One of the unsung joys of leading worship is when a church member approaches you after a service and announces, “I just learned the story behind that hymn we sang today!” The hymn may have been “It Is Well with My Soul,” “Blessed Assurance,” “Amazing Grace,” or one of a hundred others, but the point is that it has acquired a new meaning for this particular worshiper.
The story behind a hymn’s composition enhances its meaning for us; we are taken more fully into the poetry of the devotional art. Knowing this human tendency, what does it tell us about hymns, in particular, and worship in general?
The first thing that it tells us is that worship comes out of a specific context: the songwriters, their circumstances and personalities, and the time and culture in which they lived.
Second, the language and music of hymns remind us that we live at a distance from the context of the composer. Apart from learning something about the background of a hymn and the events that inspired it, we may not be able to fully appreciate and sing it as we do songs from our own time and place (e.g., songs of Zion do not play well in Babylon, Ps 137:1-4).
Third, sometimes the only way to recover the spiritual value of a hymn is by learning its background.
And together, these three things help give us a clear understanding of the way people experience life. Context and connection bring impact and understanding. In other words, story brings meaning to worship.
Tell Me the Old, Old Story
Not that long ago, psychologists and philosophers believed language was the fundamental cornerstone of consciousness. Infants became conscious as they learned the names of things. More recently, however, neuroscientists have discovered that there is another foundation for human consciousness and that language is preceded by story. Antonio Damasio, Head of the Department of Neurology at the University of Iowa College of Medicine, says, “Consciousness begins when brains acquire the power, the simple power I must add, of telling a story without words” and it is during infancy that this storytelling process begins.
We are storytellers. The world we inhabit is not merely furnished with objects and forces and populated with humans and animals. It is, rather, a world of stories in which we discern the plot of a chain of events. We acquire our perception of the world-what it is and how it operates-through the lens of story. And it is story that gives meaning to our lives in the world.
So when we meet for worship, even when we are unconscious of the story we are living, it plays a significant role in our actions and how we perceive them. The meaning of our prayers, Scripture reading, songs, and so on, is derived from the overarching story of God and how he manifests himself and interacts with his children.
Story Always Exists
What is the story we step into when the call to worship is sounded or spoken? If we do not tell the story, worshipers will automatically construct their own. So in one setting a person may say, “This is about preserving an ancient tradition,” and in another, “This is about Christians who can also be cool and hip,” and yet another, “They must really be raking in the dough!”
Christian worship recalls the salvation history of Israel and their God, which led to the coming of Jesus and his conquest of sin and death (the hinge of history). Although the basic plot and characters never change, the story is as broad and complex as the universe. Furthermore, the story-and many of its specific episodes-must be told again and again. There cannot be too many reminders.
Two years ago, while leading a tour in Israel, our guide told us, “In Hebrew, we have no word for history. We use memory for history.” He was referring to biblical Hebrew (modern Hebrew, as in English, borrowed a Greek word for history). The idea of substituting memory for history is for many Jews the essence of being Jewish.
When Avraham Infeld was studying at the Hebrew University, he wrote his father to let him know he wanted to teach Jewish history. His father answered him, “There is no such thing as Jewish history. Non-Jews have history. Jews have memory.” Infeld says, “If I had to describe in one sentence what it means to be a Jew, I would say that a Jew is a person who must never suffer amnesia.”
This is obviously a great concern of the Hebrew Scriptures, which not only contain many volumes of history, but also long passages that replay its history. Moreover, it is precisely in worship where Israel recites and celebrates their history and recognizes the danger of “not remembering” (e.g., Ps 105; 106:7, 13, 21).
“Fugue state amnesia” describes a memory loss so severe that a patient forgets who he is and cannot remember his own name. Infeld says, “The challenge of the Jew is to carry the Jewish collective memory and make it part of one’s own life.” I would add that this is also the challenge of the Christian and the responsibility falls to the worship leader and preacher to make sure that believers do not forget who they are and why they meet to pray, sing, and read the Scriptures.
