February 22, 2017

Worship Reality Check

One of the themes I loved to stress back in the days when I taught a university course on “Foundations of Worship,” is that worship provides a reality check. I can still hear myself saying to a class, “All week long our understandings of who God is and who we are gets hammered, and gradually becomes more and more out of focus. On Sundays we gather with God’s people to have our communal vision corrected again.”

But what if our worship actually contributes to the loss of focus?

Two days after this January’s presidential inauguration, our liturgy included singing this sentence:

“I see a generation rising up to take its place with selfless faith.” (“Hosanna,” Hillsong)

I suddenly heard my voice go silent, and a number of thoughts began swirling inside my mind and heart. Here are some of them:

  • Just a few moments ago we were led in a rich prayer of confession, and I remembered again how even my moments of deepest loving were incapable of reaching a state of total “selflessness.” How can I sing this with integrity?
  • I’ve worked with university students for 18 years, worshiped with them countless times, and have been deeply moved by their passion and conviction. At the same time, I’ve recognized that very often one of the characteristics of their late adolescence is a strange combination of godly commitment and adolescent self-absorption. Many of them saw this Hillsong number as their anthem. Is that helpful? Or does it just encourage a kind of inner blindness?
  • The presidential inauguration two days before our worship came as the climax of what may have been the most spiritually wrenching presidential campaign in American history. Our global witness as American Christians was not enhanced by the public proclamations of believers who supported either of the two main candidates. Very few who took careful note of that witness would describe it as being shaped by “selfless faith.”

I found these reflections so distressing that when a good friend invited me to join him for coffee after worship, I declined with apologies and told him I needed time alone.

And I continued to reflect. I’ve been a church musician for 46 years, and my walk with God has been shaped deeply by the songs we sing together. Other song sentences came to mind which served to correct the sentence above, sentences like:

We are a moment, you are forever, Lord of the ages, God before time

Lord I want to be like Jesus, in my heart, in my heart. . .

I am weak, but you are mighty, hold me with your powerful hand.

And, finally, I found myself praying: Dear Jesus, in your hour of darkness you said to your Father, ‘I pray . . . that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’ (John 17: 20-21) We’re not doing such a great job of that right now. Refine us with your purifying fire so that the world will truly glimpse your glory through your people, and help us to worship in ways that shape us to become that kind of people.”