What Should be Our Agenda for Worship Music? (Part Two)

Pastor Jeff VanGoethem

First a comment from the past – from a sermon preached in 1959 by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Pastor of Westminster Chapel in London, a leading pastor and writer of his era:

“I am no opponent of singing, we are to sing God’s praises in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.  Yes, but again there is a sense of proportion even here. Have you not noticed how singing is becoming more and more prominent? People, Christian people, meet together to sing only.  “Oh,” they say, “we do get a word in.”  But the singing is the big thing. At a time like this, at an appalling time like this, with crime and violence, and sin, and perversions, God’s name desecrated and the sanctities being spat upon, the whole state of the world surely says that this is not a time for singing . . .  My dear friends, this is not time for singing. . . . This is no time for singing, it is a time for thinking, for preaching, for conviction. It is a time for proclaiming the message of God and his wrath upon evil, and all our foolish aberrations. The time for singing will come later. Let the great revival come, let the windows of heaven be opened, let us see men and women by the thousands brought into the kingdom of God and then it will be time to sing.”

This is what I was saying in my previous article – if the singing in church is one of our main concerns, then it is high time for some self examination.  In these dark days, are we putting God’s concerns first?  If Lloyd-Jones wrote this in 1959, just think what he might say today!!! Let’s take care to put worship music in its proper place, which is properly, a relative minor place in the New Testament scheme for the church.  Now, let’s move on to further answer the question, “What should be our agenda for worship music?”

A Couple of General Cautions Concerning Worship Music

First, we have to be careful that we never develop a model of worship music based on the entertainment industry. One has to say such a thing in today’s culture and environment. Church music all over the world is influenced by culture.  This is to be expected – believing people have always taken music which is endemic to their cultures and turned it to worship.  There is not a thing wrong with this.  However there is always the point at which the cultural influences can overtake the true role and purpose of worship music. We have to be mindful of this.  Our culture is highly saturated with an entertainment dynamic. So we have to be vigilant to retain the true point of worship music which is to draw out from our hearts that worship of God that resides there due to the new birth.  Our worship music should evoke and make provision for lofty thinking about God.  This is a far cry from the point of entertainment, which is to pleasure and excite the senses. It is fleshy. We all have to guard against the desire of the flesh to be pleased.  So our model cannot come from Hollywood or Nashville.  However, in many instances the church is succumbing to this model. Rather than exciting the senses, let’s draw out what is in the heart of the believer and direct it toward God.

Second, worship music must also be participatory and its style must be conducive to a singing congregation, not a listening congregation. Too many “worship experiences” today are designed around the performance of those leading. This is not proper. If the worship leader (s) do not help the gathered congregation express its worship, then that leadership has failed, no matter how talented or creative they might be. This is one reason I have never made a big emphasis on concerts and other more entertainment oriented events in the life of the church — the point of worship music is not how good someone can sing for us, but rather that our heart-worship is properly expressed to God.  That is why we have to be careful EVEN with choirs and special musical events – when it gets performance oriented rather than participatory we can easily cross a biblical line that is ultimately unhealthy for the church. Worship must remain primarily participatory.

Third, and most importantly, we have to be careful not to reduce the concept of worship to singing. Most people love to sing. And the way some worship these days, you might think that they feel they have worshipped God because they have had a good time singing. This is an error of reduction. Worship is the surrender of life to God (Rom. 12:1-2) and therefore is a 24/7 activity.  This kind of surrender of life depends upon the Spirit of God taking the Word of God into our hearts, causing a broken and submissive response to God. Worship music therefore is just a small dimension of the life of worship – there is a time and a place for our thoughts of worship to be evoked by the sacred music of praise.  But you can sing all day long and not respond to God with a life of worship and you can sing not even one song and live a life of worship. We can’t reduce worship to singing.  Let’s be careful with these matters.

Now Some Negatives: Things We don’t Want to see in Worship

First, we want to avoid worship music that overwhelms the singing congregation. Instrumentation and leadership that is too loud or in some way overwhelms the congregation is out of place for the worshipping church. I have seen this in America and I have seen this in Africa.  It is a common error.  Again, the point is to draw out the worship of the congregation.   Skilled worship leaders draw out what is in the heart, they do not manipulate an experience.

