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Monday, September 28, 2015

“It’s a good worship song, but......”

Not a rant, but a concern. I heard Bryan And Katie Torwalt’s worship song “Holy Spirit, You Are Welcome Here,” that for the most part expresses the joy of being in the presence of God in worship. Yet, I have some issues with part of the text:

"Holy Spirit, You are welcome here, come flood this place and fill the atmosphere...."

I believe that it is worth the time to share some concerns that I believe warrants further study and underscores the need for our worship leaders to take to heart the analysis the text we put on the lips and hearts on those with whom we are leading.  Rather than a long discourse, I’ll will just list them:

1. God is the one who takes the initiative in worship, we don't show up and invite God to join us. – Remember that the bush was burning before Moses got there.

2. Since the Holy Spirit lives in us, we are the Temple of the Holy Spirit, then it is not a matter of "welcoming the Holy Spirit", but acknowledging His presence in our lives. The song, I'm sure, is referencing Pentecost or when the church prayed and the place where they were staying was shaken. But in both accounts, they did not pray for those things, for they did not know they were going to happen as they did. Rather than praying for such an experience, we might should pray for the sensitivity to hear God's voice and the boldness to obey.

3. Praying for the experience is not what the early church did, they prayed for the boldness to share. I realize there are those that will disagree, and that's fine. I just think we are treading on thin ice doctrinally and we get much of our doctrine from what we sing.

This is a topic that needs unpacking:
There are four bases from which we make decisions: God’s Word, history and tradition, human intellect, and personal experience. Though all four are important, nothing should ever take precedence over God’s Word.  Throughout history the source for heresies can be traced to getting these out of balance.

For example, let’s say that we have a song that “the Lord gave me.” If we are not careful,  then we are saying that the text and music are directly from God, which places it on the same level as God’s Word, or to say it in another way, we have received further revelation from God. Such logic has led to many doctrinal heresies and problems in the Body of Christ. The issue here is that we forget that we have “clay feet” that we are the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve and share in their fallen nature.

We can be sure that any word we receive from God will not contradict what He has already said in His Word.  For this reason, then we must pass what we write through the filter of God’s Word: Is what is taught here consistent with the overall teaching of Scripture? Just because the Bible mentions something does not mean that it is teaching it: Scripture mentions that Judas hung himself, but that certainly doesn’t mean that we are to go and  do the same.

4. Seeking the experience first puts the cart before the horse. When Daddy comes in from a trip away and has a habit of bringing a surprise to his kids, it doesn’t take long before the kids begin to look forward to what their father is bringing more than himself.  We need to be cautious about measuring our worship based on feeling or the level of a given experience. Remember the admonition of Jesus: “Lord, didn’t we cast out demons in your name and perform all kinds of miracles?”  And he said to them, “Depart from me for I never knew you.” [Matt. 7:23] The test of our worship is our obedience response to God, not our feelings. We can have an experience outside of the realm of obedience.

5. Because many of the songs we sing come from artists, downloaded from the internet and then sung in our churches the theological filter is absent.  I have no doubt about the sincerity of the artist or composers, nor their good intentions, however, I imagine most are not trained in theology. We don’t sing intentions, we sing lyrics, regardless of how sincere.  In the days of the use of hymnals one could rely on the fact that a committee on theology had at least reviewed the text of the songs and made adjustments before publication. Now, however, the gates are down and we are dependent on the artists/composers and the theological depth of the worship leaders to serve as the gatekeepers for what is sung in churches.   It is worth remembering the Arian controversy, though he was sincere in what he believed [Jesus was not divine], and shared his teaching through sermon and catchy songs of the day. It became such a problem that congregational song was virtually abolished after the Council of Laodicea.

6. We must be careful that we begin to worship the idea of how we feel in worship, or worship the trappings of worship instead of the God whom we are worshiping.  Not to unlike the teenager that is “in love with the idea of love,” it is easy to become enthralled with the idea of worship. And for those leading worship, to become enamored with the feelings of leading worship, rather than focusing on the One to whom the worship is directed.

7. What can be done?  Fix the text as need be. Sometimes it can be done with just adjusting some of the text. Write the composer and share your concerns. If they listen to you fine, if not you just leave the song out or use your corrections for the local worship services. Remember, our people will remember more of what they sing than just hear, and if there is an emotional response, as is many times in a worship service, the memory of the text is actually stored in a deeper part of the brain. Paul pleaded with those to whom he wrote to guard themselves against false doctrines, so we should do no less and certainly not promote them through putting them in the hearts and minds of those to whom we serve.

