Tuesday, February 05, 2008

On Lament in Worship

A while back I read someone's blog lamenting that a certain lady had gone to church in the midst of a personal struggle and had found the church singing only joyful songs. She found nothing for her soul there since she did not feel like singing those kinds of songs.

I have also seen those who lamented going to church and finding that the church was singing songs of lament or testimony that did not personally apply to them. They claimed a certain discomfort at being asked to sing something that did not personally resonate with them at that moment.

Which raises the question of what is the role of singing in church?

Let's start with what it is not. It is not the role of singing (or worship planning) to anticipate the personal spiritual, emotional, or physical state of the individual worshipper (though each song will probably be suited to someone in the congregation). It is neither the role of singing in corporate worship to meet the needs of individual worshippers (though each song will probably meet the needs of individuals worshippers).

These points, to me, renders both of the above complaints misguided and even somewhat, dare I say, self-centered. Should I really judge the usefulness of a song in a worship service because it does not exactly reflect my personal state at the moment? I think not. Perhaps, in the sovereignty and providence of God, he planned that song so that I would be brought to a place of brokenness, or raised to a place of joy, in both cases by considering something greater than myself. Furthermore, perhaps it is God's plan for the church as a body to minister to someone else through a particular song. The great collective voice of the redeemed rings out a clarion call to all who are in attendance to respond to God. It may be that the song, while perhaps not reflecting your personal state at the moment, reminds you of the state of others to whom you should be ministering. Because behind you, or in front of you, or beside you, is a brother or sister in Christ for whom that song does have particular relevance, and you could be ministering to them.

Can you imagine a church where the SOP was to only sing the songs that fit your personal state or personal prayer? What a strange idea, and yet that is what it seems some would propose.

The fact is that when a service is being planned, it is very likely that the one planning it has no idea what is going on in the lives of people that week, aside from his own. And in a church with more than three people in attendance, it is unlikely that any song will grasp the full range of their spiritual or emotional state. Some people will be called to praise God when they don't feel like it; and others will be called to lament when they do not feel like they have anything to lament (something lamentable in and of itself).

To answer the question of the role of singing positively, we need to look at Scripture. The Psalms are filled with a variety of content, summed up basically under the two ideas of lamentation and rejoicing. We could further classify into personal and corporate for each category. And then there are a number of sub-genres under those categories.

As these psalms were used in corporate worship, it is doubtful that the personal state of the worshipper was considered in worship planning. It was assumed that the worshipped would conform his spiritual response to the text of the psalm. It was the role of singing to express a corporate prayer or praise to God, such as would be appropriate for people (not necessarily a particular individual) to express. Such singing also would serve to resonate with some who were in particular spiritual states, and to encourage them. If a psalm did not minister to a particular individual, it was still expected that he would participate because it was corporate worship.

I wonder if we should expect any less today.

It is true that there are cheesy, trite, stupid songs of personal lament or need or celebration better suited for the young man trying to attract a young woman or the person who has just scored a winning goal (or given it up), than for a sinful redeemed person to worship the Creator God. These should not be sung regardless of the personal state of the worshipper.

But the pattern of corporate worship in the OT reveals a mixture of lament and praise, and so our worship today should reveal the same mixture.

And since it is corporate worship, one's personal spiritual or emotional state is not really the issue. That's for private worship.

The idea that one is lying by singing a true and serious song corporately that may not perfectly reflect his current state is ... well ... nonsense, in my judgment. It reveals a state of individuality that has no place in corporate worship. It leads me to wonder what these people do when, in their private reading of the Psalms, they come across one that does not resonate with their immediate condition. Do they skip it? Do they read it silently from dispassionate distance? Or do they seek to see what God has for them in that passage that day?

Would not it be better to interact with the psalm (or song) spiritually, in diligent search of our own soul? Is there not a latent (or not so latent) pride demonstrated when one refuses to worship corporately because he or she personally does not like the song or does not feel it best reflects their spiritual state at the moment? Perhaps, at that moment, they are in need of the spiritual state that would be able to sing such a song as I imagine here, to come to a place of brokenness where they realize that corporate worship is corporate; it's not about them.

When people who lament the individualism of some kinds of approach to church, and rightly so, then turn around and judge the appropriateness of worship by whether or not it conformed to their own spiritual state at the moment, I am befuddled. I might be weird, but that seems strange to me.

1 comment:

Chris Anderson said...

Interesting. I just read an article in Carl Trueman's The Wages of Spin on the importance of singing Psalms, including Psalms of lamentation. I honestly hadn't thought about singing songs of lamentation, but it makes sense. I mean, the Psalms are an inspired hymnal, and they contain a great deal of lamentation.

So what does lamentation in corporate worship look like? Can you give some examples of hymns you'd put in this category?

Sorry for the personal reference, but is it something like the line at the end of My Jesus Fair in which I say "abhorring all my sin"? I ask in part because I was encouraged by a friend not to conclude on such a morose note. I'm happy with the way the song ends now, but I don't know that such a song of regret and repentance is wrong, either.