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Theologians & Theorists: Reforming Worship in God’s Image

Theologians & Theorists: Reforming Worship in God’s Image

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WL recently asked a question of some of the most eloquent and enjoyable people we know­—those who have made studying, encouraging, and expanding our understanding of worship their life’s mission. They answered and, as we hoped, showed the amazing variation and diversity of emphasis and thought that we believe will inspire you to more profoundly lead in worship.  We also included a bonus perspective on the same theme from N.T. Wright via an earlier interview.

How can worship/sung prayer be re-formed to more accurately reflect the Biblical narrative, encompass the past, present and future, remain deep, yet accessible, engage congregations in discipleship and form Christians into communities that embody Christ and extend worship into the larger world?

EXPAND your view.
By Dr. James Hart

Choral Director, Composer/Arranger, Songwriter and Author. President / The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies

St. Augustine wrote:

“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.”

Human beings are hardwired for worship; everyone worships someone or something. Biblically centered Christian worship brings about the reconciliation of worshipers back to the One who made us and loves us. Then, reconciled to God, we, the Mystical Body of Christ, are sent on mission to participate actively in God’s great reconciliation of the entire created order.

As Bob Webber wrote, “Worship is the key to the renewal of the Church.” I would add, “And the Church is the key to the renewal of the world.” In worship, we tell the world its story, invite the world into the family (Church) to be reconciled, fired with the love of God, and then sent back to the world to participate in the great reconciliation of all things. The story of God in Jesus Christ is for the life of the whole world.

In the end, we thirst to know God and thirst to know God in the other. Everything we do in worship should contribute to that end, the love of God and the love of His creation.

REACH further, relate deeper.
By Dr. Monique Ingalls

Author, Editor,  co-founder of “Christian Congregational Music: Local and Global Perspectives” Conference. Assistant Professor / Music Center for Christian Music Studies / Baylor University

Re-formed worship and sung prayer must flow out of a deepening relationship with the Christians across the world and across the tracks. Our collective worship is a space in which we can work to bridge division and heal the rifts in Christ’s body.

It is helpful to first build from our existing relationships. Have we partnered with a congregation elsewhere in the world? Have we served alongside members of another area church on a community service project? We can start by learning what songs, prayers, and Scripture passages are meaningful to these friends and why; then introduce them, along with their stories, to our congregations. After strengthening existing relationships, we can also build new connections.

Is there a church across the street whose worship is different from our own? We can have conversations over coffee to learn what makes them tick, and pray about what aspects of their tradition we might incorporate.

Do we feel burdened to pray for or give to a group of Christians on the other side of the world? We can listen to their worship music on YouTube and pray the Lord’s Prayer in their language in a Sunday morning service. In learning from the wisdom of our sisters and brothers in Christ, we open ourselves to what the Spirit is truly doing in the world today.

SEEK His kingdom.
By Dr. Aaron Crider

Author, Editor, Pastor, Educator, Director of Worship Studies / The Kings University 

As we consider the past and future of worship and sung prayer in light of biblical narrative, there are key elements of focus for the present. Those elements are that biblical worship has singular focus. Solus Christus (Christ alone) and Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God alone) is every part of every corner of the conversation.

If we are to witness awakening and reformation in worship, all the indulgences of the formalized worship industry must align with a biblical movement of seeking first His kingdom and His righteousness. Never can chart ranking, sales, and awards be the goal. Soli Deo Gloria and Solus Christus has got to become our win.

WRITE songs that form patience.
By Dr. Lester Ruth

Historian, Author, Worship Activator, Research Professor of Christian Worship / Duke Divinity School

It’s quite clear in the New Testament: Christians are supposed to lean into the future and allow it to reshape their sense of who they are and how they are to live. Our lives are hid, as Paul put it in Colossians, in Christ and when He appears and is revealed (in the future) so will we in an upcoming resurrection. But our worship is often focused on the past (“Jesus did great things back then!”) or on the present (“Isn’t it wonderful to enjoy His presence today!”). Such sentiments are true but they can short circuit our leaning into the future. But how can we lean forward?

I suggest it is more than talking about when Jesus returns. I suggest it involves using acts of worship which actually form worshipers to be patient in their use. Specifically, I suggest we start singing hymns, not just classic hymns, but new hymns by you and saying the things you want to say. But say those things in a hymn form where there’s multiple verses and the payoff is not until the end.