Before the worship set is selected, as we are praying through what is to be sung for the service, we must check the text of what we are going to be using. If you are lacking in theological training, there are reputable institutions with online courses available– take advantage of them and prepare yourself. We are responsible to God for what we are teaching [James 3:1] and we must remember that we are teaching as we lead in worship [Col. 3:16].

12 comments:

  1. I'm not a worship leader, by any means. I simply love worship music. This idea of false doctrine in worship music has never really crossed my mind for extended periods. Recently, I have been having debates with my fiance on this issue, concerning the doctrine represented in the song that you mentioned, "Holy Spirit, You are welcome here". I've always been one to seek out solid doctrine and to understand sound theology. For some reason however, I've never made the application to worship music. My fiance gracefully shared the same opinions you shared above, but I was still led to disagree based on my immediate response. It obviously convicted my heart because it led me to seek out the truth of God's word. I don't know if it's how you said it, or just the fact that I'm hearing someone else's view, but I really appreciate you taking the time to address this issue online in spirit and in truth. I'm thankful to God for using your post to confirm His heart and truth in my life. My fiance will be grateful as well. Thank you.

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  2. Thank you for writing and for the willingness to pay close attention to what we sing. I want to stress that I don't think the song is bad; it has some very nice sections. But, like many songs written by those without much theological training, there is a lack of sensitivity to exactly what we are singing. Regardless of the intentions, and I have no reason to believe that the writer had any bad intentions, we really don't sing intentions, but words, and words have meaning and when those words are implanted in the heart with melody they remain and become a part of who we are. I praise God for your sensitivity and caring enough to share.

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  3. Ed, this was a very helpful post. I actually recorded a cover of this song last week with my wife. Ever since that day I had been thinking over the lyrics and feeling that something wasn't quite right. I was annoyed that it was experiential and kept talking about the Holy Spirit and God's presence as if we had to initiate and invoke it. I mentioned this to a buddy of mine who is a born again Christian, former pagan priest. He expressed his concern as well that the song followed a format of pagan invocation rather than biblical view of God's omnipresence. I was very happy to see how well you put together these thoughts on this song. Thank you so much. The church has to be careful what we are singing. Songs teach as much doctrine as the sermons if not more so with our current culture. I fear we sometimes become what Jesus quotes from the book of Isaiah, "they honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me." Let us guard against the wiles of the Devil. Have a wonderful day. God Bless.

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  4. Samuel: Thanks for your comments; it is encouraging to see others who share the concerns of the needed theological filtering of what is incorporated in our worship songs. May God continue to bless your life and ministry.

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  5. Bingo. You hit the nail on the head. I couldn't put my finger on what was bothered me about this song. Thanks for articulating what I wanted to say.

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    1. Thanks for your comments. Sometimes something just isn't right and we're not sure what, but if we keep at it, it will become clear.

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  6. Thank you, Ed. I lead a choir in a prison and we are always selective in songs we bring inside. Recently one had requested to sing this as a solo. I, too, had great concern. I appreciate your post and will use this, with your permission, to share with her why we won't be bringing this song inside.

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  7. Hiz Dotter: [Love the name!] The Seminary where I teach has extension centers in four different prisons in three states and I know how powerful ministry can be with inmates. Please share with anyone, any of the articles in the blog. I pray that God would richly bless your work and multiply fruit in all you do.

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  8. Thanks for your insights. This song is from Jesus Culture, a ministry of Bethel Church Redding CA, and the writers are schooled by their School of Supernatural Worship, as well as the error filled teachings of the church and false Apostle Bill Johnson. Both are major players in the New Apostolic Reformation Movement and Bethel Music is a major "entrance ramp" into that movement.
    "Presence" is a big focus in their teachings, as well as an unbalance on the experiential.
    What disturbs me most if the line: "Your glory, God, is what our hearts long for
    To be overcome by Your presence, Lord." My heart's supreme desire is not an experience of mystic self-transcendence.
    Many people singing this song have no idea it is sourced by an aberrant movement.

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  9. Darla:
    Thanks so much for the comments. I agree with your assessment. When we desire the experience more than the God of the experience, we have made it an idol. We have placed our eyes more on what the hand of God might give us, rather than desiring what the heart of God is.

