When I was thrown into the social-distanced life of COVID, like everyone else was, I spent a lot of time thinking about my time on sabbatical, just a few months before we went into lockdown. Sabbatical had been a time of personal renewal and perspective, and in a lot of ways, it prepared me to live a quarantined life with my family.
What I realized was that I was relying too much on Sunday morning worship for my spiritual vitality, and because of that, my worship was suffering. I always knew "spending time with God" was important throughout the week, but like a muscle you use infrequently, my worship atrophied during the week and then lacked oxygen when I tried to use it Sunday morning. For most of my life, I would try to read God's Word and "talk to him" in prayer Monday - Saturday, but it never felt "natural".
Over sabbatical, I started to approach my weekly "time with God" more from the perspective of worship. Instead of simply trying to comprehend God, or do my duty of telling him things he already knew in prayer, I sought to celebrate my union with him in a "worshipful embrace" (Robert Webber's words). Worship became a dance between God's initiative and my response. Through daily rhythms of worship, we started to embrace God as a family not just with our minds, but as complete human beings. It felt a little odd at first, singing with just two people while our son screamed at us to play with him, or to name our emotions before we started pray, but God enters into our awkwardness in the same way he has entered into our sinful mess.
"Christians sing, it’s just what we do.”
Many Christians would agree with this statement, but most cannot explain why, and in a culture where singing is only one of many artistic expressions, it becomes harder and harder to make sense of historic Christian rituals and how they fit into worship. As we invite students and congregations into the Gospel within the context of local churches, helping them engage in worship is key to healthy discipleship.
“Worship" is a word Christians use a lot, but if asked what precisely it is, one gets different kinds of answers. In most cases, people usually just mean the “singing” portion of gatherings. As we seek to fulfill the Great Commission and bring people from all corners of the earth into the Church, there is a growing need to create an apologetic for the role corporate worship plays in the spiritual vitality of believers. Singing has traditionally taken up a significant portion of time in corporate worship, so without a robust understanding of why Christians engage in this public ritual and what actually happens when they do, there is little compulsion for people to unite themselves to local churches.
I do not aim to cover every aspect of Christian worship in this essay; that is much too large of a topic for just a few pages. However, there are a few areas of confusion specifically around singing that will greatly aid our ministry if we understand them better. We need to: 1) clarify what worship is at its very core, outside of singing, 2) describe how singing, specifically, is an act of worship, 3) define what singing is and how we engage with it, and 4) look at the effect singing has on us while we worship and what to expect when we do it.
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When I was a boy, my family made a trip down south to visit my great, great, grandfather's farm, where seemingly mythical family stories were true; stories of lopsided cows, losing land rights while gambling, bareback horse riding, and eloping children. Scotch-Irish hillbilly blood runs deep in my own story, but setting foot for the first time on the remains of an Appalachian mountain farm felt like a foreign land. I realize now that is probably exactly how my kin felt when they too, as poor immigrants, first set foot on the mountain they would later call their own. I can still hear my great grandmother talk about seeing her first airplane fly above her while working in the fields on the side of a mountain. It was no wonder then, that I was completely awe-struck when my distant uncle, the last remaining relative on the mountain, brought out a wooden box of Native American (probably Cherokee) arrowheads he found over time while plowing the fields with his tractor. I had only seen Hollywood portrayals of "Indians" as a small boy, and getting to hold authentic artifacts of past hunters and warriors was a dream come true. I sat there, in the living room of a nice trailer house, imagining someone sculpting and sharpening every ridge of the stones I held. One, in particular, was perfect. Jet black, and perfectly symmetrical, I just knew as a little boy, that someone had taken great pride in making and using it. "Maybe a bear was killed with this... maybe a human? Why was it discarded? I bet someone was sorry they lost it..." To my astonishment, our host offered it to us as a gift. I could not believe his generosity, but my surprise quickly turned into envy, and later that night, my siblings and I got into an argument about it. We all wanted it, not to appreciate its history or craft, but as a toy for our own pleasure. I had quickly turned cultural gratuity into an entertainment novelty. And then it happened. I can still feel the snap of the tip as I broke it while trying to test its strength. My father was furious and my siblings were angry. We tried to glue it back together, but it just was not the same. Sorrow, shame, regret, embarrassment; I felt all of them, but it was not until many years later that I realized why.
If Christian worship is only about music and ritual, style and form quickly become the most important aspects of our communities. As a boy, I tried to use a gift intended to honor our relationship with deep family roots as a tool for my individualized imaginations. I did not feel shame only because something old was damaged. As beautiful as the arrowhead was, I was sad because I knew that I had treated my family's trust with disregard. When the church treats worship like I treated that arrowhead, we end up using cultural treasures for selfish gratification. As beautiful as worship is, when it becomes about the experience, we end up breaking the gifts God has given us and scorn our relationships with him and his people. We try to "fix the problem of style" in our churches, but the glue we use only fixes our rituals, and not our hearts.
As a leader and trainer of worship, I feel the weight of cultural trust and expectation continually. Everyone comes to worship with different cultural expectations, and as they walk into the room, I feel the potential for both trust and doubt escalate. The way in which we hold each other's cultural artifacts during worship has great potential to build trust in a community, but it also has great potential to break the beautiful tools God has given us. At its core, worship is a spiritual expression of our love of God, but all human expressions come from a cultural context. Therefore, all worship is both intensely spiritual and intensely cultural. In a ministry, church, and country that is increasingly multi-cultural, my job as a worship leader and trainer is incredibly exciting. But as I hold an armful of different cultural expectations and try to faithfully steward different communities to express devotion to God, it is also incredibly exhausting. More than ever, I am aware that I cannot accomplish anything on my own, and I am deeply reliant on a network of people who pray against the dividing nature of the Devil and for the unifying love of the Spirit. Will you pray for me? Will you pray with me, that the church would be equipped to worship in its full range of expression?
Now, as an adult, when I hold the arrowhead, I am still in awe of its story and beauty. The fact that I damaged it in my youth is no longer a source of shame. Instead, it reminds me of the part I play in my family's history and leads me to humbly accept my own faults. An object that once caused my isolation is now something that unites me to my family. As the global Church worships, we bring all sorts of damaged pieces of ourselves, and as I teach others to worship, my hope is to help them see these fragments not as problems to hide away and avoid, but as opportunities for redeeming acts of worship. Will you pray with me that the Church, specifically the next generation of worship leaders, would be equipped to graciously enable the saints to offer their broken fragments to God as a spiritual act of worship?
More about Daniel Snoke HERE.