Pop Worship

As I begin, I’d like to explain what I mean by worship. When I speak of worship I am primarily wrestling with our understanding of it as it relates to music, singing, corporate gatherings and the like. Being a twentysomething myself, and one who leads others into worship, I know this fact quite intimately. There is a popularity surrounding worship that, in my opinion, goes beyond simply worshipping Jesus with authenticity and enters the realm of pop-culture America. I would propose from the outset of this article that the mass mediation of worship music in the popular subculture of Christianity has not only trivialized worship, but compromised its authenticity.

Several factors have led to the popularization of worship throughout America within the past ten years or so, marked by an increase of worship related events and materials. Large-scale worship conferences like Passion or Vineyard praise services have attracted a growing number of students across the US and internationally. In addition to these popular events, large-scale distributors of worship music and materials such as Integrity Music, Maranatha!, Passion, Worship Together, and Vineyard have sought to increase the accessibility of worship music and worship “experiences” globally. In addition to this, as I will note later, there has been an explosion of “worship” CDs throughout the Christian music industry. Add all of these factors up and it becomes clear that worship is trendy within Christian circles.

Some might say, “Yea, worship should be popular—it’s a good thing, why shouldn’t we attend worship conferences and produce worship CDs if it’s going to help us worship God?” I agree, if it is authentic worship towards which we are motivated by such things. However, it seems to me that we, as Christians, have idealized this notion of worship beyond its normal realm. It’s become pop worship. Allow me to explain what I mean by pop worship.

Pop worship is the love of “worship” simply because it is culturally fashionable. I will provide an example. Often we attend worship events because “there’s going to be a great worship band there.” It is not inherently wrong to desire excellent music as we worship sincerely. But by loving a band because they conform to the current pop notion of worship, we are pulling away from authentic worship and engaging in a trend outside of and distinct from true worship. In this scenario, we often find more pleasure by being part of a trend than we do engaging in authentic worship. This, in my opinion, is clearly problematic. If this comes to be the state of our hearts, I would propose that we have lost the authenticity of true worship and replaced it with the cool, hip, and fashionable world of worship. Unfortunately, as I noted previously, the Christian music industry is not helping either.

The Christian music industry, like most industries in our capitalistic economy (I don’t in any way intend to attack capitalism) is market driven. It follows the very principles of supply and demand found in other markets. Certain Christian music labels undoubtedly ask or require that the artists they represent record worship CDs— perhaps simply because it is what is popular.

Recently I entered a Christian bookstore to see how many worship CDs and DVDs were available. Within five minutes I found over twenty worship-related items, though I wasn’t even browsing in the “worship section.” It was clear through the advertising and promotional materials surrounding these CDs that they were part of an attempt to ride the wave of the worship craze.

Generally, I would say, most Christians operate according to the same principles as non-Christians when it comes to pop-culture. Let me explain. For the most part, Christians idolize pop icons in the same way that non-Christians do. Maybe we would like to say we don’t, but I believe we do. We elevate Christian pastors, musicians, worship leaders and authors all the time. We place these individuals in places that they do not belong. It’s no different than in the secular industry and sometimes its worse because these people are popular “for God.” That’s a dangerous phrase: Pop icons for God.

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I believe that when we take anything, whether a piece of artwork or a symbol and we popularize, mass-produce and distribute it, we are in danger of trivializing it. Think for a moment about the golden arches. The McDonalds’ symbol is forever etched in our social conscientiousness for good or for bad. We see it continually; its presence is pervasive throughout our culture. When we see this symbol we cease to see any meaning behind it, aside from being symbolic for the most popular fast food restaurant in America. Any deeper significance that it might possess is emptied because we cease to notice it due to mass exposure. My point here is not to compare worship with the McDonalds’ symbol. All that I propose is that when we are largely surrounded by something and when it becomes popular, it also is trivialized in some degree. The deep meanings become less profound.

This very trivialization has happened to our conception of worship. Often we approach worship services as if they were a rock concerts, something for our enjoyment and consumption. We compare and contrast “good” and “bad” worship bands as if they exist for our ears, not for God’s. It is at this point we are making an idol of “worship”.

Ultimately, I cannot judge the hearts of women and men. There are plenty of individuals and organizations that have true, honest and sincere motives in regard to worship. They just want to worship the Lord. That is wonderful, truly authentic. My words are not for them. Rather, I am interested in challenging pop culture Christianity, which places this false notion of worship in a place apart from God, and in essence worships ‘worship’ because it’s trendy.

What, then, is authentic worship? It would be quite a task to nail down a definitive definition of what authentic worship is. But I don’t believe it is electric guitars or large gatherings. It is not animated lighting or praise songs with catchy hooks. It is not hymns and it is not merely lifting our hands. It is not worship DVDs or CDs; rather, worship is something that happens in one’s soul, not a product that you consume. You do not consume worship. You offer it. Can worship materials facilitate worship? Yes. Can worship become an idol in itself? Yes. It’s so important for Christians to fight the inauthentic pop notion of worship and learn to worship authentically. This comes as we allow God to take His rightful place in our lives as the true object of our affections.

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