Avoiding the pitfalls of corporate worship.
Perhaps this could be considered an introspective look into Emma Spanjer’s article on corporate worship music from the previous Mars Hill issue. I speak as a former chapel team member. TWU chapel is essentially equivalent to a modern day church service (even though it technically isn’t), so this is one way of being “checked.” First, my intentions are for the edification and up-building up TWU and its members. Secondly, I’ve written this critique only because I would like to improve our campus life, particularly chapel music in this case. If anything I say is true, then I’ve hit my mark. Chapel is a force for good, and may it continue! But there are several potential problems that need to be confronted in order deepen and strengthen this vital part of our university life.
The first potential problem is the lyrical content of much modern worship music. Some worship song lyrics are either so abstract (i.e., metaphorical, romantic, and so on) or so ambiguous that you cannot understand what the song is actually conveying (e.g. “I will climb this mountain with my hands wide open” chanted repeatedly). It is rare to find lyrics that are clearly contrary to what would be considered orthodox Christianity or downright untrue; but, considering the way contemporary worship music is being produced, I’m sure someone could make a find.
Another important aspect of worship is participation rather passive consumption of an entertainment experience. Active participation is essential in worshiping as a body. And that is exactly what more time-tested forms of liturgy are designed to ensure. Where there are higher degrees of passivity, the less authentic corporate worship becomes. Too often, it seems that chapel music exists solely for purpose of entertainment.
Lastly, chapel leaders are not always adequately equipped to properly lead the minds as well as hearts of our campus with proper content. Playing music ought not to be the only requisite to qualify for a chapel team leader (although candidates are scarce). Shouldn’t there be some responsibility in leading hundreds of student’s minds on campus daily? Reading a few selected verses without context from the Bible between songs every now and then doesn’t balance the equation, either. The lyrics of songs, even if considered thoughtfully, often appear to be chosen primarily according to the topic of the chapel speaker or the theme of the week. Now that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but we can’t just assume these songs are worthy of being used for worship just because they’re found in the worship binder of sheet music!
Overall, it is the content of our worship—the lyrics—that must be primary. I would argue that repeatedly chanting a line or two from a worship song seems to be more an appeal to your emotional convictions about how much you love God rather than expressing any actual significant theological content. I have no problem with some chapel leaders swaying around in ecstasy while playing music. But we must level out the intellectual component of music! I usually feel alienated by contemporary worship music lyrics, because the content makes me feel confused and patronized. I know everyone else has more issues with worship music then I’ve mentioned. Perhaps this is one reason why evangelicals are charged with being anti-intellectual—because they don’t even know what they’re worshiping during “worship” at times.
I think this diagram below will show the issue and solution in itself: a healthy balance. The purpose of this diagram is to emphasize that chapel music focuses primarily on the right-sided aspects to the neglect of the left. (I purposefully excluded the third category). The “golden mean” can be attained, but through our current style of worship? Perhaps. Simply put, while there are many styles and forms of worship, it is certain that some are better than others (depending on what you’re aiming for).