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  10. Ed - some affirmation and pushback (lovingly, hopefully!):

    There is much wisdom in your counsel about worshiping worship, or evaluating our worship simply on how we experienced it. The emphasis that our worship lyrics shape our theology is a valid enough reason to give much scrutiny to what we sing. Yes - I affirm!
    BUT.....does articulating "You are welcome here" deny God's initiative first? In the context of Revelation 3 -
    "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door...." Is there not God's initiative (He knocks) and our response (we open the door) and saying, in effect, "you are welcome here"?
    Is this not an artistically - sanctioned Biblical text to convey that our will is involved when we we respond to God? It's a beautiful expression of submission after repentance....
    I fully concur that the Scripture needs to drive our worship practices, but it's not theological error to describe the "manifest presence" of God rather than the omnipresence of God. One doesn't discount the other. The omnipresence of God is true, but it doesn't diminish that we should "come near to God and He will come near to You" - James 4. Will we not sense or acknowledge or be aware when He comes near? The omnipresence of God is not diminished when we acknowledge and affirm with speech or song that we should "come into His presence with singing" - Psalm 95:2 & Psalm 100:2.
    There is a difference between the omnipresence of God and when He manifests His presence among us. Is it not Biblical to claim that God has promised His people "in the day of trouble; I will visit you" and that He "inhabits our praise" and that He is "near to the brokenhearted"? (Ps. 50:15: Psalm 22:3; and Psalm 34:15)
    Isn't this what the hymn writer is saying when he says, "Spirit of God, descend upon my heart"? I doubt the hymn writer is trying to convey that the Spirit of God is not in his heart already.... It's language meant to convey what Ephesians tells us - "be filled with the Spirit". Similar is the other hymn - "Spirit of the living God - fall fresh on me" - a fresh, daily experience as we walk with our Savior. Is this not in keeping with the explanation of the Ephesians 5 passage? ("keep being filled" with the Spirit)

    Hopefully - this is constructive pushback and leads to healthy discourse!

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    1. Howie:
      Thank you for your thoughtful response. I can agree with much of what you have said. I don't think that the authors of the text were attempting a deliberate misunderstanding of the role and work of the Spirit of God. I also believe that the overall content of the song expresses a desire to worship. I do have some issue in the lack of clarity in how that desire is expressed.
      As a professor of hymnology I am painfully aware of a number hymn texts that fail to divide theological truth as sharply as one might desire. The truth is that song texts were not designed for the purpose of expounding great amounts of content, but more reflections on specific aspects, many times with poetic license. So what's the issue here?
      My major concern lies in a tendency of a growing number of songs that there is a focus on our experience about God, rather than of who God is and what He has done. Worship by definition is our obedient response to the revealed nature and character of God; the focus is on who God is and what He has done, more than my personal feelings. That danger is the tendency to substitute what comes as a result of surrender the Lordship of Christ with the fruit that often [but not always] comes with that surrender. The fruit of a surrendered life and will to God's Spirit produces changes in character and response.
      Another tendency I have noticed is a lack of clarity or fuzzy theology. If by saying "we welcome," we really mean "we yield our will and surrender to His Lordship," that is one thing, however, it was precisely the lack of clarity that spawned heresies in the early years of the church. My concern stems from the lack of theological training so many of our worship leaders and composers have that in a desire to use a song that they like or is popular, the theological filter is not what it should be. Many of the songs, such as this one, could be corrected, but even that would require the theological base to know how to correct them. We need to be wary of attitudes that convey the idea that "God's knows what I really mean to say..." That is true, God does, however, when we are leading worship with a particular song, we are putting the words into the mouths of others who may or may not.

      Another danger is using an experience as the measure of the validity of God's promise. If I surrender my will to God, I may or may not have an "experience;" but that does not negate the promise that God's Spirit filling in our lives. God's promise is true; I need to trust God for what He has said and not seek to have to prove it with an experience, a feeling, or some other manifestation. The presence of God is promised where "two or more are gathered in His name." An acknowledgment of this truth and surrender to His will and desires seems more appropriate in a congregational setting. It is better to say:
      "Lord, You have promised that Your Holy Spirit lives in us, for You have said in Your Word that "if anyone does not if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ ." So we praise and thank You for that reality and we yield our will and desires to You, that You would work out Your will and desires through us."

      Though this topic merits much longer discussion, I do not wish to tire you out. Your comments are appreciated and I trust that you understand that mine stem from a broader need that seemed to be crystalized or at least exemplified in that particular text. May God continue to bless you and your ministry.
      Ed

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