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Sound Words: Thoughtful Wonder

For several years I’ve served as the assistant editor of the Ohio Bible Fellowship’s publication, the Visitor. As of the beginning of this year, I’m no longer in the fellowship and thus will no longer be working with the publication. The article below was published in January 2010, while I was still an assistant editor.

I enjoyed working on the Visitor with my friends, pastors Dan Greenfield, Mark Perry, and (later) Paul Hamilton. Thanks for the opportunity and the fellowship it afforded!

_____

One of the most rewarding spiritual exercises I’ve engaged in during the last several years is the writing of hymn texts. Some of them have been useful to local churches, by God’s grace. Many others have never been released from the prison of my hard drive and are in need of serious rehabilitation. A few that should have been locked up in maximum security have managed to escape, much to my embarrassment. At any rate, it’s tiring and sometimes frustrating work searching for just the right words and rhythms and rhymes. A misstep can leave you sounding like Mother Goose—and not in a good way! Nevertheless, it’s incredibly rewarding in that it has deepened my understanding of worship. By God’s grace, the process encourages an intense study of biblical themes, what Joe Tyrpak describes as “meditation on steroids.” It has often revealed to me two things that are often missing from our worship, or at least from mine: thought and wonder. Both are essential.

First, worship should incorporate thought. It is not a brainless thing. Indeed, where there is no thought, there is no worship, for our Lord commands us to love Him with all our minds (Matt 22:37). Though I’ve heard a number of church growth gurus commend the power of music to “bypass the intellect and speak directly to the heart,” that’s not at all what we’re after when we offer praise to God. Certainly we want to worship with our emotions and wills, as well, but we do so by way of the mind, not by avoiding it. Notice how the Psalms often encourage this sort of thoughtful worship by calling for praise and then listing the reasons why it is appropriate: “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” (Ps 106:1) So when we’re listening to Scripture or sermons or testimonies, we should be thinking. When we’re praying, we should be thinking. When we’re singing, we should be thinking: “Why does the text use that word? What is the Scripture behind that idea?” Our worship would be greatly enhanced by what the Bible calls meditation (Ps 1:2, et al)—and what everyone else calls thought.

(This is for free: If one thing missing from our worship is thought, when faced with a near comatose congregation, worship leaders would be wise to encourage thoughtful engagement, not to make a joke or call for vigorous handshaking to liven things up! Encourage brain waves, don’t prohibit them!)

Second, worship should incorporate wonder. To say that worship should engage the mind must not be construed to mean that we worship like scientists who have God figured out. We do not, I assure you. Instead, our worship must be filled with humble amazement; with awe; with the sense that the Savior and salvation of which we’re singing is amazing and thrilling. It’s what the psalmist confessed when he said that truth about God “is too wonderful for me…I cannot attain it” (Ps 139:6). It’s acknowledging that God’s graces can’t be adequately told (Ps 40:5) and that His ways are beyond our understanding (Rom 11:33). It’s recognizing that while we’re coming to know God’s love, it is actually beyond our knowledge (Eph 3:19)—what we mean when we sing of Christ’s death that we “scarce can take it in.”

What would thoughtful, wonder-filled worship look like? Joy—singing and praying that is bursting with gladness! Or tears—amazement and gratitude that brings a lump to your throat, a crack to your voice, or tears to your eyes. Or if you’re not as emotionally expressive as I am (and that will be many of you, which is fine), silent reflection—a private but strong amazement at what you’re hearing or reading or singing. The main thing I’m describing is just engagement—attentiveness rather than bored and habitual mumbling of familiar rhymes and tunes.

I suggest that you try writing a hymn text. It will be good for you, even if it’s a private venture. But even if you don’t take me up on that, I urge you to worship our Lord with thought and wonder. He deserves no less.

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“Sound Words” is a monthly column in the OBF Visitor, the publication of The Ohio Bible Fellowship. This article was first printed in January 2010. It is cross-posted from the OBF Visitor blog, where many other articles are posted and may be searched by author, category and keyword. Information on subscribing to the Visitor is available here.

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7 Responses

  1. Thank you Pastor Chris for verbalizing (textualizing) this presentation of a serious lack in our fundamental church singing. While we walk a fine line between emotionalism and fundamentalism I have believed and encouraged the necessity of thought while singing and have many times been unable to continue in song due to the overwhelming considerations going on in my mind during a song (I too have stopped singing while trying to figure out just what the song writer was trying to say (the mother goose analogy is great)). May the “bride” be encouraged to think while singing.

