Saturday, July 21, 2012

Music in the Church

While I'm no young buck, I'm certainly not an old man either.  In my experience within the church, having grown up with a father who was a pastor, I have seen my fair share of disagreements within the church.  Over my nearly 40 years of life, my over 8 years as a pastor, and my decades of experience within the church, among the most hotly debated topics within the church is the topic of music.  If you want to see someone get worked up and passionate about something, tell them you're changing the music style in your church.  Remember Wolverine with his adamantium claws?  Yeah, that's pretty much what comes out when the "discussion" starts.

Every time that I think that this topic has been put to bed, one more person opens the closet door and drags it out.  It just seems like we can't get past it.  Everyone's arguing that their style is the best or only way and hurling the most overgeneralized insults at those in opposition.  It's not so much a conversation as much as a debate or, even worse, an all out war.  In fact, the term "worship wars" has been thrown around on more than one occasion.

Recently, a gentleman decided to write a blogpost that reignited the whole debate and got many of my Facebook friends reposting his thoughts.  While it wasn't a video and probably nowhere near the criteria necessary to go viral, it somewhat felt that way as threads of comments lined the walls of my friends, evoking passionate responses for those who have dug their heals in on one side or another of this debate.  The link to the blogpost is:

The beauty of the internet and blogs is that we have the opportunity to throw thoughts and statements out with little relational connection to the readers.  That can be a strength or a weakness.  There are some who throw their thoughts onto a screen to be projected throughout cyberspace with no intention of listening to comments or feedback that comes back to them for those thoughts.  I don't get the impression that this gentleman is one of those people as he's opened up the blog for comments and has even graciously agreed to post some guest postings next week in response to his original post.

The greatest problem that I see with his post is his overgeneralization.  Any time you use the words "all" or "every," you are in danger of making a blanket statement that will inevitably be refuted by some exception somewhere.  While I have been guilty of this same thing in the past, I think I'm beginning to get the picture and learn my lesson.  His 3 generalizations regarding modern worship music were that they're really, really simplistic, they're all pulled from the latest Top 40 Worship channel, and they repeat.

Anytime that I find myself questioning tradition, theology, or anything else, I go back to the source from which I derive my ideology, my theology, and my worldview, the Bible.  I say that with hesitation because words on a page without inflections or tones can tend to be misconstrued.  The reality is that, as a follower of Christ, what I know about God has been revealed to me through His written word, the Bible, and his incarnate word, Jesus Christ.  When in doubt, those are the two things that I need to constantly keep in view.  As Hebrews 12:2 says, "fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith."

With that in mind, I thought I would do a more in depth search of what Scripture says.  As a "worship guy" within the church, this is in my wheelhouse.  The words that this man posted hit close to home and I wanted to search for myself.  Mind you, this isn't the first time that I've done this.  Years ago, sensing this debate coming to a head within my own church, I created a curriculum on worship called, "Touching Heaven, Changing Earth" (inspired by Darlene Zschech) that I used to teach those under my leadership about worship, biblically and historically.

The three criticisms seemed somewhat humorous to me as I read them.  Simple.  Popular.  Repetitive.  To be honest, I can't see anything wrong with those characteristics.  Of course, everything in moderation, right?  But what does the Bible say regarding these things?

The Bible calls us to worship the Lord over and over again.  We are told to sing to the Lord, lift our hands to Him, sing new songs, lift up His name, and many other requests and even mandates.  But little is said about the content of these things.  Of course, we have an entire book within the canon of Scripture devoted to singing to the Lord, but the Israelites were a singing and worshiping people and the story of God's people is well populated with examples.

In Exodus 15, the Israelites had just been rescued from the brink of death at the hands of the Egyptians.  The majority of the chapter is devoted to the song of Moses and Miriam, a song of thanks to God for protecting them and sparing their lives.  It's basically a story that was set to music.  So, Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan, if they wrote about God's provisions for them, could actually fulfill this criteria.

