Friday, November 14, 2008

Hermeneutical Guidelines for a Theology of Worship (Part 1)

Perhaps the reason that the practical ins-and-outs of Sunday worship are so frustratingly divisive (who could have guessed that the phrase “worship wars” could manage to not sound like an oxymoron?) is because so many of us are so confused about how to discuss it.

Let’s note the common claims: hymns are stagnant while contemporary choruses are lively; contemporary choruses are personal-pronoun riddled shallow and weightless love songs while hymns are USDA-approved theological meat; what we call “meeting with God” is actually an emotional high achieved through musical pornography; this week’s band was too loud, too sucky, too rock ‘n’ roll-y, too folky, or too whatever-else-doesn’t-fit-my-auditory-preferences; the worship leader talked too much between songs; the worship leader is thoughtlessly playing from one song to the next. And so on. And on. And on. It’s a shock more worship leaders don’t spontaneously combust.

And to think these are only a few of the questions that folks get hung up on. Must the worship leader have a thoughtful answer to every individual problem if he is going to be engaging in biblical worship?

Yes and no. What you might notice if you were to read through all of the complaints I've listed above (and I do think they are some of the most common ones) is that all of them revolve around the specific details of our musical worship. Or put the other way, none of them are really about the more fundamental theological ideas.

The purpose of this short series that I am beginning (I'm thinking 3 posts total) is not to attempt to answer all of these questions, but to suggest that there is one question that every worship leader should be organizing his work around. The details will only be approached well if we can put them in their proper theological context. In fact, attempting to address these individual issues without a well thought out hermeneutical and theological starting point will invariably lead to extraordinary confusion about what the Bible says about how to worship.

Some may immediately take issue with what you have just written, arguing that excluding Levitical temple rituals, the Bible actually does not say much if anything about the "how to" of worship. And it is true that Paul never wrote directly of decibel levels or musical styles.

Which is exactly why most worship leaders typically answer questions about such specifics as, say, emotional overflow during musical worship, with considerations of principles such as how God brings His presence to humans. Or when someone pulls the old "hymns have more weight than contemporary choruses, thus we shouldn't sing choruses," the worship leader might respond that God wants worship that is not just from our brain, but from all of who we are, and perhaps piano-led hymns are less effective for this purpose. The specific hymns vs. choruses question is answered on the basis of a theological principles.

Since there is no specific, "Here's what kind of song you should sing" verse in the Bible, this is the correct approach. The question becomes what is/are the guiding principle(s) for biblical worship? I will suggest to you that the weight of the biblical witness is squarely on one such principle.

But you'll have to wait for my next post (next Wednesday) if you want to know what that is!


Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to reading the rest of your thoughts. Reading this was like listening to several conversations I've had over the past three years. Cool.

luke g.

robert austell said...

YES! - I just finished my D.Min. on this subject - studying to determine biblical PRINCIPLES for worship... and there are many, which are remarkably consistent from the Garden of Eden to Israel/OT to NT to heavenly worship in Revelation.

Thanks for this post!