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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Worship Leadership Amnesia

We all have times of forgetfulness. The older I get, I have to confess that I occasionally have to mentally search for a word longer than I once did.  There is a lot more to remember, and more critical in nature, passwords, etc., which almost control all we do and good memory plays an ever increasing role.

There is another type of forgetfulness that seems to be encroaching across believers in an ever widening wave, one that is more threatening more than just having to carry around a card with passwords on it. This is the forgetfulness stems from the neglect of remembering what God has done in the past and from where we came.  It was God’s plan from the beginning to build into our lives a memory of His works that we would rehearse in our minds and with our families. Consider God’s instruction to the Israelites in Exodus 12:25-27:

When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’  then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’” Then the people bowed down and worshiped.

To accomplish this required not just the observance of the Passover, but the explaining to the children why they were doing what they were doing.  It is very possible that the failure to keep the Passover in subsequent generations stemmed from the absence of the instilling the crucial element of the importance of why it was being done.

Deuteronomy 32 is a song Moses sang to the children of Israel not long before his death and is an important study in and of itself. But focus with me on his commentary afterwards in verses 44-47:
Moses came with Joshua son of Nun and spoke all the words of this song in the hearing of the people. When Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel, he said to them, “Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law.  They are not just idle words for you—they are your life. By them you will live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.”

Notice that one crucial method of remembering God’s law was through memorizing a song. The implication was that not only were they to learn it, but they had the responsibility to teach it to their children. Joshua, Moses’ servant who succeed him in leadership, continues this emphasis all his life as implied in Joshua 24: 31: “Israel served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had experienced everything the Lord had done for Israel.”   They had recalled the great workings of God before as well as what God had done during Joshua’s lifetime. Failure to teach the children these critical elements of their faith took their toll as recorded in Judges 2: 10: “After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel.”  The entire book of Judges is the tragic record of the people falling into back into idolatry because of their rebellion and failure to remember. The last verse of the book is a classic summary of what happens when we fail to keep to the forefront those things that are of highest priority: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” [Judges 21:25]

Fast forward to David moving the ark of God to Jerusalem. David chose to move the ark in the same way the Philistines had years before: on a cart. [2 Samuel 6] There had been clear instructions that the ark had to be carried with poles on the shoulders of the Levites.   [Numbers 4 & 7] The king’s failure to follow the instructions provided for a situation in which caused the death of Uzzah, who reached out to steady the ark when the oxen that were pulling the cart stumbled. This would have not happened had David remembered the commands for moving the ark.  He allowed the surrounding culture to give direction rather than Scripture.

The Old Testament is replete with dozens and dozens of occasions in which disobedience was a failure to remember, and much more space would be required than allowed to enumerate each one.  The books of Chronicles are the post-exilic retelling of the history of the nation. Knowing the history, know the law, knowing where one’s roots are and why are indispensable.

The Matthew and Luke begin with a genealogy of Christ, and John begins with Who Christ was, not just from what lineage.  Jesus taught not to try to fit an older understanding of Scripture into what He was teaching, since what preceded looked toward the coming of Messiah and now a new covenant was being established. However, even with that, Jesus underscored the blessing of knowing what had preceded: “He said to them, ‘Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.’” [Matthew 13:52] The early church made going back over what had been written a focus of their worship: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” [Acts 2:42] Paul emphasized the need for continued study: “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.” [1 Timothy 4:13]

The need for rehearsing, restating, retelling the miracles, the history, and the wonder of God works and ways is undeniable. If it were important then, it is even more important now. The rapid availability and access to so much information has made the need for memorizing almost a forgotten art [no pun intended]. Before cell phones, I could have told you ten or fifteen telephone numbers without batting an eye; now I do well to remember my own as well as that of my wife. Information is as close as the touch of our phones, Ipads, or laptops. Why try to remember, when I really don’t “have” to?  The words of the psalmist come ringing in my ear: “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” [Psalm 119:11] We must make it a priority to learn and memorize God’s Word, since everything around us in our culture is training us not to have to know or remember.

