Worship and Truth

I’m in the middle of a writing retreat, working on a book for Crossway tentatively entitled Worship Matters. Catchy title, I know. Lord willing, it will be published some time in early 2007.

I’m working on a chapter related to worship and the Word. One of the quotes I ran across is from a book entitled Worship At The Next Level: Insight From The Contemporary Voices, edited by Tim A. Dearborn and Scott Coil. Chapter 10 is called “New Approaches to Worship” by Mike Riddell, Mark Pierson, Cathy Kirkpatrick. Here’s the quote:

Worship preparation is primarily about providing a context rather than a content. The context being an environment in which heart, soul, mind, and strength have opportunity to respond to God. This is not to deny content (although the gospel is primarily about a relationship rather than propositions), but to emphasize that the content can be understood in a variety of ways according to the context it’s placed in. (p. 138)

I also read these words in a recent interview with a worship leader:

“You can have a collection of spiritual language and have it still not ring true. I’d rather sing something that feels true than just a collection of the proper words and notes.”

Without questioning their motives, or claiming that I fully understand what they wanted to communicate, these comments seem to share a common assumption. They imply that truth is more about what we experience and feel than what we understand and believe.

If our worship of God isn’t primarily about content, then who or what decides who we worship, how we worship, and what we do when we worship? Does worship have to do mostly with what I’m feeling? Certainly the Gospel is about a relationship, but that relationship is defined by truths that are concrete, unchanging, and eternal, truths that God in his mercy has revealed to us in his Word.

I share a deep and profound relationship with Julie, my wife. However, that relationship is also defined by specific “propositional” truths (we’re married, we have six children, we live in the same home in Gaithersburg, Maryland) that can be written down, communicated, and understood by others. Relationships certainly involve more than propositional truths. But they don’t involve less.

It’s also true (there’s that word again…) that the meaning of content can change based on its context. But we should use that information to make sure that our contexts of worship support rather than deny or distract from the content we’re seeking to communicate. The answer isn’t simply to throw our hands up in the air and surrender to the authority of context. Perhaps a better way to phrase it would be to say that worship preparation involves providing a context that serves the content. It seems that in our attempt to make what we do relevant and affecting, we often choose words that minimize the essential nature of the truths we’re proclaiming in worship.

Finally, there’s the issue of singing something that “feels” true rather than a collection of “proper words.” I imagine this individual is seeking to draw a distinction between singing from the heart with new forms vs. singing out of duty with old forms. I’m not sure. In any case, it could have been worded more carefully. I can’t count the times I’ve “felt” something was true and it turned out to be absolutely false. Reminds me of the times I’ve told Julie I was absolutely certain I knew how to get to our destination…

Rather than seeking to sing what “feels” true, I should work hard at being affected by what IS true. I want to have strong feelings for the truth, but my feelings will never tell me what truth actually IS.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the quotes or my comments.

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9 Responses to Worship and Truth

  1. Ryan June 22, 2006 at 4:30 PM #

    Hi Bob,

    I was a bit alarmed by the first sentence of the first quote that said we should provide a context rather than content. I really hope this isn’t the attitude of every worship planner across the church.

    While I believe that proclaiming the truth in a solid, Biblical way is the most important step in planning worship services, how do you reconcile that with the need to be relevant and the desire to use modern means of communication to present that truth? How do you explain the importance (not reliance) of newer vehicles to communicate the truth to someone who says “As long as we have the truth, we don’t need a more skilled worship team, or better multimedia, or pastors with a skill at communicating. As long as the truth is there, that’s all that matters, right?”

    Obviously we don’t really NEED those things, but as you have said, having distraction-free worship leads to a much better focus on the truth. So how do these ideas all reconcile together?

  2. Shawn Doud June 22, 2006 at 4:43 PM #

    As someone ministering in a “propositional” tradition, I can hear these comments as a call to regain the heart aspect of worship rather than the formal correctness of doctrine but with no passion. Christ’s critique about recovering first love applies to me and my tradition. We’re more apt to talk about first principles. Renewal movements of all sorts, of which yours is one, call for orthodox joy. The means to do so is where the debate is. Pastors tend to be tinkerers when we hit a tough spot in terms of attendance, or visible involvement or enjoyment of worship. Hmm, change the style, change the gender mix of leaders, change instrumentation, change era of music represented, go for blended.

