We're not singing anymore... or are we? Exploring worship and the emerging church...


"You're not singing anymore!" is a chant that echoes around the grounds of football matches where one team's supporters crow how the opposition support has been stunned into silence by conceeding a goal or other such setback.

It is also my feeling when i come across discussions amongst people in the emerging conversation about worship singing in church/christian context - is worship an own goal/ a sending off (sin bin) offense for the emerging church? Well if we are deconstructing worship as singing then maybe it looks like it is a flawed activity for a number of reasons. But what is our choice going forward... no music? alternative worship? reframing worship?

Maybe you can help me as I explore with you some suggestions of how we've managed to get where we are and what is a constructive/positive/healthy way forward from here...

I don't feel like singing any more...

Ok 3 areas that strike me straight away about why worship makes me want to do anything but sing...

1. What's in a name... worship isn't about singing about my life with God it is that way of life! Sure singing to God/about God can be part of that but how often is that is all we equate worship too? Worship should be about how we live 24/7, what we do with our life, how we live out the Romans 12 definition of taking our everyday ordinary lives and placing them before God.

2. Jesus is my boyfriend... If it's not the actual singing that we object to, it's what we sing about - all those trite love songs, you know: "Jesus loves me, I love Jesus, we hold hands and skip down the street, we're smiling at each other, and i know he wants to towel my feet..." (and my wife still wants me to write her love poems!). How does it feel for people to come into a church and hear such songs and see folks singing with our eyes closed in ectstasy - hmmm i don't know but may like catching your parents making out on the couch, we all know they must do it but we don't want to see it...

People say it's an even bigger turn off to the emotionally backward - otherwise known as us men - and one of the reasons why proportionally you find less of us in chuch. I can understand that it can be difficult, i know that emotionally i struggle to connect to God in that sort of intimate way and I also know that i'm not alone. But I figure that my father issues and the emotional manipulations of my life can equally apply to men as well as women. 3. For an audience of one - me... So rather than making it a homoerotic thang i wonder how much it is just an autoerotic one - songs sung for the benefit of me and my emotional insecurity/well being/emotional high [want an example, here's a whole CD worth :) - HT to Kamsin]

Not to mention it's an elitist activity where the few put on a show for the many - and those few are hand picked, set up on pillars as worship leaders rather than lead worshippers. I'm sure some people would nod their heads to Aldous Huxley's quote on performance:

"Abused as we abuse it at present, dramatic art is in no sense cathartic; it is merely a form of emotional masturbation. It is the rarest thing to find a player who has not had his character affected for the worse by the practice of his profession. Nobody can make a habit of self-exhibition, nobody can exploit his personality for the sake of exercising a kind of hypnotic power over others, and remain untouched by the process."

Personally as someone who can't sing and can only play the fool I am glad that worship leading does have some standards but i can understand how it can become a clique/a way of exluding others - especially when we fete worship leaders like rock stars/celebrities/the Lord's MOST annointed.

And even if it's not elitist it is certainly quite exclusive - not only do my shocking musical abilities rule me out but singing is being presented as the only/best form of worship i am reduced to the status of groupie consumer, commenting on quality of sound, the looks of the singer, the choice of song and whether worship did it for me this week or not...

Surely other alternative forms of worship are the way, ways that make everyone participants not consumers, that are not led by an exlusive elite, that allow people to connect with the other 4 senses of their being rather than just sound?

Time out - let's check those underlying assumptions

I've tried to keep it brief in my critique - and maybe you can think of some more reasons why worship gets a hard time in emerging circles - or indeed expand on my own critique/deconstruction.

There are of course a number of underlying assumptions in what i've wrote above, here are some:

a. worship is about life not just singing? b. is singing anyway a missonal activity? c. too much intimacy is a turn off over time? d. worship is an activity which the few do to the many - and that is a bad thing? e. exclusion/consumerism/entertainment is rife within the model? f. other forms of worship/connection to God are equally (if not more) valid? g. equality/equal participation or at least no one telling me what to do is a better model for church/life?

Maybe you can see some more? I think that it is worth asking the question what am I reacting too and why I am I reacting like that - i find in my case it often has some assumptions in there that are the same - for instance my preference/wish in church is that worship should be done like this. Or I get annoyed by the association of singing = worship rather than life = worship but if i look at my own life I don't see much in the way of worship (well of God anywho).

Sing a new/old/different song...

In our deconstruction we've hit some problem areas that we should not trivalise but after deconstruction we need to start reconstructing - otherwise we are in danger either of staying stuck in our rut, bitterness or adopting our own form of elitism - worship in church with singing is out our new/alternative way is the best...

So here's some suggestions from me which may be able to help:

4. Worship as spiritual formation... if we see the practices of what happens in church as formation of our christian faith, practicing together what is important about being a christian than I think there is a role for singing in that. Singing/music has been around for a long time (some as we've discussed above would say an aweful long time) and is still a passionate/creative/cultural form - maybe we need better creativy in our music (not just copied/counterfeit) in more styles not less of it?

One of the primary ways that christians learn about God is not through the preaching but through the singing - the repetition of songs becoming a sung liturgy where the words can bypass our brain at times and yet form deep impressions in us as to who God is/what God is like - they teach us and we learn even when we don't realise that we are being formed.

