Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Theological Snobbery in Worship

Recently I heard some worship leader folks talking about how they would never do Hillsong worship because they have "bad theology."

This troubles me.

For starters, that was me in '98. I went through a very judgmental streak where I was a 22 year old Reformed Nazi. I had just been bit with the John Piper bug (click here) at the first Passion conference, and I thought the problem with Christianity was all the man-centered nonsense. "Man-Centered" was the denial of any of the five points of Calvinism (TULIP).

Although I'm not currently a card carrying "Calvinist", I still consider myself infected by the Piper bug. In a good way, I think. I love the Puritans for their grand view of God and awareness of their depravity (and therefore love of grace). I also love Piper for his prophetic voice to the modern church. But it's hard to have a conversation with myself 11 years ago, vicariously through these fellow worship leaders.

These Reformed worship leaders gladly stand behind Calvin, a man whose praxis led him to murder a guy (or two...click here for more on Calvin), but are unwilling to do Hillsong music because of accusations of "prosperity gospel." Which of their songs has anything other than Christ-exalting, God-entranced, and biblical lyrics?

I was reading one of my books on Scottish Church History, and came across this quote. It's long, and boring for those of you who are already confused by this post. But for those that are still reading, it made me laugh to think about how far we've come in our corporate worship:

"...the Reformation in Scotland, as in Germany, was born in song, and much of this music at the beginning was derived from Germany. This was especially true of the Gude and Dodlie Ballatis...published for the first time between 1542 and 1546. This collection includes metrical Psalms, metrical versions of the Creed and the Lord's Prayer, a catechism in metre, popular spiritual songs set to ballad tunes, carols and anti-Romanist taunt songs such as 'The paip that pagane full of pryde', and 'God send everie preist ane wyfe, and everie nunne ane man'." (Dictionary of Scottish Church History, P. 895)

Forget this modern me-centered, prosperity gospel coming out of Australia. Why can't we get back to the good ol' days? You know, back to the days of God centered, Reformed, and anti-Romanist taunt songs.

Nevermind, let's stick with Hillsong.


Todd said...

Hi Mark.

Here's my dream Metropuritan post:

1. You come right out and confess that you have Hillsong posters all over your bedroom walls. And that you also have their ringtones on your iPhone. And that you force your kids to wear their T-shirts. Etc. Etc.

2. With that out of the way, You highlight the biblical passages that discuss worship. In the process, you teach us all some important biblical concepts that can help frame and enhance our worship experiences. You are uniquely positioned to do that. And I think you would do it very well.

3. You then point out the history of Hillsong, promoting their more recent, excellent, God-focused lyrics against their more questionable material from the past.

4. Understanding that the music does not come out of a vacuum, you also address the environment that created Hillsong music, describing the positive and negative aspects of the "Word-faith" church that spawned the music movement.

5. Then, without seeming to take offense, and without dismissing them outright, you address the (very valid) theological concerns brought by those who do not fawn over the group and their music.

6. You then address the "wisdom concerns" over using such music as the basis for congregational worship. Those concerns being things like the somewhat abstract melodies and lyrics that can often be distracting, difficult to follow, often dumbed down, and numbingly repetitive ("I feel like I'm falling, I feel like I'm falling, I feel like I'm falling into the arms of love. I feel like I'm falling, I feel like I'm falling, I feel like I'm falling, into the arms of love. I feel like I'm falling ...").

7. You then describe the renewed interest in Reformed music and hymnology, highlighting it's potential benefits and drawbacks.

8. Understanding that worship forms matter significantly, you refrain from oversimplifying musical style choices as matters of pure preference.

9. You then explain why there is a marked difference in our specific congregation's "posture" (a seemingly increased reverence, deeper expressions of joy, more voluminous praise, greater disposition toward repentance, etc.) when an "older," hymn is sung versus a (God-centered) track off the latest Hillsong album.

10. You then describe the transition from the focus on congregational singing to the band on a stage as the primary musical instrument of the church, including the benefits and potential dangers of such a transition.

11. Finally, out of respect for yourself and others, you make all of these points without reverting to your standard (and somewhat tired) "Piper-phase," Calvin-bashing, reformed-ribbing language.

That's my dream. Perhaps I'm being a little too snobbish.


Eric Jonas Swensson: said...

Snobbish = sarcastic! OK.. i get

Hey, Metropuritan. The Pietist here. http://pietist.blogspot.com/ I get you loud and clear.

Listen guys, the worship wars will never have a cease fire, but you can walk away any day.

lex orandi, lex credendi is true, but we can make a too, too much out of it.

Fact is, we pick out hymns for worship services which is itself a vetting process. Who is going to choose nothing but "Jesus is my boyfriend" songs?

