The Worship Wars

Church people can wear you slick on some things.

Take musical style for instance.  As more contemporary music came on the scene in the 90’s there was a firestorm of push-back from those who preferred more traditional songs.

FIRST, a true story:  when I was in my early 20’s serving as a Music Pastor at a church, I led the people in singing the chorus, “As the Deer,” written straight out of Psalm 42:1.  One member was furious.  My pastor defended me and told this person, “It’s right out of the Bible!”  That didn’t matter.  The person fired back, “But it’s not in the hymnal!” (Dear. God. It was at that moment I questioned my career choice.)

That church member was not merely wrong, but foolish in their logic and spiritual maturity.  But, in time, I watched foolishness on both sides of the fence.  And I began to understand why a great deal of push-back by the traditionalists was growing.

Younger music leaders were taking an arrogant stance, promoting “their music” as superior to the older hymns.  C.S. Lewis called this attitude of newer-is-always-better “chronological snobbery.”

I watched one of these younger leaders actually “talk down” to a crowd that wasn’t singing the newer songs with the gusto he was expecting.  (The real problem is that they didn’t know those songs.)

These types of younger leaders expose themselves as knowing how to sing and play an instrument, but having very little, if any, theological depth – something the writers of the old hymns did have.  In fact, a common thread among the writers of the old hymns was that before they were musicians they were seriously devoted students of scripture.

So, it wasn’t necessarily the newer, contemporary music that traditionalists didn’t like.  Rather, it was the way it was being self-righteously shoved down their throat.

Jesus said, “By this, all will know if you follow me, if you love one another.”  Translation:  church leaders (musicians and preachers alike) are not known as disciples of Jesus by their skill-sets, but rather by the love we show to one another. This applies to how we lead music, as well.

Back to the Worship Wars….

So, what style of music is truly God-honoring? Traditional, contemporary, or something in between?

Well, all of it can be.  But, what is critical to understand is this:

God-honoring worship has absolutely nothing to do with the style of the music.  In fact, did you know that nowhere in Scripture are we given instructions where “musical style” is concerned within our worship? The only guidelines we’re given in our worship of Christ is in regard to sincerity and devotion.

I like what Rick Warren wrote in his best-seller, Purpose Driven Life:

“The heart of worship is surrender. True worship – bringing God pleasure – happens when you give yourself completely to God.”

One theologian wrote,

“Music, of course, is a wonderful medium for worship.  But true worship is more than just music,….there are other spiritual disciplines that come closer to the essence of true worship – activities like prayer, giving, thanksgiving, and listening to the Word of God….In colloquial usage the word ‘worship’ has practically become synonymous for music, and all other features of our public worship are practically regarded as something other than worship….It is significant that Jesus spoke of truth, not music, as the distinctive mark of true worship in John 4:23-24.”

Let’s take a look a little more at what the Bible says.

A musician himself, David wrote,

“O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.”

Jesus’ encounter with the woman in John 4 was referenced above.  The woman, trying to change the subject of the conversation, began debating Jesus on the parameters for biblical worship.  Jesus dismissed her parameters and told her the heart of worship is to:

“worship the Father in spirit and truth [because] they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.”

When he said this, I’m fairly confident Jesus did not have the issue of “traditional or contemporary style” in mind.

By the way, there is an important truth in the passage just cited in John 4.  As Jesus visits with the woman about true worship – he not once mentions music.  Why?  Because music/singing is only one facet of worship, joining the proclamation of the Word of God, praying, giving, sharing our faith, etc. 

Decades later, Paul would say the same thing.  When describing our “logical/intelligent act of worship” in Romans 12:1, he never mentions music.  Rather he defines our worship of Jesus as how we live our lives.  Singing then becomes an overflow of the worship we give to God on a daily basis.

One last thing: the terms “traditional” and “contemporary” are completely relative – they’re “moving targets.”  What’s described as “traditional” at one church may be defined as “blended” – or even “contemporary” – at a different church down the street.

God’s Word, alone – not musical style – should be the driving force behind our magnification and exaltation of Christ.

Musician and Professor of Theology, John Frame, wrote,

“[Worship music] should leave [us] with the sense that the Word of God has been made more vivid, more memorable – not less.”

Don’t miss that:  the music/singing portion of a worship service should help equip us with biblical depth every bit as much as the preaching.

One writer described the mile-wide-inch-deep theological depth of some songs as,

the “anti-intellectualism of modern music.”   [The lyrics should] “make demands on the modern intellect. [We should have] a standard of worship that’s as cerebral as it is emotional.”

Please don’t misinterpret my post here as a anti-modern.  (I’ve changed the lyrics to Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” and played it on a Sunday morning.)  But, I have observed that, while the old hymns were written for congregational singing, most modern worship songs are written for radio play.

I love music.  It’s the language of the soul.  I’m a fan of the old, new, and in-between.

But, don’t “shop” for a church based on your taste in music.  Find a church that is driven by God’s Word – in all facets of worship.