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Responding to Readers: Finding Clarity in the Worship Wars

July 6th, 2007 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

When I offered three cheers and a jeer for evangelical worship music, I thought it might require some clarification and qualification. Like anything, this is a difficult issue if only because it’s not clear what worship songs–or hymns–are under consideration and here, as in everywhere, knowing the context is crucial for discussion.

That said, there were two substantial replies to my post. Scott Kay and Brant DeBow both took me on rather systematically, critiquing and affirming as they saw fit. This is my response.

First, Scott contends that though praise songs may be theologically sound, they are still “vague and trite.” That may be. But set within an appropriate context, they cease to be “trite.” The meaning of the praise song is not independent of its context. This is, I think, also an appropriate response to Brant’s question about which is more meaningful: poetry or simply saying “I love you?” “I love you” may sometimes be more fitting and meaningful than a poem–the way to tell is not to look at them in isolation, but in their context and use.

Secondly, Scott eloquently defends the need for thoughtful and emotional responses to God. He writes:

Third, I personally don’t find that it’s necessarily the case that a simpler praise song will always evoke emotions easier than a “cerebral” hymn. I often look out over my congregation and see hands raised, faces beaming, and even eyes streaming with tears at some of the most profound truths in some of the most “cerebral” hymns. In fact, our emotions should only be at their highest when they are actually in response to the highest truths. Emotions should only be raised in proportion to the truths they have in view…Truth must take first place. We worship God in response to great truths about Him. That’s not to say emotions should be minimized. On the contrary, they should be raised as high as possible, that is, as high as the truths expressed in that worship. Our minds should be engaging with truths that warrant a proportional emotional response.

To this I say, “Yes and Amen!” Of course the hymns are emotional, just as praise songs are thoughtful. Worship is a response to the truth of God’s character and being.
My argument, though, is more limited than it seems Scott realizes. I attempted to defend praise songs not so they would be used exclusively, but so that they would be used and valued for what they are–not the only or even pinnacle expression of worship, but an important one.

As Scott argues, we must worship with our minds. But what I have attempted to point out is that the content of our minds in worship does not have to stem from the songs that we sing. Rather, it can be full of the truths expressed in Scripture, in the readings of the worship pastor, or in the sermon. In that way, the simplicity of the songs allows their meaning to be filled out by the word of God–“Jesus Loves Me” becomes far more rich and deep when sung after hearing, for instance, the Passion narrative of John read aloud.
Brant, on the other hand, criticizes my post on a very different front. He writes:

Cheer #3 – This assumes that the individual is the most important part of the worship service and that we are gathered as individuals, not as a community of believers (or better yet, the entire church catholic). I think this underscores the big difference between those who like more traditional services and those who like contemporary. Traditional folks, like myself, see the overemphasis on the individual in society (particularly American society) and think the worship service shouldn’t reinforce this. We see worship as a gathering together of God’s people as a whole – not as just a bunch of individuals. This is why we like to recite confessions and prayers together, whereas contemporary-minded evangelicals would recoil at this thought because it would be inauthentic for the individual not to say whatever is personally on his mind.

Again, to this I say “Yes and Amen!” Worship is a corporate experience. Yet it is also an individual experience, and one of Christianity’s gifts to the world has been the concept of the individual. The reciting of confessions, creeds and prayers as a communal body are all necessary within the Christian church.

But at the same time, worship also is and should be an individual response to God’s working in our respective lives. This happens within the community, yes, but also in my heart. The question is not whether evangelical worship is individually or communally oriented, I think, but rather what kind of communal experience evangelical worship is creating. It places the burden upon individuals to see each other as members of a community and allows the Spirit of God to work not only individually in hearts, but also within the community–what if, for instance, one person is prompted by the Spirit of God in the middle of worship to encourage a fellow member of the body with a passage from Scripture? Such behavior is no less communal than the experience Brant offers, even though it is a very different form of community.In sum, when it comes to worship, where others provide an “Either/Or”, I respond with a resounding “both!” I have worshipped in a high-church Episcopalian community for three years, all while attending evangelical worship services in the evening. This experience has made me appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of both the “higher” and “lower” musical traditions.

Because there is no formal prayer book, the quality of the evangelical liturgy–and there is a liturgy that is distinctly evangelical–largely depends upon whether the persons leading worship understand what they are doing and are sensitive to the Spirit of God. Because many worship leaders fail to be excellent at the discipline of worship, evangelical worship becomes an object of criticism. But such criticisms are mostly unfair and fail to recognize the possibilities and goodness within the evangelical liturgy. But as I tried to point out, just because evangelical worship music is an easy target does not mean that it is the right target.