We Think as we Worship
“They sing” wrote Pliny the Younger. When describing the life and the rituals of this most bizarre new “religion” that was springing up throughout the 1st Century Roman world, depicting the phenomenon and germination of a new people called “Christians.” This profound quote was brought to my attention by Cherith Fee Nordling, in her penetrating article on the impact of Psalms, Hymns ,and Songs of the Spirit on Christian transformation. She notes that in his correspondence with Trajan, Pliny says “[they] sing hymns to Christ as though he were a God.”
“Well, I sure would hope so!” might be your first reply. Besides, who else would they be singing to? As common as it was to sing songs of allegiance and other cultic hymns to the Emperor, the 21st century believer would sure hope that his spiritual ancestors were know for singing to Jesus, and singing as if He were in fact God. And this makes sense. With Scripture as our foundation, we see that as humans, we are created to be beings who worship. The Westminster Shorter Catechism reminds us well that “the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” In fact, it is majestic scenes of worship, and this through song, in epic passages such as Revelation 4-5 where we see that the climactic expression of man’s design and purpose is to worship our maker, savior, and king.
Yet one thing that I’m confident every young theologian recognizes, yet might often neglect, is how central worship in song is when it comes to the formation of our theology. Gordon Fee has been remembered for saying “Let me hear a congregation sing, and I will tell you their theology.”
Friends, if this is true…the songs of most of today’s evangelical churches would likely be having the saints of history past rolling over in their grave.
A strong statement? Definitely. A true statement. Well, let’s see.
For those who have passed through the world of Christian academia this last decade, you might have become familiar with a growing national concern about the spiritual life and depth of the church. Most specifically, a concern about the befuddling paradox we see in the lives of many today, where in the “information age,” we have believers who know so much, yet who seem to grow and mature in Christ so little. In fact, the emergence of the “Spiritual Theology” movement comes out of this very concern, and seeks to call for a new sub-discipline of theology to explore and to provide answers for the spiritual apathy and lethargy that characterizes so many of our generation. Yet what we must remember is that, because both worship and song as so close to the core of what it means to be human, we must give thought to the possibility that much of this lethargy might not be traced back to bad preaching from the pulpit, a lack of Christian catechizing, or an absence of discipleship (major concerns that are worthy of close examination, however), but instead to weak, mind-numbing, and even potentially unbiblical chorus and lyrics.
To borrow from a great book title, it’s true that we “become what we worship,” but we also start to think, to live, and to believe as we worship as well. There is an almost infinite amount that can be said about this, but the major concern I think is worth exfoliating today is the fact that so much of today’s worship lyrics talk not about Jesus himself, but the words talk about US, praising Jesus.
What’s wrong with that? Well, in some way’s nothing. If we said “lyrics that talk about how I’m responding to God must be eradicated,” we would have to throw out a huge portion of the Psalms themselves. Its appropriate to sing about God’s love for us, and how we respond to it.
But a subtle switch can happen when our lyrics are oriented this way. At first, JESUS is the subject of our worship. But with many of today’s subjective lyrics, WE can become the subject of worship. Instead of singing about the work, the attributes, the historical manifestation, and the future promises of Jesus, we begin to sing and focus about at new subject- our personal response to these things.
Perhaps this explains the disconnect between a knowledge about God and what J.I. Packer famously identifies as knowing of God. Are the songs that we repeat over, and over, and over, and over, and over again week after week filling us with the same rich truths focused on God himself, giving us the same kind of nourishment that injecting Scripture might have on us, or do they have us singing about ourselves, and how we are so happy, bouncy, and go-lucky because of how Jesus has changed us.
So, what is to be done? Well, what are you singing? One need not be the worship director of a church to speak up about the content of what is being sung, or to propose the addition of songs that a Christological focused and theologically developed into the worship mix. In fact, if there is one thing to be mindful of, it’s that one of the great urges of a church leader is for them to be listening and knowing their flock, and trying to deliver what it is that they need. And how much easier is the work of healing when your patient tells you not only the symptoms, but brings a prescription for a cure to their consultation meeting.
Want to revamp your theology? Looking to know and abide with Jesus in day to day life? Take a look at what you’re singing and listening to. It may functionally be your primary source of theology.