There is one more area in which forgetfulness or even neglect seems to be running rampant and the need to remember has all but vanished is the knowledge of our own Christian history. Just as it was important for the Israelites to know and have a strong sense of their identity by knowing whose they were and from where they had come, we have a responsibility for knowing our own worship history and knowing from we have come. Presently its seems as if we are losing our corporate memory for what it means to be the people of God. The saying “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" [George Santayana] applies to the realm of knowing our worship history as well.  It is very possible even for those teaching worship in Christian colleges and universities to have never had a course in historical theology or hymnology, yet be training the next generation to be the worship leadership in our churches.  How can we adequately know where we are going if we do not know where we have been?
Allow me one brief illustration and I will draw this to a close. In the early 300s AD a controversy led by Arius arose that denied the divinity of Christ. One of the chief methods of spreading his false doctrine was the use of easy to remember melodies. Obviously, there were no hymnals or committees reviewed the texts of what was being sung. The effectiveness of his methodology is attested to the fact the heresy had spread so far that congregational song was eliminated in the Council of Laodicea [363-364 AD].  Major figures like Ambrose and others fought against the heresy with his sermons and songs of his own. [He is attributed as having invented Long Meter] Years passed before the effects of the erroneous doctrine were eliminated.

But how soon we forget. Many in worship leadership utilize only the latest and greatest songs that can be downloaded from the internet which straight into the rehearsal room and on to the service without much thought to the implications of the theology presented.  Some have never received formal or informal training in these areas and have placed the theological instruction, the words that will pass through the lips of the congregation and think about all week, to which ever artist has the best tune and beat. {A study I did on the Theology of Contemporary Hymnody is available in another blog in Worship HeartCries.}

What are the implications of our present situation? How does this apply to worship leadership? [Please know that I am aware of many who doing a wonderful job of leading worship, and are both knowledgeable and intentional in utilizing the time of worship for biblical teaching. Nor am I saying that I am aware of what is going on in every congregation. The following remarks are observations.] Let me list out a few:

1. We run the risk of doctrinal confusion at best and heresy at worse for the failure to review everything that is sung.

2. We run the risk of allowing culture to set our standards, rather than Scripture. Being relevant to the culture does not mean that we succumb to the standards of the culture. Rom. 12:2 “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

3. Leadership must be trained to recognize doctrinal issues, be willing and able to correct them if possible or refuse to use the song.

4. An insistence on using only the latest songs denies the development of a canon of worship songs that can be passed on and shared from one generation to the next. Equally as bad, is the fact that even a meaningful new song never lasts long enough in use to become engraved in the heart of the believer that can be recalled during times of great difficulty. Consider the repercussions of the failure to teach and instill biblical truth in the next generation: “After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel.” [Judges 2:10]

5. There is a false sense of superiority given to the present that implies that anything old is bad anything new is good.  C. S. Lewis called it, “chronological snobbery;” it ignores the fact that truth is eternal. Truth is part of the very nature of an unchanging God, though  how truth is expressed may change, the veracity of its nature does not.

6. It ignores historical perspective. God had commanded Moses to teach the history of the great acts of God from generation to generation. In the same way, the Lord’s Supper is that reminder of the saving work of Christ, a celebration so that we not forget: “Do this in remembrance of Me.”  Though truth may be expressed in new ways, to emphasize only the new seems to minimize truths that might be handed down generation after generation.

7. It lacks the tests of time to validate its worth and usefulness. There are songs that are from generations past that continue to minister to countless across generational lines. By granting value to a song based on its publication date relegates the theological filter to a calendar more than on the teaching of Scripture.

8.  It sets itself for designed obsolescence, for built into the very nature of the attitude is that good is measured more by a ticking clock than by how well is measures to the truth as expressed in Scripture.

The solutions seems to be a careful reviewing of what is sung by those who are prepared to do it as well as bringing back into worship those songs that have proved themselves over the years as worthy and useful elements for corporate worship.  When the psalmist wrote “sing to the Lord a new song,” he was not saying, “sing to the Lord, only a new song.” That “new song” was a encouragement to seek new ways to declare the infinite nature and character of God. We need to be like that the scribe that Jesus described as one who heard Christ’s words and accepted them, and so was getting treasures, both “new and old.” An active appreciation of the past is not an attempt to forget relevance, but better understand who we are. If we cannot see where we have been, we will not be able to see where we are going.  As we master the balance of remembering the old and incorporating the new we can avoid the plague of worship leadership amnesia.


  1. Hello! I read several articles on worship and "church interruptions" and was overwhelmed, yet, appropriately informed about a number of things. I read a funny article about the number of insane things that can happen during a service, I learned about organized interruptions to services and I learned about church service length. Finally, i read your article. It is important to study doctrine/scripture and evaluate the songs that are used during worship. Frequently, they don't match the depth of scripture! I'm very influence by IHOP (kc) who have a mission base for worship, prayer, and intercession. Their songs are not deep but they are scriptural and way more intense than some well written hymns. Maybe it's because they are not in a hurry! Good article!

  2. Thanks, Ginny, for the comments. We always need to keep our hearts close to God and minds sensitive to God's truth.