I'll tell you what I want,
what I really, REALLY, want.
Do you remember the first single that you bought on record, cassette, CD, mp3 or stream (depending on your age)? As a product of the 1990s, mine was the hit Wannabe by pop sensation The Spice Girls. As a child, I never really understood the lyrics, and I am not so sure that I do now either. The key phrase of the song that I bounced around my bedroom singing was the refrain, “I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want.” Whilst it is very catchy (apologies if I have given you an earworm!), throughout the song we never really find out what the singer really, really wants; the answer that comes is “zig-a-zig, ah,” whatever that means. I have been wondering though, when it comes to our worship, what might it be that God really really wants?
In a nutshell, worship is about bringing God what He wants. The English word comes from the Old English weorthscipe, meaning “an acknowledgement of worth or worthiness.” In other words, worship is worth-ship – the act of giving God what He wants and is worth and deserves. In many of our churches, acts of worship have often become synonymous with times of
corporate singing and music-making. Is it that God is simply a massive music fan and the thing that He really really wants is to be whilst He reclines on His throne in highest Heaven? This isn’t to belittle our music-making, but it is to serve as a reminder that, as Matt Redman puts it, “A song in itself is not what You have required.”
The music we use and the way that we use it is intended to help us bring to God what He really really wants. What might some of those things be?
At the same time, anyone who has been around the church for a little while will be able to testify to the potential that music also has to divide people.
Anyone who has sung loudly in a crowd will testify to the incredible power that music has to form community. Music has a unique ability to bring and bind people from all kinds of backgrounds together. At the same time, anyone who has been around the church for a little while will be able to testify to the potential that music also has to divide people. Perhaps because music is so powerful, individuals can hold strong views about the best ways to utilize it in worship. For one person, a hymn that conveys timeless truths set to powerful harmonies and regal, hymnodic chord patterns fit for a king may be to another person outdated, unengaging, and irrelevant expression of the 1800s. A song may give someone the space and means to connect with God through simplicity and repletion, but for someone else may be banal, shallow, and saccharine.
Song choice can split congregations. As a worship leader and preacher, getting the balance of songs right whilst being alert to this fact has caused me more angst than any other aspect of meeting preparation. People – even people who are part of the family of God – can be complex!
Jesus tells an interesting short story on the relationship between worship and unity in Matthew 5:23-24. He describes a person arriving at the altar of the temple, ready to offer a gift to God. The process of landing in front of the altar was a lengthy, involved, and complex one, as people navigated the rituals and geography of the temple to bring their offering to God. In the story, Jesus then instructs that if, having undergone the rigmarole of arriving at the altar, the person remembers that there is someone they have fallen out with, they need to go and first be reconciled to that person before making their offering. Jesus’ first audience would have laughed at the hilarious thought of the would-be-worshipper needing to perform all of the ritual ceremony again. Jesus’ point is that the offering of worship loses its meaning, and even becomes contradictory, if you are
performing an act intended to express your reconciliation with God whilst being wilfully or knowingly unreconciled to a brother or sister.
For our worship to be what God really really wants, it needs to come from a place of unity. Colossians 1:20 tells us that Christ died in order to “reconcile all things to himself.” This is God’s great mission for the whole world, so it must surely start with the church living as witnessing proof of this possibility. Singing tunefully and melodically, whilst accepting disunity within the congregation, is not the kind of worship that God really wants.
Q: How can the songs I select in worship help to foster and create unity? What are the relationships with others that I need to address?
The Bible is full of examples of God (usually through the Prophets in the Old Testament, or Jesus in the New Testament) offering helpful (or vicious!) critique of the way in which His people worship. To my knowledge, the critique is never really directed at their dodgy tuning or because they keep speeding up when the song gets louder, or because the drummer messed up the modulation during the killer key change. The critique usually centres on the fact that whilst they are performing the outward rituals with expertise, these actions don’t correlate to their hearts and intentions, or the other stuff that is going on in their lives. If you check out Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees in Matthew 24, you will see what I’m talking about: it’s full of some of His harshest condemnation and “woes” because of the hypocrisy the Pharisees display in their worship.
Our worship needs to be characterized by integrity. Our lips and our lives need to be in agreement. This is the kind of worship that God really really wants. I remember a guest worship leader from another church being at camp when I was a teenager. We were a bunch of slightly socially awkward and reserved British teens, and despite his best efforts, it didn’t seem that we were entering into the times of sung worship in the way that the worship leader might have hoped. I can’t remember his exact words, but the intimation was that we needed to let go a little and be a bit more holy and Spirit-filled. Then, on the Thursday afternoon, came the highlight of the week: the staff versus delegates football match. I’ll always remember the aggression and choice language of the worship leader on the pitch. Like all of us, he was imperfect, and, in many ways, he was used by God during that week but his behaviour on the pitch didn’t really role model worship to us teenagers positively. The integrity of the worship was hampered by its incongruence with the leader’s actions outside of the chapel. This has served, often painfully, as a reminder for me in my own leadership.Worship leaders, like all worshippers, have to be prepared to live out on Monday what they sing about on Sunday.
Q: What did I sing about last week in church that I’ve been struggling to live out in practice?
Related to integrity comes a third thing that Scripture tells us God really really wants from worship. The prophet Amos (Chapter 5) laments at the state of Israel’s worshipping life: the poor are being cheated and the vulnerable exploited. He imagines God speaking to the people and saying (5:21-23), “I hate your religious festivals, I despise your assemblies […] away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps!” !” The Message translation puts it pertinently when it says, “I can’t stand your religious meetings, I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making.”The sucker-punch is delivered in verse 24, when God, almost bellowing at His people says, “Do you know what I want? I want justice—oceans of it. I want fairness—rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want.”
It seems in the context of our worship that God really really wants justice. It’s a reminder to us all that our worship is not intended to merely be a privatized, internalized affair, concerned only with ourselves and our hearts, but rather is part of God’s plan to put the whole world right. As we encounter the living and loving God in worship, God intends to send us back out into the world to roll up our sleeves and participate in His redeeming work in the world. The songs that we sing to God are also supposed to be anthems and songs that fuel our action for “Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven.” They are the soundtrack to the Kingdom revolution. This is a costly element of worship but ultimately takes us to the heart of being the kind of worshippers that God really really wants.
Q: Which songs are we using at the moment which might fuel and inspire missional action in the world?
Come, People of the Risen King (Townend/Getty)
Come Let Us Worship the King/Great Things(Phil Wickham)
In the Name of the Father/Our God Saves(Paul Baloche)
May the Words of My Mouth (Tim Hughes)
The Heart of Worship (Matt Redman)
Build Your Kingdom Here (Rend Collective)
The World for God (Evangeline Booth/Transmission)
Build My Life (Housefires)