Towards more inclusive “worship”

No, that word “inclusive” does not mean what you  (probably) think it means…not this time, anyway.  The following has nothing to do with the gender of language, gender of leaders, sexual preference of anybody, or any of the other popular uses of the term.   I have been thinking, lately, of how exclusive the choice of “worship” focus, language, and music often are.  As with so many things, I believe the church has regularly misdirected worship in some important ways.

In this discussion I’m going to beg the question of whether the stuff we characterize as “worship” has any relationship to the biblical concept(s) encapsulated in the word…if you want to explore that further check out my mom’s excellent article on the subject.  For now we’ll just work with the common English usage: that is, some combination of music, readings, and other material designed–purportedly at least–to focus the corporate body on God and his work.

Two songs I’ve heard in the past week illustrate my point.  The first is the old hymn “Amazing Grace,” just sung at the funeral of my 102-year-old Grandmother:

Amazing Grace!  How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now I’m found
Was blind, but now I see.
(John Newton, 1779)

The second I heard last Sunday at church, and yesterday afternoon at an Arby’s in South Carolina (KLOV on the PA system…ugh!), “Forever Reign” by Hillsong:

Oh, I’m running to your arms, I’m running to your arms,

The riches of your love, will always be enough.
Nothing compares to your embrace,

Light of the world, forever reign!

Both of these songs are deeply meaningful to some people.  Both even focus some people’s attention at least partly on God.  But I can’t honestly sing either one.

“Amazing Grace,” of course, was written by John Newton who, before he believed in Christ, was captain of a slave ship, and a rather cruel one by his own account.  When Newton described the grace of God having “saved a wretch like me,” he was acutely aware whereof he spoke.  I have many friends who, having brought out of some pretty awful circumstances, likewise can testify to having been saved by Christ from some truly wretched things.  It’s certainly biblical too, as the apostle Paul also looked back on his persecution of the church and called himself the worst of sinners (see 1 Tim. 1:12-16).  But it is not universal. I make no claims to be a paragon of virtue, but I’ve had a pretty ordinary life in many respects and would not characterize any period of my own experience as “wretched.”  I have never been as blind as the song implies, yet even now I’m unsure just how much I see.  I do not discount the pilgrimage of those for whom “Amazing Grace” is a very real testimony, but it is not mine.

Likewise, “Forever Reign” paints the image of us running to the Father’s arms. I know that image intimately as I’m a daddy. I love it when my kids charge recklessly into my extended embrace…but I have never experienced anything remotely approximating that image with God.  I know what a paternal hug feels like, and God may give those to some of his followers, but I’m not one of them.

I do not mean to suggest that those who do find these songs represent their faith, ought not sing them at all. It’s even appropriate to sing them publicly in testimony if true. But they’re inappropriate for corporate worship, I suggest, for the simple reason that only part of the assembly can sing them with honesty. Better by far would be to select songs–old and new–that emphasize God’s goodness, power, sovereignty, and works.  These are true for all of us, do not depend on personal experience whether real or imagined, and most importantly direct our attention AWAY from self-destructive navel-gazing and TOWARD our creator and king.   Just maybe, such a shift in content might remind us that we aren’t the center of God’s universe after all.  And while we’re at it, maybe we’d make it just a tiny bit less likely people would feel the need to manufacture religious experience in order to fit into our molds.

6 thoughts on “Towards more inclusive “worship””

  1. Ruth Martin

    Amen, Dan! Show me even one place where Jesus called ANYONE , least of all a disciple, a “wretch”! That is inappropriate language for us ALL, regardless of past errors.
    See also Word Study #128.

  2. Jonathan

    I’m with you Dan, and my condolences at the loss of your grandmother. I lost my 90-year-old grandfather last year, and though there is joy at the fact he has joined the saints triumphant, I have felt a profound sense of loss.

    May you and your family have peace.

    Well, you are exactly right, and I have approached this issue in my own ministry in a couple of ways.

    1) I think that we should choose hymns very wisely, especially when it comes to gospel hymnody. We’re safer staying with the more traditional hymnody that tends to focus on the transcendent over the imminent.

    2. Nearly every english-speaking Christian has probably sung “Blessed Assurance,” but I wonder how many have had “visions of rapture now burst into sight.” I wouldn’t want to discount any sense of personal experience, because it can sometimes cause us to experience it in a renewed and special way. But we want to be careful that it’s not something that will alienate.

  3. Jonathan

    Hi Dan,

    My condolences on the loss of your grandmother. Peace to you and your family.

    I agree with you, especially on how most of we do has very little in common with what we know of cultic worship from the OT. Anyway, I usually deal with this in my ministry in at least a couple ways.

    1) I try to choose hymns carefully, and be especially judicious when picking gospel hymns. By default, I tend to reach mostly for traditional hymnody, which tends to focus more on the transcendent than the imminent and the divine rather than the human.

    2) Most enlish-speaking Christians have probably sung “Blessed Assurance,” but I doubt most people can say that “visions of rapture now burst on my sight.” So, it might not resonate, but it (hymnody in general) also might help people experience their salvation in a different and renewed sort of way. We do, however, have to be very careful that the songs we choose are not going to offend.

  4. Scott Peterson

    I couldn’t agree more! It seems that corporate worship in the evangelical church has become awash with self-focused individual faith experiences. We no longer sing praise to our lord as much as we sing praise to our spiritual experiences. I am planning a series of posts on this very subject. Great stuff, Dan!

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