Missing Stories in Worship
During a recent class session, I was teaching on how stories are taught through the lyrics of various hymns. Since we were close to the Reformation Day holiday, we talked through Luther’s great hymn: “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” In the lyrics of this hymn, we found a short, powerful story about the Christian life, including its dangers and its hope.
Before we look at Luther’s story, let me share several insights regarding the use of stories in modern worship settings. There are several kinds of lyrical content in worship music that can be found throughout the centuries. One of these is a testimonial kind of song, in which the writer is responding to what God has done in their lives and being thankful and worshipful for His blessings. Another form is a teaching kind of song, in which the writer is explaining something about God or Christ (such as their attributes like “greatness”) and calling the worshiper to respond. Further, we find songs that include the stories of the Bible in the lyrics. These kinds of songs remind us of God’s works through the telling of stories.
I’m sure we could determine other forms of lyrical content, but in general these three cover most songs. What is striking is the relative absence of certain of these forms in modern worship settings. By and large, modern worship songs fit in to the category of personal testimony. The lyrical content is a personal response to God’s work in a person’s life. After that, we find a few songs that contain teaching elements that are mostly focused on the attributes of God. However, in reviewing a list of the most popular modern songs used in modern worship settings, there are very few that tell a story within the lyrics. I find this unhealthy and unbalanced; since it demonstrates a self-focused worship that sees personal experience as the most important element of worship.
In contrast to this modern imbalance, it seems to me that there was a greater reliance on the telling of stories in the history of Christian hymnody. St. Francis of Assisi (13th Century) created a tapestry in his song “All Creatures of our God and King.” In this song, he uses story-telling devices to take the worshiper on a tour throughout creation, calling all of God’s created things to join in worship which ends with a celebration of God as Trinity. James Montgomery (19th Century) used a changing perspective to tell the story of the nativity from the viewpoint of various participants in “Angels from the Realms of Glory.” We hear about Christ’s birth from the viewpoint of the angels, the shepherds, the sages, the sinner, and even from that of Jesus. Again, this song ends with a celebration of God as Trinity.
Returning to Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress,” let us consider the story within these lyrics. Upon considering the words of Psalm 46, Luther penned his hymn as one to remind us of the reality of the difficulties and hope within the Christian life. Verse one begins by juxtaposing these two realities:
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
Luther sets the stage by placing God as the Fortress and Helper of the Christian in an epic battle, for our “ancient foe” (Satan) is determined to make our lives miserable – for he hates us as Christians, and anything that reminds him of God’s reign over all things.
In verse two, Luther helps the Christian keep a balanced perspective and notes that if we, in our own strength, sought to win this war we would surely lose. However, we are not alone in this battle. Not only is God the fortress and refuge, we have “the right Man on our side.” Christ, in fighting for us, will win the battle that Satan and this world “with devils filled” is fighting against us (verse three). In fact, in the word of Christ (the gospel), there is enough power to topple the Devil and all of his plans.
But this is not all, for another powerful weapon is in the Christian arsenal. The “truth to triumph” resides within us. Verses three and four bring out the reality of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian, along with the presence of God’s word. There is powerful truth found by understanding God’s word and seeing life (and death) through God’s eyes. This life is not all there is.
And as Luther comes to the end of his story telling, he comforts the Christian by coming full circle back to the safety and refuge we find in God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) in both life and death:
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.
By crafting these lyrics in a holistic fashion, Luther has fashioned a story telling about the reality of the Christian life. Ours is a life lived within a battle. Satan is attacking relentlessly, and though at times difficult, our help comes from God, through His Son and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Because of Christ, we are victorious.
It is this kind of holistic story telling that seems to be markedly absent, for the most part, in modern worship song writing. This is but one example that the central focus of modern worship is the tendency toward a shallow, personal experience. Personal experience is not enough to live a victorious Christian life. While the modern worship movement remains focused in such a way, the true worship of Christians will be limited and anemic. Biblical worship, by nature, is much more than a personal experience.
(Original Post on November 12, 2013 at the Worldview Church: http://www.worldviewchurch.org/worshiparts/articles/20733-missing-stories-in-worship)
Posted on June 2, 2014, in Christian Worldview, Content of Worship, Corporate Worship, Martin Luther, theology, Worship Leader and tagged Mark Sooy, martin luther, theology, worship, worship leader, WorshipThink. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.