I was talking with some friends recently who said that when they had led music at a previous church, they often heard some of the older people in the congregation complain about the style of music they chose saying things like, “all you young people want to do is wail at the feet of Jesus.” On one hand, I’m inclined to agree with that observation. My generation (twenty to thirty-somethings) seems to cherish one virtue above all else… authenticity. We tend to react negatively to anything that smacks of “mainstream,” or “big.” Just look at the boom of farm-to-table, locally grown, independent, small businesses and restaurants. This is a bit of postmodernism encapsulated, but that’s a different discussion altogether.
Part of this mindset is clearly visible in a younger generation of evangelicals. The last three decades were an innovative time for evangelicals. The worship movement and a good bit of consumerism ushered in the age of the “mega-church,” where, in some cases, going to church felt more like attending some sort of spiritual shopping mall with programs, events, and fresh spiritual life for everyone. The most prosperous churches were sure to have a thriving music ministry that prided itself in a talented group of musicians that resembled a loud rock band more than a group that provided music for a church. Services in these churches were characterized by lively, theatrical displays of upbeat music, catchy songs, and hand-clapping “praise teams.”
But those days are quickly fading.
If you were to venture into any modern evangelical church that is driven by a younger generation of Christians (or at least targets that subculture), you will no longer find them meeting in a vast auditorium with state-of-the-art flashing lights, high platforms, swaying horn sections, and happy-clappy praise teams. Instead, you are more likely to find them meeting in small, dark, somewhat undecorated places more akin to abandoned warehouses and garages. You’re more likely to hear slow, contemplative songs accompanied by a range of vintage instruments ranging from hammond organs to mandolins and steel guitars.
My first reaction is to observe these happenings for what they are, a radical reaction against a form of “doing church,” that they consider “showy,” and inauthentic. To be clear, there are some areas in which we have taken things too far in almost completely abandoning a congregational approach to corporate worship in favor of a darker, more intimate, individualistic approach. But there are some great strengths in this shift as well. One of them is the rediscovery of the lament. The rediscovery of what it means to “wail at the feet of Jesus,” together.
By in large, the theme of the corporate worship event in mainstream evangelicalism has come to be defined as a celebration. Churches have even been known to label their sanctuaries (places of refuge and safety) as “celebration centers,” to reflect this notion. Don’t get me wrong, Christian worship in the corporate setting does indeed contain elements of celebration. We have been saved from sin and death by our great Savior and we ought to celebrate him indeed. But “celebration,” in itself does not and cannot define the sum total of the corporate worship experience. The “just forget about your worries, leave your troubles far behind you,” notion of Martha Munizzi’s song, “Glorious,” leaves us with a deficient definition of worship. The whole idea of checking your baggage at the door, putting on a smile, clapping your hands, and forgetting about life in order to worship God completely misses the point of worship. Jesus never says, “just lay those things down before you come to me,” no, but he says, “come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28).
Imagine the asininity that takes place when we tell suffering, hurting people who come into our churches to “forget about [their] problems,” and just praise God as if the two were exclusive. We front the prettiest smiling faces to lead songs about celebration and joy while clapping their hands and “enjoying themselves,” and look at those who stand there, stiff as a board, cold-faced and hunched over as if their “worship” just isn’t expressive enough for us. Did we ever stop to think that they might have a debilitating physical or mental illness that renders them “cold” or expressionless at any given time? Could they have just had a huge Sunday morning brawl with their spouse or children? Could they have been recently diagnosed with terminal cancer? Could they simply not feel like clapping along to the latest smarmy sugar-stick that CCM radio has to offer? “Well, they just need to praise God anyway,” “worship is a choice, not a feeling,” we might say; and doesn’t that just make sound good and holy?
God sees things differently. Don’t believe me? Read the Bible.
The book of Psalms is filled with songs of praise and worship, songs that command us to “sing to the LORD,” and “make a joyful noise!” Those are our favorites aren’t they. Plenty of modern songs have been written based on that fraction of Psalms from the collection that God has given in Scripture. But when is the last time your church sang, “my tears have been my food day and night” (Ps. 42:3)? Or how about the last time the congregation swelled in a chorus of, “How long, O LORD, will you be angry forever?” (Ps. 79:5). These were probably not very recent on the line-up for Sunday morning. But God has given them to us to sing to him. If he did not want to hear our cries for help, our wails of lament, our groans for deliverance, he would not have inspired these Psalmists to include them in his very own hymnbook. True, most of these Psalms do come around to remind the readers or singers about the goodness and mercy of the LORD even in times of trial, but it doesn’t skip straight to the “good” part before taking account of the realities of life.
Perhaps there is something to this “wailing at the feet of Jesus” thing that my generation seems so apt to embrace.
As churches, perhaps we ought to try harder to provide a wide range of themes and songs for our people to sing. God wrote 150 songs for us to sing that cover the widest possible range of human emotions; why shouldn’t our services reflect his heart?
Corporate worship is about gathering together to worship our Heavenly Father by magnifying his Son Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We do celebrate him and our great salvation, we can sing for joy to him, we can praise him with a glad heart always remembering his mercies toward us; but we can also “wail at the feet of Jesus,” every now and then, understanding that God expects us to worship him through and for the trials, not simply checking them at the door of the sanctuary.