Revelation and Response: An Interview with Samuel Parkison on Leading Corporate Worship Through Song
What does a healthy local church music leader look like? How should we think biblically, theologically, and practically about the scope of Christian worship, particularly the Sunday morning worship gathering? In his new book, Revelation and Response: The Why and How of Leading Corporate Worship through Song, Samuel Parkison offers a worshipful and comprehensive meditation on corporate worship and the role of the music leader therein. Samuel G. Parkison is a Regular Contributor at For The Church as well as a PhD student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He serves as Pastor of Teaching and Liturgy at Emmaus Church. You can follow Samuel on Twitter at @samuel_parkison. The following is my interview with Samuel around his new book and the topic of corporate worship through song.
Why is the doctrine of revelation paramount in the topic of worship through song?
As surprising as it may sound, God’s incomprehensible transcendence is the answer to this question. This is one of those occasions where etymology is pretty helpful; the Old English equivalent to our word worship was weorthscipe—or, worth-ship. It’s a compound word that simply describes the act of ascribing worth to someone or something. So if Christian worship through song is an act of ascribing worth to the incomprehensible, transcendent, Triune God of the Bible, revelation is necessary. We cannot know God apart from his gracious self-disclosure in revelation. This means that the surest way to guarantee idolatry in our “worship songs” is to divorce them from divine revelation; if our worship songs are not in response to the Triune God’s revelation of himself, they are still (tragically) expressions of “worship,” but not Christian worship.
What should be the relationship between the music leader and the elders?
The most ideal scenario is for the music leader to be an elder. The music leader has a tremendous amount of influence over the congregation’s theological health. The songs we sing at church shape the way we see God, the way we see ourselves in relation to God and one another, and give language for our prayer lives. Because of this, the selection of songs and the overall structure of the worship service falls under the purview of the pastor and his teaching ministry. This responsibility is too great for a non-ordained lay member to assume—it must rest on the shoulders of pastors. If this scenario of “the music leader as elder” isn’t feasible for any reason (and there are many reasons) the alternative is for the pastor(s) to assume a far more active role in overseeing the music ministry than is typical in most evangelical churches. It should not be the case that the music leader is over here, doing his thing, and the pastor is over there, focusing on his responsibilities; it all falls under the stewardship of pastoral ministry.
Though your book is not written to non-musical-leading pastors, how can they still benefit from its content?
Pastors should be concerned with the theological formation of their congregations, and the potency of congregational worship through song to this end should not be underestimated. To put it frankly, pastors should make the music ministry of their churches their business. There’s another reason non-music-leading pastors might benefit from this book’s content though: it stands to give them a greater appreciation for what is in fact happening when their congregations sing. In this way, this book stands to benefit non-music-leading pastors in the same way that it stands to benefit all Christian worshippers (which is to say, all Christians).
What are the greatest needs in the modern church when it comes to worship through song?
The modern church is famished when it comes to worship songs; she suffers from want of songs that are (1) Godward-focused, (2) theologically substantive, and (3) emotionally diverse. Since many of the songs that circulate in contemporary churches are indulgent and self-oriented, the average Christian can easily conclude that God is an accidental feature in the Christian life; the individual is the focal point, and God happens to meet the supply of the individual’s demand. Many contemporary worship songs, in other words, serve to domesticate God. They shrink rather than enlarge the congregant’s vision of God. The fact that most of our songs are theologically inch-deep means that this small view God is never corrected. If there’s a theological vacuum in our self-oriented songs, we’re going to fill it with selfish content. The third description I gave is perhaps the most underacknowledged (even among the theologically deep): our songs do not reflect the full gambit of human emotion. How common is it, for example, for a church service to include songs of lamentation and confession of sin? Because the contemporary church tends to be so inward-focused, it tends to view corporate songs as the means to the intended end of feeling happy, which means virtually all its songs are cheery. The implicit message is that “worship songs” are necessarily “happy songs,” so the idea of lamenting as worship doesn’t compute for the average Christian. Yet the Psalter—and the church’s repertoire of songs throughout her history—tells a different tale. A recovery of songs that revel in the Triune, saving, sovereign God of Scripture, with emotional language as diverse as human emotion itself, is desperately needed. Pastors should be concerned with the theological formation of their congregations, and the potency of congregational worship through song to this end should not be underestimated. Click To Tweet
In light of response “needing to fit correspondingly to the object that has been revealed,” how should we think about the affections in worship?
