Have you ever left a service and asked, “Did we worship the Lord or just sing a few songs? It’s a simple question, one built on a simple understanding of worship: to intentionally and directly declare God’s worth. In other words, we worship the Lord when we pray words like “You are great or good or faithful or loving or wonderful or (fill in the blank). The key words here are “You Are.”
This may seem like a moot point to some but we realize its significance when we apply it to another love relationship: that between a husband and wife. If I were to describe the wonderful qualities of my wife, Debbie, to someone else, she would be honored, especially if she heard me do so. If I were to describe to others, in the presence of my wife, how she has blessed and enriched my life, she would, once again, be honored. However, in neither situation would I have worshiped or adored my wife. I haven’t done so until I tell her – perhaps borrowing words from the legendary Joe Cocker – “You are so beautiful to me.”
How does that illustration apply to corporate worship? I acknowledge that we indirectly worship the Lord when we tell others about the Lord or describe what the Lord has done in our lives. Still, why stop there? Why not directly worship the Lord through adoration and praise? Why not carefully select songs which allow the congregation to affirm and acclaim the greatness of our Triune God?
But therein we discover a challenge. During the last few decades we have been blessed with an explosion of powerful and inspirational Christ-centered and Holy Spirit empowered music. Much of this music may be classified as “praise and worship” (P&W) for they provide the gathered community of God’s people prayers by which to worship the Lord in song.
But not all music commonly referred to as “P&W” may be so classified. When we read the lyrics of the music before us, we discover that a song may serve one or more other purposes including as a call to worship or preparation for worship or confession of sin or prayer for illumination by the Holy Spirit or profession of faith or testimony or commitment to discipleship. In other words, not all songs commonly referred to as “Praise and Worship” are actually songs by which we praise and worship the Lord.
When selecting songs for the weekly gathering, then, we best read the lyrics to determine how they best serve the purposes of the gathering. When selecting songs for corporate worship, for example, let us pick songs which provide the congregation an opportunity to adore and praise the Triune God. That approach to song selection will serve the gathered community in a far better manner than selecting songs for other reasons, such as their vibe or familiarity or how they contribute “to the atmosphere.”
By now you may asking for an example. Here is one: “How He Loves Us” by John Mark McMillan, a CCLI top 25 song. I love that song, even its provocative line comparing God’s grace to a “sloppy wet kiss.” I plug it into the weekly gathering of God’s people as a song of response to the wonderful grace of God for it serves well as a testimony to God’s work in the life of a people. But it is not a song of worship. You may counter that it an indirect form of worship. I grant that possibility but why would we select a song for corporate worship that is basically a song about us?
That is just one of many songs we could point to as an example. Others may be added to further clarify my point, such as “Open the Eyes of My Heart” by Paul Baloche, a lovely prayer for the work of the Holy Spirit so that we can worship in Spirit and in truth. Or “Here I Am to Worship” by Tim Hughes, a moving declaration of intent to worship the Lord, one that frames worship as gratitude to God’s grace in our lives. Or “The Presence of the Lord is Here” by Byron Cage, a foot-stomping, hand-clapping affirmation of faith in the presence of the Lord among those who gather in His name. Or “I Give Myself Away” by William McDowell, a beautiful and moving song of commitment. Or “Magnify the Lord With Me” by Arthur Dyer, an inspiring psalm and call to worship.
I hope those examples make this simple point: not all Christian songs provide congregations with opportunities to praise and worship the Lord. This point does not minimize the usefulness of those songs. It simply encourages those who plan and lead worship to recognize that the regular gathering of the church may include opportunities to sing many types of songs in addition to songs of praise and worship. It also encourages them to not only provide God’s people with an opportunity to sing, but to worship our great and glorious God in song.