    We would all decry emotionalism and especially calculated attempts to milk a certain coerced response. Following Jonathan Edwards and all that Covenant Life stands for, we present Jesus and the gospel in all its beauty for a particular result – – people fall down and cry out in praise and commit their allegiance to King Jesus. But we do so by his appointed and anointed means: preaching, prayer, praise, reading and hearing Scripture. As Elders and leaders select those elements and emobody the change they want to see in their people, people will follow in the path of dutiful delight. Since we’ve seen his grace, we can’t help but praise! This is the context for true worship, as we worship in truth, but with all our being.

    Keep up the good work.

  3. Jamie Brown June 22, 2006 at 10:16 PM #

    When I was first starting to lead worship for my youth group while in high school, I was far too focused on getting people emotional, making sure they were “feeling” certain things, getting them to be expressive, etc., etc. I got what I wanted, in that the youth would do all the outward things such as crying, lifting hands, kneeling, being emotional, “feeling things” — and I felt like we really “got it.” But I would say that 9 out 10 of those youth are now wandering very far from the Lord. I sometimes wonder what difference it would have made if I had emphasized the content more, focused more on how the songs we were singing were shaping them, and attempted to stir their affections with God’s truth, rather than an emotional context. I had a great opportunity back then that I wish I had taken. Lesson (hopefully) learned!

  4. Wes Crawford June 23, 2006 at 12:09 AM #

    Great post, Bob. Since I have been reading the Nick Page book you recommended, this topic has been on my mind quite a bit lately, and I actually posted about it just the other day on my blog.

    I’m a little bit perplexed as to why in the first quote above the authors feel it necessary to make content secondary to context. Isn’t that the same as saying substance is secondary to style? I’m afraid these authors are setting themselves up to pastor a congregation toward missing the beautiful, worthy object of worship because of a preoccupation with forms and styles. Sadly, I think that’s more typical in churches across the U.S. than we’d care to admit.

  5. Robin June 23, 2006 at 4:54 AM #

    I feel that a change in context gives us an opportunity to rediscover truth. For instance, i occassionaly lead worship and recently i chose a song that i know very well but hadn’t led before. I’d probably sung it a hundred times in the congregation but when i’m leading it’s a different experience for me as i’m so focused on what i’m doing. The words of the second verse just threw themselves at me in a way i hadn’t experienced before – i could hardly sing them for the tears that welled up. The words were the same as i’ve sung them before but because of the change of context i was able to rediscover their truth, drink them in, absorb them rather than sing them under my usual worship cruise control.

    I don’t feel that truth is always lost in an emotional context. Familiarity can help us to forget the power of it which is why the pursuit of new contexts, new forms and modes is a good one, an honest one, although the results are not always helpful :)

    When in doubt – ask the congregation, ask the worshippers. Worship leaders are the least objective people when it comes to these things.

  6. John Chung June 23, 2006 at 1:50 PM #

    i wonder if an appropriate analogy to borrow in the content/context issue would be the preparation for worship as the telescope to “magnify” the true beauty of the star it is focused on (namely the truth – Jesus Christ). do we as worship arrangers alter this telescope – add filters to the lenses, add depth of field, adjust the focus here and there so that the object we seek to enhance becomes clearer? or is the temptation to change the context so much that the image is ultimately distorted and what we are looking at is no longer the true living and loving God that the Word intended to reveal to us? this is probably the challenging balance we need to pray for and humbly put before the Lord each week as we prepare for worship services. i am sure many a pastor and/or worship leader thought they were making God clearer to the congregation when in fact they may have been distorting His image all along.

  7. Robert Blaylock June 23, 2006 at 9:20 PM #

    My pastor and I have struggled (together, not in opposition) with this issue. We are at a small Pentacostal church which meets in a middle school cafetorium. Our band, under my leadership, tends to rock out a bit at times on Sunday mornings. From what I’ve just told you, you might assume that the congregation would be “rollin’in the aisles”, as they say. You’d be wrong!!