In 1 Chronicles 16, the ark of the Lord, the very presence of God, was brought before King David.  As the Israelites worshiped, they are told to use the song that David gives them.  Again, it seems that much of it is the story of God, how He has shown his faithfulness to His people.  Praise Him.  Proclaim His name.  Make Him known.  Sing to Him.  Glory in His name.

None of it is deeply theological from a lyrical perspective.  It's a simple re-telling of what God has done.  This is what gets me, over and over again in Scripture, I see the children of God being called to sing to Him, to praise Him, to lift up His holy name, but nowhere does it say, "Thou shalt use deep theology."  Will we be theological in our singing and worshiping the Lord?  Of course, but does that mean that we need to fulfill a certain extra-biblical requirement?

The history of the Church is a history that is replete with theological arguments.  Many of the creeds and confessions of the church were birthed in response to a particular theological divergence.  But nowhere are we called to clarify or defend our theology the way that these documents do.  Don't get me wrong, I think that they're great and helpful reminders to us of what we believe, but they are not necessary, nor are they biblically mandated.

The writer of this blog wrote, "Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure the theology in some of those camp songs was more advanced than the ones I’ve heard in some of your services."  I can't disagree, but what requirement are we trying to fulfill?  Where is the biblical requirement to be theologically deep within the music that we sing?

Philippians 2 may be the greatest biblical example of a theologically rich hymn.  There has been scholarly debate as to whether or not the hymn was Pauline or whether he had borrowed it from another source.  Regardless of that debate, the words that Paul writes are still fairly simple.  They tell a story, just like the praise songs that are recorded in the history of Israel.

We are a storied people, our experience defines and shapes us to be who we are, to think what we think.  Some of the greatest hymns are stories.  "It Is Well With My Soul" comes to mind and I can't help but think of the words of Horatio Spafford and the tragedy from which these words emerged.  "Amazing Grace" is another example of words embedded in story.  From a modern perspective, "Heart of Worship" is a great example.  If you don't know the story of how Matt Redman came to write that song, look it up, Google it.

Another of the writer's criticisms is the repetitive nature of modern worship songs.  Have you seen biblical examples like Psalm 118, where phrases are repeated over and over again.  Growing up, my dad did a sermon series in Proverbs for a very long time, long enough for me to ask him when he was finally going to move on to something else.  His response was, "I'll stop preaching it when we all start living it."  The same could possibly be said about the repetitiveness of songs, we'll stop singing them when we really start believing them.

Many modern worship songs are founded in Scripture.  Matt Redman's "Let My Words Be Few" is based on Ecclesiastes 5:2.  Hillsong's "Made Me Glad" is based on Psalm 144:2, among other Psalms.  Charlie Hall's "Marvelous Light" comes from 1 Peter 2:9.  There are many hymns that are founded in Scripture as well, but the author of the blogpost was not necessarily criticizing hymns.

The blogger's three requests for modern worship songs were that they be truthful, written for adults, and timeless.  I have no problem at all with the first one.  Written for adults?  Really?  Didn't Jesus say, "Let the little children come to me" and to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven you must have faith like a child?  Is there really something wrong with simplicity?  Yes, we need to move deeper in our relationship with Christ, but sometimes, simple is better.  After a week of Vacation Bible School, my kids were singing so many of the songs that I made them a CD for the car.  Were they the most theologically diverse and rich songs in the world?  No, but my 3 and 5 year old boys are singing them and, to me, that's a good thing.

When I think about my relationship with my wife, I don't fill every statement or compliment that I give to her with a treatise of why I love her, how I love her, or all of the characteristics that I love about her.  Sometimes the simple phrase, "I love you" is enough to encompass all of that.  Why must we be so complex in our expression of praise and glory to God?  Is it to make sure everyone else knows who we're worshiping?  If so, we need to refocus on the fact that we are not worshiping for anyone else, only for God.

