“Are you against Hillsong music?” “Do you approve of modern worship?”:
I like Hillsong; they have amazing music, they are talented, they are dedicated, they love Jesus. I saw their last conference opening video and I was really excited that their emphasis was profoundly on Jesus. That said, they belong to the modern worship movement which can, at times, have an improper focus on the self. I do have hope for the movement, and recognize much good has been done in it; I love the song “Awakening” by Hillsong and think it’s a modern hymn of sorts and so by writing this I am not blanketing every modern song, but picking out certain themes that are less than desirable. Also I think that the only part of the movement that needs improvement is the lyrics/theology of some songs, I don’t think stage lighting, or modern music, or the raising of hands is inherently wrong.
In general we should approach this with the foundation that the word “worship” means to kneel or bow before someone. This should really be emphasized in any worship style or method, that the goal is to cause us to kneel down in our insufficiency and focus our attention onto an all sufficient Christ. Worship is about laying down our crowns of knowledge, ability, spirituality and focusing wholly on Christ’s attributes of love, mercy, purity, sovereignty and majesty.
MODERN WORSHIP vs OLD HYMNS
1. Modern worship leads us to make (and focus on) great promises (that not all will keep)
The lyrics in some modern worship music often focus on the fact that “we” love to worship God or that “we” will dedicate great and amazing things to God. This is always good, and I am glad to hear people singing “I will read my bible and pray, and I will follow you all day” as a popular Hillsong track states…. if they truly will do this. Yet, imagine someone who is not a committed Christian is visiting your church and then you begin to sing this song. What is their impression of God? Why is God great? What do we trust in God for or about? All this person learns about God is that we are to do, act, and obey Him in a very dedicated way. Why? That specific reason isn’t said, and so the most important point of the Gospel is not included in our worship, and I think that is a huge loss.
“Jesus I believe in You
Jesus I belong to You
You’re the reason that I live
The reason that I sing
With all I am
I’ll walk with You
Wherever You go
Through tears and joy
I’ll trust in You”
At first it sounds like an amazing song, however, note the emphasis is on what “I” will do. There is no information about what Jesus did for us, but a high declaration of what we will do of Him. We sing that “we” will walk wherever God wants us to, and while some of us do mean it and will surely go, there are assuredly people singing the song who don’t want to go anywhere. There are many who sing “you’re the reason that I live” and deep down aren’t sure why they live, and realize it’s probably only because they’re too scared to die.
This type of theology in music can lead millions of Christians to sing out of compulsion and make false promises to God, then in turn they feel the guilt at their insufficiency in obeying their promises and try hard to focus on improving self by the deeds of the flesh. Or they grow up singing false promises in hymns and get so used to saying things like “I worship you with all my life” they don’t realize what it means, they lose the reality of it. Imagine that you have teenagers growing up in a culture of singing “I give all my life to you” and nothing else, their impression of God may be more founded on their personal sacrifice of worship, instead of Gods sacrifice of the cross. They may be falsely led to think worship is all about promising things to God, and either feel pressure and guilt at failing or throw around promises loosely.
All people come to church and God when they are broken and empty, when they CANNOT do great things or promise great results. They need a loving father who can help them, they need to be reassured of His love for us, they need to be reassured of his Sacrifice for us. Singing that they will give and do all these things for God, when deep down they know they cannot, is horribly detrimental to their faith and produces only guilt. Yet singing about a God who does, gives, loves, and helps them, even when they can’t promise him much, will uplift their faith and let them grow in His Grace.
2. Modern worship often emphasizes our act of worship.
The second problem with some modern worship is the prominence given to “our act of worship” as opposed to Gods attributes that deserve worship. It’s as if the very “action” of our worship is so important we underline and announce that “we” are worshiping, or that “we” are singing, or that “we” are doing it so powerfully, profoundly, and amazingly. This emphasis on our behavior or our attributes can often equal or even surpass the emphasis on Gods behavior and Gods attributes.
The most important thing in worship (kneeling) ought to be an accent on the attributes of Him who we are kneeling before, not our act of kneeling. It’s all about our humility and acknowledging how broken, pitiful, weak, and unable we are before him. It’s about coming to him, kneeling, crying, and telling him we “cannot do anything without him” (John 15:5). Yet for many it can become a matter of proudly standing up and claiming to God that he or she is so much more committed to God that other people.
