The Worship Diet
I’m writing this in the depths of January when it seems that those around me have begun their annual attempts at a New Year’s diet. Keen to shake off some of the festive excess, this is the time of year when people start to really consider their diets and eating plans. However, it got me thinking: what kind of food do we feed our spirit and soul? Dieticians remind us, “we are what we eat.” Perhaps the Anglican theologian and former bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright, has a point when he says, “you become what you worship?”1 Worship has the power to shape and form us, so with this in mind, I have been wondering what The Worship Diet might look like.
The variety of worship food
The term food doesn’t do justice to the range of things that we eat. If you were to ask someone what they ate for lunch and they replied with “food,” you might feel that your question was being dodged. Similarly, a bar of luxury chocolate and a bowl of stewed cabbage could all be described as food, but if you had expected one and received the other, you might be a bit surprised! The same can be said of the songs that might acquire the label worship. It’s something that nineteenth century Old Testament scholar, Hermann Gunkel, recognized when he tried to capture the nuance of the poems and songs which make up the Book of Psalms in the Bible 2. Whilst all the verses of this volume can be rightly labelled psalms, this does not do justice to the variety of genre, form, and type that the corpus contains. Gunkel set about categorizing each one and recognized there was a great deal of variety amongst them. Some were hymns of praise which named and declared who God is and what He had done. Others were deeply personal cries for help or forgiveness, or lament and protest. Still others retold ancient stories, reminding Israel of their past and urging them to keep on being faithful and offering them wisdom along the way.
Gunkel’s work helpfully challenges us too by exhorting us to consider the variety of the songs we sing in worship. I wonder: what kind of variety exists in the songs we choose for worship and how might looking at Gunkel’s work help to put this in balance?
The Staple of Worship: Songs which have substance
(Examples: Psalm 8, 19, 96, 100 or 150)
Hymns are one of Gunkel’s primary categories within the Book of Psalms. These are some of the biggest and most vivid psalms which call people to praise God. More than just summoning praise, however, this food group of psalms tell the people why they should worship God. They name distinctly who YHWH is, listing his particular attributes and actions. They express truths about God’s nature and character.
Hymns are intended to bring the whole assembly of God’s people together, united in worship. When it comes to the songs we sing in church, however, hymns have probably been one of the things I’ve most experienced causing disquiet or division. Often, the debate centres around the perineal tension between whether we should sing the traditional songs of the faith, which one side sees as boring and outdated, or whether we should focus on praise choruses, which the other side see as shallow and saccharine. When we consider the psalms, we can’t help being confronted with the fact that hymns form a staple of the pattern of worship for God’s people. At the same time, however, this goes far beyond meter or form or tune or instrumentation. Hymns aren’t (just or even…) old songs; they’re timeless truths proclaimed afresh.
In other words, whether we’re singing, “Hosanna! You are the God who saves us, worthy of all our praises,” written in 2005 or “Let the amen sound from His people again: Gladly for aye we adore Him,” written in 1668, we’re joining in the great tradition of singing hymns which call us to worship God, and which cause us to name and remember who He is. I think that’s the real litmus test to whether something can be considered a staple of Christian worship: does this song distinctly name the God who we are worshipping? Songs which could, with only minor adjustment, equally be sung to our significant other or a Hindu deity probably don’t meet the criteria to be classified as a hymn under this category outlined by Gunkel.
Eating Up Your Vegetables: Songs which are hard to swallow
(Examples: Psalm 6, 44, 51, 83, 71 or 109)
We all know that the key to a balanced diet sometimes involves eating foods which we might not especially enjoy, but which ultimately, we need. Gunkel identifies a particularly numerous categories of psalms that include individual or corporate lament. These are the psalms we might feel less comfortable reading out during a meeting on a Sunday morning for fear of dampening the mood.
These are the psalms which express anger and frustration at the way things have (or have not) worked out. They express the disappointment and despair caused by individual and corporate sinfulness, and even cries for vengeance against those who have acted for oppression and injustice. Psalm 137:9 infamously calls for the babies of Babylonians to be “smashed against the rocks.”