Anyway, I would rather hear more about pursuing God with one's heart and mind than argue about worship.

Glad there are some Puritans still out there. We used to work together pretty good (Cotton Mather and A.H. Francke--see book by Richard Lovelace).

Anonymous said...

you cant deny 'In Christ Alone' and similar songs put hillsong stuff to shame. you have to deal with that fact in your reflections.

i think the ideal is a marriage between lyrics from traditional hymnals (like earlier american one's, the only i am familiar with, as opposed to "anti-papist" ones) and more contemporary music/instruments. cornerstone has done some of this and i always wished it would do many more.

however, more generally (as opposed to in a church service), songs should definitely be written and promoted that make fun of dawkins, obama, avalos, etc. to continue our protestant (and biblical) tradition of healthy verbal attacks

Mike said...

Part 1:

Somewhat confused, and even moreso by the comments left thus far.
Worship and belief (lex lorandi, lex credendi) are essentially tied. If people don't pray/worship, at least most of the time, with the fundamental beliefs of the church, what's the point? Without it, worship is watered-down to a point where all that is talked about is how God loves us. Which, while being true, misses the big picture about why He loves us and why He is sometimes sad with how we behave.

SALT/Cornerstone, in my mind, has a good balance of belief with plain worhsip. Doesn't go too shallow, yet also not too deep so people less-firm in the faith don't get lost. Yet even I still sometimes wonder if people actually believe what they're singing, or if they're just singing because that's what is expected. If that's the case, it would be better if we were singing only 'God loves me' songs.

I quote: "Who is going to choose nothing but 'Jesus is my boyfriend' songs?" The Catholics, do. I have been to Roman Catholic services that sing Hillsong and other songs that would make me (if I closed my eyes) think I'm at SALT. But I've also been to ones that sing the traditional post-Vatican II music. And those sing both belief and prayer; they're not all about how Jesus is my new best friend. They sing of Jesus' life, suffering, praise, human struggles, Christian beliefs... the whole picture. They probably touch on all kinds of subjects because of the idea of worshiping/singing what is believed.

It is easy to attack Roman Catholicism and the Pope (anti-papist!), but I think part of it comes from expectation, part from influence from others, part from history, and part from misconceptions. As for the history: yeah, humans are corrupt. Power corrupts. Midieval church had a lot of power and was somewhat corrupt. But that was corrupt people not ideas. The true doctrine of the Catholic Church (that described in its Catechism) is pretty solid. I think that's why his holiness the Pope is recognized worldwide as a leader of Christianity. The papal encyclicals are spot-on (admittedly I've only read ones by the current pope so far). I've actually read part of the Catechism, and it seems accurate to me. The ideas in it make sense, and aren't the falsehoods that so many people think are true about the Catholic Church. Even many Catholics I have talked to think the Catholic church teaches some things that it actually doesn't. And I think this is why many other Christians look down upon the Catholic Church--the Catholics they talk to don't know their own religion. It's a valid concern, showing that Catholics should read and understand better what their Church teaches. But the Roman Catholic Church itself in my mind, as I have said, it solidly planted on truth. So whenever I hear Protestant snobbery considering itself better than Catholicism, I just shrug, not knowing how to show others the true side of Catholicism that I have seen.

Mike said...

Part 2:

I consider argument about worship both destructive and constructive. Arguments, in my mind, should be done only between those who are solid in their faith. The 'weak' in faith should be shielded so as to not become discouraged (democracy and free-flow of ideas isn't part of Christianity in my mind). But argument to come to common ground is essential. Think about how many people are turned away from Christianity because they see a collection of dozens of religions and 'non-denominationals.' If we all truly believe in one God, why are we not all united in worship of Him? That is the question I fear non-Christians ask themselves.

In our modern America, people don't do something or follow an idea unless it exactly conforms with what they think is true. This only contributes to the number of sects of Christianity. The "everything is a right" philosophy in America contributes to an immensely ununified Christian front. Even among Catholics who I supported above, you will find people who only go to a particular service or particular church because they like the music better. What kind of nonsense is that? You should go to Church to worship, not be entertained.

And in my mind, this is why the Christian Church, especially in America, needs to present an incredibly united front. And in order to have a united front, discussion/arguments need to happen in the background to decipher the truth. Think how influential it would be to have commericials preaching truth on ever television channel, sponsored by not one organization, but by dozens of different religions and organizations in America. And commericials wouldn't just say "God loves you." While that's true, people are so used to hearing it that it has lost surface meaning. With a united front (developed by working out differences between Christian religions), a meaningful, deep message can be portrayed around the world. While sects may disagree on minor points, here are the major points we all agree on--the important stuff.

