What Should be our Agenda for Worship Music?  (Part One)

Pastor Jeff VanGoethem

I was sitting on a panel recently being asked questions by about 250 pastors.  Guess what question I was asked?  The inevitable question these days:  “How do you handle the different preferences in music and worship technology within the church today?”  My answer, “Here is how I handle it:  I make it my goal to offend everyone at least once.”   Ha. Ha.

Well, that is not really my goal, but it does seem to be a bit of an inevitability in today’s church, doesn’t it?  It seems that there is nothing that draws more ire in the modern church than the songs, music, and technology selected for worship services. This has been going on for a long time now.  Long ago it occurred to me that a pastor or worship leader  in today’s church is in a no-win situation on this point and a worship pastor is in even a worse spot.  He is the lightening rod.  This is too bad.  Our worship music should please God and uplift God’s people.  We have turned it into one more thing to fight about. Does that make God’s heart happy?  I don’t think so.

I think it is time for a little objectivity on this issue.  Let me play the role of the paragon of objectivity and lay out how I think about this. Maybe that will be helpful for you.  Maybe not.  I hope it is.  I have learned that I cannot satisfy everyone on this matter but I can reason with anyone who is willing to be reasoned with.  So here is my reasoning.   I’ll give you one initial point in this article, then some others in a subsequent Scocaster:

Point No. 1 :  There is an overestimation of the importance of worship music in our churches.

Yes I am saying this about worship music. The modern American Church overestimates the importance of worship music. There are many, more weighty matters which should occupy our hearts and time, such as prayer, evangelism, the teaching of God’s Word, the sending of missionaries, love on the inside and the outside of the body, Christian service, to name a few of them.  Worship music is secondary compared with these matters.  Let’s not elevate it higher than it should be.  But why do we give it such importance?  Consider these possible reasons:

Ingrained Preferences . The modern entertainment industry has put high quality music in front of us every day.  Technology has made it readily available. This is also true of Christian music – the Christian music industry also makes high quality, personally appealing, Christian music of all kinds readily available.  So we are able to tailor our private listening to the music we enjoy the best.  We are a bit spoiled by this, aren’t we?  We are tempted to expect to hear exactly the same music in the worship service that we have trained and nurtured ourselves on, in our own personal lives.  And so we are most happy when the songs in worship agree with our ingrained preferences and conditioning. Thus are we easily set up for disappointment when they do not.

To make matters worse, we then often give in to the temptation to spiritualize the matter by arguing that “they” (the Christians who enjoy different music than I enjoy) do not listen to the music which honors God and is best for the success of the church. In other words, those people who listen to the other styles of music cannot possibly love Jesus as much as I do, or care for the church as much as I do. Except they do. This is a matter of preference and to some extent background, not spirituality, so we err and sin when we judge and castigate others on this point.

A man who began to attend a church I pastored years ago told me when he first came into the church, he liked the sermons but did not like the music.  It was too old fashioned.  He was always listening to one of the more “modern” Christian radio stations.  Then, over time, to his own surprise, he began to adjust.  I had a practice of sharing the stories of some of the hymns and hymn writers.  He began to gain a sense of history and tradition and his preferences moderated. He grew and changed. But of course, he was a pretty open-minded guy. But the point is that our preferences can grow and moderate if we are willing. When we begin to have this kind of spirit, then we are getting somewhere.

“My” Worship Experience. We have become as a culture more event and “experience” oriented. We see people paying large sums of money for a particular experience, whether it is a ride in the space shuttle or a hiatus on a deserted island or singing on some TV show.  So we tend to crave certain experiences and we can be quite selfish about it, can’t we?  After all, we are a very self centered culture.  Today, we tend to view worship from the standpoint of my own personal “worship experience” (whatever we mean by this expression).  So we want the songs we sing and music we hear to contribute to the “worship experience” we expect and want, and are disappointed when it does not happen.  I have heard many comments from people leaving churches or coming to a new church saying, “The worship experience was not what we were looking for” or “Driving the extra distance is worth it because of the worship experience” or “They changed the worship so it no longer appeals to us,” etc., etc.  We are into our own personal worship experience.  A broader concern for the wider corporate body, which is more biblical, is lost in the sea of our own private desires and experience.

