Robert Edwards | Patronising God with praise and worship
The ministry of praise and worship has become a popular aspect of the worship experience in a wide cross section of Christian denominations. Particularly with the emergence and expansion of neo-Pentecostal/Charismatic and Evangelical religious groups, the activity has taken on heightened importance in the worship culture of Christian churches.
Praise and worship is a contemporary form that developed in the late 1960s and early ‘70s on the West Coast of the United States. It forms that part of the experience normally at the commencement of a service, where the worshippers engage in musical tributes to God led by a person or team. However, over time, the activity has taken a particular slant and has even developed a doctrinal construct that portrays worship as a transactional event between God and worshippers. Consequently, it has led to a worship ethos that has become something of a religious circus aimed at appeasing God for the sake of getting what the worshipper wants.
The cultic nomenclature of praise and worship raises questions about who God is. On any given occasion, such questions may be raised about the nature and power of God by virtue of the language that has come to be associated with the activity.
The popular language of praise and worship today comes from a visceral riposte of the worshippers. It is language laden with intuitive overtones – a kind of mindless, reflexive religious-speak – reflected in the songs, phrases, and speeches that are inclined to communicate worship as a patronising means-to-an-end endeavour. Moreover, it tends to project God as a kind of glorified sugar daddy with a narcissistic and egomaniacal appetite for attention and self-aggrandisement.
Praise and worship today projects expression that is offered as an in-order-to and not-because-of. This, largely because of the pseudo-gospel of prosperity and deliverance being preached and taught by a plethora of emerging neo-Pentecostal and Evangelical self-styled prophets and apostles. People now talk about praise and worship as a panacea to their problems. They claim that it is through your praise that God will respond favourably to your requests. So, praise has come to mean the precursor or the basis of deliverance and prosperity, conveying this idea of a transactional encounter with God and the worshipper.
This new millennial language of worship is unscriptural. It is a modern contrivance that places the worshippers at the centre of worship and encourages a mindset that presumes worship as payback to God for what he has done. It’s a pay for play – quid pro quo. For example, the affirmative, “He’s worthy to be praised” has become a cliché and platitudinal. It’s more like flattery than an affirmation of an inherent truth.
Even the hallelujah expression is represented as a false superlative representing the ultimate degree of worship, offered as a kind of appeasement to God, hence the dubious and unscriptural ascription of hallelujah as the ‘highest praise’.
Some of the songs of worship betray this misleading narrative. The line from a popular praise and worship song says: “My hallelujah belongs to you ... you deserve it!” This is a simplistic rendering of the truth that could convey the wrong meaning to the inherent worthiness of God. For who else could the hallelujah ‘belong’ to? And the subjective, ‘you deserve it’, as though God is comparable to someone else potentially deserving of the accolade.
To be sure, God is indeed worthy of praise. But to say God is worthy is affirmative. It is not a truth arrived at by personal calculus, the way it comes across in a song such as this. Hallelujah is an exclusive expression!
Worship a Way of Life
Biblical worship is an end in itself. A proper theology of worship is one where the worshipper understands that it is the worshipper who stands in the position of beneficiary. The Old Testament sacrificial cult that typifies the New Testament iteration of worship was designed in this way. God is not in need of anything, not even worship! Worship is a response to God because he is God. True worship is the obedient response to God because of who He is. It recognises His inherent worthiness, holiness, honour, and sovereignty. It is, in a word, to honour Him.
Psalm 50 is a classic putdown of the attitude of patronage by worshippers who thought they did God a favour by their acts of worship. “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? Sacrifice thank-offerings to God, fulfil your vows to the Most High.”
Christian worship affirms God’s grace to humanity – it is a gift. Our praise doesn’t affect in any way how God treats us. He doesn’t need any incentive from the worshippers. The language of worship, therefore, ought to be assertive and affirmative. It is language that is confessional and declarative because worship is revelatory. It is God’s self-disclosure to God’s people – to the world, in fact (cf Psalm 19:1-6; Rom. 1:18-21).
Above all, worship is primarily praxis. It is the way of life of the believer; the sum of their character and their lived reality constituting the act of worship. What Rastafari calls livity. The prophet Amos stridently rebuked Israel for their religious duplicity.
Amos 5:21-24: “ I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise ofyour songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
Ceremony for ceremony sake is meaningless religiosity. Ceremony and their rituals are only incidental to true worship. So today, people appear more enamoured with the event of praise and worship per se than they are with the authentic life of worship. This is the environment that breeds hypocrisy and modern-day idolatry.
What then is a credible approach to worship through praise and worship? First, the activity must be placed in its proper perspective. Praise and worship, as part of the worship experience, is that aspect of the worship that celebrates the creator through music and song. It is an end and not a means to an end.
Our song tributes, therefore, give witness to the reality and efficacy of God’s presence and work in the world and in our lives. It is a testimony of the life of worship. In praise and worship, the believers ceremonialise and eulogise their lived experience with God. It is the life of worship reimagined, ritualised, and appropriated within the assembly of the worshipping community.
There is clear need for a proper theological understanding in the appropriation of the ceremony of worship such as praise and worship. Without this, we are likely to continue to advertently or inadvertently ‘patronise’ God with defective worship. God does not need our patronage. His will is that we be ‘living sacrifices’.
- Robert Edwards is a minister of religion and guidance counsellor with more than 20 years’ experience in praise and worship ministry. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.