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Further Thoughts on Worship

By the looks of it, the ongoing conversation about contemporary worship is alive and well. Last week, two of my regular blog stops revealed more bits of the dialog. Brett McCracken had an interesting post prayer1.jpgentitled The Tragedy of (Most) Modern Worship Music. Then over at L’chaim, Heather Goodman contemplates similar themes in a piece entitled In the Name of Love. Both posts are critical of contemporary worship, in different ways, and generated a lot of good comments. You should read them.

Why do we keep coming back to the topic of worship? Here’s a couple of reasons, off the cuff:

  • Worship is intrinsic to a healthy Christian life, often considered the scaffold for all other disciplines
  • Every church “does worship” — it is basic to what we call church
  • Music is constantly in flux; these ongoing cultural shifts force us to readjust or reinterpret our views on worship
  • Worship music has become a massive industry, one of the best selling CCM genres

I’m sure there’s other reasons why worship is — and should be — an ongoing topic of discussion. Apart from these issues, the topic interests me is because, for about 15 years of my early church experience, I was a worship leader. Reluctantly thrust into the role at an early age, no one provided me a how-to manual. All I had was “a red guitar, three chords and the truth.” The rest I learned on the fly.

I wonder that contemporary worship has become an easy target. On any given Sunday, these charges can be leveled against any worship service:

  • The music is too loud
  • The music is too soft
  • The congregation is too stiff and reserved
  • The congregation is too loose and disorderly
  • The musicians are performing, not worshiping
  • The musicians are cold, joyless, unemotional
  • The music is unprofessional, amateur
  • The music is too polished and scripted
  • The worship is too short
  • The worship is too long
  • The music is too contemporary, too worldly
  • The music is not contemporary or relevant

Believe me, I’ve heard them all. In a way, contemporary worship is in a no win situation. On the one hand are those pulling us back toward more traditional forms, on the other are those challenging us to expand the tent pegs of our understanding. And, in the middle, are those who just mimic what’s current. Some prefer the more liturgical, others the more informal; some prefer the more contemplative, others the more celebratory. No wonder contemporary worship has become a tug-o-war!

Needless to say, the inexperienced worship leader can be easily overwhelmed.

We all have an ideal of what worship should be. . . and maybe that’s the problem. The Bible does not provide a checklist — When you do these five things, you’re really worshiping. In fact, the biblical injunctions are not very explicit. There’s few external measurements for true worship. What does it involve? Singing, speaking, or silence? Contemplation, celebration, or cleaning the toilets once a week? The fact is, it can be all or none of the above.

Ultimately, if true worship is an exchange between an open heart and its Maker, then how a person worships is incidental. As shallow and unoriginal as I think most modern worship songs are, I cannot discount the possibility that people will genuinely worship with them. This is not a license for shallowness and un-originality, but an admission of how difficult it is to wrap our arms around the topic. The moment I say we need to be more Pentecostal in our praise, the traditionalists pummel me with their hymnals. If I suggest longer worship sessions, I am lectured about the importance of preaching the Word of God. If I choose a simpler, more “home-spun” presentation with amateur musicians, the “professionals” leave the church because of its unconcern for the arts.

I’m wondering how much of our criticism of modern worship is based on biblical precepts and how much is based on our own personal preferences? I’m with Heather, wanting to see more enthusiasm and abandon in my fellow worshipers. But I also attend rock, heavy metal and hardcore concerts (which makes me slightly less predisposed to pipe organs and choral robes). And I’m with Brett, wanting to see less commercialism, more honesty and artistic excellence in our worship. However, the “career worship leader” might have a pure heart and Billy Bob’s un-tuned banjo could sound like a harp in God’s ears.

Could it be that, when it comes to worship, Scripture intentionally leaves room for personal preferences, different cultural expressions and — more importantly — individual and/or corporate idiosyncrasies and immaturities?


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{ 12 comments… add one }
  • dayle September 5, 2007, 2:29 PM

    First of all. I’d like to pummel you with a hymnal, too. So, let’s not jump to conclusions as to the reason’s why or automatically disparage people who have that calling. We’re talking straw that broke the camel’s back here.

