There is no walk of life, other than in a religious setting, where the term worship is properly used.

We use it as a metaphor to try and express profound respect or love for another person – “He worships the very ground she walks on.” – but true worship is solely a religious activity, an activity expressed toward God.

Worship is one-way traffic, from us to God.

When my faith burst into life in the late ’70s, it began as an almost instant reaction to two activities encountered on my first visit to my local Baptist church. The first was hymn singing, and the second was the preaching of God’s word.

I won’t claim to remember the hymns we sung, but I remember the church and its people well, and I remember the green hymnbook so I can guarantee that we were singing what we would call the great hymns of the church.

“Amazing Grace,” “Be Thou My Vision,” “Rock of Ages,” “Great is Thy Faithfulness” and perhaps the hymn that moved me most deeply, George Matheson’s “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go.”

These hymns were my first theology tutors. Week after week, we were brought into God’s presence through singing (“Come let us join our cheerful songs”), and nurtured there (“Lord speak to me that I may speak / In loving echoes of thy tone”).

We were challenged to be his disciples (“The Lord is King, I own his power / His right to rule each day and hour”) and sent out to proclaim the gospel (“Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim / Till all the world, adores his sacred name”).

Hymns and songs, then and today, express the great themes of forgiveness, love, sacrifice, atonement, guidance, faithfulness, grace, mercy and assurance.

In the ’70s and ’80s, we experienced the charismatic renewal movement, which in turn sparked a new positivity as the “March for Jesus” took to the streets with confident expectations that we could win this land for Christ.

New songs expressed an intimacy that was missing (“As the deer pants for the water / So my soul longs after you”). Spring Harvest changed the landscape with large-scale anthemic gatherings, to which New Wine, Soul Survivor and Hillsong have given continuing expression.

Along the way, we’ve sung the best and groaned at the rest; thus it was in the beginning, is now and forever more shall be!

But let me suggest some hallmarks of the best of sung worship:

1. God-centered.

Flick through a decent hymnbook (remember those?) and the opening lines of so many hymns and songs that address God will strike you: “Dear Lord and Father of mankind…”, “O Jesus I have promised…”. “Holy Spirit, come confirm us, in the truth that Christ makes known.”

Not all material is as explicitly directed at God. Many are declaratory, but what they declare is unswervingly focused on the nature of God and his saving works: “I know that my Redeemer lives…” and “The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.”

And so many of today’s songs tick this box so well. Phil Wickham’s “This is Amazing Grace” is but one example.

2. Storytelling.

Perhaps evoking a more distant age when stories were passed on orally, many hymns are great storytelling moments.

Christmas carols are the best examples, but others are those that relate the narratives of crucifixion and resurrection: “O Sacred head sore wounded…” through to “Jesus Christ is risen today…”

Visitors to our churches, and dare I say some of our church members, are not familiar with the biblical stories. There is a lack of confidence in picking up a Bible for fear of embarrassment.

That needs to be addressed separately, but singing can be a wonderful storytelling tool.

3. With one voice.

Worship singing is a congregational enterprise. There is something deeply mysterious and strangely life-enhancing in the act of singing with others.

It is a different language of sorts, and it ties people together and magnifies, both acoustically and conceptually, the deepest beliefs we hold together.

Some old hymns failed at this point for their words became meaningless over time, and some new songs fail too.

But congregations know that complex songs with unpredictable structures or terrible lyrics are not conducive to congregational participation: “Oh I feel like dancing. It’s foolishness, I know.” Good grief!

4. Singing as ministry.

Sung worship is powerfully evangelistic when undertaken as a united act. In today’s atomized world, people rarely experience community. In many parts of the country, you won’t be chatting much to your neighbors, assuming you even know their names.

Relationships are often more superficial (especially for men) and people easily experience a longing for something deeper. To find yourself in a crowd of people in harmony (literally, we hope) and focused on God can have a powerful impact.

Pastors and worship leaders should see sung worship as part of the evangelistic ministry of the church, and when they do, they will understand that “getting it right” is less to do with musical competence and more about effective ministry.

5. Poetic.

My early worship experience was shaped by language that was poetic. I have no problem with singing “Great is your…” rather than “Great is thy faithfulness,” though I am not persuaded of the merits of contemporizing language for the sake of it.

But this isn’t about Thee and Thou, it’s about allowing words to help us soar to places of wonder: “O Lord of every shining constellation / That wheels in splendor through the midnight sky / Grant us your Spirit’s true illumination / To read the secrets of your work on high.”

Chris Tomlin’s “Indescribable” captures this brilliantly: “Who has told every lightning bolt where it should go, or seen heavenly storehouses laden with snow.”

The best songs, whether spiritual, rock or soul will use poetry. Not for nothing was Bob Dylan given the Nobel Prize for literature.

Worship writers with the word “yeah” in the lyrics haven’t tried hard enough.

6. Missional.

Lastly, worship should be deeply missional.

Singer-songwriter Keith Getty recently lamented the absence of mission-themed hymns. How many could we easily name beyond “Facing a Task Unfinished” and “Go Forth and Tell”?

As fewer people come forward for long-term mission service, I wonder if we’re still preaching the Great Commission but wonder too whether we’re stirring the heart as well as the mind.

One thing is sure: The church is indebted to generations of great writers, from Isaac Watts, Frances Ridley Havergal and Fanny Crosby to Stuart Townend, Keith and Kristen Getty and Darlene Zschech.

No generation has a monopoly of great worship material.

David Kerrigan is general director of BMS World Mission. A version of this article first appeared in Issue 1 2017 edition of Mission Catalyst, where other articles on this theme may also be found. It is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidKerrigan3.

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