One of the more cringe-worthy things I did as a pastor happened pretty early on in my ministry. One particular Sunday, our church wasn’t singing during praise. This upset me so greatly that I stopped the music mid-worship and I gave the congregation a stern rebuking. Later that day, I came to realize that I handled this quite wrongly, regardless of how correct my concerns were and publically apologized the following Sunday.
From what I understand, this problem of not singing during worship has become pretty common in Evangelical circles today. By all reports, people seem to be singing less and less every Sunday.
There have been a lot of attempts at explaining why this is. Some argue that the songs are too shallow and repetitive. Others claim that there are simply too many new songs to learn. And while I find myself in agreement with a lot of those arguments, I would like to offer a different take.
Why aren’t people participating in worship? It might be because a lot of us have forgotten what corporate worship is for. And the easiest way for me to explain what I mean is by directing us to see corporate worship through the lens of Shalom.
Corporate Worship1 is an expression of Shalom
Shalom is a harmonious collective oneness that, as per the cultural mandate, we are all charged with cultivating.
And whether you realize it or not, Shalom is also the name of the game when it comes to corporate worship, especially if we are talking about worship music.
Sacred songs in corporate worship are not supposed to be entertainment or music appreciation. Nor are they primarily about intimacy with God per se. Instead, they are done to help foster unity. Take Col 3:14-16 for example. Notice how many references to Shalom we can find in that passage alone.
14And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
In Paul’s mind, the point of using music in worship is Shalomic unity in the church.
Now…why are we directed to use music?
It’s because music has the ability to create Shalomic unity (albeit analogously) better than just about any other tool.
Music Fosters Shalomic Unity
One of the things that I’ve noticed about music over the years is its uncanny ability to take large groups of people who are strangers and make them feel a sense of unity that they otherwise wouldn’t feel. Take, for example, the following video. This is the rock band, Snow Patrol, performing at an Irish music festival called “Oxegen”. Every year, The Oxegen festival gathers some 90,000 people from all over Ireland and beyond, most of whom are complete strangers to one another.
Pay special attention to how lead singer, Gary Lightbody, singlehandedly gets 90,000 strangers to unite together as they collectively sing.
For those of you who come from Contemporary Worship traditions like myself, have you ever noticed that the best and most blessed times of worship happened not because your praise team was so talented or the songs were so catchy, but because they created a sense of corporate unity?
Shalom is primarily about oneness. It’s about taking unrelated people and joining them into an interconnected unity that causes mutual flourishing.
This is why corporate worship is so important in the church. Singing songs in corporate worship creates a Shalomic unity. The real reason that worship heals or strengthens weary hearts is not the song, the musicianship, or the performer. It’s the shalom that is created.
This is largely why I try to urge my praise leaders to resist the temptation to prioritize musical (technical) excellence, trendy songs or musical genre over Shalomic unity.
Shalom, Justice and Worship
Shalom is supposed to be the norm for humans on the earth. Just as a fish needs water to excel at being a fish, humans need shalom in order to flourish. When Christians say that the world is broken, we mean more specifically that Shalom is broken. Justice then, is the restoration of Shalom and the mitigation of the effects of its loss. To do justice is to restore Shalom. And this is why Justice and Peace are so inextricably connected. You cannot have one without the other.
What that means for our current discussion on corporate worship is that sacred singing not only is supposed to drive us to shalom, it’s also supposed to inspire us to justice.
I am a big proponent of the Christus Victor theory of Atonement3. What that theory says is that when Jesus died and rose again, He gloriously defeated any and all enemies of shalom (eg sin and death) breaking any power they might have had over us. Jesus is a warrior, like David against Goliath, who has won on our behalf.
In the ancient world, whenever kings fought, there tended to be a kind of trash talk that occurs after combat victory. And many times, especially in the Bible, this trash talk is codified into song. (Eg ‘The Song at the Sea” in Ex 15, Lamech’s “sword song” in Gen 4, or even Paul’s words in 1 Cor 15:55).
It is thus helpful to think of Praise as victory trash talk. It’s done as a form of protest over the craziness, brokenness, hurtfulness, frustrations, heartaches, heartbreaks, fears, anxieties, insecurities, rejections, meltdowns, insufficiencies, ugliness, and all other general enemies of Shalom that we have to deal with in this world regardless of whether they come from ourselves, oppressive and/or hurtful people in our lives or whatever powers and principalities there may be.
In this sense, Praise is a statement of resistance. It says that though I recognize the real world is filled with terrible anti-Shalomic things, I place my hope in Christ who has fixed already (but not yet) it all. Today I sing in faith. But there is a day coming when I will see this fixing with my own eyes. But even if that day is not tomorrow, I will NOT bow down to any of these things. I will protest and resist until I no longer have a voice with which to make a sound, singing not as a form of entertainment, but of activism4.
Lastly, sacred songs are to be source of strength.
One of the words for ‘song’ in Hebrew is “Zimra”. It’s a word that first shows up in Moses’ song at the Sea in Ex 15:2.
“The Lord is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation;”
The interesting thing about Zimra is that it can either mean ”song” or “strength/might”.
The point the Bible is trying to make is that life is hard and full of troubles (John 16:33) and you, more often than not are going to be victimized by them in a way that silences your “trash talk”.
You therefore need to soberly expect those hard times (1 Peter 4:12) and prepare for them.
This is another reason why we do corporate singing. When troubled times happen, sacred songs are supposed to be a source of strength to help you.
If you are a worship leader, my suggestion is that you make sure that your congregation is provided with a large number of such songs that can serve as this kind of resource. When picking songs, simply ask yourself, can this song help people in their times of trouble? Is this something that they can sing on their own or with a small group of people and find shalom? If not, you seriously should consider jettisoning the song from your set list.
- I realize that I am conflating worship and music throughout this post. For those who are bothered by this, please bear with it for now.
- Though not at the expense of Penal Substitution.
- Activism is social advocacy of Justice.