Some churches even go so far as to have one kind of music for one group and another kind of music for another group, in separate worship services, and so rather than learning the hard lessons of unity, they just make two (or more) churches.  This is catering to the Christian consumer, which has to, it seems to me, stunt spiritual growth and depth, denying the believer the opportunity to love and prefer others and to seek the interests of the whole body (Phil. 2.19-21).

I had a conversation with a fine Christian gentleman in my congregation one time.  He did not like that drums were introduced into the worship service. He told me about it.  But his own grandson became the drummer. It made Grandpa’s heart very happy that his grandson, whom he had prayed for many times, was walking with the Lord and desiring to be involved in the Lord’s church.  His grandson reminded him that it was quite biblical to use percussion in worship. Grandpa explained to me that he was able to see that the drumming he did not like was actually helping the broader body of Christ.  Therefore he reigned in the importance of his preferences.When we all begin to think like this, then we are getting somewhere.

Fewer Worship Meetings. We have far fewer worship meetings today than in times past. Years ago Sunday night services were a regular part of the average Christian’s weekly routine. Lots of singing was done at these meetings.  Wednesday night services were also well attended and included singing.  And there were frequent “special” meetings in the lives of most churches every year. So we used to have many, many more occasions of singing together as congregations than we do now. Consequently there was just more opportunity to hear and sing the songs of the church.  Today many of these opportunities have gone by the boards. Most Sunday night services have died due to lack of interest. The Wednesday night prayer meeting is dead or on life support in most churches. The plain result of this is that we only sing together on average in the American church on one occasion per week, for a relatively brief period of time. It is difficult to satisfy everyone’s preferences for worship music within the limited time given to it in the modern church. Our worship leaders have a tall order, don’t they?  If we have made harsh judgments toward our worship leaders or said or written negative comments, perhaps we should apologize to them and to the Lord.  Could you do better, knowing the challenges they face?

Some years ago I was in one of our worship services.  The church was packed. There were many visitors.  The worship leader that Sunday did a particularly bad job of picking songs and leading the meeting. This was unusual – he usually did a good job, but you know, everyone has an off day once in a while. My instinct was not to be critical of him, he was trying his best.  I felt sorry for him because (1) He has a tough job and probably realized that he did not do well that Sunday and (2) I knew that some, unfortunately would be harsh and critical of him. When we can respond like this, then we are getting somewhere. Love and compassion make the Lord happy.  Criticism, anger and  hatred offend Him.

So for all of these reasons, WE SHOULD ALL RECOGNIZE THAT PERHAPS WE ARE OVERESTIMATING THE IMPORTANCE OF WORSHIP MUSIC in the modern Church.  Certainly, worship music does have its place.  But from a biblical standpoint, worship music was never meant to have primary and central focus in the church.  And all the fights and wars certainly indicate a lack of proper balance and perspective in the church. We are fighting about a relatively secondary matter. Who is wrong?  Maybe we all are.

Now let’s go back to the Bible to see if we can recover our balance. One can point to scripture and note that there are many hundreds of references to music in the Bible, primarily in the Old Testament. I once set out to study every reference to music in the Bible. I got to about three or four hundred and gave up.  I think we can all agree God desires His people to return praise to Him in song – note however, that worship music is directed toward God.  It is not man-focused but God-focused. Worship music is prayer, it is praise — we are speaking to God in a special language of devotion. Whether I am happy about the songs is not that relevant.  Rather, the question is:  is God pleased, does He receive praise and adoration? Is He the focus?  Is the Christian led to comprehend the greatness of God?  As I have traveled the world I have noticed that worship music REALLY varies in different places and cultures. Could it be that God is more broad minded than we are and actually enjoys the praise of His people, even when we don’t like the song or the style?  Remember, it is easy to play God.  But there is still only ONE GOD and it isn’t you or me.

Now relative to the New Testament, there are really only a couple of passages in all of the New Testament that even mention worship music (e.g. Col. 3.16). Some passages which seem to deal with the public gathering of the church do not even mention it (e.g. 1Tim. 2:1f). I think this argues that the New Testament does not countenance all the time, effort, discussion, and battles that music has taken up in the modern church. It has become way too big of an issue. The New Testament is focused on more important matters. This should give us all pause.  But putting such stress on music, are we straining gnats and swallowing camels?  Are our priorities misshapen? Have we neglected the loftier matters? Like prayer, preaching, love, service, and evangelism?  Is singing really on a par with these other weighty concerns?

