Several years ago, I joined a local business organization. Their Statement of Purpose was to help businesspeople do their job better with a kind of group coaching through semi-monthly seminars.
At the opening and close of each session, we sang a song that went something like this:
Yes, I can do it! Yes, I can do it! I have a positive frame of mind!
By the end of the evening, every face was aglow with expectation, and two weeks later, everyone needed another face-lift. (Imagine two hundred adults singing psychobabble to our ourselves—truth is stranger than fiction. I quit after three meetings.)
Their teachings weren’t substance, they were selling. Instead of nourishing tips on handling angry clients, they served frothy, double-shot lattes of motivational, positive thinking. The talks were rousing but insubstantial; caffeine without a main course.
I began to wonder how my own worship-music feeling paralleled that seminar jingle-feeling; perhaps a temporary boost to my spirits, but maybe just a jolt of spiritual java.
I began to examine the nature of worship. I asked myself, “What is the essence of worship? Does worship require music?” I tried an experiment: I took a six-month sabbatical from any form of worship music. I didn’t sing during personal prayer time, or listen to worship CD’s, and I even stopped singing during during church services—and I found a change in my worship.
Song-free worship taught me how to worship deeper.
Real Worship Changes Us
True worship is a two-way street. The English word, “worship,” comes from the Old English phrase, “worth-shape.” The worth of our worship-object shapes our souls. Every human worships something—be it family, money or ministry—and the worth we give it drives our lives.
If we worship success, we become arrogant (or depressed) and if we worship people-pleasing, fear of rejection makes us milk-toast cowards. The object of our worship controls our lives.
Psalm 115 says the gods of the peoples have unseeing eyes, unhearing ears, and unfeeling hands. Then it claims, “Those who make them become like them, and so do all who worship them.” It says that the act of worship re-forms us in the image of the thing we worship.
If we examine our biggest problems—our deepest angers, sadness, anxieties, or most uncontrollable behaviors—we will always find an object of worship cracking its whip.
Real worship is more than singing praises; it is the act of giving away our hearts to a beauty. Worship is attributing ultimate value to something; it thinks, “If I had that I’d be happy;” it is the deep belief of the heart that says, “That is all I need.”
Worship is what our hearts most value. We are constantly worshipping. We are worshipping something this second. Moment-by-moment, we live for something. “Where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also.”
Instead of singing, I meditated on the Psalms; in place of rhythm, I read the Gospels; in place of harmony, I read Deuteronomy. And slowly—sometimes really slowly—I began to see God more clearly and dearly. And I thought, “More than money, a good name, or success; He is all I need.”
We need a vision of God that destroys the earthly religion of what we do in our solitude. We need an intense focus (of heart, mind, soul and strength) on the beauty of God. It means looking, gazing, meditating, and reflecting on the majesty of God
Singing can be an act of worship, but it isn’t worship itself. It is ever-so-possible (and we’ve all probably done it), to sing a half-hour of godly worship songs—and even be temporarily inspired—and then return to our “normal” lives where we grasp for appreciation, praise, health, or financial peace.
Substance Over Hype
That seminar jingle, “Yes, I can do it; I have a positive frame of mind,” was vapor-ware, a sales pitch to myself based on nothing but self-assertive smoke and mirrors.
Worship of the real God reveals rock-solid truths to my heart: that he is all I need, and I’ll never be the same. Only worship of the real God, will really satisfy.
I’m glad I’m singing to God once more. It comes from a real positive frame of mind.
Well, I agree that worship should involve more than singing. And I’ve been almost a year now without singing in an actual congregation… but I still need to express worship in song, and I do- even by myself. We can definitely sing mindlessly, but I can read my Bible mindlessly, too. For that matter, I find myself praying mindlessly at times as well. Even so, I don’t think it’s wise to skip the practice.
I’m glad your musical fast led you deeper, but I think it was spiritually risky. Sometimes even mindless singing can leave an impression that bears fruit later.
I’m not completely isolated, but definitely don’t have enough opportunity to discuss ideas these days. Hence this comment! God bless.
Yeah, I see the danger you mention. I don’t think I’d ever take a “Sabbath” from Scripture. Even when not singing, I prayed the Psalms daily (probably more than usual).
But I also think fasting is a good practice; not to abstain forever, but for a period of time, to remember that God is all I really need.
My problem was in enjoying the sensation of the singing more than the worship; which means it was more about me than Him.