    Seriously, Mike. I was a worship leader for my youth group for a few years. For a little while, the youth pastor actually wanted me to play my electric guitar. Power chords and all. I drew the line at “can we hear the words” It was a little disheartening. The better, more progressive we played, the bigger the crowd. But that wasn’t worship, that was a concert. And, I wanted to make sure it wasn’t all about me. (see lyrics to Heart of Worship) My system worked pretty well. Play progressive, but mix it up and don’t overpower the singing.

    My answer to the traditionalists has always been “Hymns were once new songs, too.” Church didn’t begin in the 19 century. Being stuck in time does not automatically constitute piety.

    I think the two service system works well. One traditional – one modern. Not everyone likes vanilla ice cream, so everyone shouldn’t be forced to eat it.

  • janet September 5, 2007, 2:48 PM

    Don’t get me started. In answer to your last paragraph’s questions, yes, of course. He made us all different. We express ourselves differently. Must be fine with Him or He’d have made us the same. It will be interesting to see what worship looks like and sounds like in Heaven:)

  • Nicole September 5, 2007, 6:13 PM

    Two things come to mind concerning biblical “precepts”. The singing, gyrating, dancing of David, to which his heathen wife was oh-so-concerned about what he “looked like” in his worship and celebration of the Lord.

    Secondly, Jesus Himself says, “A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:23-24) Dayle’s refernce to the chorus about coming back to worship reminds us it’s not about us, it’s all about Him.

    Personally, I enjoy hymns, but give me contemporary Christian music with real lyrics and the rock ‘n’ roll beat plus the melodic chords of slow choruses in a deep worship song. Not fluff.

    I want to stand, clap, move, sing, and shout praise to the Creator of the Universe. Liturgical is not for me–for me, observing liturgy produces the reminders of corrupt doctrines and pompous idolatry. That’s just me. I’m not accusing anyone of anything here. For those who revere liturgical services, I respect anyone who worships in spirit and in truth.

  • Jason September 6, 2007, 12:04 PM

    In my opinion most modern worship music is way too performance oriented. The church seems like it’s trying to copy the world and put on a concert instead of get people to God. I agree with you that our view of worship will be shaped by our personal preferences, but we should not allow our preferences to cause us to drift from biblical norms.

  • Michael Ehret September 6, 2007, 12:15 PM

    Jason suggests our personal preferences not allow us to drift from biblical norms. I think the point of Mike’s post is that there AREN’T biblical norms — or did I miss something? But I also agree with Jason that our personal preferences are not the point; not the point at all.

    I truly don’t understand the hubbub about worship these days, as if it matters to God whether I prefer hymns or worship choruses…the worship is for Him, not for me. As if it matters to God whether we use hymns or choruses at all? What does God prefer in worship should be our question. And a key answer is found in John 4 as Nicole quotes above.

    Seek out a church that worships in the style you’re comfortable with rather than trying to change “your” church into your style. I have seen way too many churches debate the differences for so long that they become divisive. Worshippers should seek a place where they can worship God in spirit and in truth — and leave the debate behind. It’s irrelevant.

  • Mike Duran September 6, 2007, 1:38 PM

    Thanks so much for the great comments.

    I wanted to respond briefly to Dayle’s reference to his youth group experience, that “. . .the better, more progressive we played, the bigger the crowd. But that wasn’t worship, that was a concert.” And more specifically, it was the inability “to hear the words” that invalidated it.

    I struggle with these perceptions and the inference that (1) Progressive electric music, by nature, will veer away from and “is not” worship, and (2) We must hear the words in order to really be worshiping. I believe these are parts of the cultural stereotype.

    Do I need words in order to worship? Some of the best classical composers didn’t. Why does contemporary worship demand words anyway? I’ve often derived more a sense of “transcendence” from a guitar or piano solo than I have the words to some songs. This detachment from what has traditionally been a relevant form of worship — solitude, silence, meditation — is problematic, I think.

    Furthermore, who says that progressive, electric music cannot actually enable someone to worship. The fact that the youth group grew — or at least attracted kids — could be an important indication of a medium that speaks to them. Of course, that doesn’t automatically sanction the music, but neither should it automatically disqualify it.

  • dayle September 6, 2007, 3:32 PM

    Great point, Mike.

    I know this is very subjective, but I had to trust my instincts upon watching the audience.

    It was obvious to me when worship was the goal or when they were just concerting.