The Story That Never Grows Old
Given the puritanical roots of Evangelicalism (e.g., Jonathan Edwards), it is not surprising that our faith has become highly rational. For this reason, many Christians feel more comfortable if the sermon is lecture rather than story. In lectures we can aim for literalness, precision, and clarity. Stories, however, require interpretation and are capable of carrying multiple meanings (it is this potential ambiguity of all art forms that makes some believers uncomfortable with painting, dance, drama, and media arts).
But this point of view misses the fact that truth also can be communicated by story and in such a way that a lecture could never equal. Lectures communicate information from one brain to another, whereas stories work in the imagination and heart as well. While lectures present prepackaged truth (one needs only to listen and believe), story leads the listeners to discovery, which enables them to own the truth they find. This was, of course, Jesus’ strategy with the parables. Story gives worshipers an experience of the truth.
Take, for example, God’s premier revelation of salvation to Israel: Their escape from Egypt. This event became a cornerstone in the theology of the Hebrew Scriptures. But a problem arises when theology is built on a historic event; namely, how can future generations enjoy the benefits of something that is so far removed from them in time and space? How can the theology associated with the ancient event be to them anything other than old information? How can they be drawn close enough to have a personal experience of the event?
The answer, of course, is story. Every year, Israel would observe a sacred meal in which, through story and ritual, they would re-present The Exodus (Ex 12:24-27). This dramatic retelling of the story would bring the children (and their children, and their children’s children) into real contact with the God of their salvation.
The Story of the Cross
What The Exodus was to Israel, the cross of Jesus Christ is to the Church. The story of Jesus’ passion and death is implied in every service of worship, but it is made explicit in the Lord’s Supper. Here we are specifically reminded to proceed “in remembrance of Me” (1 Cor 11:24-25). In the dramatic re-presentation of Jesus’ sacrifice, the whole story is told from beginning to end.
Worship makes present and real the work of God that spans all of time. Story bridges historical distance in two directions, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim [present] the Lord’s death [past] until He comes [future]” (1 Cor 11:26). If the past reveals our identity, the future reveals our destiny.
What happens to worshipers who enter this story, eating the bread and drinking from the cup? They do not observe a ritual with elements that are mere symbols, but in some mysterious and spiritual way they are participating (koinonia) in the person of Christ (1 Cor 10:16).
Tell Me the Story of Jesus
Besides the obvious value of emphasizing the role of story in worship that we see in the Bible, I believe there are at least two other ways that it could benefit contemporary Christian worship: the recovery of testimony and a deepening of our spiritual leadership.
The man who Jesus freed from the legion of demons wanted to join him as one of his disciples. Jesus refused, however, and told him instead, “Go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how he had mercy on you” (Mk 5:19). The result of that man’s amazing report of his encounter with Jesus, was that the next time Jesus set foot in those regions, people knew to come to him for help (Mk 7:31).
We can do more than celebrate stories (and the Story); we can give people permission to tell the stories of their encounters with Jesus. This is not only a regular feature of worship in the Psalms, but this word-of-mouth-personal-account of the great things God has done inspires faith and hope in others, drawing them into a greater awareness of his nearness (Ps 22:25; 26:6-7).
Story could also help us break an unpleasant habit that seems to be widespread. What I have in mind is the verbal dribble that frequently follows the singing of a moving worship chorus. If the last line of the chorus is, “And sing your praises forever!” the worship leader may lean into the microphone and say, “Yes, Lord, we sing your praises! Yes! Forever we sing. It’s Your praises we sing, Lord. We will sing; forever we will sing! Your praises we will sing ….”
My mother, who is less critical than I about this sort of thing, refers to it as “baby talk.” We might expect it from someone who is still discovering their voice in praise and is building a worship vocabulary. But I make the assumption that the person who leads me in worship spends a lot of time in prayer. Certainly they are praising God all the time and not just when leading worship (Ps 34:1).
If we constantly refresh ourselves in the story, the ideas that inform our prayers will never run dry and we will always have a living vocabulary with which to express them.