Worship; noun. The feeling and expression of reverence and adoration of a deity.
Christians are well acquainted with worship sets in the church. Two up tempo songs followed by a reverent one and then a contemplative song. Some days that one is followed by a spontaneous song with the worship team singing around a specific theme. We enjoy worship. Finding ourselves lost in the music, introspectively examining who God is in that moment, allowing divine inspiration to spark something new–it’s good.
But is the worship music we enjoy during services biblical?
The Gospel according to Paul tells us that salvation came at the point of Jesus’ death on the cross. This Gospel, this good news for all nations, is universal in that it’s meant for everyone and no one who wants it gets left out. We see in Romans 6:5-6 that we have been united with Christ in his death so we have been unified with him in his resurrection and that we are no longer slaves to sin. Paul has given us our death certificate again and again and removed our old identity of sinner without hope of salvation to saint because of the finished work of the cross.
Where does that leave worship lyrics that call us to agree that our identity is not one of freedom but of still being a sinner, dazed and confused? In an email interview with Nathan Horst, who is pretty busy in the worship world–he was a former band member of Farewell Flight and the worship band Sister Brother–he’s also owner/operator of a music studio called Attic Studios in Harrisburg, PA, and is a worship leader at Life Center in Harrisburg. I asked for his thoughts on the theological soundness of worship in today’s modern culture.
“Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) tends to glean from the various stories we as Christians represent,” writes Horst. Because much of the music we listen to, and in turn sing during worship services, tends to focus on the Christian lifestyle — like times of questioning and doubting — some could pigeonhole Christian music as depressing. But Nathan sees some light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. “I’ve seen a recent trend in worship becoming more introspective, in hopes, I presume to make worship songs honest, relatable, and less distant feeling,” he wrote. Which is definitely good since so many in church culture talk about being real, being honest. But being real or honest is not the root of why we worship. According to Nathan, who not only writes worship music but rubs elbows with some of the top musicians in the industry, “worship is about pointing people, and their attention, to the goodness and nature of God.”
This is where many in the church find their theology that they glean from the Bible collide with what they hear from the worship team. Paul’s gospel message is unarguably grace-driven–he clearly writes that Jesus finished the work of salvation on the cross. Often said by John Crowder of The New Mystics, “Paul gives us our death certificate over and over in Romans 5-8” saying that we are dead to sin and free to righteousness in Christ; however, so many popular worship songs we sing don’t seem to reflect this message at all; rather, they have people agreeing in song that they are still sinners lost in a sea of evil.
The grace message, and many “grace preachers”, have gotten a bad rap in recent years because many in the church find the message dangerous. To some it seems that singing or preaching grace is giving an open license to sin freely with no eternal consequences. Nathan was able to shed some light on this for me from his unique perspective. “The pure grace message is freedom,” wrote Horst. “More songs should point back to the revelation that the work is finished; we don’t have to earn God’s approval, or strive to attain status in the kingdom of God.”
Yet so much worship music seems to be striving for holiness and begging for God’s favor. In addition to that, many songs are apologetic for our sin rather than celebrating what we have in Christ–freedom from a sin-dominated nature. And what about the songs that seem to justify sin? “The idea that even though I’m a sinner and will always fall short but God still loves me is not enough,” Horst wrote. “We’re called to live above that ideal. We should be dwelling more on his gift of righteousness than our sin nature.” Theologically speaking, songs that focus on Jesus’ righteousness, him becoming our sin so we could be made holy, would be more theologically sound than songs that explain away our sinfulness or apologizing for what we’ve already been forgiven. “These types of songs, according to Paul’s message, should be about how He’s adopted us into His family and how we’re now all welcomed to the table to feast on the Lord,” Nathan wrote.
There’s nothing wrong with modern worship. I don’t know anyone who wants to go back to hymnals and tambourines. But the message of the cross, and the implications of the cross on our lives, is what’s at stake in modern worship. The theology that entwines itself in our worship music must correlate to what the writers of the Gospel meant when they wrote it. Are we merely sinners saved by grace or were we once sinners now living in the freedom of Christ? It’s unimaginable that we can be more than one thing at a time. We cannot be both sinner and saint. Paul, in Ephesians 1:4, uses the word saint to describe his audience. The Greek word Paul used is hagios. It means morally pure, upright, blameless in heart and life; holy. “There needs to be a stronger emphasis on the implications of the cross,” Nathan wrote during our interview. “We are alive in Him, raised to life, seated in heavenly places. These are topics I’m continually coming back to in my own writing.”
Worship is vital. We adore our Father. We sing and contemplate the fatness of what we have in Christ. There’s a sacred charge, though, to keep in step not with what sounds good or makes people comfortable, but to keep our worship theologically sound. Perhaps there can be a stronger shift from making the focus on ourselves and more of a celebrant beat of what Christ has done and who he became for us.
To learn more about Nathan Horst and his work go to www.atticrecordingstudio.com