The Goal of Corporate Worship and the Art of Layered Understanding

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about corporate Christian worship and its purpose. In my most recent semester at Asbury, I took some courses that dealt with this topic. Now, being at Word of Life Church and talking with Pastor Eric Stark about the topic on a regular basis, ideas about the purpose of corporate worship are always at the forefront of my mind.

This past week at WOLC has been formative in my thought process. The week started with Pastor Brian Zahnd speaking in staff chapel about the “adolescentization” of the contemporary church. Around the 1950s, the church at large was afraid of losing the youth. The church started targeting teens with specific ministries. It could be argued that the idea of a “youth group” began here. Adolescence is a time of great emotion, monumental change, enthusiasm, and self-absorption.  These attributes started showing up in church music through very personal, affectionate choruses boasting of intimacy with Jesus. There certainly is a place for this expression of love, but it is not the main purpose of corporate Christian worship. The problem lies in the fact that the personal love songs of modernity acted as unhealthy smog, hindering us from the real goal of Christian worship. “Christian worship,” in this case, is a phrase I am using to talk about the corporate expression of devotion to the Triune God.

So what is the “real goal” of worship? Put simply, it is to glorify God as the only true king, who is ruling now and will rule forever. To understand that God is king is to be part of the church. The church is called to be a city on a hill, a display of what life in the Kingdom of God looks like. What does it look like? Well, it looks just like the world would look if the world believed God was king. (For more on this, check out Pastor Brian’s sermon series on Hope, Heaven, and Resurrection.)

What About Music?

What implications does this have on the songs we sing corporately? First of all, they need to be corporate. Notice how much “I” language is used in today’s worship music. That is a problem. When our salvation becomes about making Christ our “personal savior,” we miss out on the Kingdom of God – the public, corporate announcement that Jesus is king. Songs should not be sung in a way that encourages congregations to block out everything around them except their thoughts about Jesus. No! The purpose of singing together is singing, in all actuality, together. We lift our praise corporately when we gather corporately. Otherwise there is no point to gathering in the first place.

In addition to being corporate, our worship must be theologically meaningful. So many worship songs (both contemporary and traditional, both praises choruses and hymns) employ countless clichés. Yes, these clichés can carry truth, but they lose their punch once we’ve heard them a hundred times. This is where creativity comes in. Worship leaders and liturgists must continue to find creative avenues of theological expression. The music of the church is the theology of the church. After all, the congregation doesn’t walk out of church quoting the sermon as often as they walk out singing the worship songs.

In essence, the church (especially its music) needs to move beyond the adolescent stage spoken of earlier. There is a place for youthful expression in corporate worship, but there is a difference between youthfulness and immaturity. Youthfulness views the world with wonder and awe, but immaturity breeds ignorant naivety. Youthfulness recognizes its limitations and strives to expand its horizon, while immaturity comfortably lives in the stagnancy of subpar “accomplishments.” As the church, we should always strive for creative youthfulness. But we should never settle for blinding immaturity.

Where’s the Line?

I was having a conversation with Pastor Eric last night about where we draw the line between youthfulness and immaturity in corporate worship music. In more practical terms, we were discussing where the line is drawn between easily accessible, fluffy, cliché texts and meaty, theologically formative texts. It’s a hard line to draw, because we want to lead congregations to understand the Kingdom of God, but we also want to be easily accessible. If we stick to cliché, there is no room for growth. But on the other hand, if we only create space for intricate, scholarly dogmas, we appear to be an elite society of arrogant theologiphiles. Where is the line?

The answer (well, one answer) lies in the art of layering. Any good work of art has layers. A corporate worship service is essentially a work of art – an offering, a sacrifice – devoted to God. Sermons and songs, the two main forms of teaching in the contemporary Evangelical church, are works of art. The key for meaningful music in a corporate setting is to make it accessible, but deep.  What does this mean? Maybe a metaphor will help us understand.

As the church, we are invited to swim in a beautiful, pristine pool of fresh water. There are many access points. A shallow end with a guardrail and padded steps is extremely inviting to novice swimmers. They can ease in. But on the opposite side, you’ve got a high dive, from which the more experienced folk can plunge into the deep end with little effort. This pool party is far from perfect, though. You will always have the less participatory invitees that refuse to get in the pool at all. They’d rather sit by the water’s edge and chitchat. You’ve also got the other extreme: showoffs of all kinds, who splash and rave and loudly make a scene. Both extremes are less than ideal, but the presence of those invitees was requested just as ours was. We are all at the pool. The same pool. We are all swimming together, each body causing unique ripples in the water. There is always room to go deeper, but those that do not wish to dive deep are not forced. Nothing here is forced. Everyone at this party should know that the purpose of the party is to celebrate the host. All the arrangements for celebration have been made, and everyone is simply invited to be here and join in the fun.

The pool can be viewed as our worship service. Or for our purposes, the pool can be viewed as a worship song. The song has many “entry points.” Different people can appreciate different aspects of the work of art. A well-crafted trumpet solo, a very singable melody, a lyrical reference to the words of an early church father, etc. The budding theologian may love a song’s treatment of Christus Victor thought, and the married couple who argued the whole way to church might be convicted by the refrain of “I Surrender All.” Neither of these is better than the other. They are simply different access points to a great pool of Kingdom living. We must be mature, but accepting. We can embrace youthfulness, but we must always have room to grow.

I love the progressive steps that so many pastors, songwriters, musicians, church leaders, and great thinkers are taking toward this “true goal” of worship. I am encouraged to be part of a generation that is truly seeking to mature in our corporate, communal faith. To God be the glory!


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2 Responses to The Goal of Corporate Worship and the Art of Layered Understanding

  1. Great thoughts and keen observations, Hannah. This is a problem I have been addressing through some writings recently as well, though perhaps from a different angle. Worship is formational, and if worship remains “adolescent” then the formation will never progress any further. I think you are very correct in likening worship to art. Likewise, the pool analogy is a good one. The current shift in worship discussions is moving away from stylistic dividedness and toward benefits of convergent approaches.

    The analogy I tend to go back to considers the many streams of worship that flow out of and toward the same source. For example, one stream may be the music that comes out of African tribal worship. Another may be the Appalachian heritage. Another may be 19th century Anglican. Each stream is unique and individual. Each stream provides a theology that gives life. And of course, the source and end of each stream is the Triune God. We may start out in one particular stream, but hopefully along the way we come to where streams begin to converge and flow together. I probably didn’t explain that as well as I should, but hopefully you get the idea.

    Anyway, keep up the great work. As Saint Augustine reminds us, the true end goal of worship is delight in the Triune God. The ontological reality of God is that He exists in community. Our worship shouldn’t reflect anything less. Thanks for prompting some great thoughts and discussion, Hannah. Blessings as you continue in your ministry!

  2. Becca says:

    This is awesome. Amen Sista!!! I have been thinking on this, especially today. About how to be an authentic worshipper. I heard R.C. Sproul say once that the modern, contemporary worship was very feminine, selfish, and shallow. Then Matt Maher said worship songs should be simple, singable, and scriptural!!!!! I’m all for it.
    I want to get away from shallow and also depressing worship. Where’s the joy?
    You really got it!!!!!!! Love it!!!

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