Music is something I know quite a bit about — especially when it comes to music in the church. I’m that gifted church pianist/vocalist you hear every Sunday morning. I’ve used this gift in traditional settings and in contemporary praise bands….including one ‘professional’ band at a large local megachurch. So when I speak about music in the church, I can honestly say that I have many years of experience in this field.
Over the years, as I’ve put together personal sets of music or participated in a more collective group of musicians, I’ve had much time to reflect on the purpose of music in a worship service. It’s been a long and tedious journey for me, full of ups and downs, joys and heartaches. Let me explain.
I grew up in a traditional Southern Baptist Church where we sang the great hymns of the Arminian world. There was a magnificent, large choir with grand piano and organ. Music was very important in this church — at least, the presentation of the music was important. My high school years arrived and so did the beginning of the Jesus Movement (funneled through the Calvary Chapel movement), which began to influence the church at large with its simple, guitar-driven praise songs.
It started innocently enough. In those days, praise songs still had biblical content in them, such as simple songs like “Create in Me a Clean Heart”. Straight out of Psalm 51. Lovely.
But things slowly changed. It wasn’t an immediate, stark change. It wasn’t even easily recognizable. Oh, you always had the complainers from the traditional church who would gripe at anything new….just because it was new and they were not used to it. Now I wonder if all of them should have been labeled as “complainers.”
A gradual shift in ideology began to emerge. The church began to embrace post-modern thoughts and ideologies, which not only molded the use of appropriate music in church, but began to erode sound, biblical theology in the evangelical church at large. Our culture began to influence the criteria for worship services. New instruments were introduced in the worship service. New technology, such as big screens, computers, and booming sound systems began to replace the traditional piano/organ arrangement. (Note that I do not have problems with instruments in the church. However, I do have a problem with how and why they are used.)
Ever so slowly, the lyrics began to change. Instead of being God-centered songs, they evolved into me-centered songs. “I” will do this, Lord. Help “me”, Lord. “I” love you, Lord. I…….I…….I…….I……I……I. Me….Me…..Me…..Me…..Me…..Me. Shoved aside were the magnificent lyrics of the past that focused on God, our great Creator God, as the center of our worship. A Mighty Fortress is our God; Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord Almighty; There is Fountain Filled With Blood, Drawn from Immanuel’s Veins; The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ, Her Lord.
The justification for this shift focused on church attendance. Well, if we don’t become like the world, we won’t attract people and grow, will we? Our worship must be cutting edge if we are to bring in more people, right? Surely, our purpose is to grow? It’s our job to save, isn’t it? Our faith has to be relevant or it’s not real, right?
Nothing could be further from the truth. The contemporary church has gotten it all mixed up and has sadly garbled the gospel message in the midst of its own confusion. Now before you say I’m outdated and antiquated, I will vehemently defend myself and say, that’s just not the case. I know what’s out there. Today, I just choose to ignore most of it — and for very good reasons.
Let me give you an example. This contemporary praise song, called “How He Loves Us” by Jesus Culture is a perfect choice to explain the difference between offering appropriate and acceptable praise to God through music and offering inappropriate praise to God. Contemporary churches today love this song…..and many more just like it. That’s the thing about contemporary praise songs. They are all the same.
He is jealous for me
Love’s like a hurricane, I am a tree
Bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy
When all of a sudden, I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory
and I realize just how beautiful You are and how great your affections are for me.
So we are His portion and He is our prize,
Drawn to redemption by the grace in His eyes
If grace is an ocean we’re all sinking
So heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss
and my heart turns violently inside of my chest
I don’t have time to maintain these regrets when I think about the way
Yes, there are some slight truths found in this selection, but they scarce and are masked by phrases like “So heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss…” Seriously? We want to sing about sloppy wet kisses to God? The God of the Universe? The Holy God? The Sovereign God? Is that the kind of thing we want to sing to our Triune God?
God is a prize? What could you possibly ever do to merit such a great God to save you? The gospel says you can do nothing. God does it all.
Grace isn’t an ocean. It’s the means God has used to bestow favor upon those whom He loves — those whom He has called. We aren’t drawn to redemption by the grace in His eyes. We are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, who sacrificed His life on the cross to atone for the sins of man. Redemption is for the called of God whom He knew before the foundation of the world.
Can you see how this song focuses on “me?” I wish I knew the correct percentages of contemporary songs that make this grave error. My guess is that it is at least over 90 percent. And don’t think I’m picking only on contemporary music. Take the old hymn, “In the Garden,” for instance. While it’s a famous tune that those of Baptistic origin love to sing, think about the lyrics. I come to the garden alone…while the dew is still on the roses. Really? It sounds like the background music to a movie soundtrack. You know, the song they play during that really romantic love scene?
I have always cared deeply about sound theology. Thus, it is no surprise that over the years my heart began to grieve deeply at the loss of solid, biblically-based music in the church (and in sermons, as well). Even though my participation in the contemporary church music was innocent and well-intentioned, something began to nag me. It wouldn’t go away and continued to flame. It stirred from something deep within — very deep within.
