I play in, but am no longer in oversight of, our church’s music group. Regular readers will know I am somewhat underwhelmed by the state of the “Christian Worship Industry” nowadays, and I’m unashamedly returning to that theme today. It’s better than thinking about the election.

When I am asked to play or sing a song that’s new to the church, and therefore usually relatively new in itself, I’ll get hold of the music from various sources, both in order to make sure I do it “as written” with the others, and to check out the keys etc. I prefer to perform from written music, but I’m not a brilliant reader, and in any case it’s good to get an idea of the style in which it was written. So I then have recourse to YouTube to see how it should be done – to which the immediate answer is, for recent songs, always “like Coldplay.”

But here’s the meat of the issue. Invariably, and I mean absolutely invariably, the video thumbnail will be of some young and good looking worship leader – usually female, and with somewhat seductive clothing, hairstyle and posture – looking especially worshipful in the sense of having eyes closed, neck stretched (provocatively) up to heaven and with arms held high. The females are always nubile – no plain-Janes with the voices of angels in CCM – and the blokes tend to be rugged-but-handsome types: scarred Gary Moores or toothless Shane MacGowans need not apply, however spiritual or musically talented.

The video itself, as I have not infrequently observed here, will cut between the various beautiful young worship leaders in their stylish gear with fashionable headgear, invariably playing new and top-of-the-range Martin, Gibson or Taylor guitars, and never the battered old Yamaha that records well. Occasional shots of the keyboardist’s hands, and glimpses of other instruments, just like shots in secular music videos, are interspersed.

First page of YouTube on opening “contemporary worship music” today

In some cases this heaven-led (but CCLI licensed) worship is shot in some kind of recording studio setting, in the sense of the up-market establishment with mood-lighting and big spaces, rather than the basement dives where creative musicians change the world with second-hand gear.

Otherwise, though, the backgrounds show that the performance indeed has an audience, always of very large size and, nowadays, often at some ticketed worship event such as the typically named “Passion 2024” (see a biblical take on “passion” here). In the latter the stage was huge enough to have apparently dozens of beautiful worship-stars communing with God, appearing in close-up in turn. Occasional shots of the audience most often are from the back to include the distant on-stage action, or otherwise show the punters’ faces in rapt attention to what is happening under the stage lights.

All this shows that nothing has been learned from Matt Redman’s oft-sung song Heart of worship. It’s the same old music business sub-genre it’s been for a couple of decades now. For all that the captions suggest it’s all about Jesus (or rather more often that it’s all about experiencing the power of the Spirit), the videos show beyond a shadow of doubt that it’s really all about “worship bands.” There is a massive worship industry, and it’s not even about worship. I will expand on that in a moment, for the New Testament concept of worship is radical, and is not, primarily, about what happens in a Sunday service even without the glitz.

But if, for the moment, we go with the idea of “worship music,” then remember the old Songs of Praise TV programme, which once brought church services of all traditions from real local churches to our screens, the emphasis being, as the name suggests, on the singing. Just imagine how you would feel watching a broadcast from an Anglican of Methodist church, if the camera was constantly on the organist in his loft – his dexterous hands on the keys and stops, his nimble feet doing that thing on the pedals, or his beatific face (in the case of my friend Phil at my last church, lustily singing the hymns as he played two manuals and foot-pedals too). The robed choir, naturally, gets an occasional a look in too, but the chief-honcho organist is where the action is.

You would soon switch off, because you would want to see the people singing, and even that would soon pall if the organ loft was always in shot, or the pew-fillers were looking up at it, or were gazing at the choir boys and girls open-mouthed. And the reason is simple – it was taken for granted in all Christian services in the past that singing is a means by which congregations praise God and his works communally. The organ, or the guys with the fiddles and serpents in a nineteenth century balcony, or the kids knocking out Youth Praise on cheap guitars in a “Yoof Service,” were there only to facilitate the praises of the people.

Theologically (though it was so instinctive as seldom to be verbalised) 1 Corinthians 14:26ff taught that everybody brings a contribution to the assembly in order to build up the whole – hymn-singing being perhaps the most widely participatory of such team-building activity in the Spirit. Specifically, Ephesians 5:18ff describes the singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs as the way that we should speak to each other about God as well as to the Lord, thankfully and, by the implication of v18, in order that we should be filled with the Spirit we all already possess, through this mutual ministry.

This is a very long way away from the concept of being led by an specially spiritually gifted (and beautiful and passionate) team of musicians, whose role is somehow to call down the presence of God on an empty and thirsty people. As my pastor rightly said a couple of weeks ago (after I’d said it the previous week), God comes into the building as the people indwelt by the Spirit arrive.

The truly radical New Testament doctrine of worship follows from this last truth, and explains why Christian worship differs fundamentally from the old temple worship, and why the very ideas of “worship leaders” and “worship bands,” are misnomers. Even the common concept of “Sunday worship,” though it acknowledges that worship is a whole lot more than the music bit, misses the New Testament mark.

Essentially, the gospel teaches that the central locus of encounter with God in the Old Testament, the temple, has been replaced in the New Covenant by Jesus himself, who is the literal presence of God on earth for which the temple was only a metaphor: John 2:19-22 refers. By extension, the people in whom Jesus comes to dwell by his Spirit are in a secondary sense also the temple of God, or more precisely each is a component of it (Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:4-9). Note, then, that temple imagery for the Church is not a metaphor – it is the reality that replaces the Jerusalem temple.

What then follows from this, in terms of what worship is? Clearly the temple was not just a holy place during services. All that went on there from the doorkeeping of Psalm 84:10 to the teaching of Jesus in Solomon’s portico was, by definition, worship, for God’s presence was always there. And thus the New Testament develops a whole raft of teaching about our very lives expressing the worship of the Lord:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.

Romans 12:1

Note both the comprehensiveness of this for the whole of life, and its priorities: daily living to God is not just an aspect of worship, or analogically worship. It is, in fact, the true and proper worship. It is the “worship in Spirit and truth” about which Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman. So if you have a “worship team” at your church, it ought to be the folks overseeing discipleship. The guys with the guitars (preferably without the trendy hats and the Coldplay habit) are just musicians, or perhaps the “gathered praise” team.

It is therefore no accident that the New Testament says so little about “the worship service,” nor that several of the worship words used in it are never used of what we would consider “worship” at all.

For what happens, or is supposed to happen, whenever a church meets together, is simply the regular coming together of the bricks of the temple to share what they have learned and experienced in daily worship, and so to encourage each other for when they have to separate for their individual worship-lives. This, of course, covers the teacher who has beavered away at his sermon all week, the testimony of the woman whose husband has been converted, the prayers for those stones that have become loose or chipped, and of course everyone’s praise and thanksgiving for all things, which somehow are more than the sum of the parts operating individually. Not to mention the efforts of the catering team, the accounting work of the treasurer, and the rehearsal of the musicians, if you happen to have them.

It might be that one of those musicians sets some new verses to an old song, or is even enthused by a sermon to write a new song altogether. Now, I wonder if it is better for the congregation to sing such in-house offerings, or to restrict their fare to whatever appears in the CCLI Top One Hundred worship songs (probably published by heterodox Bethel Redding). I have a suspicion that the less impressed one is by the video images (and that’s inevitable the more you realise those images are a perversion of biblical worship), the more home-grown offerings will be valued.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to WeAreNotWorship

  1. Ben says:

    Funny how saying things like this is probably more contentious in some circles than supporting gay marriage.

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