Rethinking the Words of Worship

You scratch your head, you look around, and you ask your friend, “Wait, what did he just sing?” You just heard a theological lapse from the mouth of the well-intentioned worship leader. Somewhere in the middle of that epic bridge he declared, “Thank You, Father, for dying on the cross for my sins.” Wait, shouldn’t he have said the Son? You stare straight ahead trying to remember if you overslept the morning the church leaders voted to change the church’s position on the Godhead.

We’ve all experienced this to some degree in that dimly lit sanctuary—surrounded by outstretched arms, eyes closed tight, and voices lifted in song. Perhaps our faux pas included something other than an absent-minded misrepresentation of the Trinity: maybe we came just shy of Will Ferrell’s dinner table prayer in Talladega Nights when he praised that sweet little baby boy in a golden manger up there in heaven. We must realize our worship leaders teach us as much about God and our relationship with Him as our preachers do. The only difference—worship leaders use songs, words and prayers.

The words we sing unite our hearts, our minds, and our congregations in the vertical and visceral act of worship. Songs and Scripture serve as vehicles to the throne of the Almighty. Worship leaders have the task of pointing people in the right direction. One of my seminary professors asked, “If a Muslim, Buddhist or Mormon attended your worship service, could they sing the same songs we do about Jesus? Is our worship distinctly Christian?”

In Jesus’ famous conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, He said the Father desires those who worship “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23). It seems impossible to discuss New Testament worship without including these words in the discussion. Piety and theology must converge for us to properly worship the triune God. It follows that thoughtful, artful, and theologically accurate song lyrics serve as sure-footed vehicles that direct our response to God.

The words spoken from the stage should operate the same way. Too often, worship leaders improvise speeches between songs when the piano or electric guitar players need a break. How many effective preachers stand to preach on Sunday morning without thoughtful, prayerful, and diligent preparation? (Notice I said “effective.”) Words have the power to engage or distract the Christian from pondering the majesty of salvation.

The spoken word serves as an effective tool in worship. Yet the absence of words can carry just as much power as worship leaders embrace silence. The Lord can use times of stillness to reveal Himself to His people. Let the heavy silence hover over a room full of people. Invite the Holy Spirit to get a word in edgewise. 

God’s word is living and active—it is substantive, sacred and most certainly intentional. God revealed Himself through His word: He brought order from chaos in the beginning and light into darkness in the incarnation. Worship leaders who recognize the power of words in song yet choose to speak “off the cuff” waste a great opportunity to continue carrying the congregation to the cross, the throne, and the empty tomb. Christians ought to craft our speech as much as we do our poetry. Do we speak intentionally? Do we need to speak at all? Do we speak truthfully? Theological statements have consequences, and our people hunger for the truth. In song or speech, we must handle the gospel with care.

Some of us brave enough to admit it have stood behind that microphone and scolded the congregation for not “getting into it enough.” Some of us just wanted to take a few moments to absent-mindedly strum the guitar and improvise a sermon on what this next song means to us. Songs and spoken words ought to drive worshipers toward God. These elements invite the church to commune with the Lord in spirit and truth. Even more, these tools instruct (properly or improperly) the church in the attributes, nature, and personality of God. Public prayers can do likewise.

When our leaders pray onstage, they pray on the people’s behalf. “Can I get an ‘Amen’?” Jesus taught His disciples to pray and, in a way, our worship leaders teach our people how to pray, too. Listening to the prayers of my seminary professors and pastors in the classroom, the pulpit, and the coffee shop has shaped my own prayers. The Lord continues to nudge my selfish heart toward a more genuine, loving, and biblically saturated prayer language. The men and women who practice the presence of God in their public and private prayer lives model the communicative relationship between God and His people.

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Maybe you have heard (or spoken) prayers that have medaled in mind-bending verbal gymnastics. On the one hand, we want to communicate with God in an honest, intimate, and meaningful way. On the other, we want to avoid the stigma of Pharisaical filibustering. We should invoke the presence of God with a measure of humility, thanksgiving, and accuracy. If we desire the implicit assent of our brothers and sisters when we declare, “And all God’s people said…” we ought to speak rightly before our God and our community.

The worship leader succeeds when he or she facilitates an unencumbered encounter with the living God. Yet part of the responsibility for true biblical worship falls on the congregant as well. The worshiper must find his or herself willing to remember, submit, and ultimately center his or her life on God and the marvelous things He has done. Can proper remembrance, submission, and obedience stem from poor theological content? Should we orient our lives around biblical half-truths?

Songs, speech and prayer function as the worship leader’s tools that teach the church about God and our relationship to Him. When they use these elements effectively, our worship overflows as a response to God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Biblical worship transcends genre, personal taste, and emotion. May it never transcend the truth.

Adam Wood is a worship pastor in Dallas where where he lives with his wife, Amy. He is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and has a passion to lead fellow believers in worship by incorporating Scripture and the arts. You can find more information at www.thelazarusblues.com

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