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Should worship be authentic? It depends on what you mean

Unsplash/Lampos Aritonang
Unsplash/Lampos Aritonang

One of the fundamental assumptions in modern Evangelical worship is an emphasis upon authenticity in worship. This comes in several different forms, but it often manifests itself in an insistence that whatever expressions of worship are most natural and “real” to a given worshipper are by their very nature, therefore, acceptable. The implication is also that someone can’t really worship God unless he or she is able to do so in a way that is truly “authentic” to them.

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 if by that one means worship that is not fake or hypocritical. But on the other hand, I object to the way in which this word is most often used regarding worship and the kinds of implications it is used to defend.

Defining terms

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The issue really comes down to a couple of different definitions of the word, “authenticity.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary, which has chosen the term “authentic” as the 2023 word of the year, gives the following two definitions of the term:

  1. Not false or imitation; real, actual
  2. True to one’s own personality, spirit, or character

If the definition one uses when arguing for authentic worship is the first one, 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 (Matt 15:8). God desires sincere worship (Heb 10:22) that follows his commands.

However, it's 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. I cannot worship, the argument says, unless I can do so with expressions that are true to me, those with which I am personally comfortable and that are part of my culture and preferences.

David de Bruyn deals with this issue helpfully in his new book, The War on Words: Ten Words Every Christian Should Fight For, but I would like to explore several problems with this way of thinking here.

‘Authentic’ expressions are often sinful

First, “authentic” expressions defined this way are often sinful. Since culture is human behavior, and all human behavior is moral (i.e., either good or evil), then the possibility that someone’s “authentic” expression is sinful is quite real.

Furthermore, since the Bible teaches that every person is totally depraved (Gen 6:5, Eph 4:17–19), the way any person naturally expresses himself could be sinful. 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 expresses himself in worship.

Now of course, when we are talking about authentic worship, we are talking about professing Christians. Some might 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 been made new (2 Cor 5:17). They are no longer slaves to sin (Rom 6:17–18). The Holy Spirit indwells them (Rom 8:9–11).

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 with the influences of remaining depravity. Paul himself testified to such struggles in Romans 7:15–25.

Even believers cannot fully trust their own judgments and expressions without clear guidance from God. True, the Holy Spirit indwells believers, but this does not mean a Christian automatically makes right decisions or naturally worships in an acceptable way (Heb 12:28). The Holy Spirit sanctifies us through His Word and by giving us wisdom to rightly apply it to our lives and make decisions that are pleasing to Him. 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.

Acceptable worship is not natural; it must be learned.

Second, the common Evangelical view of worship assumes that acceptable worship will come naturally to all Christians. They assume that a new Christian will instinctively know how to worship acceptably, and therefore his natural impulses are the best guide. In fact, on this reasoning, unbelievers know how to worship as well; they only need to change their beliefs and the object of their worship, and then whatever expressions are natural to them are acceptable.

Yet 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 God acceptably. Many people assume that worship comes naturally — that Christians should just worship with whatever expressions are most comfortable to them. But if Scripture 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 public worship. Those with more Christian maturity structure worship in such a way that it shapes the worshipers’ expressions and teaches them how to worship God acceptably.

The need for ‘my expression’ is self-centered individualism rather than biblical thinking.

This leads to the next problem with an emphasis on “authenticity” in worship: this insistence that “I need to express my faith with my expressions in my own authentic way” is based more on post-Enlightenment individualism than upon the biblical emphasis on community and the unity of the body. Constant clamoring for “new” and “fresh” is not a biblical perspective — biblical Christianity is old and stable. The insistence that each new generation, for example, needs new expressions that are authentic to them is one that comes from a self-focus and the cultural realities of a post-Enlightenment and post-Industrial Revolution Western mindset.

With music in particular, 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. 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.

I am certainly not arguing against new music; far from it. But we must recognize that anything new we produce 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 cultivation that tradition.

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

The bottom line is that the standard of acceptable worship can never be self. We need a standard outside of ourselves by which we measure the acceptability of our worship. Rather than focusing on personal preference or cultural norms as the ultimate standard of authentic worship, truly authentic worship is that which conforms to God’s standards.

This is reflected in the third dictionary entry for “authenticity”:  "worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact; conforming to an original so as to reproduce essential features."

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

Originally published at G3 Ministries. 

Scott Aniol, PhD, is Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of G3 Ministries. In addition to his role with G3, Scott is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary in Conway, Arkansas. He lectures around the world in churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries, and he has authored several books and dozens of articles. You can find more, including publications and speaking itinerary, at Scott and his wife, Becky, have four children: Caleb, Kate, Christopher, and Caroline. You can listen to his podcast here.

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