I am a pastor. I play keyboards on our church worship team. And I am a New Testament scholar. As you might imagine, I have some pretty strong convictions about worship. I was recently invited to Biola’s Music Conservatory to share with the students my perspective on contemporary worship ministry. I offered them two guiding principles:
1.Worship Is About US — Not About ME
I often point my New Testament students to a striking statistic. Like English, New Testament Greek has (1) a first-person, singular, possessive pronoun (= “my”) and (2) a first-person, plural, possessive pronoun (= “our”). Here is the breakdown from Paul’s letters, when these pronouns are attached to the word “Lord”:
“my Lord” — 1x
“our Lord” — 53x
When you and I think about how we relate to God, we generally default to our “personal” relationship with God, as individuals (“my Lord”). Paul’s tendency was quite the opposite. He reflects most often—overwhelmingly so—on Jesus as “our Lord.”
Paul’s priorities go back to convictions characteristic of his Jewish heritage. One of Paul’s Jewish contemporaries wrote:
At these [Temple] sacrifices prayers for the welfare of the community must take precedence over those for ourselves; for we are born for fellowship, and he who sets its claims above his private interests is especially acceptable to God (Josephus, Contra Apion 2.197).
The early church fathers similarly prioritized communal solidarity over the religious experience of the individual Christian. Here is our first surviving commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, by Cyprian of Carthage, who was later martyred for his faith in Christ:
Before all things, the Teacher of peace and Master of unity [= Jesus] did not wish prayer to be offered individually and privately as one would pray only for himself when he prays. We do not say: “My Father, who art in heaven,” nor “Give me this day my bread,” nor does each one ask that only his debt be forgiven him and that he be led not into temptation and that he be delivered from evil for himself alone. Our prayer is public and common, and when we pray we pray not for one but for the whole people, because we, the whole people, are one (Cyprian of Carthage, 250 A.D.).
For Jesus’ earliest followers, the Christian life was primarily about “us,” and only secondarily about “me.” Unfortunately, the radical individualism of western society has reversed these priorities and turned Christianity into a markedly private, personal enterprise. And this is reflected in our worship music, where “me and Jesus” predominates, and where songs about “us and Jesus” are rather far and few between.
My challenge to those involved in worship ministry is to write—and program—more songs that talk about us and Jesus. We don’t need to match Paul’s 53-to-1 statistic. That would be unrealistic. But we ought to be singing a whole lot more about us and God than we currently do in our Sunday services.
Part 2 of Course Corrections For Worship Ministry will be available later this week.