Church history also militates against the conclusion that worship music should have such a central focus in the church.  Now and again in church history there was a paradigm shift of some kind relative to worship music, and a bit of a spasm with it. And there was normally some dimension of worship music in the church’s practice (the Zwinglian Reformation a notable exception).  However, as you study the various eras of church history, you do not see this massive emphasis on worship music that we see today.  What is happening today is largely a function of culture and to some extent technology. It does not come from the Bible. I have seen a better balance in other parts of the world.   Places where Christian people are focused on more weighty and central matters. We would probably be wise to ask the question, have we perhaps overemphasized the place of worship music in the modern church? Maybe this is partly why God continues to deny us revival and awakening – we won’t put His concerns first.  Rather we exalt our own preferences and cultural background.

Moreover, in the study and reading I have done I can say with utter conviction that down through the ages in church history, worship music had very little to do with outpourings of God’s spirit, revival, church growth, dynamic expansions in mission or effective discipleship.  There are much larger issues at stake for us in the modern church than the songs we sing in worship. If we are wise we will get our focus in the right place. There is little question that you can have an effective church movement without that much of an emphasis on music.

So what I am saying is that perhaps we ought to dwell on the possibility that for cultural, technological, and preferential reasons we have tended to overemphasize worship music.  This is wrong and unbalanced. A little correction in our own minds might help. We don’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill do we? And we don’t want to reduce all that the church is about to whether we sing this song or that song or hear this kind of music or that kind of music.   When we get all worked up about music, are we not showing our failure to focus on the real weighty matters of the Christian faith?

And by the way, a point I am going to make in the next article:  singing is not worship.  Worship is the surrender of life.  Praise music is just one small dimension of worship.

I look at it this way – if I come to church and I do not like the worship music, I say to myself, “Big deal.  The lost are still lost, and I still have the same mission.  God is still on His throne and I must be in surrender to Him.  Christ is still my Savior and Lord and I must still walk with Him.  And maybe someone else liked the music, I am happy for them. Maybe I’ll like it better next week and in the meantime I am going to be about the Lord’s business.”

Sure our favorite worship music is like an old friend. And we like to spend time with our old friends.  But if I am missing my old friends in the worship service, I can play it in my car ten minutes after I leave, can’t I? That is the positive side of modern technology. Am I really being deprived if on a given Sunday my favorite music was not used?   Should I not, as the scriptures say, “prefer others” and make allowances in the body for different preferences?  Or is that one injunction of the Bible that I exempt myself from?   I think we have to place a check on our attitudes and spirits when we get upset because our preferences are not being served like we want them too.  This is an emotional issue, so we must realize that emotions can be hard to deal with and can be as tainted with sin as anything else.  Let’s overrule emotion with godly Christian reason.

So what should our agenda be concerning worship music, given all of these factors, particularly its place in modern culture and the biblical and historical precedents?  Three things:

1.Remember that the point of our worship is that God is pleased. If it is possible that He is pleased, then I have no ground for complaining. I should be happy that He is happy.

2.We should measure the relative importance of worship music properly, in the church and in our own minds and hearts. Rather than get worked up about music, maybe I should get worked up over lost souls or my need to grow in Christ or someone who is hurting or a ministry that needs workers or my own need to love and serve the Lord.

3.We should develop a concern for the interests of the wider body, not just my own private preferences. This will calm me down, make the heart of Christ happy, and benefit the whole church.

So perhaps I can begin to be glad that my older brethren enjoy some of the great hymns. After all, we need the older in our churches – they have wisdom and experience.  This benefits the whole body.  And perhaps I can be glad with the younger that we are singing to the Lord newer songs, with fresh expressions of worship.  We need the younger – they have strength and enthusiasm.  We also need the newly saved, they give us life. We need the veteran Christians, they provide stability and examples of faithfulness.  We need the mavericks, who help us break out of our ruts and traditions.  We need the traditionalists who help us to see why things have been done the way they have.  This is all good.  So what if we don’t like the same music?  Is not the health of God’s church more important than my preferences?