It may be a sign that you’re a morbidly over-analytic person: You suggest a late-night Taco Bell run to your friend so you can “hash out” the worship concert you just attended.
I was ready to dissect, with all the meticulous scrutiny of a lab scientist with a clipboard.
But what’s often ironic about the cynics’ critique of Christian trends is how we can comply with the very negative symptoms we critique. And that night, I was my own case in point. I often see lyrics in contemporary worship songs as lazily strung-together abstractions that are too overused to stir me. But such pretentiousness detracts from the very goal of authentic worship: giving glory to God. Maybe I crave authenticity in worship, but I dilute its integrity with my own excessive critique. And certainly there is value in lyrical repetition, even of the most simplistic phrases. Sometimes it takes relentless verbal ammunition for truth to seep into one’s spiritual core.
But then the cynic asks: What if it’s not “truth” in a worship song but mere sentiment? What if a set of lyrics does contain scriptural truth, but we are too caught up in the key change to interpret that lyric responsibly and guard against a misleading emotional response? Or what if we don’t “feel” anything at all, can worship still be “authentic” then?
Recently, I stood in a congregation singing, “You make all things work together for my good.”
And my knee-jerk reaction went like this:
As the music intensifies, I find myself wondering: Why “my” good? “Our” would make so much more sense, wouldn’t it? Don’t Christians worship corporately as God’s people? Doesn’t “my” simply fuel the individualistic tendencies that my own sinfulness and culture already encourage?
Just as these thoughts gain momentum, I become particularly irritated at how the music climbs toward climactic intensity in direct disproportion to my deepening doubts.
Then, convinced that everything in me beckons only a skewed and emotionally-driven interpretation of a very fragile truth, I ask: What does “good” even mean? I cognitively believe God is good. Yet I simultaneously realize that my cultural hardwiring has co-opted the meaning of “good,” so that, caught up in the musical moment, I attach “good” to the trappings of the prosperity gospel: financial security, a happy marriage, a job that I love. I don’t think of God’s interpretation of “good,” which includes a daily invitation to die to myself and take up His cross.
Yet in this light, when I realize that the deepest “good” in my life starts with suffering, the idea of emotional reaction of happiness to this refrain feels distasteful. My emotions at that moment aren’t too keen on the idea of suffering, even if my mind “gets it.”
Of course, even in these reflections, I’m thinking primarily about myself. “I”s and “me”s often come with the territory of over-introspection and cynicism.
But here’s a simple truth that does not allow for much analytical wiggle room: Worship is about God, not me.
C.S. Lewis describes in Surprised by Joy how, even as an atheist, his love for mythology primed him for worship because he felt an urgent adoration for something completely other than himself. Lewis felt he was “sent back to the false gods to acquire some capacity for worship” that would evolve to adoration of God ”being what He necessarily is than for any particular benefit He confers upon us.”
Adoration of the living God means sacrificing one’s own obsessive self-assessment. Concern about my own authenticity places the focus on me, not God.
The me-barrier plays out in so many instances, but physical engagement during worship is an easy example. Many Christians describe feeling the “pressure” to raise hands during worship, unsure whether or not to capitulate to the worship leader who aggressively urges the congregation, “Put up your arms right now and tell the Lord how much you love Him!”
Christians often wince at the whiff of emotional coercion. Many of us have grown up believing that in worship we need to be hyper-attentive to whether or not we’re being “authentic”—as if we each have to reach some pre-determined threshold of emotional intensity before physical expression. If I do anything when I’m “not feeling it,” then I’m being contrived.
Yet in one church experience, I was so refreshed by a member who told us he wasn’t “feeling worship” until he saw our friend stretching both his hands upward and was encouraged to do the same. To me, this doesn’t seem like getting caught up in a wave of empty emotion. This seems like a blessing—a blessing to join others in turning together toward God.
It’s a risk to reveal our true emotion in worship, just as much as it is a risk to admit we don’t feel much of anything—and offer up our worship, anyway. But such risks are what give the church its strength of community.
Again, we have to come back to the truth that worship isn’t about us. It’s not even about our critiques of it. And when we are honest about our weaknesses and rely on His character rather than our own emotional “needs,” God can restore His purpose of worship in us.
We are readers of texts and hearers of songs, and we are often critics. We have amassed so many experiences and biases that often color the songs we sing. Our Christian responsibility as receivers of the word and the Word is to not resign to a rhetorical wasteland of meaninglessness, however. It is to actively, creatively and faithfully “re-fill” the meanings of words like holiness, love, truth and grace as we sing. And that also means choosing to stop the analytical dissection. Criticism is a God-given ability; but we need to bring it full circle into greater adoration of Him.
One Sunday at church, a song’s repeated line was “I surrender all.” It is a difficult but inspiring sentiment—a sentiment that basically makes me want to crawl under the pew for not meaning it every time I sing it.
But in refreshing transparency, the pastor admitted he didn’t feel surrendered as he sang; he said he felt like he was singing, “Sorry, God, but I’m only surrendering some.” Sure, Christians should surrender all. But honesty is the first step toward cultivating a desire to “surrender all” and internalizing the prescript more fully. And here is the authenticity we so long for.