I have just been to the gym and as I sat on the erg pulling away I was listening to Hillsong. Yes, Hillsong. In my circle of the faith, some people hear that name and smile appreciatively because of their love for Hillsong and their music. Others reach for a bucket, their grimaces betrayed their deep abhorrence of their music and all things Hillsong.
I do have some problems with Hillsong. Their theology is over-realised to a large degree. They sing of the already of the Kingdom too much and do not take much cognicance of the 'not yet.' Thematically, they miss out a lot of themes which are important such as repentance, prayer, seeking forgiveness, unity, dimensions of mission etc. Their songs tend to be generic, pop worship has to be, to gain the largest market. Yet, aside from this imbalance, their music to me is astonishing.
My concern in this blog is not Hillsong, but the reaction against singing among many Christians today. I understand it. The way we sing is a problem, with a band at the front, performance driven in many cases, and the congregation appearing more as audience than participants. The songs are often lacking in depth, with repeated refrains and a shallow dealing with theology. This is forced by the genre of contemporary worship which has swung away from the hymic form of yesteryear.
We also sing a lot, and we repeat songs a lot. Our worship to me is imbalanced with an over-reliance on sung worship at the expense of prayer, sharing, etc. NT worship is hard to completely assess as we do not have a huge amount to go on, but certainly in 1 Cor 14 we have church in homes, based around meals with the Lord's Supper, and a charismatic sharing of gifts (esp. v.26). Actually, singing worship is not mentioned in the Gospels except in regards to the infancy narrative in Luke with the songs of Zechariah, Mary, Simeon and the shepherds, those singing as Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey and the hymn sung as they went out from the Last Supper. It can be assumed that the disciples and Jesus sang as he went to the synagogue as was his custom. I am sure as they sat around at night around the camp fires and in the homes of people as they travelled through Palestine, they sang. Yes, it is fair to critique the over-reliance and nature of sung worship. It is fair to challenge the weak theology. It is fair to ask questions and look to restructure worship.
Yet, we go too far when we want to throw out singing. The Psalms are replete with commands to sing. We have determinations from the Psalmists that they 'will sing' no matter what the suffering and circumstance. The NT affirms singing. We find Paul and Silas singing in a Philippian jail, witnessing as they worshiped God on the Sabbath at midnight. Luke appears to link their miraculous release to this event, he often linking prayer to the miraculous. Paul speaks of singing in 1 Cor 14; determines to sing with his spirit and mind; that Gentiles will sing in Rom 15; inserts hymns into his letters like Phil 2:6-11; Col 1:15-20; Eph 5:14; 1 Tim 3:16; encourages believers to sing in OT psalms, new Christian hymns and spontaneous and other Spirit-led songs. Revelation is fulll of glorious songs of praise.
So we go too far when we repudiate singing. We miss the glory of the modern song movement. I find it hard to believe that God is in heaven hating people singing to him. There are examples of God being offended by worship in the OT (e.g. Amos, Is 1). Yet these relate not to the worship itself, but the failure of the worshipers to live the covenant and especially show deep concern for the needy. Their worship had become vertical and not horizontal. I believe what upsets God more is not whether we sing too much or get the songs just right or the balance perfect; but what we do when we leave. Do we care for the needy? Are we radically generous? Are our hearts right? Are we committed to living out our faith in obedience and humility? Are we hypocrites or true worshipers. There should be no disjunction between our Sunday worship and the other 166 hours of the week.
Personally, I think God loves it when people come into his presence intentionally and pour out their lives to him. We should not baulk at emotion in worship as people raise their hands and pour out their hearts to God. We are called to love God with all of our beings? We should not be concerned when believers play skillfully to the Lord, seek to please him with the brilliance of their worship, sing well, play well. But we should be concerned when we idolise these things and performance obscures worship.
Over all I think we should sing less, we should restructure our worship spaces so that God is the audience and not the band. Mind you I do not get into sitting looking at other people, I find that really distracting. I want to face an empty front of a church maybe with a worship leader and the band to one side. I think we should have more prayer, more sharing, more open space, more silence, more songs of depth, more interaction, more dynamics in the service than we do.
But I don't want to come to church to analyse every week, to tear apart the songs, critique the sermon, rebuke the worship leader, and generally be a critic of worship. I want to participate and give God some real glory. So I choose to. Often the worship is not that great. Sometimes it is. Sometimes I am leading it, but I do so now in fear and trembling because I know it is faultering and weak. Yet, I think God does not analyse my prayers, he hears them holistically. He response to humans reaching for him, even if the expression is not perfect. So, as for me, I will sing to the Lord.
This was stimulated by a verse I had never noticed before. It is Deuteronomy 28:47: 'Because you did not serve the Lord your God joyfully and with gladness of heart for the abundance of everything, therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, and lacking everything...' There is a link here between a failure to come to God in joy and gladness with exile and oppression. I want to continue to come to God openly. I will do so through the songs of Hillsong, Vineyard, Matt Redman, and more. Have I got this right?