What is important about a corporate worship service is not just what is said from the pulpit or the doctrine of the hymns, for there are aspects of Christian piety that are inarticulable…much of Christian piety is learned only through doing; as Mark Twain once quipped, “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.”
Last week I mentioned the fact that there has been a resurgence of sorts in recent times of emphasis on the disciple-forming power of gospel-shaped worship. What has not yet been recovered in my opinion is a recognition of the disciple-forming power of Scripture-formed music. In fact, both Bryan Chapell and Mike Cospers explicitly deny music’s formative role. While they argue that the narrative arc of liturgy is formative, aesthetic forms within the liturgy like music are neutral and relative.
On the contrary, I suggest that since Scripture is itself expressed through various aesthetic forms, what kinds of poetic and aesthetic expressions God chose to use in the communication of his truth in Scripture should inform the kinds of contemporary musical expressions Christians produce as they communicate the gospel and disciple believers into acceptable worshipers of God. What is important about a corporate worship service is not just what is said from the pulpit or the doctrine of the hymns, for there are aspects of Christian piety that are inarticulable; as I have argued, much of Christian piety is learned only through doing; as Mark Twain once quipped, “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.”
That is what liturgy is—it is learning through doing, and that is what art is—the purpose of art is to incarnate values, and we experience those values as we participate in the art. This is the power of aesthetics, and so my argument extends beyond the shape of the liturgy itself to the other aesthetic forms employed in corporate worship. The liturgies and art forms of Christian worship embody and form certain aspects of Christian discipleship in a way that nothing else can. Just like Scripture-formed liturgies are what will transform us into mature followers of Christ, so it’s not just any songs, but Scripture-formed songs that will accomplish Christian formation.
In contrast to other recent authors, Jamie Smith explicitly argues this in his trilogy and You Are What You Love. In these works, he addresses both “(1) the overall narrative arc of a service of Christian worship and (2) the concrete, received practices that constitute elements of that enacted narrative.” As to the former, Smith suggests following historic Christian tradition in which “the practices of Christian worship reflect the plot line of the gospel, that the lineaments of Christian worship rehearse the story line of Scripture.” As to the latter, Smith argues we must concern ourselves not just with the “what of Christian worship,” that is, the content, but “also the how,” that is, the poetics. Smith is worth quoting at length here because I would like to develop and build on his argument, extending it a bit further. He argues,