Malcolm Gordon on music, liturgy, and the cadence of God’s story

Irina Lesik - Three Musicians

Irina Lesik, ‘Three Musicians’

Criticising contemporary worship songs has become pretty old hat. It’s such an easy target, with favourite gripes including (but not limited to): the lack of good theology, the ever-increasing prominence of ‘me, myself and I’, and the combination of complex musical arrangements with simplistic melody lines, or complicated melody lines with predictable arrangements, depending which side of the bed we emerge from.

But I think we are wrong. While I agree there are problems with contemporary worship music; I don’t agree that this is the sum total of the problem. There is a problem, but it may not be the music’s fault.

If you went back sixty years to many churches, you had people singing from hymn books, accompanied by an organist, perhaps strengthened by a choir, and in between the singing they were led through the service by a pastor, priest or minister. This person led prayers, said blessings, and ushered the congregation through the story-line that is worship. God welcomes us, we praise and confess, God speaks to us, God feeds us, we respond in prayer and offering, God sends, we go. The hymns belonged in the midst of this well-worn journey. Yes the hymns were richer in doctrine, or perhaps ‘thicker’ is a better word sometimes. And how could they not be when they have five to seven verses and no repetition?! But like then, as now, I don’t think the hymns were doing all the heavy lifting for giving the worship services its depth and meaning. Rather it was this careful curation through the worship journey of God encountering people, people responding, God blessing, people going – which was punctuated with spoken prayer, acts of blessing, celebrating sacraments and passing the peace as well as sung worship. Music was certainly part of that, but it was only part of it.

Recently I went to a seminary to teach some ministry students about worship. I asked them what their standard church services looked like. To be truthful, I asked them for their ‘liturgy’. This was their response:

  • two to three upbeat songs
  • Welcome
  • two more upbeat songs plus prayer
  • Notices. Kids go out
  • two more reflective songs plus prayer
  • Message
  • one more reflective song, ministry time

As you can see, they covered some of the ‘how’ of worship, but they left the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ untouched. They weren’t able to tell me if the opening songs were functioning as a Call to Worship or as songs of adoration and praise. The prayers were not routinely prayers of confession or intercession, just whatever was ‘on the worship leader’s heart’. I don’t actually think it’s their fault, much like I don’t think it’s the fault of a generation of contemporary worship songwriters who have written theologically impoverished songs. Because the music was never meant to carry the liturgy, the liturgy was meant to carry the music. The liturgy is the order of what we do and why we do it, which was the task of the pastor, priest, minister, and it gave meaning to the songs we sang, the responses we made, the prayers we offered, and the gifts we brought. The old hymns didn’t exist in a theological vacuum, but most of our contemporary worship songs are expected to. We betray this when we ask the congregation to stand and sing with the words, ‘let’s worship’ – because music is now the only worshipful activity that remains to us. Perhaps what we are remembering when we recall the hymns, is not just the richness of the pieces of music themselves, but the general coherence of the service as a whole.

Now our worship songs (which are, let’s face it, more theologically lightweight than their forebears) are framed in a significantly vaguer space than before. We might know how many songs we do before the welcome, and then how many more before the notices, but we no longer remember what function those songs are meant to perform. Is it any wonder our songwriters struggle for depth? We have them playing in the paddling pool!

Now I’m not advocating a return to worship how it was ‘back in the good ol’ days’. I’m advocating that pastors, priests and ministers reclaim their role as liturgical theologians. Given the influence of the charismatic movement initially, compounded later by a shift in priorities for pastoral leaders as well as a heightened consumeristic expectations from church folk, pastors have largely abdicated having direct input into the worship service apart from the message, and they have handed that role over to musicians. One might ask, have those musicians begun to receive resourcing and training to enable them to lead the congregation in worship, to give voice to the spirituality of a whole community before God? In my experience, no. This situation may not strike us as odd because we are so used to it, but consider this scenario. How weird would it have been, ‘back in the good ol’ days’ to have let the organist lead the service, pick their favourite songs, and lead all the prayers (off the cuff) from the console? It didn’t make sense then, and I’m not sure it makes sense now.

Pastors are uniquely qualified to give logic and coherence to a worship service. They are pastorally linked in to what is happening in the congregation, they are theologically astute in order to let the great themes of Scripture seep through a whole service, and they are wordsmiths. Just the sort of people to craft prayers which gather up our hopes and our fears, and hold them alongside the promises of God. When the pastor abdicates this role to the guitarist, or leaves the guitarist with too few resources to draw upon, then the worship service starts to feel like a variety concert, rather than a pilgrimage into the heart of God, and then with God into the world.

What am I suggesting? If you’re in a church where the worship service is completely in the hands of the musicians, perhaps it’s a matter of sparking up some conversations with your key leaders, helping them to move beyond their own spirituality and into facilitating a experience of worship that is hospitable for the whole congregation, linking them with the cadence of God’s story. Introduce them to the rhythms of worship, the back and forward nature of God calling and people answering.

