In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.Hebrews 1:1-3
[God] also says,
“In the beginning, Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will roll them up like a robe, like a garment they will be changed. But you remain the same, and your years will never end.”Hebrews 1:10-12
The modern praise and worship movement as we know it is quite a recent phenomenon (perhaps spanning a history of some 60 years or so). I am grateful that pioneers of the movement, like Jack Hayford, were deeply committed to the Word of God to ensure that the creativity and musicality that would be expressed was firmly rooted in Biblical truth.
But like garments which wear out and are rolled up, things change. Only God and His truth remain the same.
In the context of a fast-changing contemporary church worship scene, Hayford poses this warning in his book Manifest Presence: that in every generation, “there are dynamics that press the Church to choose between commitment or compromise.” And he says the greater issue to which our generation must give account is this: “What place is Christ Himself being given in His Church?”
How much of our worship culture is merely a reflection of worldly culture? What are the lyrics in our songs directing us towards? Hayford asks: in the midst of renewal in form and style, is there a companion renewal in our understanding about worship?
If we are to truly worship, then truth in worship is paramount. If we cannot accept a truth that is beyond ourselves, but instead choose a truth that is relative or shaped by our preferences or by popular culture, we are essentially creating our own god. If we do this, we are not worshipping God at all; we are worshipping ourselves or our own conception of God.
So, Hayford says, needed foremost is a clear, unswerving focus (or perhaps re-focus) on the Person we worship.
I have just finished reading Jeremy Riddle’s very recent book, The Reset, and it has cut me to the core. I’ve read many books about worship, but none (in recent memory) by a worship leader on the cutting edge of the movement who has issued such a passionate, urgent and clarion call to return to the heart of worship.
We must re-adhere our lives and ministries to the standard of Scripture instead of the current ‘worship’ culture that has made corruption common. If we choose to live by comparison to our current environment instead of the standard of Scripture – simply mimicking what has become common and acceptable practice amongst churches, worship departments, worship leaders, songwriters, musicals and the labels – we are in great danger of making a mockery and an idol out of the very thing meant to exalt Jesus.Jeremy Riddle, The Reset, page 9
The book is a call to:
- reclaim true worship
- redeem it from being an industry, a platform, a trade or a professional line of work
- return to purity and wholeness of heart
- reform the house of the Lord with the same consuming zeal that Jesus had
- rediscover the Person and presence of the Holy Spirit
- recover truth and the knowledge of God (“theology is for doxology and devotion“)
Riddle asks us to look at the new wineskins required to carry the anointing of worship and puts his finger (might I say quite uncomfortably) on the places that need addressing, including church production; social media; popularity; songwriting; the idea of a “worship artist”; ticket sales and events.
When I grew up in the worship movement, I remember listening to worship cassettes. Songs were drawn from different sources and writers; the name of the worship leader appeared only in small font at the back of the slip cover; it was not about a church, a ministry or a worship artist. It was about creating an atmosphere of worship in your own home; it was about the theme of worship and the flow of the set; it was about resourcing the worldwide church to become better at facilitating their local expressions of corporate worship.
Things have changed a lot since then. Albums became all about showcasing a worship leader’s songwriting repertoire; the worship leader was prominently featured on the front of the album cover; it became a product to be consumed. Subtly, but surely, the focus had changed.
Recently, I was talking to my worship pastor about introducing new songs to our church repertoire. We actually argued a bit about the meaning of lyrics, the complexity of the song structure, the ease by which the congregation could sing it. Sadly, we concluded that the “old was better”. Not because we were against progress or change, but maybe because the songs being written now (and this is a very broad generalisation) don’t really have the worshipping congregation in mind. Instead, it seems that they are about sounding good (think for example, large vocal range jumps) and maximising plays on Spotify.
At the same time as I was reading The Reset, I was also reading the memoirs of my friend Rae-Helen Fisenden, Come Sing with Angels. Rae-Helen was a prominent worship leader at the forefront of worship renewal in the church in Perth, Western Australia. She laments:
In the Christian music culture today, the music itself can easily became central and therefore, worshipped. Huge production teams and high tech performances can become the focus and not God; hence His presence is absent.Rae-Helen Fisenden, Come Sing with Angels
Fisenden describes the time in her church when services were tediously evaluated; where church-development became a thing, surveys were embarked upon and how eventually, her church became “introspective and performance-orientated”. As a result, the hallmark of intimacy was on shaky ground. Worship ceased to be authentic.
I found this part of Fisenden’s journey heartbreaking because of the proximity. I remember attending conferences and church services where Fisenden had led worship with intimacy and spontaneity in my younger days.
Popular programs, slick services, attractive worship and titillating sermons will ultimately not attract God’s people to attend church for long. The presence of God, will. There is nothing more alluring or attractive than God’s supernatural, divine, holy presence. Absolutely nothing.
I believe, and resonate with Riddle and Fisenden, that it is time to press the reset button. Our worship expressions are changing, but Jesus Christ remains the same. It’s time to return to worshipping in spirit and in truth. It’s time to seek the Person and the Presence with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.
P.S. Please, please, please get Jeremy Riddle’s book and read it several times.