“We’re giving it all away away.
We’re giving it all to go your way.
We’re giving it all away away.
We’re giving it all to go your way. “
The idea of us giving everything away for God is good and not incorrect, but can often lead people to focus incorrectly on the very action of worshiping, not the object being worshiped. The lyrics of the first emphasize our ability of giving it all away to go Gods way. In truth is this easy? Can someone come to church and freely give away everything, such as all of their finances and comfortable life to follow God? People proudly sing it, as if to tell God “I’m so good, you should love me” yet I guarantee the majority will probably break if asked to give away “all” they have. Whereas the truth is we can give things away to Jesus ONLY because he first gave away himself for us.
“I will worship You for who You are
I will worship You for who You are
I will worship You for who You are Jesus”
The second song highlights our act of worshiping Jesus, again seems to be very good theology to worship Jesus for who he is. This type of song highlights the most popular type of lyric in the modern worship movement, the “I will worship you” phrase (fortunately in this case they at least specify its about Jesus, many modern songs don’t even do that). This type of phrase is really not specific and as such lacks the very things that make worship effective for those who participate in it. What I hear is people who are singing that they will or they do worship God, and that is nice, but lacks any meaning to me. I can go to any type of religion and hear their people claim to be worshiping their God, but it has no true meaning for me. Now If I come into a church and hear people singing “How great thou art, my savior and my God” and proceed to sing about the great attributes of God, I focus not on the people and that they worship, but on the God whom they worship. (Fortunately the bridge in this particular song redeems it places a proper focus on Jesus by claiming “My soul is secure, Your promise sure, You’re love endures always.”)
3. Hymns describe the object not the act of worship
It is true that some hymns, especially the more recent ones, blatantly elevate self just like modern worship, and I wholeheartedly refuse to sing a few hymns due to their silly theology. However, as a whole movement hymns illustrate Jesus Jesus and His attributes, not us and our response:
Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.
For nothing good have I
Whereby Thy grace to claim,
I’ll wash my garments white
In the blood of Calvary’s Lamb.
There is little focus here on my personal goodness, my dedication, or my anything. All of it point to Christ. In this song we see a picture being painted that portrays Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, as someone who is assuredly worthy of our worship and devotion for he loves, cares, and dies for His sheep. If I, being a miserable Christian, sing this song, it would compel me to find my worth in Christ, to worship him out of my heart because of how Good he is. The alternative kind of worship would be like painting a picture of the Good Shepherd in which the largest part of the picture is sheep that very capably announce they are good sheep.
My God, my Father, while I stray
Far from my home on life’s rough way
Oh, teach me from my heart to say,
“Thy will be done.”
Though dark my path and sad my lot,
Let me be still and murmur not
Or breathe the prayer divinely taught,
“Thy will be done.”
This hymn focuses greatly on the person singing it, which is why it’s a great choice to compare to some modern worship. Yet, while the lyrics focus on the person singing, they admit our human disability to be perfect. Instead of stating proudly that “I will know you Jesus” or “I will read my bible all day to learn you,” they humbly ask Jesus to teach us. Instead of loudly claiming that we will follow Jesus no matter what, this shows a humble prayer, fully reliant on God, asking for his help in giving us endurance in all situations.
DOESN’T THE BIBLE SOMETIMES EMPHASIZE SELF IN WORSHIP?
While it is true that the psalmist often wrote things like “I cry to you, O LORD; I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.”” Also the psalms often call us to worship God for his general revelation and his general holiness, divinity, magnificence, greatness, and etc. However, even in this the psalmist makes the emphasis not our act of worship but the attributes of God. Also its important to note that all of the psalms were written looking forward to Christ, and they had this theology in a veiled state (Jesus was mentioned but vaguely and prophetically). Now that we know and have the Gospel, it’s important to sing the gospel and directly mention why we worship Jesus, namely for his act of Grace on the cross. If we look at the worship in the book of Revelation, we see the emphasis is Christ, and the act of worship isn’t sung about: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
There is no emphasis on the fact that it is we who will worship God perfectly and “read our bible and pray, and follow God all day” it’s all about “You are worthy, You did this, You saved us.” Even when the elders lay down their crowns, its sung not with emphasis on laying down the crowns (they don’t repeat what they do 3 times,) instead the only thing that is repeated and centralized is God’s greatness and character.