Rules for evangelical worship

At the blog for Touchstone Magazine, S. M. Hutchens has posted “One Foundational Observation, and Six Rules” regarding evangelical liturgy and worship. Hutchens, like many, is concerned that evangelicalism is quickly becoming “difficult (in light of the Whole) to recognize as Christian,” and if change is going to occur, it must begin with worship. He states up front that the “central theological and liturgical problem” is found in the denial of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and consequently in the “abandonment of the Lord’s Table as the central locus of Christian worship.” I wholeheartedly agree with Hutchens on this point, and I can only hope that evangelicals continue to recognize more and more the profound significance of the Eucharist for Christian worship.

For the moment, however, I am more interested in the third of Hutchens’s six “rules.” While I think all six of them are essential for church leaders to read and appropriate, the third rule is particularly important to me:
3) Words to all music sung in the service must be studied and approved by pastoral authority as theologically sound, and unapologetically rejected when not, no matter how beautiful the music to which they are set, or how beloved by the congregation.
This rule is one that I have fought for over the past several years. Since evangelicals are known especially by the songs they sing in church, this rule is quite significant—particularly since most Christians never bother to think about what they are singing, nor do they want to. Some Christians will, of course, find this rule distasteful, since it makes Sunday morning worship a serious concern for rigorous theological thought rather than letting services of worship simply be times of heartfelt religious experience. Evangelicals tend to be distrustful of theology; they see worship as an occasion for the expression of personal devotion to Jesus Christ, not as something open to theological scrutiny. Whether the songs are theologically sound is not a concern to most, and some would argue that it shouldn’t be a concern at all.

Personally, I think that American evangelicals desperately need to examine the songs used in worship. Ever since the near-eclipse of hymns and the rise of the modern worship chorus, evangelical worship has steadily veered away from its theological roots. Songs today emphasize individual passion without the profound concentration upon the theological significance of the gospel evident in so many of the classic hymns and ancient liturgies. While the emerging churches are better than the Pentecostal or traditional Willow Creek-variety megachurches, I still do not see a lot of hope for the future of American evangelicalism unless this third rule is widely applied (in conjunction, of course, with careful examination of theology and the history of the church).

What do you think?
If you are part of an American evangelical church, do you know if your church leaders apply something like this rule? Are the songs examined in terms of their theology, or are they sung simply because they are popular and arouse individual passion? Is worship given serious theological attention within your church?

H/T to Douglas Knight. For more on worship from Hutchens, click here.


kim fabricius said…
Hi David,

Writing from the UK, I couldn't agree more. The thinness, indeed the vacuousness, of many (most?) contemporary "worship songs" - to use the term "hymns" would be a category mistake! - is a scandal - and why I decided to have a go at hymn-writing myself, initially both working through the liturgical year, as well as trying to fill some gaps and fix some (e.g. Pelagian and Arminian) errors. I pray that I may have made a tiny Barthian contibution, though of course whether I have been successful or not in my meagre output (around fifty now) is for others to decide!

The same criticism could be made about much evangelical free prayer (often sheer embarrassing bathos), which is not surprising, as many hymns are themselves prayers; and besides, as Augustine said, to sing is to pray twice.

I also agree about the centrality of the Lord's Supper in Protestant worship (with Calvin, I am, in principle, an every-Sunday proponent), though the contemporary eucharistic bandwagon, to which Radical Orthodoxy has added a significant impetus, makes me nervous lest it turn into a runaway train that turns the sermon into a whistlestop.

In short, thoughtful, "thick", and winsome singing; solid, imaginative, and bold preaching; and sustaining eating and drinking, a feast to finish the hour - thus do we give God glory.
Thanks for sharing this. I don't think evangelicals realize that the theology of their worship songs has a deep influence on the way they think. It's osmosis really. Of course there are songs that are just plain wrong (Delirious, as much as I enjoy them, tend to write songs equating more personal piety with more public revival, which is just dumb). However, I think it is important to allow songs that express adoration and love of God, and so the "Jesus-Is-My-Boyfriend" songs have their place in the liturgy. Maybe there needs to be a balance of objective vs. subjective perspective.
dw said…
Some provocative stuff, though nothing more useful than Robert Webber's refocusing of evangelical worship years back. At any rate, as a hymn writer, I agree that the marriage of word and tune, the theological import and care of each hymn/song in a service is desperately important. Like a lot of this blog's readers, I imagine, I end up humming along or refusing to sing certain stanzas.