Timeless.  Now that's an interesting word.  It honestly gets thrown around today the same way that "epic" gets thrown around.  Don't even get me started about these high budget movies that brand themselves as "Epic" even before they've been viewed by audiences.  Cecil deMille...need I say more?  But timeless?  Why?  The Bible calls us to sing a new song.  That might mean that we only sing it once.  It might mean that it's short-lived, but it's still supposed to be new.  Are we honestly going to toss away everything that isn't timeless?  If it contains Scripture, according to my Bible, it's timeless, because the Word of God is timeless.  Just because it can't be steeped within your own nostalgic record does not mean that it's irrelevant or worthless.

I feel like this whole post would be incomplete if I did not add my own suggestions moving forward.  Here are what I would term "action steps" for those of us to whom this subject means a lot.

Remember who worship is for - Each and every one of us is selfish, no matter how we mask it.  Selfishness is at the heart of the fall of humanity.  We are called to glorify God, our worship is for Him.  As much as we all like our own styles and have our own preferences, we need to realize two things: we are worshiping God and just because a style doesn't suit us doesn't mean it's wrong.  As much as we want to appeal to people to make worship singable and memorable, it still needs to be for the Lord.
Be theologically informed - In my response to someone's posting of the original blogpost on Facebook, I said that there are plenty of crummy hymns, worship songs, and worship leaders.  Part of why I have toiled and labored to get my Master's of Divinity degree is because I think that we need to be theologically informed, especially if we are leading people.  But the onus does not lay solely on those who lead, all of us need to be theologically informed.  If you are using Sunday morning worship services to get all of your teaching and theology, you're doing something wrong.  If you find something that seems to be theologically contradictory, follow the Matthew 18 model of confrontation.  In a world of social media, it's hard to do, but it's biblical.  Remember though, simplistic does not mean theologically incorrect.
Be diverse - Here's the one that I need to work on most.  I am always listening to new music, but I also get together with some of our more temporally mature members to sing hymns once a month.  There are enough good hymns to choose from that can be used corporately in any setting, I need to remember that, and so do all of us.  At the same time, there are plenty of modern songs that speak just as effectively, don't be afraid of them.  A few bad apples shouldn't spoil the bunch, from either perspective.  Crummy hymns don't make them all bad nor do crummy worship songs make them all bad.

I would be glad to hear comments from you.  While I have tried to be free of generalizations, I'm human and fallible, so therefore prone to error.  Whatever you do, in word or deed, in sermon or in song, do it to the glory of God.  Selah.

Just for those who may be interested, here is a list of other Scriptures that give us a clear mandate to worship or sing to the Lord:
- 1 Chronicles 16:23, 33
- 2 Chronicles 5:13; 20:21
- Psalm 7:17; 13:6; 33:1; 68:5; 95:1; 96:1-2; 98:1; 104:33; 147:7; 149:1
- Isaiah 12:5; 42:10
- Ephesians 5:19


  1. Jon, I agree with your take on this. As a child I worshiped singing choruses - very charismatic. I attended a Wesleyan college and sang the hymns to a pipe organ. When the focus is on God and not self, and the theology is sound, it doesn't matter what the style.

    I recently listened to a message by Alistair Begg on the Lord's Prayer. In it he said something that so struck me. A paraphrase: when you go to church you need to not think "what will I get out of this?" "I wonder if they'll play songs I like" "I hope the sermon is about a subject that speaks to me" Instead we need to enter church by saying "God, I pray that YOU are glorified." When our focus is on the glory of the Lord and not on our own need to feel good, the tenor of worship changes and the specific methods of worship matter less.

    Thanks for your thoughtful additions to the discussion.

  2. Thank you! You have put into words what I often feel is lacking in the whole worship music debate. We DO generalize, we DO throw out the whole crop because of one or two bad apples. So often, in the debate, we are simply looking to our own preferences and traditions instead of really seeking what God has asked for and even required of us. I appreciate your thoughtful progression through this topic and I especially appreciate the way you began and ended your post with Scripture and humility.