I am a Christian and (sometimes) I hate worship music. Maybe it’s the excessive clichés, the endless repetition of the.same.four.chords. over and over again or my innate inability to clap in rhythm and hesitation to shout things like “HALLELUJAH!” and “PRAISE HIM” at the most random and unbeckoning of moments. Whatever it is I have to admit that, if I’m honest with myself, there are some Sundays when the worship leader jumps on stage and beckons the congregation “Please stand and join me in worship!” that my response is just: It’s not that I don’t like singing or music. In fact, I love both of them. If you were to take me to a great concert, say someone like Taylor Swift uh-I mean Mumford and Sons, I’d be belting out every line of every song, jumping up and down with my hands in the air like I was leading a Pentecostal tent meeting. But come 10 AM on Sunday morning when I’m invited to join in proclaiming, “here I am to worship” my attitude is more like: And this bothers me. It really does. Because I want to want to worship. I yearn to cast aside my cynicism for just two minutes, to find myself captivated by the music, with my heart centered on God, my mind solely focused on Him. I want to be compelled by a sincere inward movement, drawn into the music and driven to throw my hands up as I fall prostrate before the Lord. David danced before the ark so passionately that his clothes came off; I can’t imagine being moved to that level by anything less than Gagnam Style and some darn good Tequila. And that’d hardly be worshipful now, would it? What’s worse is that sometimes, it seems, the more I try, the more I yearn for this sincere compulsion to worship, the more I find bitterness and resentment building up inside me. It gets to the point that whenever I’m asked “Don’t you just want to worship the Lord this morning?” I’d just as quickly kick a kitten. Maybe it’s Satan, maybe it’s the schemes of the devil. Or quite possibly it’s my own pride and independence, my stubbornness and hardness of heart. Whatever it is, I know I’m not the first person to have this problem, nor am I the last.
And I also know that worship doesn’t always depend on me wanting to do it; emotional agreement is not required for obedience. In fact, in many ways worship music has nothing to do with actual worship. For it is not singing that is worship but the act of submission. By and large, most Protestant denominations have moved away from the Catholic tradition of using liturgy, a structured form of worship and confession. Following a prepared liturgy, the worship leader would recite certain confessions and statements, which the congregation would then repeat. These statements were imperfect human creations that had been written by people for the expressed purpose of proclaiming Christ as Lord and attempting to give him due praise.
So although many churches no longer use a liturgy per say (or at least don’t call it that by name) we cannot deny the relation this has to our current worship services. We’ve fooled ourselves into thinking that by abandoning traditional liturgy we have found a way for worship to become something that is entirely sincere and voluntary while also being acknowledged as a necessary and routine part of our Christian walk. But we obviously haven’t succeed; case in point: (sometimes) I hate worship music.
And so, in many ways, our modern American churches are just as liturgical as our traditions of old. Now we just write our own liturgy and play it to the tune of an electric guitar. And what we know from traditional liturgy is that it is not so much the emotions behind our actions as it is the actions themselves that matter. Worship does not spring from desire so much as from obedience and humility. One who bows before the king may not feel like bowing before the king, but in bowing he is paying due reverence.
Likewise, liturgy offers us the format with which to worship; it takes us by the hand and leads us in worship all the while requiring nothing more than our willingness to be lead. Inasmuch, modern liturgy (i.e. worship music) no matter how cliché it sounds or how bitter we happen to be, presents us with the option of submitting to the act worship, which is worship in and of itself. For worship is not in song, it is in submission. Singing along to Chris Tomlin tunes is not worship because it was written by a Christian or makes all the right biblical references (which, let’s be honest, if often doesn’t). It is worship because it involves the act of attempting to pay due reverence to an eternal and transcendent God. It is worship because it involves the act of denying whatever cynicism and revulsion we may feel in that moment, denying our regard for ourselves and submitting to the leader’s call: “join me in worship”.
And, although (obnoxiously) cynical, my earlier observations do point to one undeniable truth: our worship is suckfully inadequate. Any worship leader or congregant who actually believes they are properly worshiping Christ, that their means and execution of worship is worthy of the one they proclaim, is not only incredibly self-deceived but, worse, has ceased worshipping God at all. For God cannot be articulated by us, nor can our meager offerings pay due reverence to him. This is the acknowledgement of grace that must pervade every corner of our lives, including our guitar chords and drum beats on Sunday morning. Our worship is not worthy of our Creator. And yet our submission is still encouraged, adopted and invited. Indeed, it is.
And it is my existence in this grace that enables me to clap my hands and sing on Sunday morning when I’d just as soon go out for coffee with Ann Coulter. Often times, it is not because I enjoy the song, the music, or even feel emotionally moved. Sometimes that happens, but more often it is because I acknowledge the presence and existence of a God greater than myself and, in submission to him, I choose to attempt to worship him within the structure I’ve been given. It looked different 600 years ago and it will look different in another few centuries; the beauty is not in the means of worship but the one to whom our worship points.
This is the act of worship, the discipline which we all must seek: crooning along to “Lord of heaven and earth” is just a by-product of a humbled heart.
And so I sing along and clap when told. Sometimes I am emotionally moved, but mostly I am just trying. And in doing so, in trying and yearning, I submit to the current structure of worship. I allow myself to be lead into a liturgy and means of presenting my inadequate and wholly unworthy reverence.
I worship God.
But my goodness, sometimes I still really hate worship music.