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.
“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.