I guess for me, this post hits on an important subject: the idea that some sets of Christian belief are better than others. Well, some are. Prosperity gospel? Clearly false... in our minds. But not all minds. Yeah, it is important to evangelize the unreached parts of the world. But we can't forget about our people here at home. What if there was an anti-prosperity gospel commericial that, at the end, listed (out loud) all the groups supporting it. Think if that list went on for a minute (it easily could). What an influence that would make.

Mike said...

Part 3:

Same idea with 'life.' What if there was an anti-abortion/suicide/assisted-suicide/death penalty commercial supported by all kinds of groups and religions. What kind of a difference that could make.

I could go on: arguments against atheism; against pornography; against money-worship; etc.

How could these ever develop? By having discourse about disagreements and coming to consensus and truth.

So in my mind, it is important to point out theological snobbery, empty prayers, inconsistencies, and falsehoods. Only by discussing these things could we ever get to a point where many Christian groups could come together to display a consistent, deep message about Christianity. Then, we could really reach the world.

Longer and more wordy than I initially thought it would be... but that's often how my writing ends up.

God bless-

aaron said...


I think Hillsong is like anything else. . . you filter out the bad and keep the good. (Tomlin/Crowder as well).
I do have problems with some of their lyrics. . .the controversy surrounding the "Healer" song-story comes to mind.

I also use/love "Mighty to Save", "Salvation is Here", "Lead me to the Cross' , etc. . . those are solid tunes.

So, I don't think it's an all or nothing either way. . but just an issue of discernment.


Laura Lynn said...

Words with deep meaning will draw deep worship.

Below is a comical poem to ponder as you consider words in worship.

Totally like whatever, you know?
By Taylor Mali

In case you hadn't noticed,
it has somehow become uncool
to sound like you know what you're talking about?
Or believe strongly in what you're saying?
Invisible question marks and parenthetical (you know?)'s
have been attaching themselves to the ends of our sentences?
Even when those sentences aren't, like, questions? You know?

Declarative sentences - so-called
because they used to, like, DECLARE things to be true
as opposed to other things which were, like, not -
have been infected by a totally hip
and tragically cool interrogative tone? You know?
Like, don't think I'm uncool just because I've noticed this;
this is just like the word on the street, you know?
It's like what I've heard?
I have nothing personally invested in my own opinions, okay?
I'm just inviting you to join me in my uncertainty?

What has happened to our conviction?
Where are the limbs out on which we once walked?
Have they been, like, chopped down
with the rest of the rain forest?
Or do we have, like, nothing to say?
Has society become so, like, totally . . .
I mean absolutely . . . You know?
That we've just gotten to the point where it's just, like . . .

And so actually our disarticulation . . . ness
is just a clever sort of . . . thing
to disguise the fact that we've become
the most aggressively inarticulate generation
to come along since . . .
you know, a long, long time ago!

I entreat you, I implore you, I exhort you,
I challenge you: To speak with conviction.
To say what you believe in a manner that bespeaks
the determination with which you believe it.
Because contrary to the wisdom of the bumper sticker,
it is not enough these days to simply QUESTION AUTHORITY.
You have to speak with it, too.

Metropuritan Mark said...


1. I'm a HIllsong United groupie! I'm raising my kids to have an Australian accent.

2. Consider 2 Chronicles 20:21 and Revelation 4:8. Notice the simplicity and repetition of these songs. In terms of form, they are more "praise chorus" than "hymn". Obviously, it's impossible to know what their melodies were (or "are" in the case of Rev 4:8). Obviously the 2 Chron was Hebraic, which means nothing like any praise chorus or hymns we have in the Western church. The Psalms are also our primary worship manual. What feels more like a Psalm... "Lead me to the cross" or "When I survey the wondrous cross"? I'm not sure to be honest.

But I would caution the anonymous person who commented, "you cant deny 'In Christ Alone' and similar songs put hillsong stuff to shame. you have to deal with that fact in your reflections".

The purpose of my post was not to say "Hillsong" is better than "Charles Wesley" or other classic hymns (or modern hymns in this case). It's like saying, "You can't deny the fact that Proverbs puts the Psalms to shame." On the contrary, the purpose of my post was to confront such nonsensical statements. It's "theological snobbery" in my opinion.

Basically what this becomes is a debate between "high culture" and "pop culture." Which is better? Mozart or Coldplay? That's not my intended destination with the post.

3. I wasn't aware of their "questionable past". As with anything, there's going to be stuff I listen to and think, "Nah. We'll pass on that." I've basically been listening to anything 2004 and newer. I haven't heard anything that has been heretical or even questionable. Other than the "Healer" debacle that Aaron mentioned, I'm not aware of anything. And that can't really be pinned on Hillsong. The song is still legit even though the writer was a fraud. Overall, I'm with Aaron in this...it's an issue of discernment.