  2. Chris, You said, “When we’re singing, we should be thinking: ‘Why does the text use that word? What is the Scripture behind that idea?'” This is why, for many years now, I preach at the beginning of the service and most of our singing comes after the sermon. The songs are all related to the text of the sermon (thematically) and therefore have more relevance to the worshipers. They have heard the truth; now they respond in song while dwelling on the truth they have just learned.

    For what it’s worth, I have visited churches that use the “Praise and Worship” genre of music. My assessment is that, though many of these songs use Scripture (often portions of verses in Psalms), there is no context for those singing them. (Furthermore, the songs are overly repetitive and trite!) People get emotional singing the songs (often with the band), but then the pastor gets up to preach and the congregation has no emotion whatsoever. I see several problems: (1) The words of the songs are trite and lack context; (2) The music plays on emotions through repetition and beat (the mind is completely bypassed); (3) The music and the sermon have no relation to each other; and (4) The worship service lacks any continuity–there’s the music (what some would call the “worship”) and there’s the obligatory sermon; two completely separate parts to the service.

    Like you, I’m all for emotion (I prefer your word, “wonder”). However, it seems that the components of person-hood (personality–intellect, emotion and volition) have a proper order. First, the mind must be engaged; emotion and will follow. As you so aptly put it, we have a sense of awe (tears, joy, etc.) because of what we *know*–because our minds have been engaged by truth. And this truth also leads us to make decisions. Too much music today plays entirely on emotion and does not lead to any change in the heart. It just makes people feel “good.”

    Thanks for all you are doing to produce good and God-honoring music–music that engages the mind. When I sing “My Jesus, Fair” I am so moved by the truth, that it is difficult for me to be without any emotion as I sing that great chorus! In short, I am overwhelmed by “joyful grief.” Good stuff!

  3. Chris,
    Great thoughts! I’m leading a men’s retreat at my church entitled “The Wonder of Worship” soon and have spent a great deal of time thinking and wondering. I tend to do that too much anyway to the detriment of my to-do list. I’m not sure we need to compartmentalize the two areas you address. I believe true wonder must involve intense thought. Wonder isn’t some strictly emotional response, rather a form of meditation I think, if not meditation itself. Frankly, I think we, the Church, and certainly the culture has nearly lost its ability to wonder. We don’t have time for it. We have so much information in our brains, theology, science, technology, philosophy, etc… that we don’t actually pause to contemplate what it means in light of who God is. I watched a Nova program last night about the expanding universe. Of course there were many Hubble images, etc… As they talk about the numbers and distances of space I am overwhelmed. It causes my heart to cry out, “My Lord and my God, You are too great for me.” Spring has sprung here in SC. This south Florida boy is like a child during the change of seasons. I just stare out into my backyard and weep as I see what unfolds. I’m a bit of a sap like you I suppose. Of course it all pales in comparison to the greatest of all wonders. As Watts says:
    Let us wonder; grace and justice
    Join and point to mercy’s store;
    When through grace in Christ our trust is,
    Justice smiles and asks no more:
    He Who washed us with His blood
    Has secured our way to God.

    My Lord and my God, You are too wonderful for me!

    Incidentally, have you read Sproul’s “A Taste of Heaven”. He has some good thoughts along these lines in this short read on worship.

    Thanks for your thoughts and spurring me on to wonder more this beautiful spring day. I trust you will have a wonder-filled spring as it heads your way.

  4. Whoops! Make that Newton not Watts. Sorry, John, so few hymn texts we still sing and and I take that one from you.

  5. Chris, good thoughts on worship. When our minds are engaged properly in God and the truths of His Word, when our wills are properly alligned with what He says, our emotions can’t help but follow into joy and praise. I think this is taught in principle form in John 13:17.

    On a side note, what are the reasons for you not being in the OBF anymore? Just curious. God bless.

  6. Too bad you were not asked to preach this at T4G. I would like to see them put you on the schedule for next year! This is truth needed in all our pews, or chairs as the case may be.

  7. I have the same question as Taigen. I hope you will address what you feel is appropriate publicly.

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