We are singing of love to God and God's love of us and maybe it is this love which we primarily seek to live out/respond to/invite others to find and respond too. To consciously set aside some time and deliberately dedicate it to God instead of all the other things that fill our head/heart space is surely no bad thing.

5. Mouthing the right words is harder than singing and meaning them... I guess the question that I am asking myself is as much as i nod my head to a life of worship how often do i actually consciously dedicate time to God? Often i am so busy living my life my way I really have no time for God [or a token amount of time like Jesus is a fish sticker that i stick on my car to baptise it rather than letting Jesus behind the wheel of my life). In fact it is more easy to say for me to claim my life is one of worship than to actually give up 30 minutes of my life once a week to sing about God who i supposedly worship 24/7.

Those 30 minutes (well more like 90 if i include the whole church experience) are probably the most counter-cultural thing I do all week - and in doing so allow me to actually stop living my way, to my choices and timescales and reflect/reconnect/recentre myself around God.

Singing together songs chosen for us is a powerful cultural response to our western individualistic focus - where let's face it a song comes on our iPod that we don't like we just hit skip (some days i spend more of my time skipping tracks than listening to them). Actually taking part in such an activity poses for me a cost - will i put aside my struggles with words/tunes/the whole shebang and enter in or will i stay on the outside and spectate from a position of smugness or refuse to enter in and sulk that i can't have my own way?

Maybe we can help ourselves in this a bit more - maybe instead of singing about 'my God' or 'your God' we can sing about our God? How about taking some songs and changing them from the first person pronoun to the plural - so out goes I and in comes us/we/our etc. Not as some sort of strict rule because having a God who loves us personally so that he calls us by name and can number the hairs on our head is a wonderful thing worth singing about but to remind us that God doesn't leave us as individuals he calls us to be his people, his community of faith, who bears his image in the world.

Perhaps instead of lyrics that read like an instruction manual e.g. 'praise him' we need to create space to do that, to allow people to express themselves where they are in prayer/reflection/connection?

6. Immediacy and Mediation... Change is often reactionary driven - at the moment we are drowning in a flood of intimate worship so our reaction is to drop the worship. Go back 20-30yrs and people were just getting their heads around 'praise and worship' music (instead of hymns of praise and worship or spoken liturgies of praise and worship) - praise being the loud bit with a lot of drumming and worship, well the initmate bit. Now of course the intimacy has become an over familiarity and that of course has bred contempt...

As exciting as a God who is emotional, who cares about our lives and is involved in them now is we also need to rebalance this with the God who is the creator of the universe, who is Lord, King, Master. We need both songs that help us connect emotionally as well as songs that help us question, help us to face the hardness and pain in our life, when we struggle, when we doubt and when we don't feel loved or that we can love. At those times songs of God's presence remind us (even if we find them hard to sing) that God is still present even if we can't feel him and the songs of doubt help us to express our own pain/frustration and hope that God is still present.

7. Riches of the church: Perhaps what we need is more songwriters from our own communities who can express where we are as a faith community and give us the words that we need to sing to cope with which ever season of faith we are finding ourselves in and indeed the things we value the most. If indeed we are formed by what we sing maybe we should sing more about mission/justice/creation - about what we long for God to do in our own community/culture/context?

If no one has written the songs that we hear on God's heart then maybe we should? maybe quality becomes less important and honesty/prophetic calling/Holy Spirit inspires us to sing a new song.

The new is so important (afterall intimacy was revoloutionary once and not well written - we wince at those 80's 3 chord only rainbow guitar strapped songs now but at the time wow!) - imagine in 25 yrs of people writing songs of God's dreams for his earth, the work of the kingdom being done, unfolding, coming true here as in heaven: love, peace, hope, justice, gnerousity, healing of the planet, reconciliation, reconnection, finding our humanity in Christ not our consumer driven inhumanity... wow!

Here's a great example of what I mean - it's got all the hallmarks of an early 80s worship song, the clunky music, the unstylish middle agged musicians but the lyrics are awesome and maybe give us permission to have a go...

[and of course brace yourself in 25 yrs time when people say all this justice/reconciliaton is great but...]

And yes maybe that means more than just singing songs, we have permission to be creative in other ways [let's use art/ image, let's use movement, let's use techology etc] but they are not the exclusive alternative but another way of helping us - recognising that our own preferred style will be not be the choice of someone else - that learning to share/be generous/gracious is better for us as a practice spirtual formation than maybe actually the activity itself.

And of course we don't just have to have the new, throughout church history people have worshipped God - in song, word and deed. We have a treasure house that can inspire us - from great hymns and poems to liturgies and prayers...


I have suggested a few areas of critique of worship and also maybe a few ways in which we can reconstruct/find positive/healthy ways [at least for me] in this area of worship as singing.

But what about you... here are some Qs that you might like to take one or more and consider posting your thoughts on:

What has struck you reading this? What do you agree/disagree with? What questions/thoughts/feelings did you have whilst reading it - what do you think are the underlying assumptions of those? Are you in a deconstruction or reconstruction phase? What other postive ways can you reimagine worship (singing or otherwise?) What practices do you use/resources you would recomend as you do this?

Thank you

Paul Mayers