I think that this might be a category of song which, in Western contexts particularly, we find a tad unpalatable. The CCLI’s list of 100 most used Christian songs in the UK contains hardly any laments. We want people to feel uplifted and encouraged when they come to church, and yet, I can’t help but wonder if people might feel more encouraged by being able to open in expressing to God how they really feel. We’ve all heard worship leaders tell people to “leave their cares” (or the past week, or the fight they had in the car on the way to church, or the worries that are getting them down…) at the door in order to concentrate on worshipping God, but what if one of the ways we could authentically worship God is by bringing all of these things, including the ugly and painful bits, before Him?
At Soul Survivor Church in Watford (UK), the story goes that the pastor had become angry and frustrated at the increased professionalism and obsession with aesthetics that he and his congregation had been displaying in worship. He cancelled all singing and, instead, people stood and spoke before God. It was this experience of lament that would birth the Matt Redman song which cries out, “I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it, when it’s all about You.” Worship should enable us to be honest to God about our feelings, our regrets, and our longings.
Being an Influencer: Songs which are displays for others
(Examples: Psalm 18, 32, 66, 124, 129)
I saw a meme recently which showed a waiter looking anxiously at a lady in a restaurant. The caption read,
“Is everything OK with your meal? It’s only because you haven’t taken a photograph of it for Instagram.” In our culture, we love to display what we’re eating, and restaurants readily recognize that the best way to drum up business is through recruiting influencers who, having “tasted and seen” how good their food is, will exhort others to eat there too.
There’s a sense in which the same could be said for another category of psalms; those which express thanksgiving, but which do so from the perspective of drawing others to worship God. They declare the Psalmist’s experience of God and what God has done in their lives, inviting others to experience God for themselves. In The Salvation Army, there is an arguably unique heritage of songs in this genre. The songbook has a testimony section which helps us to put into words and express our own experience of God in order that others might be drawn to worship him too. Old Testament worship is never an entirely privatized affair. It is a public display of all that God is, and our worship too should also have a missional edge.
Consuming a Balanced Diet
If it’s true that “we become what we worship,” then the challenge for worship leaders is helping congregations to consume a balanced diet. If we only sing declarative hymns, we risk reducing God to an objective other; distant and removed from our personal experience. If we only ever sang songs of lament, we would end up feeling pretty depressed. If we only ever sang songs in the first person, we would begin to think worship was all about us. The issue is not that a genre or type of song is better or more biblical than the other. The real challenge lies in ensuring that we feed ourselves with a balanced variety of worship.
This year, as you think about your diet, why not try to intentionally expand the variety of genre in the worship songs you choose and listen to? It’s healthy after all.
Examples of contemporary songs showing a variety:
What a Beautiful Name (Hillsong),
The Lion and the Lamb (Bethel),
Yet Not I but Through Christ in Me (City Alight)
God of Justice (Tim Hughes),
Blessed Be Your Name (Matt Redman)
Witness to others:
This Is Amazing Grace (Phil Wickham)
Telling a story:
King of Kings (Hillsong),
Anastasis (Hillsong), Living Hope (Bethel)
Indescribable (Chris Tomlin)
1Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, p.28
2 See Hermann Gunkel’s Introduction to Psalms
Meet our 2022 Worship theology series writer
Callum McKenna is married to Berri and has two small boys. He is a Salvation Army officer, currently appointed to the William Booth College in London (UK) where he is a tutor in the School for Officer Training. He also teaches theology in one of the territory’s degree course programmes. His theological interests include Biblical studies, missiology and spirituality, and especially, the relationship between the three. He’s a (very) amateur musician and is part of the worship team at the Bromley Temple corps in South London. His interests include visiting parks and soft-play centres, high quality coffee, and falling asleep whilst watching Netflix (the consequence of parenting two small children!).