This is another place where the incomprehensibility of God comes into play. As those who stand decidedly on the finite side of the Creator-creature divide, we will never fully comprehend the God we worship. We will never get our hands around him. Which means there is quite literally no such thing as affectional excess in our worship. To think that our affections are ever sufficiently and completely warmed to correspond with this God’s worth—to say, “Ok, now I’ve arrived and feel for God as much as I ought”—is blasphemous. We always answer the question, “How much should I desire God?” with “More!” The practical payoff of this idea is that we never get up from this humble posture of neediness—on our knees, heads down, palms up, asking God to open the eyes of our hearts to see his worth so that all of our affections might latch onto him.
What should be the Christian’s view of art or aesthetics and how can it aid us in daily worship?
The fabric of our culture is increasingly utilitarian: objects, people, and products are useful to the degree that they contribute to the society’s larger project. At the same time, inconsistent with its utilitarianism, this is the most thoroughly entertained culture on planet earth. We’re built to worship, so we can’t not do that, yet (in contradiction to this) we’re also committed materialistic utilitarianism, so everything must justify its existence by what utility it brings. Art is thus valued too little (“what good is it?”) and too much (e.g., Hollywood) in our society. Once God assumes his rightful place as the preeminent object of worship, everything else falls into place, including art. Art is both demoted from the idolatrous station of the overly entertained, and elevated from the despised station of the utilitarian, and instead joins in with the “Day” and “Night” to call attention to the glory of God (Psalm 19:1-6). The Creator’s creation glorifies him. But so too does the Creator’s creation’s creation (art). “If mere creatures, made in the image of God, can craft such beauty,” we ask, “what must the God in whose image they were made be like?”
How can the liturgical format adorn the gospel?
At my church, our order of worship roughly corresponds to redemptive history (creation, fall, redemption, restoration, consummation). The Call to Worship at the beginning of our service sets the agenda: in the beginning God. This corresponds to Creation. After responding to his transcendent goodness with a few songs and another Scripture reading, we enter into a time of Corporate and Private Confession, which corresponds to the fall—we meditate on the entrance of sin and its effects, and we condition ourselves as a congregation to do with sin the only thing we can do: bring it to God in confession and repentance. Then we receive a scriptural assurance of pardon. This corresponds with redemption. Immediately after this we sing a song of thanksgiving, reveling in Christ’s active work of making all things new, which corresponds with restoration. We conclude every service with communion, in which we receive the emblematic “gospel meal” as we eagerly await the return of Christ and the consummation of his saving work. This is one example of how the liturgical structure of a worship service can adorn the gospel.
What biblical support is there for the regulative principle? Are churches that do not subscribe to the regulative principle explicitly disobedient to Scripture?
God has never left his people without instruction for how they ought to worship him. The people of God have never had to guess what God wants in worship. When it comes to the New Testament Church, his word commands Christians to (1) read the Scriptures publicly (1 Tim. 4:13), (2) teach/preach the Scriptures (1 Tim. 4:13; 2 Tim. 4:1-2), (3) pray (1 Tim. 2:1; Acts 2:42; 4:23-31), (4) sing (Col. 3:12-17), and (5) practice the ordinances of baptism and communion (Matt. 28:19; Acts 2:38; 1 Cor. 11:23-34). The regulative principle is the commitment to build the corporate worship service around—and only around—those five elements. It is the rationale that concludes that if God desired for our corporate worship to include anything else, he would have said as much in his word. Theologically, the regulative principle seems to follow directly from Christ’s lordship of his Church (he sets the agenda), the sufficiency of Scripture, and the fact that God is not indifferent about how he is worshipped (as Nadab and Abihu can testify [Leviticus 10]). With all that said, when Scripture explicitly commands us to include those five elements listed above, it does not command us to include only those five elements. So I don’t believe that those who reject the regulative principle explicitly disobey Scripture, I just think they’re being unwise. Rather than asking the question, “Can we go beyond what Scripture commands in our corporate worship?” I respond with, “Why on earth would we want to?”
What feedback could you give to aspiring writers after publishing your first book?
I doubt I have anything novel to say here. I offer the same advice I’ve been given: keep up the discipline of writing, write for the joy of writing, and avail yourself to the criticism of others. That last piece of advice deserves attention: be open to feedback. Much of this book was forged in the pride-melting fires of a writer’s group I (semi-regularly) attend here in Kansas City. I’m particularly indebted to Owen Strachan (who is responsible for the inclusion of several footnotes, being the advocate for theological precision that he is), Jason Duesing (whose haunting voice in my head I have to shew away virtually every time I use an adverb), Jared Wilson, Sam Bierig and Whitney Prewitt (who each, in their own special way, crushed my dreams in love). Lastly, if you don’t have The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White, and Wordsmithy by Douglas Wilson, you should probably go on over to Amazon and remedy the situation.
Purchase your copy of Revelation and Response: The Why and How of Leading Corporate Worship through Song today.