get all sweaty and out of breath from running around on the court, but it ain't the real deal. It's just part of it.

When worship is singularly about fuzzy feelings and the buzz you get from loud instruments played too high for too long, then it is so limiting. The scripture makes it clear that the apostles dedicated themselves to prayer, reading the scripture and the breaking of bread (communion). There is no mention of music. How did we get to the point where we have gone to the polar opposite of the Church of Christ and those old school orthodox Presbyterians that actually banned instruments? Now we don't ban music, it's ALL about the music.

The seminar section was followed by a 2 hour "worship concert" where his band performed lots of the music they had written for worship. I kept a rough count and I would estimate that about half the songs were actually about Jesus, using biblical images and wording to sing about God's character and work. The rest tended to be songs that expressed the singer's love, passion, commitment, dedication, etc. Nice songs, but dangerous because they sound like gospel, but they are not. These "Jesus is my boyfriend" songs did not dominate, but they were certainly a significant part of the repertoire. I can't condemn them entirely, because there is certainly an element of this responsive lyricism even in the Psalms. Yet it seem perilous to repeat them so often because the lead us to think that we can impress God if we are passionate enough, committed enough, or love him enough. Safer, I think, to repeat songs and stories about what God has done and is doing. Dead men can't sing, but Jesus can raise the dead and give them new voices.

One of my colleagues spoke in his defense to say that in the area from which he comes (Belfast Ireland) and in which he ministers, he almost certainly is reaching people who have been too long chased from the gospel by the church. I allow that this is almost certainly true, and is a perfect example of how God's grace can and does reach across our shortsightedness and incompetence to draw his people to himself. He meets us even in the stumpy awkward sessions we call worship services and his gospel prevails -- in spite of what form or shape our meetings take.

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