Music is always a lively topic of conversation in churches. But there’s a lot of confusion around the issue. There’s confusion about what the difference is between “worship” and “music”. There’s confusion about the compatibility of different styles of music. There’s confusion about the motivations for the music in our churches.
In this little series of posts on church music, I’d like to be able to open up some of these issues and help us to see things a little more clearly. To do this, we’ll take it step by step, each in a separate post:
1) Theological/Biblical issues in this matter—what’s at stake?
2) The contributions both hymns and contemporary worship music make to the life of the church
3) The potential pitfalls of both choral and praise-team-led music
4) The possibility of bridging the generation gap and a plea for sanity
So, we begin today with the theological/biblical issues involved.
I. Theological Issues Concerning Unity and Putting People in Boxes
During recent morning messages, I’ve alluded a couple of times now to certain dangers that we face in the church around the issue of music. To say again what I said two weeks ago, we quite naturally feel like we need to create categories called “traditional” and “contemporary,” or even “choir-led” and “praise team-led,” to explain the way we think church should be done. Many churches have decided that the best way to go is to have a “traditional” service and a “contemporary” service, so everyone in the church gets to “do church” the way they like it.
As I said during that message, I think that is a mistake. What we’re doing is building the kind of walls that the apostle Paul says that Jesus broke down on the cross: the wall of division between Jews and Gentiles being the most fundamental one that Scripture talks about (Ephesians 2). We see in Paul’s letter to the Galatians that for those of us who belong to Christ these divisions and categories are nonsense:
“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:27-28)
And a little later on he says it even more forcefully (my comments in brackets):
“May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (the cross on which the walls were broken down, remember), by which the world (with its terrible habit of dividing everybody into their own little groups) has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision (the most basic categories for Paul’s readers—if these boxes are destroyed, certainly the smaller categories like “contemporary” and “traditional” are also going to be destroyed) is anything; but a new creation is everything!” (Galatians 6:14-15)
In other words, we need to guard against boxing each other off, because if we do that we’re saying, according to Scripture, that “Christ died for nothing” (Galatians 2:21).
We don’t want to do that. We want to serve the gospel, to lift high the cross, and to live in light of the unity Jesus made possible through his death and resurrection.
So, a first truth about music issues, one that I take to be inescapable: we don’t serve the Lord very well by splitting ourselves up into interest groups around the style of music we prefer. Having a “traditional” and a “contemporary” service is, to me, a mistake that doesn’t achieve very much of value. And likewise, segregating the “contemporary” music into a separate youth service is not helpful either. All this does is encourage us to think in unhelpful ways: “either/or,” “us/them,” etc.
II. Biblical Issues about What Worship Is
The other basic thing to think biblically about is what exactly worship is.
It’s quite common to hear people say things like, “I like (or don’t like) the worship at that church,” or “I liked (or didn’t like) the preaching, but didn’t get anything (or got a lot) out of the worship,” and so on. When we hear these statements, one thing becomes clear: many people, when they say “worship,” actually mean the music/singing at a church service.
In fact, though, worship is something much bigger than just music. We need to reclaim a solid understanding of what worship is. In Romans 12:1 we are told: “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
In practice, as a weekly activity, worship usually refers to what we, as a group of Christians motivated by the Holy Spirit, offer to God as our response to what he’s given us in Christ. This response, our service of worship, consists of a number of things:
– the reading/teaching of Scripture
– encouragement/sharing with one another
We see this outlined in Colossians 3, which says,
“Let the word of Christ dwell among you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.”
Music is only one part of worship. Worship is about us remembering what God has done for us (through hearing and meditating on Scripture), looking at what that means for our particular context, bringing our lives before God in prayer, and singing songs of praise.
Worship is something God invites us to do as we share life with him. It’s a privilege given to us by God to be able to offer our small gifts to him, and to understand that he transforms those small gifts into something meaningful (remember Psalm 22, which speaks of God being “enthroned on the praises of Israel”). No wonder Eugene Peterson has complained about two common sayings in churches: first, the tendency to speak about a “worship experience” as if this is a show put on for our benefit, and second, the common complaint, “I didn’t get anything out of the worship.” Worship is not entertainment. It is an event that takes us into the heart of God’s work in the world. That aspect is not always easy for us to see. But it’s still there.
To summarize: if we’re going to move forward in any discussion about music, we need to remember these two things:
1) On the cross, Jesus did something that united us and broke down the old walls and categories. We need to guard against letting ourselves rebuild the walls and put each other in boxes.
2) Music is a part of the church’s worship. Worship is much bigger than the style of music or the kinds of songs we sing in church.
Next time, I’ll share some thoughts on the contributions of both hymns and contemporary songs to the life of the church.