The more commonplace structure of a couple of verses, a chorus, a pre-chorus, and a bridge allows getting to the song’s payoff quickly and repeatedly. There’s no learning how to wait and be patient. But a hymn form takes us on a journey, all the while waiting until the climax in the final verse in the final line.

Let’s learn to write and sing songs whose very structure forms us in patience, which is a fruit of the Spirit, and in hope. Hope involves waiting as Paul noted in Romans 8: “Who hopes for what is already seen?” I might add: “Or sung?”

CREATE opportunities for spontaneity.
By Jeff Deyo

Faculty at North Central University, Founder of Worship City Ministries. Educator, Author, Speaker, and Award-winning Songwriter and Artist.

The Convergence of Musical Worship and Sung-Prayer.

There is a tremendous beauty that emerges when we begin to embrace the close relationship shared between musical worship and intercession. How different are the songs we sing in our services from the desperate pleas we utter to God behind closed doors? Maybe it’s just a matter of a melody.

One of the most practical ways we can begin to help people reform their mindset is to invite them to participate in sung prayers, corporately. This involves providing opportunities for congregants to step into moments of spontaneous worship between the sections of our planned worship songs, possibly between a second chorus and a bridge, or before or near the end of a song.

As the band vamps repeatedly on a chord progression from a known song, the worship leader simply encourages the congregation to step into “Tehillâh” (the Hebrew word for praise, meaning, “To sing with songs or hymns; laudations of the spirit. The song of the Lord; spontaneous song to the Lord”).

This song doesn’t need to be complex or “professional,” but simply needs to arise from the heart of each individual worshiper, forming a symphony of individual musical prayers. As you might guess, the one true distinction between a typical spontaneous prayer—something most understand—and this newly discovered spontaneous worship song is the addition of a melody that flows from the one singing the prayer.

LET God’s story drive the narrative.
By Rev. Dr. Constance Cherry

Historian, Author, Worship Activator, Pastor, Worship Writer and Leader. Professor of Worship and Pastoral Ministry / Indiana Wesleyan University.

One significant way that worship can be re-formed is by letting the story of God drive the narrative of worship. The story of God is the biblical narrative of all that God has done, is doing, and will do from creation to re-creation. This all-encompassing narrative is centered in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Any time that our own agendas drive the content and actions of worship, we risk re-writing God’s story. To say that the story of God drives the narrative of worship simply means that God’s purposes for worship are honored—that worship planning and leading starts with asking the question, how can we re-enact, proclaim, and celebrate the triune God in community? 

SONGS +PRAYER= spirit and truth worship.
By Andi Rozier

Prolific Worship Writer, Artist, Worship Pastor / Harvest Bible Chapel

He who sings, prays twice.

This quote is attributed to St. Augustine and has a truth that resonates with my heart. Singing brings a spiritual engagement to prayers that seems to accentuate the meaning of the words. But is it biblical? 

Exodus 15:1 records the first song recorded in the Bible. David was partial to singing his prayers too. There are over 1,150 references to music in the Bible, including when the Lord Himself asks for songs. It goes without saying that the Bible admonishes us to pray…

Perhaps, combining prayers and songs is the closest embodiment we have to worshiping in spirit and truth, as John encourages us to do. Let us then, encourage one another to do the same. 

ENCOUNTER God + worship as part of a greater whole.
By Josh Lavender

Author, Artist, Composer, Co-founder of the Wesleyan Worship Project. Worship Pastor / Trinity Wesleyan Church.

“…offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship…”

Romans 12:1, NIV

 It’s easy to seek an individual encounter with God in a room full of people, and many of our worship songs allow or invite us to do just that. In a culture that is starving for belonging, there is great potential for the worship of the Church to renew its focus on community. I think there is room for worship leaders and new songs to facilitate community encounters with God that are deeply personal, but not individual. Worship can forge identity and lead us down the road of charity when it situates the worshiper as part of a greater whole, offering one sacrifice of worship.