4. Here's the extent of my knowledge about Hillsong... they have Assembly of God roots, which grew out of the Holiness movement and emphasize all the spiritual gifts. Practically, they probably have more of a Wesleyan bent than Calvinistic, which makes them not as popular in the modern "Reformed" circles (i.e. Acts 29, Sovereign Grace, Desiring God, etc). I don't think they're the place I'd want to go for a pastor's conference, but they bleed worship and have something to offer the Church in this regard. They're not heretics.

5. Don't dismiss great music (or thought or literature or apologetics or ________) because someone has a slightly different take. Consider C.S. Lewis. If evangelical Christians had to nominate a pope, he would be in the running if he were still alive. But he had some divergent views (to put it lightly). He was an Anglican, and in some ways he was more Catholic in his thinking than Protestant. Or, someone may refuse to do anything related to Sovereign Grace and CJ Mahaney b/c they believe in all the gifts (tongues, prophecy, etc). Or MacArthur b/c he's a cessationist.

Are there theological concerns? Probably. But I listen to their music and that's about it. I don't care to listen to their podcasts or read their blogs. I respect your concerns about them, but I don't think that means you can't engage with their worship. In the same way that you wouldn't let C.S. Lewis' view of faith/works affect your appreciation of his moral argument for God's existence, or his brilliant chapter on "Hope".

Metropuritan Mark said...

6. See the Rev. 4 passage for repetition, "they never stop saying..." I'm with you, though, Todd. I have a hard time with tons of rep on songs. I'm always encouraging our worship leaders to be mindful of over repetition. I remember getting rebuked for repeating, "worthy is the lamb" on the song Agnus Dei back when I was leading worship at TSC. It really bothered this dude. But what's distracting to one person may be causing the next guy to be deep in reflection and prayer about the wonder of Jesus being worthy as the Savior who's taken away the sin of the world...

Moreover, I agree with Laura Lynn that "deep meaning draws out deep worship", but not forgetting that "Jesus loves me" is shallow enough for kids to play in, but deep enough for elephants to drown.

7. Regarding reformed music and hymnology...I'm in favor of anything that is compelling to the next generation. The Psalms encourage us to sing "new songs" (Ps. 40). This is the "duh" in song writing or song selection: our songs should be thoroughly Biblical.

8. I'm not sure where you're going with this. I think you might be leading into an argument from Natural Law to say that "In Christ Alone" is objectively more aesthetically pleasing than "Lead me to the cross." It's okay to say, "I don't like melody lines that are hard to keep up with." or "I prefer organ over electric guitar." But to say, "The organ is objectively better than the electric guitar" is, in my opinion, absurd.

Maybe I'm not understanding your point.

9. I think one's perspective on our congregation's "posture" during any given song is purely subjective. It depends on the service, people in attendance (Saturday night draws a vastly different crowd than 11:00), venue, how new the song is, what band is leading, who the worship leader is, etc. I don't see the clear disparity that you seem to be indicating exists b/w those two styles.

10. The Quakers and Church of Christ solve this problem by having no instrumentation. Are they reading the same Bible as us? (Psalm 150). From my perspective, there are more dangers in the choir than the band. How many exploding churches have traditional choir led worship? There may be some settings where that's the best option (Tim Keller's church in NYC, for example). But overall, I think the music should be the expression of the people in the church and the people it's trying to reach.

When I'm 80 years old, I don't care if I don't like the worship. The question is, "Does it engage my grandkids?" Hopefully by 80 I'll be mature enough to feed my soul throughout the week. My lifeline won't have to be 20 minutes on a Sunday morning.

12. I love Piper, Reformed theology, etc, so I'm a little confused by this point. Next to the Bible, I consider "Desiring God" to be the most influential book in my life. The phase I went through was a very judgmental phase, which I consider some dark ages in my walk with Christ. My theological dogma had not made me a nice person. I will continue to blog about that season of my life in order to caution others who are on that path. It's not the path of following Christ. Sorry if that's tiring to you.

I was once this person who ran in these circles of people who scoffed at "light weight" worship (i.e. Hillsong). My intent in this post (or any others) isn't to create a worship war or to disparage Calvin, Reformed theology, etc, rather it's to point out the inconsistency in a Reformed worship leader's comment,

"We won't do Hillsong music because they have bad theology."

Anonymous said...

The best resource about John Calvin and Servetus with historical accuracy would be this article and resource list from Dr. James White.


God bless.

P.S. You might enjoy the following after reading Dr. White's article.