Sam, I’m glad your experiment worked so well! I have a different point of view: I think the issue is not so much singing itself, but the nature of the words and music one sings. To start with, I’d consider what the Psalms say about singing: it is assumed. Even more to the point, you and I both know that there is a lot of lighthearted pop-style Christian music out there. I think that’s where the problem lies; it’s the true parallel to that business-oriented pablum you recognized as so superficial. I suggest looking elsewhere: the Calvinist settings of the Psalms, and (when translated well) the sturdy Lutheran hymns from the time of J.S. Bach and a good century and a half before him (i.e., Martin Luther himself). Who decided they were too old-fashioned or somehow not useful for today’s Christians? I remember being part of The Word of God Music Ministry as we led the music for a Methodist conference on the work of the Holy Spirit, probably in the mid-to-late 1970s. Several members of the group were looking through the Methodist hymnal, and I heard people exclaim over what they found in those traditional old hymns. Yes! Those Wesleys! Another worthy source of deep longing, thoughtful theology, and personal commitment. I think the real problem is in the current watering down of both music and lyrics. Now I’ll admit something (in addition to also admitting that I have three college degrees in music history): For the hymns he composed, Luther used popular tunes and paraphrases of their lyrics: For “O World, I must now leave thee,” he drew on “Innsbruck, I must now leave thee (for a tender maiden’s charms)”. And the like. So, like contemporary musicians, Luther drew upon what was familiar. But here’s my defense: While the music was that of its time, the lyrics were more “wordy” and not the same phrase over and over. For the latter, you need to look no further than Handel’s “Messiah:” Short phrases, over and over! But the music is substantial, and if you study it even casually, you’ll find that the music so often sounds like what the words mean. Check out “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?” or “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way.” I could go on and on. I would note also that “Messiah” was first performed in the 1740s, and no one has yet shoved it aside. On the other hand, you and I have both heard styles in worship music change over only 50 years. There are some worship songs that were favorites in the 60s-early 70s; now they have been cast aside in favor of shorter, simpler words and music.
OH HOW I SO AGREE WITH YOU about much modern worship music (though, I suppose, not all).
I have a good Methodist Pastor friend who says he daily “prays” the hymns in his hymnbook (as well as singing them). And I like that phrase, “pray the hymns.” As you said, there are hundreds of beautiful hymns that teach, lead, delight, and bring me into His presence.
“The Messiah” is a good example. So is “A Mighty Fortress” (one little word shall fell him. That word above all earthly power…).
While I didn’t “sing” the songs, I did pray many songs. And I think my Sabbath from singing actually made my praying songs become a more essential part of my singing worship after that Sabbath.
We can worship even when we are flipping a burger, or mopping a floor. I often find more peace when I worship in these settings, rather than alongside those singing empty praises.
Not only “can” we worship while flipping a burger, I bet we ARE worshipping, at least something!
Great comment. Thanks.
Some disparate thoughts:
I remember a coworker once characterizing an Amway meeting he was invited to; the audience were motivated to a fever pitch; in his words, “they were convinced they could fly!”
When one finds some person or cause really admirable…the kind that relieves a jaded outlook…that might even fulfill CS Lewis’s legendary “inconsolable longing”…there’s the urge not only to commit oneself, but to prostate oneself. Like the scene in the LOTR- ROTK movie, the last of the trilogy, Aragorn’s coronation in Minas Tirith, the newly-crowned King admonishes the four Hobbits, which includes the Ringbearer, “My friends, you bow to no one.” Upon which every Human, Dwarf, and even Elf of Rivendell and Lorien, bend their knees and bow their heads before the Halflings of the Shire.
Worship is even in a way answering the longing for parental figure…
From CS Lewis’s Perelandra (Elwin Ransom standing before the Adam and Eve of Venus)…
‘There was great silence on the mountain top and Ransom also had fallen down before the human pair. When at last he raised his eyes from the four blessed feet, he found himself involuntarily speaking though his voice was broken and his eyes dimmed. “Do not move away, do not raise me up,” he said. “I have never before seen a man or a woman. I have lived all my life among shadows and broken images. Oh, my Father and my Mother, my Lord and my Lady, do not move, do not answer me yet. My own father and mother I have never seen. Take me for your son. We have been alone in my world for a great time.” ‘
I love that line, “They were convinced they could fly.” Love it!
And I had completely forgotten that Peralandra quote. I haven’t read it in probably 20 years. Great reminder.