Modern worship songs are often an easy target for critique.
Particularly those that make Jesus into your best friend, those that make no theological sense, those that could be sung by people of any faith, and those that are great songs but are not congregational.
Yet, my problem is more fundamental than that. In Amos 5:21, God despises the worship of the Israelites because it is “all show and pretense.”
It then goes on to say: “Away with your noisy hymns of praise! I will not listen to the music of your harps. Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living” (Amos 5:23-24).
The problem was not the songs themselves, but what worship should lead to: a spirit of seeking after the heart of God – justice for the poorest and the oppressed.
Isaiah 58 is equally scathing about fasting (worship) and the keeping of the Sabbath. While the people fast, their fasting is done while others are oppressed. While some keep the Sabbath, they make their servants and workers work on the Sabbath so that they can get a better profit.
I am not stating that this is happening in our churches, but the issue is clear to me: There should be a connection between our worship and our pursuit of justice in society.
I read an interview with Tim Hughes a long time ago in Tearfund’s magazine, Tear Times.
He said it is hard to write songs that express God’s heart for justice, but he also noted that the issue is also not only for worship leaders to resolve, but is much wider.
Perhaps what we should primarily question is not the words to our worship songs, but the outcome. Why is it when so many Christians draw close to God in “worship,” we are not seeing a movement to connect with his heart for the poor?
In another interview in a recent issue of Tear Times, Kim Walker-Smith of the Jesus Culture Movement argued that worship should lead to service.
The May 21, 2016, edition of Common Prayer quoted Evelyn Underhill, an English Anglo-Catholic writer offering similar sentiments: “Adoration, as it more deeply possesses us, inevitably leads on to self-offering. Charity is the live wire along which the power of God, indwelling our finite spirits, can and does act on other souls and other things, rescuing, healing, giving support and light.”
The problem with modern worship is not the songs, but the fact that they have moved from worship into entertainment.
The “worship” leader is one of the big sells for Christian conferences and festivals where they sell CDs and DVDs of “worship” songs. People consume the music in the same way that we consume anything else.
Worship has become a privatized experience that does not lead into care and concern for others, but our own personal edification. That is not Christian worship.
Yes, we do need gathered worship, and the easiest way we do this in a corporate way is via music. At a funeral recently I was struck again by how powerful music is, but worship is not only music.
I love The Message Bible translation, as it often offers a challenge to our perception of the passage.
In Romans 12:1-2, Eugene Peterson gets to the heart of the passage when he says: “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering.”
My issue with modern worship is not that there is too much of it, but there is too little of it! We have reduced it and removed it both from its context and its purpose.
Michael Shaw is minister of Devonport Community Baptist Church, Plymouth, United Kingdom. A version of this article first appeared on his blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @mikepcshaw.