I still remember where I was in our home in Missouri when my wife looked at me in frustration and said, “Do you realize what’s at stake?” I had just finished directing and leading the music and worship activities of a large church through a very busy Christmas season. Her comment was directed to my lack of time and energy dedicated to our four young children…all of whom were under the age of five. The scales fell from my production-laden eyes as she painted a picture of four little lives being shaped by a dad who considered his effective pastoral public persona as an equitable substitute for developing authentic and quality relationships with his own four children. As I look back on that day, I’m very grateful for being confronted with the question, “What’s at stake?”
As a worship pastor over the past twenty-five years, I realize more and more the “what’s at stake” question needs to be asked, not only in my personal life as a husband and father, but also every time I sculpt a worship order for a congregation. Pastors and ministry leaders in the local church have an enormous stewardship in shepherding the lives of the people who attend services each week. The folks in the pews hand over sixty minutes of their week to be led in meaningful corporate worship. Sometimes I fear that worship leaders forget to ask themselves the “what’s at stake” question, unwittingly prompting a congregation to respond to them – the worship leader- rather than the One worthy of worship.
The following statement by A. W. Tozer solidified in my mind the stakes on Sunday mornings:
What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important
thing about us… man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion
has ever been greater than its idea of God. Worship is pure or base as the worshiper entertains high or low thoughts of God. For this reason the gravest question before
the Church is always God Himself, and the most portentous fact about any man
is not what he at any given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart
conceives God to be like.
What’s at stake on Sunday mornings? People’s view of God. Worldviews diametrically opposed to the gospel barrage our people weekly; corporate worship should help people recalibrate their hearts and minds towards God. If Tozer is right that the most important thing about a person is their view of God, then every aspect of a worship service — the songs’ texts, the spoken transitions, the prayers and even the announcements — should point people to a clearer, more focused and biblically-informed understanding of who God is.
For too long, many worship leaders believed that theology, doctrine and the teaching of biblical truths was the senior pastor’s territory. Unfortunately, without a biblical and theological reference point to screen and evaluate the lyric content of congregational music, many songs have entered the church’s repertoire that are inaccurate reflections of biblical truth. I often ask our seminary students in the Department of Biblical Worship here at Southern Seminary, “Do we fully realize that people’s concept of God is often formed by what we sing and the way we sculpt, deliver and lead them in worship?”
Throughout the Bible, writers utilized songs as vehicles of essential truths and doctrines. The Apostle Paul was convinced of the power of the song in transferring fundamental concepts concerning the Person of Christ. We forget that verses like Colossians 1:15-20 were canticles: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For everything was created by Him, in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things have been created through Him and for Him...”
Paul’s canticle in Philippians 2:5-11, often called the Carmen Christi, is Latin for Hymn to Christ. As Michael Card notes in his book Scribbling in the Sand, Paul didn’t write several more pages in his letter to describe Christ; he wrote a song with two verses and a chorus. Paul used a song to paint a pristine picture of Jesus Christ–something the members of that young church plant in Philippi needed to endure the wave of false teachings engulfing them.
Two summers ago, my family and I attended a wedding held at the Learning Center of the International Mission Board near Richmond, VA. An IMB missionary who interviewed persecuted Christians in the 10/40 window told me that his research revealed some startling trends among people persecuted for their faith in Christ. He said 100% of those Christians who were victorious through persecution had one thing in common—they sang. They sang gospel-centric songs and hymns laced with the Word of God and the truths of Christ. The songs they sang reminded them, inspired them, and pointed them to Christ.
Songs follow us around. The songs we sing in corporate worship should also follow us throughout the week. But in many ways, so too should the prayers, the sermon, the testimonies of God’s grace and all the elements of our corporate worship. Bryan Chapell writes in his book, Christ-Centered Worship: “This is more than a matter of choosing music that is properly respectful or adequately relevant. Our worship should show the face of Jesus to those who have gathered and to those who need to gather to worship Him. They see Him when they understand His Gospel – making our task to represent that Gospel in all that we do.”
I had no idea when my wife confronted me with the question to “consider what’s at stake in the life of my children,” that God would use that in a number of areas in my life. What’s at stake when we worship together corporately? People’s view of God.
Joe Crider is the Ernest and Mildrend Hogan Professor of Church Music and Worship at Southern Seminary. He also serves as the Executive Director of the Institute for Biblical Worship. In addition to his responsibilities at Southern, Dr. Crider is a worship pastor at Highview Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.