I’ve been exploring worship for about twenty years. What is it really?

Even as a musician, it always bothered me that in my usual circles we equate “worship” with “music.” We’ll have messages asserting the contrary, but at the end of the sermon the leader tells us to “stand to worship.” Is that not what we have been doing during the teaching (“worship God through the preaching of his word”)? Did we not just learn in the preceding 45 minutes that our entire lives should (among other “shoulds”) be defined as “worship”?

In the earlier years of this millenium—I’m not sure if this still holds true—worship was popularly defined as “our response to God,” thanks to a well-known leader from England. When I first heard that quote, I was coincidentally writing a paper for a grad school class that included my working definition of worship

our intentional response to God acknowledging the reality of who he is and our lives in him

So far, I still hold to that definition, and it continues to shape what I believe about the intersection of music and worship.

This summer, I’ll be facilitating several workshops that will include worship as a foundational and opening element. Before brainstorming more concrete steps for the different agendas, I decided to sit with God by listening to “Come Away” (Brock Human, 2007). The goal was for me to hear again his invitation to draw near to him—and to accept it—so I could align myself to his purposes.

Since we often like to begin our activities with “worship,” it dawned on me that this song would be an ideal invitation to kick off one of the workshop times. With that thought came a twinge of guilt that this wasn’t really a worship song.

It was too emotional, not theological enough.

It didn’t declare something about God; it was only enhancing my relationship with God.

In fact, the lyrics are from God’s point of view and directed toward me, not the other way around. For some doctrinal positions, that is downright wrong because all worship should be flowing from us to him. (I will say, though, that this song is not one I would pick to lead a congregation in singing because of the lyrical voice. It has a different approach for a different purpose.)

This led me to think about what we generally classify as “worship songs”: theologically sound—verbatim quotes from scripture are more highly valued—and God-focused lyrics. I love the richness of deep theology set to music, and if the sole purpose of worship songs it to teach and remind, then yes—by all means we should define worship songs this way.

However, the pursuit would be intellectual fortification rather than relational growth, especially if we are limited to 15 minutes at the beginning of a 75 minute agenda.

But what if worship songs are also meant to be, as we define worship in general, a response?

If we corporately sing songs that declare truth about God, we are singing a response, but it is the writer’s response. I may agree with that response, and it may align with my own, but it is still someone else’s response born out of someone else’s recollection of scripture and someone else’s experience of living out those passages with God.

In most cases, it is the response of someone I have never met.

Worship songs, like worship lifestyles, are broadly purposed beyond teaching or declaration. (That’s another topic for another discussion.) There is a place for songs that teach and declare truth about God. There is also a place for songs that cause me to respond with my own declarations of truth about God that are not only born out of my recollection of scripture but also of my personal experience living out those passages with him. The most theologically sound lyrics may do exactly that, but those aren’t the only songs that do that. What if the lyrics don’t contain the actual declaration, but they cause me to declare in my own words my devotion to God and my understanding of who he is? Are they any less songs of worship?

Without intending to impose undue limits or unnecessary boxes, I am wondering if we need to acknowledge the difference. Some worship songs are meant to be expressions of worship that we can all agree with, and some worship songs are meant to give rise to worship expressions from us. I think both can be called “worship songs.”

Not all of them are meant for a corporate gathering, but if our entire lives are meant to be an expression of worship, most of my life is not spent in a corporate gathering. Maybe more of these “not really a worship song” songs can be employed in our congregations than we realize, eliciting an organic response from our collective participation.

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