Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.Colossians 3:16, NKJV
In his book, The Reset, Jeremy Riddle writes that worship team members and worship songwriters should be among the most spiritually disciplined and theologically minded in our churches. Worship is treated as a task that any musician can do, while preaching and teaching are reserved for those with special gifting, if not licensing or ordination. If we understood the profound influence of worship on our theological imaginations, we would reckon the influence of worship teams as not so far behind that of preachers. Worship teams need accountability, not just in their performance and production, but in their spiritual lives and discipleship.
Worship reforms the imagination of the church.
When Jesus told his disciples to drink the cup in remembrance of him, he requires us to believe that the cup is his blood. Baptism requires us to believe that we are being reborn from the dead in that act of washing. As we inhabit these metaphors, the sacraments span the gap between imagination and belief: we believe the cup is his blood because it is true in a spiritual sense; we imagine the cup is his blood because it is not materially true in another sense. To debate the transformation of the cup into blood is to miss the point, which is the act of remembrance. All sacraments necessarily have the same sort of ambiguity because they are themselves points of continuity between the physical world (represented to us in the sacramental elements) and the spiritual world (represented to us in our imaginations). Much of what worship does—no matter in what sect—is capture and transform our imaginations.
Worship music initiates believers into theology.
Worship is not the end of the pathway from the Word to theology; it is the beginning. Those who can’t understand sermons can understand songs and sacraments. Children of Christian parents are weaned from lullabies to hymns. Many a born-again believer “cuts his teeth” spiritually on his church’s worship lyrics.
It is not enough for worship to say something that is true about God. It should be saying something distinctively Christian about God. We should ask ourselves whether our sermons and our worship music are saying the same things about God. If someone only attended the music portion of our services, what kind of God would be portrayed to them? If our worship merely states that God is nice and that he has blessed us abundantly, we should evaluate whether our music could just as well be sung by adherents of other faiths.
Worship music should be examined the same way sermons are.
Some church members are theologically critical of all aspects of church, including music; most receive sermons critically and song lyrics uncritically. We may notice that we don’t like the rhythm or melody of a song, but we rarely analyse the lyrics. But if worship is itself a form of teaching, as I suppose it is, we should examine our music as closely as our sermons to find it acceptable before God.
Many make wide allowances for music that they do not make in other forms of teaching. Many would gladly sing “In Christ Alone”, never noticing that it consciously promotes several core tenets of Reformed doctrine. Worship, after all, is both in spirit and in truth. Pentecostals in particular focus on creating an attitude of love more than finding theologically acceptable songs. I believe, though, that we have lost balance completely.
Pentecostals and Charismatics are focused on worshipping God in spirit and are progressively placing themselves in the hands of a music industry that has put Mammon at the helm. Cessationists are focused on worshipping God in truth and little room is left for spontaneous expression, personal testimony, or the gifts of the Spirit. We have become polarized in our churches, and we desperately need a renewal of theologically informed songs that capture personal testimonies. Such songs will have the power to prophetically transform the imagination of the church.