Theology in Praise Choruses?
If you read my blog regularly, you have probably discovered that one of my favorite things to study is lyrical theology. I love to think through the words of Christian songs, breaking down their theological content and discovering what value they have in the worship of the Church. For the most part, the blog posts I have written center on the lyrics to hymns, such as my latest post, “Dissecting a Thousand Tongues.” In a recent facebook discussion, someone asked, “Could as much theology be unpacked from a praise chorus like ‘Come, Now is the Time to Worship’?” This is a great question, especially as contemporary songs tend to be criticized often for their lack of theological content.
Since the question has been raised and an example given, let us take a few moments to consider what theological content and benefit to the church is there in the praise song, “Come, Now is the Time to Worship.”
Compared to a Charles Wesley hymn, a song like “Come, Now is the Time to Worship” is quite short and simple. It only has two stanzas which when sung often get repeated over and over again. Yet, even though there are only eight lines of text, there is still much to ponder theologically.
The Importance of Gathering
In his book, Planning Blended Worship, Robert Webber breaks down the structure of a Christian worship service into four parts: Gathering, Word, Table/Response, Sending. Perhaps I will look at each of these parts of a Christian worship service in a later post. For now, I want to focus specifically on the Gathering.
Webber begins his chapter on the Gathering fold of worship with this line: “Worship always begins with an ascent into the presence of God.” In other words, as we come together in Christian worship there is (or should be) a movement toward a heavenly realm of worship where we encounter the glory of God’s presence. Or as Alexander Schmemmann’s puts it, worship moves us into the very real Kingdom of God present on this earth.
Worship begins with acts that assemble the people of God and narrate their journey into the presence of God. The gathering orders the experience of the worshiper. This is exactly the purpose of the song, “Come, Now is the Time to Worship.” Consider the first part of the chorus:
Come, now is the time to worship.
Come, now is the time to give your heart.
Come, just as you are to worship.
Come, just as you are before your God.
The call in the song is clear: come and join God’s people in their ascent to a heavenly place. And the call is to do it right now. As the people of God convene before the throne, they invite you to join in the assembly, lending your voice and heart to the worship of God.
This same idea is clear in the scriptures, specifically in Psalms 120-134, which are known as the Psalms of Ascent. The Psalms of Ascent were psalms sung by the ancient Israelites on their pilgrimages to worship at the Temple. The reason the collection of psalms is called the Psalms of Ascent is twofold: In a very literal sense, the Israelites had to “ascend” a mountain to reach the Temple; In a more spiritual significance, this collection of psalms focused on a movement from worldly concerns to heavenly praise. Worship for the Israelites had a destination – the Temple. This is why Psalm 121 begins with the statement, “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’”
In the same manner, Christian worship has a destination – the Kingdom. Our acts and words of worship help move us and focus us toward that end. In worship, we get a glimpse heaven. I believe this thought is captured in the next section of the song, “Come, Now is the Time to Worship”:
One day every tongue will confess You are God
One day every knee will bow
But the greatest treasure remains for those
Who gladly choose You now
In these lines, we see both the anticipatory nature of worship and the present reality of worship. The first half of the lines anticipate the final truth of what worship will be as they allude to Philippians 2:10-11 – at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. The second half reminds us that we don’t have to wait; we can join in that heavenly chorus of praise right now through the worship of the Church. Thus, the song serves as a call to come worship, serving the same purpose as many short, spoken liturgies that begin services of worship in more high-church settings.
Look Who’s Talking
If we understand the song as a call to worship, then it is important to understand who is doing the calling.
The most obvious speaker in this song is the Church. As the Church gathers to ascend to the presence of God, it invites all people to join. This is not unlike what Isaiah writes about the glory of God arising on Israel in Isaiah 60: “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you… Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look about you: All assemble and come to you.”
In “Come, Now is the Time to Worship,” the Church claims Isaiah’s sentiment as truth – As God’s glory rises in worship, we invite all people to come just as they are to give their hearts and bow before the Lord.
Though the Church’s voice is a clear one in the song, I believe there is another speaker to consider in this text. Perhaps we can also look at the song as an invitation from the Holy Spirit. In other words, maybe the song serves as God’s invitation for his Church to come before him in worship. It is God who calls us, through his Holy Spirit, to journey to his throne by bursting forth in prayer and praise.
God’s call is for us to come to him and give ourselves fully to him. There is a great treasure to be found when we do. Our singing of song like, “Come, Now is the Time to Worship” is our acceptance of the invitation and also our way of joining in God’s song, proclaiming his desire for the world. And there is something beautiful in the idea that God extends to us a means of grace through worship by which we are able to join in God’s declaration to world.