    And the fact was, that among these young people, the slower the music and the more direct the lyrics were, the more were in worship.

    But your point is valid. I have worshiped while hiking in the smokies and sitting by a waterfall. I have worshiped to a humm in my head, an impromptu acapella session with friends. But just being there didn’t equal worship. I had to respond to my heart.

    Just playing songs in church isn’t worship. Some songs work, some don’t.

    Yes, this is a general statement. It’s never 100 percent. But why play a hard progressive song when only 2 people out of 30 are able to worhip during it. When, if I play Chris Tomlin, 25 out of 30 do. It was my job to play the numbers – I went for the 25. (by the way, I didn’t judge those who didn’t – it’s a personal preference )

    Demographics probably have a lot to do with it.

    Keep in mind. I agree with you. If someone says “it has to be hymns” they are wrong. But they are also right. Because for that person, it has to be hymns. And if your church is full of that person, you should play hymns. Of course this goes for modern worship as well.


  • matty September 7, 2007, 6:52 PM

    Worship leaders who can see and count the number of people who are actually “able to worship” is a baffling concept.

  • dayle September 7, 2007, 9:42 PM

    Matty, we’re talking kids here. If they are giggling and talking to each other about what happened yesterday at school, they are not worshipping.

    Now, I know the definition of worship is subjective, but playing tap the girls on the shoulder in front of you is not worship.

    What should have baffled you is why was I watching them instead of being in worship myself.

    My lame excuse: I had technical and musical issues to deal with periodically while “performing” and worshiping.

    What baffles me is – the same people who criticize others for being too stringent in their “kinds of worship” are the same ones who want to impose their own liberal “kinds” of worship on the very people they criticize.

    I say worship your way and I’ll back you up a 100 percent. But if you are upset because the church you’re in wants to do it differently, then you’re the one being short-sighted and dictatorial. There is a solution: Find a church that does it your way and stop criticizing everyone else for worshiping their way.

    Since worship is so personal and diverse, do you really expect a worship leader to be able to please everyone. Some will be disappointed. Either find a place that matches your style of worship or suck it up and stop complaining for the good of the many.

  • matty September 7, 2007, 10:52 PM

    I didn’t know you were talking about “kids”, I assumed a more high school / college age.

    What I am wondering: was the second half of your comment (from “What baffles me is…”) still directed at me?

    By the way, you could hear the kids talking about school from on stage?

  • dayle September 8, 2007, 2:22 AM

    No, it wasn’t, Matty, I apologize. I should have made that clearer. You’re right, it sounds like I was talking to you the whole time. I switched subjects and didn’t make that clear enough. Once again, I apologize if I came across rudely.

    By the way, You’d make a great lawyer.

    Obviously, I don’t know what they were talking about everytime. We’re talking years here, not one time. Whatever they (meaning kids from 10 – 17) were saying each time, if they are cutting up–They are not worshiping. By the way, I’m not the worship police. It is their choice to worship or not.

    My only point is that the more progressive rock we played the more their attention was focused on each other. Please don’t play lawyer with me about this. This IS OBVIOUS if you’re watching it. People in worship do not interrupt others.

    As soon as we went to the slower songs, hands went up, eyes would close, and they would stop focusing and talking to each other. Now, if you don’t define worship that way then fine. But, sometimes grey areas are more black & white than they seem.

    My job was to provide the best vehicle for this group’s worship. I had to choose what the evidence of worhip was: cutting up or hands raised and eyes closed. Easy decision for me. If I play music that causes them to cut up, I’m being negligent.

    As I said earlier, people can worship in limitless ways. But, in church, someone has to be the worship leader. That person has to pick a song. This will not please everyone.

    Personally, I don’t like countrified worship services. If I’m looking for a church and that’s how they do it, I’m not going to try to change them. I will repect their choice. And if I can’t live with it, I’ll move on down the street to the next church. If I can’t find any, I’ll worship my own way in my home or find a group of people who share my vision, and start a worship service with them.

    Freedom is a wonderful thing.

  • Ame September 10, 2007, 5:18 AM

    I like it all … and get irritated with those who think there’s only one way to worship … makes me wonder … if they think worship is only confined to a church service of some kind. Anyway … that’s my, belated, 2 cents!

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