How Over-Explaining Worship Kills Worship

OUR ACHILLES HEEL

I’m a believer in thoughtful worship. I’m a believer in biblical worship. I’m a believer in worship that is theologically deep, historically informed, and intellectually engaging. And yet, many of us who buy into this have an Achilles heel. In an effort to fill worship with meaning, we can end up over-explaining everything.

In desperate attempts to snatch worship away from the clutches of empty ritual and rote traditionalism, we rightly desire to make our historic practices meaningful. For instance, I have been a part of worship services (in fact I have led them myself) where the one leading worship chose to explain Confession just prior to engaging it. It went something like this:

“Now is the time in our service when we confess our sins to God. Why do we confess our sins? Because God is holy, and we are not. Confession is the only right response to every last human being’s encounter with the overwhelming glory of the living God. Confession is a time when we silently recall the ways that we have grieved God’s heart, bringing our burdens before the Lord as we pray. Confession prepares us to hear the good news of the Gospel. So let’s bow our heads together as we pray.”

EXPLAINING WORSHIP AWAY

These kinds of moments in and of themselves aren’t necessarily bad, especially when they are sparse in the worship service and only occasionally summoned. But the reality is that they are explanations of worship which, in order to be delivered, require worship to pause. In practice, these explanations, though well-meaning, tend to kill the whole point of worship—to provide the context where people encounter God.

To me, the difference between explaining Confession and engaging it is similar to J. I. Packer’s classic distinction between knowing about God and knowing God. True theology, according to Packer, is not amassing facts about God in one’s head but knowing God relationally. Similarly, true worship is not ultimately found in talking about worship, but by doing it. Explaining the liturgy and doing the liturgy are two entirely different things.

There need to be venues, seasons, and moments where worship is explained and processed, but when we do too much of this in the worship service itself, we actually undercut the very acts we are attempting to enliven through explanation. Going back to Confession, imagine if Isaiah were, upon encountering the white-hot, “holy, holy, holy” of God’s presence, approached by a seraph who said, “Now, what you’re experiencing is God’s glory. The appropriate response to this kind of encounter is the confession of your sin and the sins of your people. So bow with me and let us confess our sins together.” Isaiah’s encounter, in the moment, needed no explanation. The theology (read, the relationship) was in the doing. This is the way that liturgy best theologizes—in the doing.

THE RIGHT PASTORAL INSTINCTS

Our explanations, well meaning as they are, can actually undercut that very theologizing. But it gets a little tricky, because it is actually the pastoral impulse that leads us to those over-explained moments in worship. Pastoral liturgists and worship leaders have a burden to teach, to educate, and so we explain. Pastoral liturgists and worship leaders have a burden to guard and protect against dead ritualism, and so we explain. Pastoral liturgists and worship leaders have a burden for our people to love the Lord with all their mind, and so we explain.

These are good instincts. But they need to be governed by a greater, overarching pastoral goal of letting worship be what it is—prayer, not talk about prayer. If we think of the worship service as one long prayer dialogue between God and His people, our eyes might be open to how our over-explanation of worship’s elements are not dissimilar to tapping someone on the shoulder in the middle of their personal prayers in order to educate them on a biblical theology of prayer. In the words of my charismatic brothers and sisters, it “breaks the flow.”

Flow shouldn’t be just a “charismatic” concept. Worship should flow like prayer flows—unceasing, dialogical, rhythmic, immersive. As the narrative of worship moves along, we as worship leaders need to be sensitive to how our explanations throw trip-hazards on worship’s experiential path.

What, then, are we to do with the other pastoral concerns? What about the reality that our people need to worship with their minds and with understanding? I might suggest a different pastoral approach to “educating” in worship that both teaches but preserves the flow: if you must explain, pray your explanations. For example, leading into confession, perhaps coming out of a glorious hymn or song magnifying the greatness of the attributes and deeds of our Triune God, immediately begin praying with words like these:

“O holy God! You’re beyond our comprehension, perfect in all Your ways! You dwell in impeccable light, and Your goodness cannot share space with evil. Right now we feel totally exposed. Like Isaiah, we’re crying out, ‘Woe to me! I am unclean!’ What can we do in this moment but confess our sins? And so hear us as we pray…”

Prayers like these educate through the prayer rather than pausing the prayer. Worship isn’t a time for parsing doxological technicalities just like driving isn’t a time to take apart your engine. Worship is a time of encounter. Our deeper instruction can (and should) take place elsewhere.

(Postscript: I explore these and other painfully nuanced pastoral realities of worship planning and leading in my new book from Zondervan, The Worship Pastor.)

Zac Hicks (D.Min. candidate, Knox Theological Seminary) is Canon for Worship & Liturgy at Cathedral Church of the Advent (Birmingham, AL), blogger at zachicks.com, and author of The Worship Pastor (Zondervan, 2016). He grew up in Hawaii, studied music in Los Angeles, trained in Philosophy and Biblical Studies at Denver Seminary, and his current doctoral work is in the theology and worship of the English Reformation. Zac's passions include exploring the intersection of old and new in worship and thinking through the pastoral dimensions of worship leading. He is a songwriter, having recorded seven albums to date. Zac has been married for over fifteen years to his wife, Abby, and they have four children—Joel, Jesse, Brody, and Bronwyn.