Why do we worship? Not “we” as in some abstracted notion of the people of God but “we” as individuals. Do we worship to be made to feel good or do we worship as a response to the being and work of a holy God, and thereby conform ourselves (and understand our experiences and feelings) in light of that God? Unless it is the latter then we are allowing our own complicity in expressive individualism to drive our worship.
There is a real danger for Christians as they assess many modern developments regarding the human person—whether matters of sex and sexuality, abortion, euthanasia, or simply what we might call the generally self-centered nature of modern consumerist life. That danger is the one committed by the Pharisee in the Temple, the one who uttered the words, “I thank you, Lord, that I am not like other men.” That prayer immediately set him apart from his contemporaries and exempted him, at least in his own eyes, from the moral problems of his age.
Expressive Individualism in Contemporary Worship
If expressive individualism is the typical way in which people think of themselves and their relationship to the world, then Christians must understand that they too are deeply implicated. We can no more abstract ourselves from our social and cultural context, and the intuitions that our context cultivates, than we can leave our bodies and float to the moon. Indeed, our first thought must not be that of the Pharisee but rather that of the disciples when Jesus told them that one of them would betray him, “Is it I, Lord?” Such an approach will not only reflect and reinforce appropriate humility; it may also help to free us just a little from the culture that surrounds us. To know how the world encourages us to think and live will equip us to resist it.
Simply put, expressive individualism pervades modern Christian life. Those of us who attend churches with a traditionalist worship aesthetic would likely point to modern praise songs and worship styles as evidence for this. Many Christians view worship as a time to “express themselves”; in doing so, they highlight the benefits of “spontaneity,” or musical arrangements that play to the emotions, or lyrics that focus on first-person-singular feelings. This is low-hanging fruit to make the case that modern Christianity is deeply shaped by expressive individualism.
While the expression of feelings in worship is certainly not wrong—the Psalms are replete with such—the focus on emotions too often becomes an end in itself rather than a stage on the road to bringing those feelings into conformity with God’s Word. The inner psychological state of the psalmist is always ultimately to be interpreted through the grid of God’s revelation. Even Psalm 88, the bleakest psalm with the most painful expressions of desolation, addresses God at the start by his covenant name. The despair is still to be set within the context of God’s covenant commitment to his people. In the world of expressive individualism, however, the truth of emotions is found not in their conformity to God’s revelation but in the sincerity of their expression. When that characterizes a worship song, whether in terms of lyrics or music, it is highly problematic.
So there are legitimate grounds for seeing expressive individualism in contemporary worship.
But the situation is more subtle than that, and worship traditionalists do not have legitimate cause to reach for the words of the pharisee’s prayer simply because they are traditionalists.