It finally took that large megachurch experience to break me. By participating in five services each weekend with the count-down clock engaged for the perfect entrance, I realized that music in the church has, in many ways, become idolatrous. Every time I stood up on that stage, cameras focused on my hands, smoke machine running full blast, lights perfectly set for the ‘mood’ — I began to see the idolatry of what I was doing. I began to feel the idolatry even in my own heart and life. For instance, people in the foyer were afraid to talk to those of us in the band. It was like we were placed so high up on this idolatrous platform of admiration that few felt they could speak to us as a human being.
Imagine the revelation I experienced when God opened my eyes! My sinful heart tried to reassure me that surely I was helping others to worship! Yet, the truth could not be masked. The truth was that I was helping them to participate in an idolatrous act, where ‘worship’ had become focused on ‘me’ instead of God. And indeed, I was participating in idolatry, also. The words of Exodus 20 could not be more clear….
I know that there will be some who read this and will toss it aside in disgust. Those who do will be the ones who really do not understand true worship — appropriate worship — acceptable worship. For instance, worship is not just music! Yet, how often do you hear the phrase – ‘the worship was wonderful today’ (referring to the music alone.) Worship is so much more than music!
If I could recommend only one book for you to read this year, it would be Dr. Michael Horton’s book A Better Way, Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship. His ideas on worship are revolutionary and firmly grounded not only in scripture, but in the traditions of the historic Christian church. God is the same today as He was in times past.
I now attend a church that sings the Psalms — the pure words of God. We also sing carefully selected hymns that have stood the test of time theologically. Contemporary music is not overlooked, but it is thoroughly scrutinized for content in order to remain faithful to scripture. There is no band, flashing lights, nor smoke machines. For the first time in my life, I understand majesty and awe.
Worship is not about seeking that emotional feeling or personal response to the music we hear. It’s not about being “ushered” into the presence of God through our vocal singing.
Worship is about the preaching of God’s word — the accurate preaching of God’s Word. It’s about the reading of the law, the Psalms and the gospel all in the same service. After all, it’s one book, not two. God’s story hasn’t changed from the Old to the New. One has not been done away with. It’s a continuation of the same covenant story. We receive God’s Word through the accurate preaching of God’s Word. It is His gift to us. Him to us — not us to Him. We receive it together as a covenant body on the Lord’s Day when we assemble in worship — worship He has designed for us.
Worship is also about receiving the Lord’s Supper and baptism — two precious sacraments. When was the last time you heard the word sacrament? Yet, God has asked the covenant body of Christ to assemble together to receive these precious gifts. Together….and often.
Sadly, we often hear the phrase, “I don’t need to go to church. I am the church!” Nothing could be further from the truth. While we, the people of God, are collectively called the church, we are still asked to meet together on the Lord’s Day as a covenant body. We are still called to install leaders such as elders, deacons and pastors to care for our souls. God serves us with His grand meal each and every Sunday as we gather.
There’s a great blog post about this over at the White Horse Inn Blog. It is called, “What is the Church’s Mission?” Here are a couple of words from Dr. Michael Horton:
- …..we come to church each week to be “re-salinated” — bathed again in the minerals of God’s Word, swept by the Spirit into the unfolding story of Christ’s kingdom.
- The church’s job is not to raise children, fix neighborhoods, manage relationship and heal society. Rather the church is commissioned to make disciples of Christ by preaching, administering the sacraments and teaching them to observe everything he commands.
- All of the other things — can be done by the members, and not only with other Christians, but with their non-Christian neighbors who also care about the needs of their community.
- Before we can be active doers of the Word, we have to be grateful receivers (of the Word).
It’s His story, not our own.
I can’t think of a better passage than Hebrews 12 (22-29)to solidify these comments.
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.
Let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken. Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. Acceptable worship is not the concept of working our minds and hearts up into an emotional frenzy as we sing the latest, most favorite praise song of the day. To re-cap: Acceptable worship is the accurate teaching of God’s Word delivered by a qualified preacher to the assembled covenant saints of God. It is the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. A true church also includes church discipline in their structure so that the body may be protected from the predators which so frequently desire to consume the body with false doctrine.
And for pastors? Take a look at Ezekiel 34. Congregants might also want to understand this passage. The responsibility of the shepherd is immense. This is a very important reason that we, the flock, must properly love those pastors who DO teach the words of God accurately and faithfully. Their job is not an easy one.
In my personal life, I am grateful for bands like the Sons of Korah, who faithfully sing appropriate praise to God. Some of us are in the process of writing more God-centered congregational songs that help soothe the conflict in the contemporary church over music.
My heart continues to grieve that music divides the people of God, but I believe it will remain this way until Christ’s return…..because we continue to be a me-centered people.
Lord, may it not be so.