    While a few people, (mostly children and teens, as well as the pastor and his wife) might be getting into it and visibly worshipping with abandon, many in our small body have come from more reserved traditions: Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians. Even I grew up as a Quaker (in the Evangelical Friends Church). And although I have broken out and made the decision to allow myself to be undignified in my worship and praise for my Savior, much of our congregation is just not ready to do the same.

    So preparing and providing the context in which to present the life-saving and heart-changing content rooted firmly in the gospel of Christ is important. It is important that my pastor and I be patient in leading the congregation to worship wholeheartedly, whether or not we SEE obvious evidence (such as raised hands, shouts of praise, dancing, tears of joy and release, etc.) of such abandonment. God knows the hearts of each of us. He doesn’t care whether we dance or not. He doesn’t care whether we shout, or cry, or speak in tongues even. What He does care about is that we as a body and as individuals give ourselves over to Him, to be His people and to give Him the praise that He is due!!!

  8. Robert Blaylock June 23, 2006 at 9:55 PM #

    I forgot to comment on the phrase “ring true”. Perhaps it is a poor choice of words because, as you say, Bob, we need to be affected by what IS true. On the other hand, if you sing spiritual truth without providing emotional and cultural context in which that truth can resonate within the hearts of the people, the TRUTH will often fall on deaf ears. All too many of our modern worship songs (probably some of mine included) contain a bunch our spiritual language strung together so that they sound good, but they don’t successfully communicate spiritual Truth because the congregation is not in an experiential place where they can digest that Truth. And the same can be said for classic hymns, too. If the same tired old hymns are trotted out week after week, although they may hold a great deal more spiritual truth than many of the modern songs, they lose impact upon the hearts and lives of our churchgoers due to overfamiliarity and because the people have not been led to the point where they can feed on that spiritual meat and be nourished. We cannot assume that the people are ready to follow where we lead. And we dare not run too far ahead of them, else we leave them in our dust, still hungry and with that “deer-in-the-headlights” look about them. What we need to do is to provide them the context in which the Truth of God does indeed “ring true” in their spirits.

  9. Patrick Miller June 25, 2006 at 7:40 PM #

    Context does not have to be synonymous with style. That line of argumentation is old and well trodden, so I can’t imagine that is what you’re after. Providing a context for worship could refer to a worship leader’s preparing a service where everything in the liturgy serves (as you suggest) the coming proclamation of truth in the sermon rather than singing worship songs for the song’s sake, completely at times disjointed from where the preached Word intends to go. We have found that certain songs take on new meaning when the lyrics we are about to sing, are intentionally tied to some truth about God that will be made manifest in the text that is to be preached. My worship leader is becoming very skilled at putting our elements of worship (call to confession, call to worship, confessional statements (catechism, creeds, worship songs) together in a way where many in our congregation are truly ready to receive the Word having had the fallowness of their hearts tilled up a bit.

    At times our worship service is almost like a pre-application experience. We’re truly offering God His due worthness, but in doing so, we are also confessing our need of Him in a focused way for a focused message, and thus making it easier to see connections in the exposition of Scripture.

    In this sense of “context”, our liturgy stays the same, but the context (train of thought, expressions of worship, confessions of truth) is uniquely and intentionally constructed to create clear roads for The Spirit to do His work.

  10. Shane Callicutt June 27, 2006 at 1:31 AM #

    Shouldn’t context always be surrounded by and pinned in with content? The Old Testament worshipers were up to their necks with content that guided them in their worship of God. Now we are in the New Testament age, and what has changed? Nothing. In fact, now it is more difficult. Because the focus of the New Testament is a cleansing of the heart, it takes the Law to a deeper level. It is no longer good enough to simply not have an affair. You can’t even look at a woman with lust.

    How does this apply to our worship gatherings? I think it means that we as worship leaders should be responsible to have content that points people to Christ. Only He can cleanse the sin from our hearts. Too many worship songs sing about how we feel about God. They have their place, but I try to be careful that they are few because worship is not about how I feel. The majority of worship content should be about the majesty and holiness and grace of our Savior, our Father, and our Helper. That content will provide a context where the lost can be born again and where believers can receive healing from the wounds of life.

  11. Scott Hill June 28, 2006 at 4:15 PM #

    Bob this is a great post.

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