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Gathered Worship as Formation and The Gift of Hymns

December 17, 2014

Lex Orandi Lex Credendi (The law of prayer is the law of belief)

And we, who with unveiled faces all gaze upon the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” 2 Corinthians 3:18

What we hear, see, do, and sing really matters. Corporate worship shapes and molds our beliefs of who God is and what the Christian life is like, whether we realize it or not. What happens in worship has the “expulsive power of a new affection”. By that phrase, Thomas Chalmers means that we never really get over one love until a new one comes along. This gets at the root of our problem with worship – idolatry. Being conscience of the way corporate worship is formative has been significantly helpful in my understanding of what is really happening during worship and why the actions we participate in are so vital to our well-being. The scripture readings, confessions, prayers, the sermon, singing, and sacraments are not activities we participate in so that the Sunday worship time will feel “churchy” enough. No, they are carefully placed and administered to facilitate the public worship of God and the feeding of his people according to scripture.

A practical example at EPC is from our reciting of Philippians 2:5-11 as our common confession. Paul wrote to the church in Philippi to encourage unity and in this particular passage he is using Christ’s humiliation of willingly being born in the likeness of men, taking the form of a servant, and becoming obedient to the point of death as an example of how unity is created. When we read this passage aloud together, the desired result is that we would seek unity by serving one another faithfully because Christ has lead us to worship this way. It ought to change our desires from seeking to serve ourselves toward serving others. If it doesn’t do that, it at least should change our idea of what actually causes unity: humility. I believe our corporate worship planners were careful to have the church participate in this reading as a service to the church.

I give that example to drive the point that what we do in gathered worship is formative whether we realize or not. In particular, I have been wrestling deeply about how the songs we sing have this formative effect. Songs bare a special testimony of shaping people’s beliefs, and thus their living, in such ways that it would be foolish to neglect them. In fact, it was said of Martin Luther by a Catholic Cardinal, shortly after the reformation, “By his songs he has conquered us,” and a Jesuit declared, “Luther’s songs have damned more souls than all his books and speeches.” Of course we take a different view, but pardon the expression and don’t miss the point.

But wait… Did you already know that Martin Luther wrote songs?? Hymns, technically. He had a huge influence in re-introducing congregational singing (prior to the reformation, singing was done by professional musicians and in Latin only). He also compiled and published many hymn books. In fact, there are many giants of the faith who, though most famous for their preaching, compiled hymn books for their congregations and for publishing. Charles Spurgeon, George Whitefield, and J. C. Ryle for example. We know them for their preaching, but they also took great care of what churches were singing because they knew the songs supplemented so much of their spiritual diet.

To help witness this, I plan to share some follow-up posts on the topic of hymn writers and their hymns. Hymns excel in covering a large scope of Biblical themes and Christian experiences. Reflecting on them is a great way to wrestle with theology because they connect theology to life and worship rather than allowing theology to just puff us up as disconnected truths that we memorize to impress our friends. It’s vital for us to turn what we know about God into a basis for praising Him and hymns are wonderful vehicles for this. So I hope the following series of posts on hymn writers and their hymns will be helpful for us to see why, for generations, our brothers and sisters carried their hymn book with their Bible.

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