I have notice sometimes, thought too many pastoral types select hymns SOLELY based on text, sorting through the hymnal index and not thinking enolugh about other aspects of a song. Where does it fall in a service? How hard or simple is it to sing? What mood does it create? What liturgical function is accomplished/aided by this song (confession, benediction, etc)? And a batch of other questions that are key. It seems to me the real key is better, more thoughtful, more theological, more pastoral worship planning all the way around.

Ben said…
I agree wholeheartedly, and this is something I have started to push for at the church I attend (and work for!).
Halden said…
Anybody seen the episode of South Park where they form a Christian rock band? Now THAT'S good material on this issue.
dw said…
Another note, picking up on Kim's and Chris' comments, esp. Chris' observation that few "evangelicals realize that the theology of their worship songs has a deep influence on the way they think."

Scottish hymn writer John Bell puts it this way-"The theology our children will accept or reject will not be from our sermons but will be from the music they sing." Do we want our children to have "Immortal, Invisible God Only Wise" bouncing around in their bodies or "Shine, Jesus, Shine?"

What terrifies me about theologians writing hymns, though, is the typical "tin-ear" of so many contemporary academicians. While worship tunes often have vapid theology and silly or inconsistent metaphors (how DOES the fire of Jesus and the Spirit in the first part of that praise chorus suddenly turn into a river anyway?), too much "serious" hymnody tries to incorporate theological committee speak: "Lord, make us a Eucharistic people." That's not gonna help either.

peter said…
Heres an example of the kinds of issues that need to be raised in our churches. This is Jeremy Begbie from a new muti-author volume on the beauty of God:

"Over the last thirty years or so in many churches we have witnessed a burgeoning of a certain kind of devotional song, often directed to the risen Jesus: a direct and unadorned expression of love, with music that is metrically regular, harmonically warm and reassuring, easily accessible and singable. It would be disingenuous to seek to exclude these songs from worship on the grounds of their aesthetic simplicity. The NT witnesses to the joy of an intimate union with Christ, and most Christian traditions have quite properly found room in their worship for such 'plain' and heartfelt adoration. However, questions have to be asked if its assumed that this kind of son exhausts the possibilities of 'singing to Jesus,' or if these sentiments are isolated from other dimensions of relating to God. Devotion to Jesus after all, entails being changed into his likeness by the Spirit--a costly and painful process. It certainly involves discovering the embrace of Jesus' Father, Abba, but this is the Father we are called to obey as we are loved by him, the Father who judges us just because he loves us, and the Father who at salvation's critical hour was sensed as devastatingly distant by his only Son. If we ignore this wider trinitarian field we are too easily left with a Jesuology that has no room for Jesus as the incarnate Son of the Father, even less room for the wide range of the Spirit's ministries, and encourages us to tug Jesus into the vortex of our self-defined (emotional) need...In a quite proper concern for intimacy with God through Jesus, reality can be misrepresented--if sin is evaded and trivialized, God is shorn of his freedom and disruptive judgement and taken hostage to my emotional requirements. Most of us have attended services where we were invited to experience what Colin Gunton used to call 'compulsory joy'--perhaps authentic for some on this or that occasion, but often disturbingly out of touch with what some have to endure in a world so obviously far from its final joy...Most have known services where music has been deployed as a narcotic, blurring the jagged memories of the day-by-day world, rather than as a means by which the Holy Spirit can engage those memories and begin to heal them."

Jeremy Begbie, 'Beauty, Sentimentality and the Arts' in The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts, eds. Dan Treier, Mark Husbands, and Roger Lundin
D.W. Congdon said…
Thanks for that excellent quote, Peter.

DW, I resonate with your concerns. I am frustrated that those Christians who are in a position to create excellent songs for evangelical worship (e.g., Charlie Hall, Matt Redman, etc.) generally write songs that only occasionally grasp the beauty and mystery of the gospel. And most of the music lacks the power of the classic hymns.

Theologians are quite often tone-deaf -- both figuratively and literally! What we need is a collaboration of evangelical theologians and Christian musicians/worship leaders to create a modern hymnal of sorts. Evangelicals should approach the project like their own version of the Book of Common Prayer (not that songs replace liturgy, though in some churches this seems to be the case).