WORSHIP LEADING is teaching / weakness is strength.
By Laura Story

Songwriter, Author, Artist, Scholar and Bible Teacher. Worship Leader / Perimeter Church 

Imagine waking up one morning to a global health pandemic and corporate worship in churches across the globe was cancelled indefinitely. A month ago, that scenario sounded like a far-fetched plot of a sci-fi film but, as we all know, this was/is reality. Not that reflecting on my past worship sets was the first thought on my mind, but eventually I did have a moment to consider this: how did I as a worship leader prepare my congregation for a season of crisis? To put it simply, if my congregation had only the songs I had taught them and led for them from the past year to draw comfort and wisdom from, did I give them the tools they now need to weather the storm?

Questions like these not only reveal the importance of the content of songs we sing on Sundays. It also leads to the broader, most obvious question… What must we teach our congregation to sing that will sustain them in times of trial?

  • Focus on who God is.
  • Fix our eyes on Him
  • Sing not because we feel secure but because His character is secure, unchanging and always faithful.
  • Focus on who we are.
  • People sustained by His promises
  • People called to respond differently, with courage not fear.
  • Focus on the future glory awaiting us.
  • Worship evangelism idea: people are interested now more than ever in a hope not found in this world. Things are being stripped away, comforts thrown out the window.
  • Remind ourselves and our congregations each day of how sin has corrupted this world.
  • Sweet reminder that this is not the end of the narrative.


This all segues with my personal story of the [recording] label approaching me in the midst of the hardest season of my life (my husband Martin dealing with a brain tumor, disabilities) and asking if I would write worship songs. Though I struggled to see how I could write songs of praise in a season where I felt I was falling apart, they persisted that “what the church needs is songs that proclaim God’s goodness in the midst of the hard.” What they saw that I could not was that the trials I was walking through and the doubt I was struggling with were not disqualifying me from writing songs of worship—it was God’s unique way of equipping me.

A GOOD TUNE is not optional.
By N.T. Wright

Author / Speaker / New Testament Scholar, Pauline Theologian and Anglican Bishop. University of St. Andrews School of Divinity

I worry when the words of some of the modern worship songs seem to me just a random selection of Christian slogans, as it were, rather than actually a narrative of the world as claimed by Jesus and as rescued by Jesus in his death and resurrection—and the world is still a suffering place—but which is looking forward to the new creation. Some worship songs are struggling to say that, but if the narrative is broken then it’s not actually helping the people who are singing it in the way that it should.

And then the other thing I really, really worry about is the music. Quite a lot of the contemporary worship songs don’t actually have tunes in the proper sense. They have two or three notes, which they go to-and-fro on and then maybe they have a chorus, which lifts it a bit, but it’s still often not a tune. When you go back to some of the older things way back into the medieval period and through the 16th, 18th Century, etc., you have an actual tune. And the point about a tune is that it’s telling a story. It’s going somewhere. And I am very anxious about worship songs which have deconstructed the tune—the idea of a tune—and that’s the radical nature of post-modernity to deconstruct the narrative. That’s where our culture is. But we ought to be discerning how to do fresh actual tunes, not sort of past issues, copying what was done in the 16th or 17th or 19th or whatever century, but actual refreshed new creation tunes rather than simply a scattering of random notes. You can feel the difference in the congregation when they’re given a real tune to sing.

God’s world is storied, you know. This is part of the point of Scripture. Scripture gives us a gigantic story and says, “Hey guys this is your story, live in it.” And if we don’t have tunes, then we’re not actually living in a story. We are merely playing from moment to moment with ideas that may make us feel good or may make us energized to do this or that or may not, but it’s the story that carries the message.

I was in a meeting just the other day where there was a new worship song that we were introduced to and I was waiting for this thing to have a tune and it just didn’t. And it’s actually quite difficult to sing as a result. You can sort of mumble along with it and if the worship leaders are bashing it out, then it sounds good and it can have a powerful rhythm.

And okay a rhythm is a good thing too; picks up the notion of the heartbeat and you know this is a very deep part of who we are. We are rhythmic creatures as well as narratival creatures, but if there’s no story then, how can you be kingdom people unless you’re deeply inhabiting the story? …[I]f it’s a well constructed service—[it] ought to have that sense of narrative closure through it and being energized by that narrative. So it’s as much the form as in the detail content, though of course the detail content matters enormously as well.

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