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Truth and Worship Forms

This entry is part 3 of 8 in the series

"Preserving the Truth in our Worship"

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I have argued to this point that preserving the truth must include not only the preservation of right doctrine, but also the preservation of right imagination. As we have already seen, the imagination is shaped and cultivated through aesthetic forms. We have focused most specifically on literary forms since this is what we find in the Bible, but all art forms shape the imagination in some way. This leads us to the next point of my thesis, namely, that conservative worship is essential to the preservation of truth, for it is in worship that the imagination is most powerfully cultivated.

Cultivating Imagination in Worship

What art forms are chosen in worship is of utmost importance since they present to the congregation not just theological facts, but those facts imagined in certain ways. John Mason Hodges explains the power of worship forms in this regard:

Our musical and liturgical choices in worship can display an aspect of God that is often ignored. We must ask ourselves, how can we whet the congregation’s appetites now for the satisfactions that will be theirs in God for eternity? One way would be to commit ourselves to the pursuit of God’s beauty made manifest through his creation and ours, and value that beauty highly when making decisions for worship.1

Most evangelicals today view worship forms as simply pretty packaging for truth or at best a way to “energize” the truth. Music is just a way to make truth interesting and engaging in worship. But imaginative forms are not incidental to truth—they are essential to the truth, as Spiegel explains: “At its best, liturgical art is not merely consistent with sound doctrine but serves positively to illuminate biblical teaching, making imaginative expression or application of biblical truth.”2 Therefore, worship forms help to express the imaginative aspect of truth in ways that propositional statements alone cannot; they communicate not just the what of biblical content, but also how that content is imagined. And the kinds of imaginative forms God chose to communicate his truth should inform our worship forms. Art in worship is more than incidental; it is God-ordained because of its power to express rightly imagined truth: “Surely the fact that God himself chose an artistic medium as his primary vehicle of special revelation ought by itself to persuade us to place a special premium on the arts.”3 Conservative worship is essentially a desire to preserve the kinds of aesthetic forms contained in Scripture in our worship.

The Function of Form

Aesthetic form shapes propositional content; just like a liquid takes the shape of its container, doctrinal facts take the shape of the aesthetic form in which they are carried. This is accomplished in worship music through poetic devices, melody, harmony, rhythm, performance style, and many other musical elements.

Consider this example of how just the propositional content of a song text can be shaped by its form: suppose I want to communicate the idea that God is all-powerful, that he promises to protect us, and that we should trust in him. Here are four different ways to communicate that content through poetry. Notice how the form shapes the content:

1. A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing;
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.4

2. How strong and sweet my Father’s care,
That round about me, like the air,
Is with me always, everywhere!
He cares for me!5

3. God is bigger than the boogie man.
He’s bigger than Godzilla, or the monsters on TV.
Oh, God is bigger than the boogie man.
And He’s watching out for you and me.6

4. Draw me close to you
Never let me go
I lay it all down again
To hear you say that I’m your friend
You are my desire
No one else will do
‘Cause nothing else could take your place
To feel the warmth of your embrace
Help me find the way, bring me back to you
You’re all I want
You’re all I’ve ever needed
You’re all I want
Help me know you are near.7

In each of these poems, the basic idea is the same: God is great, and we can trust in him. On the propositional content level, each of these poems is saying something that is true. But when we get to the level of form—what words are chosen and how they are put together—the idea in these poems is imagined very differently. Add the musical elements and performance style, and the imagination is even more significantly shaped.

The problem is that since most evangelicals understand truth to be only right knowledge of right facts, they view worship as a time to impart only right facts with some enjoyable music to make such transmission interesting or engaging. Yet while theological facts must be transmitted in worship, this misses the whole point of worship, as Bryan Chapell astutely observes:

The negative impact of turning the sanctuary into the lecture hall is training believers to become merely reflective about the gospel in worship and tempting them to believe that right worship is simply about right thought. As a consequence, the worship focus becomes study, accumulating doctrinal knowledge, evaluating the Sermon, and critiquing the doctrinally imprecise. Congregational participation, mutual encouragement, heart engagement, expressions of grief for sin, and joyous thanksgiving may increasingly seem superfluous, or even demeaning.8

Thus most theologically conservative evangelical worship services are filled with good doctrinal teaching but worship forms that do not express an imagination of that truth that rightly reflects biblical imagination. They view the purpose of worship music as making truth “engaging” rather than its deeper purpose of shaping imagination in profound ways. With this view, it matters not what kind of music a church uses as long as it is “passionate” and resonates with the worshipers.

Worship choices, then, are not merely about what is pleasing, authentic, or engaging; what forms we choose for our worship must be based on the criterion of whether or not they are true—whether or not they correspond to God’s reality as it is imagined in his Word.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. John Mason Hodges, “Aesthetics and the Place of Beauty in Worship,” Reformation and Revival Volume 9 (2000): 73. []
  2. Spiegel: 51. []
  3. Ibid., 44. []
  4. Martin Luther, 1529. []
  5. Anonymous, ca. 1929. []
  6. Veggie Tales, 1992. []
  7. Kelly Carpenter, 1994. []
  8. Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 67. []