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There is a cry today for authenticity in worship. This comes in several different forms, but most commonly it relates to worship and music style compared to the prevailing culture and an individual Christian’s tastes, and it is usually used as the foundation for arguments that every generation needs their own songs and that people cannot worship unless they have songs in their own “heart language.”

I have mixed feelings about the use of this term as it relates to worship because, on the one hand, of course I am in favor of authentic worship. Who really wants worship that is fake? But on the other hand, I object to the way in which this word is used with worship, and the kinds of things it is used to defend.

I think it comes down to a couple different definitions of the word, “authenticity.” Here are the two most common ways the word is used, from the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

not false or imitation : real, actual

true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character

If the definition one uses when arguing for authentic worship is the first, then I am fully in favor. God does not desire worship that is false, fake, or put on. In fact, this was what God condemned of the post-exilic Jews (see Malachi 1) and the New Testament Pharisees (Matthew 15:8). God desires sincere worship (Hebrews 10:22) that follows his commands.

However, it is usually the second definition that is implied when people talk about authentic worship today. In other words, in order for worship to be truly “authentic,” people have to be real to themselves. As I mentioned, this is usually in reference to worship and music style. I can’t worship, the argument says, unless I can do so in styles that are my own–styles I am comfortable with and that are part of my culture and preferences.

This is really at the root of most contemporary and missional worship philosophies, and it also drives ethnodoxology as well. When a person comes to Christ, they insist, that person certainly changes his beliefs, but in order for his worship to be truly authentic, we dare not insist he adopt our musical or style preferences; he should be permitted, and indeed encouraged, to worship with whatever is most natural to him. This is also why each new generation needs its own songs; how can we make a new generation sing the songs of eras gone by? That would be inauthentic!

David de Bruyn deals with this issue here quite well, but I wanted to explore some additional problems with this view.

“Authentic” expressions are often sinful.

Songs are products of human creation. They are mediums of human communication. And since humans are totally depraved, there is always the potential that the way a man communicates could be sinful. The Bible teaches that every person is totally and completely depraved.

Genesis 6:5 “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”

Ephesians 4:17-19 “Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.”

Both man’s will and understanding are corrupt.

Titus 1:15 “To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.”

The natural man cannot do anything good, nor can he understand spiritual things.

John 8:34 “Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”

1 Corinthians 2:14 “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

He does not and cannot seek God, nor does he desire to do so.

Romans 3:10-18 “As it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’ ‘Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.’ ‘The venom of asps is under their lips.’ ‘Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.’ Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.’ ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’”

Depravity consumes man’s body (Romans 8:10), mind (Titus 1:15Ephesians 4:17-18), heart (Ephesians 4:18Jeremiah 17:9), will (John 8:34Ephesians 2:3), and emotions (Ephesians 4:17-19).

Thus man is totally and completely depraved. Total depravity does not mean that man is as depraved as he could be, but that all of man is completely depraved. No part of man escapes the reach of depravity. Not his will, not his actions, not his preferences, not his culture, and certainly not the way he communicates.

Now, with this in mind, it is true that when talking about authentic worship, we are talking about believers. Some people will insist that although unbelievers are totally depraved, believers have been changed, their desires have been renewed, and they have the Holy Spirit to lead them in their judgments and expressions.

This is certainly the case. New creatures in Christ have made made new. They are no longer slaves to sin. The Holy Spirit indwells them.

Nevertheless, although believers have been delivered from the penalty and power of sin, they have not yet been delivered from the presence of sin. Even believers still struggle every day (every moment?) with the influences of remaining depravity. Perhaps one of the strongest biblical examples of this is Paul’s testimony in Romans 7:

Romans 7:15-25 “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.”

Even believers cannot fully trust their own judgments and expressions without clear guidance from God. True, the Holy Spirit indwells believers, but He does not somehow supernaturally lead them to right decisions. The Holy Spirit leads us through His Word and by giving us wisdom to rightly apply it to our lives. We must study it and apply its teachings to every situation in our lives, and sometimes this will lead us to recognize that our “authentic expression” is actually not pleasing to him.

Right worship is not natural; it must be learned.

Second, this view assumes that right worship will come naturally to all Christians. These people assume that the moment a person comes to Christ, he will instinctively know how to worship, and therefore his natural impulses are the best guide. In fact, on this reasoning, unbelievers know how to worship as well; they just need to change their beliefs and they’re all set to go.

While it is true that Christians are new creatures with new hearts and new desires, ingrained habits, misguided assumptions, and remaining depravity prevent anyone from simply “knowing” how to worship. Many people assume that worship comes naturally—that people should just worship with whatever language is most comfortable to them. But this is simply not the case. If the Scriptures and church history reveal anything to us about worship, it is that left to themselves, even God’s people will worship poorly. They must be taught to worship.

This is one of the purposes of ordered worship. Those with more Christian maturity structure worship in such a way that it shapes the affections and teaches others how to worship rightly.

Time-tested expressions are often more dependable than novel ones.

Insistence upon new, fresh songs (with an implicit rejection of old songs) fails to recognize the worth of the community of faith in nurturing Christian worship tradition. I have written about tradition elsewhere, so I won’t belabor the point here.

I am certainly not arguing against writing new songs; far from it. But we must recognize that anything new we write will always be built on something that has come before. The “authentic” expressions of new converts or people immersed in the world’s culture will naturally build upon the value systems and expressions of that culture. I would suggest that the more biblical pattern would be to build new songs on the expressions of those mature Christians who have come before us, and this requires actively cultivating that tradition.

The need for “my expression” is post-Enlightenment individualism rather than biblical thinking.

This leads to the next significant problem. This insistence that “I need to express my faith with my songs in my own authentic way” is based more on post-Enlightenment individualism than upon biblical emphases of community and unity of the body. As I argued , constant clamoring for “new” and “fresh” is not a biblical perspective (biblical Christianity is old and stable); it is one that comes from a self-focus and the cultural realities of a post-Enlightenment and post-Industrial Revolution Western mindset.

With music specifically, there was a shift post-Enlightenment that made the focus of music “my authentic expression” that fails to reflect a biblical worldview centered on preserving biblical tradition and community. Quentin Faulkner makes this point in Wiser Than Despair. He summarizes Enlightenment views of music that are diametrically opposed to the Judeo- Christian tradition and that affected all of Western culture:

  • The goal of music is to excite human passions rather than to calm them.
  • Music provides entertainment and diversion rather than the shaping of content.
  • The best kind of music is characterized by constant variety rather than order and modesty.
  • Individuality and originality are virtues in musical composition and performance rather than cultivating a noble tradition.
  • The gauge of music’s excellence is popular acclaim rather than its ability to shape content in an appropriate manner.
  • The best kind of music is “natural” and unlearned rather than skilled and ordered.
  • Music is purely scientific without any ethical dimension.
  • Music is unimportant rather than that which orders men’s souls.

Those who clamor today for “my authentic expression” may need to step back for a moment and recognize where that perspective came from; it wasn’t Scripture.

Truly authentic worship is that which conforms to God’s standards.

Actually, I think there is one more definition of “authentic” that best describes what is necessary for worship:

worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact

Truly “authentic” worship is not that which is based on my own natural instincts, “heart language,” or preferences. Truly authentic worship is that which conforms to a standard–the standard of God’s Word.

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.