When we share the liturgical load across the service, I suspect we won’t find so many things lacking with our songs anymore. The strength of the contemporary worship song is that they are often simple; offering space to allow a truth to sink deep within us, or for us to reflect or wonder. Exactly the kind of liturgical experience that will deepen and enrich a thoughtfully tailored worshipping journey. These songs belong in a rich tapestry of artful worship, not hung out on their own.

When there is a coherence to our worship, and depth and meaning to our prayers, prayers where the word ‘amen’ comes out of us with conviction rather than out of habit, words of welcome and sending that draw people out of their small, fractured worlds, into the wide-open spaces of God, then I think we’ll be in a place to write even better songs as well.

Malcolm Gordon is the Worship, Music and Arts Enabler at the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin. [Reposted from Candour.]


  1. Thank you for explaining it all simply – the chalkenge these days is getting anyone to think beyond the music.


  2. This is a great piece. Thanks very much, Malcolm. I think you’re absolutely right to suggest that our discussions about contemporary worship need to be set within a much deeper discussion about liturgy. And I’ve found your thoughts on the undue burdens placed on worship leaders enormously helpful. Yes, the discussion needs to be reorientated.

    A couple of questions/reflections, some of which perhaps reinforce what you say and some of which go in a slightly different direction:

    “I’m advocating that pastors, priests and ministers reclaim their role as liturgical theologians”. Sure! But isn’t this where some of the difficult work begins? I’m thinking, in particular, of the sort of work that we, as moderns, have to do to chasten our metaphysically constructivist and expressivist tendencies. So, for instance, we tend to assume that questions about liturgy are first and foremost questions about the way that we order our worship. A great deal of contemporary liturgical theology seems to be obsessed with such questions, and much attempts at contemporary liturgy that I have seen tend to be little more than expressions of the values of particular communities (which always makes for the most dreary liturgy). Of course, liturgy is but another name for the ordering of our worship, but we can’t get that right until we clarify what it is that worship is, or ought to be, ordered towards. Bad liturgical theology is obsessed with the question of whether liturgy reflects or expresses the values of the community; good liturgical theology is obsessed with God.

    The question is whether liturgical theology functions downstream from the doctrine of the church, or downstream from the doctrine of God? Does our account of worship follow from our account of the church, or from our account of God? I think – here in contrast to a great deal of contemporary liturgical reflection – it has to be the latter. Here, I suppose we could make a kind of Augustinian rule: we don’t sort out worship by focusing on the quality of our worship, but on that towards which that worship is ordered.

    I guess what I’m contending for here is a kind of theological realism that would find the answers to questions about the ordering of human life (including the ordering of worship) by attending first and foremost to God (and not just to the works of God, or his “story”, but to the being of God; to the works of God as they bring us to the contemplation of his being. We do not just focus on the fact that God does good things, but that through these good things we are brought into union with goodness itself). Yet this is not to side-line liturgy, but to reconfigure it not as an expression of a community or its values, but as a reflection of, and participation in, a divine liturgy. (Think here of Maximus or Cusa). On this account, liturgy is a bit more than crafting prayers that “gather up our hopes and our fears, and hold them alongside the promises of God”. In these prayers, we participate in Christ’s prayer. Which is perhaps to say that it is not simply that we are gathering up our hopes and fears, but that our hopes and fears are being gathered up for us. The shift is from us standing on one side of the gap saying something to God about our values (“we are the sort of people who really love you”), to finding ourselves in God’s life, learning to speak because we have been, and are being, spoken to. So the sort of theological realism I have in mind here is not a kind of modern realism that polices the boundary between objective facts and subjective experience, but the old kind of realism that would see liturgy as a temporal expression of eternity. In which case, our questions about liturgy, about the ordering of our worship, are much more serious, and much more metaphysically demanding, than they are for someone working within an expressivist framework.
    Finally. “Because the music was never meant to carry the liturgy, the liturgy was meant to carry the music.” I think I’m on board with the larger point about our need to reflect more on the liturgy, but doesn’t this claim imply that music needs to be disciplined by prose? That the spoken word must provide the context within which music has its proper place? For me the opposite is true: the spoken word has its proper context within music, which is as close as we get to a moving image of eternity. I don’t normally agree with Robert Jenson, but isn’t he right to talk of God’s triune being as a “great fugue”, and to insist that “The end is music”? In other words, don’t we need a theologically realist account of music?

    To sum up: I agree very much with your claim that pastors have a crucial role in giving coherence to our worship. “[Pastors] are pastorally linked in to what is happening in the congregation, they are theologically astute in order to let the great themes of Scripture seep through a whole service, and they are wordsmiths”. But firstly, where are these people!?! Secondly, I think what I have been trying to suggest is that before any of these things, they need a robust doctrine of God, which is to say a robust theological metaphysic. Thinking about the liturgy follows from thinking about God. Thirdly, does it change things if we think of liturgy as something already going on before we are on the scene? That our worship is participating in something that we did not construct? That in our worship we find ourselves in a situation not of our own making? Certainly we make things in this situation, but until we realise that the landscape is already dense, that the music already has its own rhythms, we will only make misshapen things. Finally, might not Luther have been right: pastors also need to learn a musical instrument?



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