Christian worship is a way of embodying our personal and corporate testimonies. In song, we express what it means to us that God has saved us, changed us, heard our prayers, and formed us in the glorious likeness of his Son.
Not all worship is congregational worship.
Some of the testimonies we put into song are personal, individual, not suited for use in the congregation. This does not make them meaningless. There are plenty of lines in the Psalms of David that would be quite out of place in a Christian gathering! And even songs that are sung in gatherings are grounded in personal testimony. Psalm 18 begins with a long explanation, historically grounding the song in David’s biography:
To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of David the servant of the LORD, who spoke to the LORD the words of this song on the day that the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul . . .Psalm 18:1, NKJV
Personal testimonies become corporate testimonies.
The modern worship song “How He Loves Us” is a great example of the shift from a personal testimony to a corporate testimony. It became a radio hit for David Crowder in 2009, reaching number 8 on the Billboard charts and receiving a nomination for a Dove Award. (The album did win the Dove Award for best worship album.)
But many of us first heard that song in a viral YouTube video from 2005 by John Mark McMillan, who wrote the song. The lyrics are slightly different, the song is several minutes longer, and there is a whole verse about “the day Stephen died”, referring to McMillan’s friend who had died in a car accident. It is an intensely personal story, and the original song doesn’t make sense without knowing that testimony. Crowder repackaged the song for a broader audience—famously scrapping the “sloppy wet kiss”—and in the process transformed the song for corporate worship. Both types of song are indispensable in Christian worship.
Personal songs can be honest about suffering without shame.
The Psalms teach us that the variety of spiritual experience is great. Biblical commentators such as John Calvin have stated that this is practically one of the most important things we can glean about the Psalms as a whole. Christians are not aloof from the whole pageant of human life, ranging from lament to ecstasy.
My soul faints for Your salvation,
But I hope in Your word.
My eyes fail from searching Your word,
Saying, “When will You comfort me?”
For I have become like a wineskin in smoke,
Yet I do not forget Your statutes.
How many are the days of Your servant?Psalm 119:81–84, NKJV
When will You execute judgment on those who persecute me?
Psalms like Psalm 13 and Psalm 42, along with many passages from the Prophets, show us that the lament is a legitimate form of worship. We miss much by making worship that pretends that Christians are always happy people. Jesus himself prayed to be delivered at Gethsemane, and asked God why he was forsaken at the cross—quoting Psalm 22 in doing so. Astoundingly, God himself fellowships with us in our unanswered prayers, which is in itself better than answering them.
Corporate testimonies become personal testimonies.
Testimonies are not just joyful expressions: they also serve to stoke our memories of God’s goodness when we cannot remember. When we are in a place of joy, corporate testimonies can remind us how to live in lament, and vice versa. We need these memories to rekindle our joy in the Holy Ghost.
When we are least attracted to worship, we are most in need of the collective memories that are preserved for us there. Worship changes our perspective and helps us to reorient our lives around God’s story that is happening all around us every day, even on the days that we do not sense that we are a part of that story.