There is a well-established tradition as to how academic theologians deal with contemporary worship music. You first decry the theological poverty of the music, then point to the traditional liturgy as the perfection of doxological theology, then express a wish that the music was more like the liturgy.
Allow me to dissent from the tradition somewhat.
Starting at the end, ‘the traditional liturgy’ strikes me as a deeply problematic concept. There are many different liturgical traditions, each instantiating different theological concerns. For some reason, theologians from a broadly evangelical background (who tend to be the ones decrying contemporary worship music, on account of the fact that they have encountered it) tend to point to Anglican liturgies for proper doxological theology. With all due respect, every Anglican liturgy ever promulgated is, as far as I can see, a theologically-incoherent political compromise between Catholic and Reformed traditions (not excluding the Book of Common Prayer, which when published offered a liturgy judged so poor that something like a third of Anglican clergy resigned their ministries rather than use it – OK, I know it wasn’t quite that simple, but…)
At the other end, is there any serious theological vision in contemporary worship music? Let me take an example, Matt Redman’s FaceDown album. I choose this partly because I know it quite well, and partly because it is, more or less, a live recording of a worship event, and so might be expected to display whatever coherence can be found in this tradition.
The CD begins with ‘Praise Awaits You,’ a song of approach addressed to God, asserting the people are gathered with the intention of worshiping, and are now ready to worship. Already, however, worship is understood as a response to God’s action, a continual theme of the album. Thus, the gathered, ready people cannot yet worship: they come and wait for God’s initiative (‘O Lord open our lips / And our mouths shall proclaim your praise’ – if you must).
The next two songs then acknowledge and name the divine action that makes worship possible. First, atonement (‘Nothing but the blood’: ‘Your cross testifies to grace, tells of the Father’s heart, to make a way for us…’), and then revelation (‘Seeing You’: ‘No one can sing of things they have not seen – open our eyes towards a greater glimpse, the glory of you…’). Worship is now possible, but only as a response to God’s initiative, so the next track, ‘Gifted Response,’ acknowledges this explicitly: ‘This is a gifted response, Father we cannot come to you by our own merit. We will come in the name of your Son…’ The first song of explicit worship, ‘Dancing Generation,’ echoes the gifts of God that enable worship: atonement (‘Your mercy taught us how to dance…’) and revelation (‘Your glory taught us how to shout…’), both re-affirmed in the bridge (‘It’s the overflow of a forgiven soul, and now we’ve seen you Lord, our hearts cannot stay silent…’)
In the narrative of the music, the experience of worship immediately leads to a desire for the deepening of the experience of God. In language strangely reminiscent of accounts of the ascent of the soul in the medieval mystical tradition, there is prayer for a more comprehensive sight of God (‘Pure Light’: ‘And through grace untold to see you, with this heart unveiled to know you, Lord in your pure light…’). The granting of this prayer leads to a further response of worship (‘Worthy, you are Worthy’) and to the central moment of the CD, the title track:
Welcomed in to the courts of the King
I’ve been ushered in to Your presence
Lord, I stand on Your merciful ground
Yet with every step tread with reverence
And I’ll fall facedown
As your glory shines around…
This is followed by a further reminder that all worship depends on God’s prevenient action, ‘Breathing the Breath’: ‘We have nothing to give that didn’t first come from your hands. We have nothing to offer you which you did not provide.’ Then the music moves into a pair of songs that serve as dismissal: an affirmation (‘Mission’s Flame’) that worship must result in action: ‘Let worship be the fuel for mission’s flame. We’re going with a passion for your name…’ and also can provide a motive for mission: ‘Let worship be the heart of mission’s aim – to see the nations recognise your fame, till every tribe and tongue voices your praise, send us out.’ Finally, ‘If I have not love’ borrows from 1 Cor 13:1-3 to affirm that the ultimate result of a vision of God must be an increase of love, for God and for God’s creatures: ‘the overflow of hearts as we gaze upon your beauty…’
We might criticise this for a lack of any account of the Trinitarian shape of worship, but I think that would be unfair. It happens it is there, albeit in passing: ‘We will come in the name of your Son, as He glorifies You, and in the power of Your Spirit’ (‘Gifted Response,’ v. 1); more significantly, however, it is not clear to me that good worship needs an explicit account of its theological underpinnings.
What is there here? There is a very strong and constantly-repeated stress that approach to God is possible only because of God’s prevenient action, spelt out here as atonement and revelation. The experience of worship is understood through a journey metaphor, a journey of approach towards God, an experience of God which leads to transformation, and then dismissal to do God’s work in the world. The most distinctive aspect of the doxological theology here is the emphasis on sight: seeing God, experiencing God’s glory, is at the heart of this movement of worship. As I noted above, this is very reminiscent of a particular mystical tradition (I suppose unconsciously; it may be that Matt and Beth Redman are reading the medieval mystics and/or the Eastern hesychasts, but I doubt it).
I’m not going to claim that this is theologically brilliant or perfect; but you could go a long way and find much worse. Academic sneering is, I contest, foolish and misplaced.