Choosing Songs For Worship: Word Salad or Holy Dialogue?
If you hadn't noticed it already, our Western culture has really shaped us for living for the moment. We live from event to event in an attempt to bring either excitement, pleasure, or even meaning to our lives. We make "bucket lists" of things to experience before we "kick the bucket." An insightful philosopher (Garth from Wayne's World) exhorted us to "live in the now." Robyn Williams, in Dead Poet's Society, told us to Carpe Deum (seize the day). Even way back in the 1980's Loverboy expressed the goal of a generation that Everybody's Working For The Weekend. All of this largely comes out of a worldview that is very existential. We are born. We live. We die. We need to get on with making the most of that window, shouldn't we?
Christian worshipers, however, should be singing a different tune (metaphor intended). We are a people of hope who believe that as God's people we are brought into a larger, eternal narrative that has a beginning, is playing out, and will come to a grand conclusion as God restores all Creation through Christ's return. Yet, sit in on a number of church services and examine the lyrical content of each of the songs that occur. Often, it sounds like they are randomly plucked from the CCLI or Spotify Top 10 list, with little rhyme or reason for inclusion other than being a song that is either a) enjoyable, b) has the right tempo, or more pragmatically, c) it works (whatever that refers to). Then, as each song goes by, the worshiper can be caught up in the momentary experience of that song. Yet, my experience at a large number of churches is that there is generally a very random sense to the order of the songs. Moving from topic to topic, it becomes more like a song salad.
Wait ... a salad is healthy, right? Lots of good content, and it can be done in a great variety of ways so that one never tires of the flavours. But what if there was a more intentional approach to how songs could be formed for times of worship?
Is there more to selecting songs for worshipers than the above criteria? I would argue that indeed... and importantly, there is! Beyond simply ensuring healthy items on the menu, Scripture is full of examples of what Constance Cherry has called "holy dialogue" between God and his people. In fact, she writes,
Ultimately, worship is a conversation between God and God’s chosen people. There is a mutual exchange, a holy dialogue, an invested sharing back and forth in worship. The reciprocity inherent in a true worship experience is a beautiful thing in which to participate; it is a living, vital conversation, not a religious program (The Worship Architect, p.5).
What Dr. Cherry is referring to is a pattern of gathering found in scriptures such as Exodus 3 (Moses at the burning bush), Luke 24 (The Emmaus Road encounter with risen Jesus), Acts 10 (Peter's rooftop vision) and Isaiah 6 (The vision of the throne of God). In each, there is a back-and-forth conversation, initiated by God, with responses by the person(s) in the story. It begins with a call by God to his presence, includes revelation of his word, the response of the person(s), and God's sending them (benediction). Scholars and liturgists refer to this as the 4-Fold Order. Yet, within those 4 movements there can be multiple instances of God and his people conversing.
All of this shows us that God has in mind a pattern of how we are to interact with him in worship gatherings. If we want to form our services biblically, this should inform how we approach the task of song selection. In other words, a series of questions can guide the process:
How should the dialogue begin? Is there a way to initiate the conversation?
Who should be speaking (even God through the lyrics of a song, if it is directly or taken from scripture)?
What should that party be saying at any point?
Where is the conversation leading?
How should we end the dialogue?
I'm not saying that God cannot and has not moved in lives of people through particular songs or moments in services. Yet, what I am encouraging is for us who plan services to take the bigger picture of what exactly is happening when God calls his people to worship. We come as a people, not just as individuals. In fact, Jesus' deepest prayer in Gethsemane was that we would be one (John 17). Moreover, we are a people connected across time and space to those saints who have gathered in worship dialogue with God throughout the Covenant ages, and who will continue to do so. Perhaps we should do our planning with a view to seeing God form his church in such a way that together we echo the words of the Israelites at the foot of Mt. Sinai (Ex. 24:3), who answered with one voice,
“We will do everything the Lord has commanded.”
(This blog first appeared as part of a series for PraiseCharts.com, April 2021)