One time I was in Africa preaching at an Easter gathering of twelve churches.  That meant twelve choirs and a lot of music!  I noticed that some of the people went out of the meeting after the singing!  They did not even stay for the preaching.  I thought to myself, “these people are over-stressing music and it is too showy!  And they care more about music than preaching”  Then I thought, “yes, just like in the U.S.!”  Although it was a completely different form of music, the error was the same.

Second, we want to avoid traditionalism, legalism and stagnancy in our approach to worship music. The scripture permits a broad response in terms of music and worship. We must respect this and work hard not to be overly censorious just because something is new to our experience or different than our preference.  We want to be as broad minded as possible within the confines of what is biblical. We want to tolerate the preferences of others – that is scriptural, have you read the book of Romans? I find from reading the scripture and traveling in the world that God is more broadminded than many Christians. Let’s be careful with our judgments.

The Positives: Things We Want to See in Worship Music – Some Guidelines

First, we should be open to a wide variety of instruments and responses in worship music. The Bible mentions many musical instruments that were used in Temple worship and the musicians “played with all their might.”  This gives glory to God.  People embraced many responses in worship including joy, reverence, tears, and exuberance (yes even dancing — the Hebrew word means whirling about), and raising hands to God (don’t blame me, it is in the Bible).  There is everything right about a wide variety of musical expression and responses. Not that we should be slaves to such things, because there is nothing wrong with a congregation quietly singing a simple song together without even one instrument, as the Lord did with his disciples in the upper room.  A Christian who does not understand a certain “eclecticism” in worship music and worship responses needs to begin to think more biblically.

Second we want to see the hymnody of the church preserved. The hymn book is more that a song book. It is our history and heritage. It conveys to us the songs that have blessed and encouraged believers through the centuries. To throw this out only adds to our a-historical, short-sighted and conceited modern viewpoint.  As the scripture teaches, we need to be acquainted with the past acts of God and the hymn book helps us to do so.

Third, we want to sing the best of the newer and fresh music. God has not stopped giving people the ability to create blessed and beautiful music for worship. Certainly we want to be as discerning as we can in our choices for worship. We want to use songs that are theologically sound and useful for worship. Not all new songs accomplish this, but many do. In addition to being acquainted with the past, there should be an emphasis in the church on the present and the future, we long to experience the fresh acts of God also – what He is doing now and what He will do in the future.  Has God not said, “sing unto the Lord a new song?”

Fourth, we want to have broad participation. I always hope we have a large choir and many singers and players and a broad representation of our congregation involved in planning and executing our worship meetings. This is biblical and reflects the participatory nature of the church. I hope that if you are gifted in these area that you will share God’s gracious gifts to you with the gathered congregation. Don’t withhold the worship gifts that God has given you for the purpose of blessing and edifying others.

I fully understand my responsibility under the constitution of our church as the person responsible for what happens in the worship services of our church. I happily delegate the execution of some of this, as I always have, to those with greater musical talent, training and “know how” than me. But there always has to be a pastoral dimension in this. So this is my job.  If you have complaints and questions about the music, technology, and worship in our church, I am the one you talk to.  Those who work in this area in our church are only doing what I am asking them to do.  Scofield Church has a worship philosophy document (available on the website) and I have a personal document, available also on our website.  Before you talk to me, you should be well acquainted with these documents and if you happen to be unhappy about the music, be prepared to explain how the stated philosophy is wrong or how it has been violated.

I hope you will, with me, show appreciation for all the efforts all of our music helpers, from our players to our singers to our helpers and planners.  For reasons that have been made clear, they have a tall order.  I have always tried to be very accommodating toward them because I understand that their job is not easy.  And I know how sincere they are and how faithful they have been.

So be sure to think about these things, beloved church family and thank those who help you to worship God.  Reflect on your own attitude and approach to these things.  Is it scriptural?  Is it all God would have it be?

And so, may the praise of God be drawn from hearts as it should be in our worship!