The holidays and other travel have meant spending the last two Sundays in two different churches I had never been to before. They were both very large churches with multiple services and new, massive facilities, very obviously staffed well and run well and funded well. Flipping through the bulletins showed that they both had a myriad of small groups and ministry opportunities and were engaged in their communities. The sermons in each, while topically and stylistically a bit different, were both Biblical and well-delivered. They even both displayed pre-service messages on the giant screens on either side of the stage about silencing cell phones, and I’m pretty sure someone’s cell phone went off at some point in both services. In worship styles, however, they were vastly different.
The church I attended two weeks ago was non-denominational and very contemporary, with drums, electric guitar solos, and a 20-something jeans and t-shirt clad worship leader. The lights were bright up front and almost dark in the audience, and whether it was from the sound level of the band or a lack of familiarity with the songs, you could hardly hear the congregation singing over top of the three vocalists up front. The worship leader had an excellent voice, though, and rock band-esque guitar moves, and each song ended with applause.
Last week I attended the traditional service at a large Baptist church. There was one pianist and a robed choir. The worship leader wore a suit, actually still conducted the congregation, and after the first few notes of each song, stepped away from the microphone, un-needed to an extent. Even had he stayed, he couldn’t have done much more to control the tempo or course of the song, for the congregation, many of whom had most likely been singing these hymns and traditional choruses their entire lives, sang with such robust familiarity they couldn’t possibly have been swayed to do so any differently. The whole sanctuary was bright and open, and the worship time ended with a reverent round of ‘amens’ as the choir filed off.
I’m not criticizing either of these services. They were both worship, and quite honestly, both done well, within their very different genres. And though that doesn’t mean that any church without access to talented musicians, a budget to pay a worship leader, or a large enough congregation to support a choir is necessarily at a disadvantage, there is something to be said for doing worship well. It’s most definitely not a performance, but as a musician myself I have to honestly confess that poorly performed worship can often be a distraction for me. I need to continue to work on that. But there is no denying that the Lord desires us to use the gifts and talents He has given us to do all things well. A worship team, of whatever style, that can serve as a means to lead and conduct its congregation into true worship, is a wonderful thing.
Yes, in most churches, someone does lead the worship, and that is important. But the most important word in that sentence above is a means. A channel, which, to draw from the beautiful hymn, should ultimately be forgotten, seeing only Him. (May the Mind of Christ my Savior) There is a danger, it seems to me, that a gathering of people that puts all the light and all the focus and all the volume on a handful of people on stage and not the remainder facing them, looks much more like a concert than a community of worship.
This danger is not exclusive to a younger, more contemporary church and congregation, but it is one of its weaknesses. And of course traditional worship has its own set of weaknesses: we’re all imperfect people worshiping in imperfect forms. A great weakness of the church as a whole right now, though, is the fact that we ever allow music to be the divider of a congregation. It’s not hard to guess by the above church descriptions the average age of each congregation. People have preferences, and that isn’t going away, nor should it. But we would do well to remember more often that just like the actual group of people that lead, music itself is also simply a means to worship. The moment music form or style becomes the end in itself, it becomes a dangerously subtle form of idolatry. There are certainly styles of music that, for different people, may simply just not lead them into worship, and I’m not saying that we shouldn’t attend a church (if possible) that tends toward the styles that will best serve as this means for us. But if we can set ourselves and our personal tastes aside more often and allow ourselves to see how a certain style may in fact be worship for another group (or culture, or age) of people, we may find ourselves much more willing to participate in varied styles of worship without losing those closest to our hearts. Maybe this is a little bit of what heaven will be like (because of course heaven will undoubtedly be the most diverse gathering of worship styles ever possible!) – maybe our preferences will not necessarily change, we’ll just see and understand fully for the first time the worship contained in each different style and form and language and cultural expression. Who knows…
And this is where this all comes around for me, because I love a wide variety of worship styles. I grew up on hymns and choruses from the early days of “popular” Christian music. And I still LOVE hymns, both traditional hymns and old words being put to new tunes. But I also love new music; new choruses, new hymn-style songs. I love pipe organs and I love drums (though not usually at the same time!). I even learned, through my time spent in Africa, to see that there can be beauty in repetition within worship. Of course I don’t love every song in all these genres – don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of not-so-theologically correct songs out there, and there are a number of downright bad songs, both hymns and choruses. But for me, what draws the lines is not primarily style of music (though I of course still have preferences) but the words. I love good words. Solid words. Songs that proclaim the truths of Scripture and the character of God. Songs that can be about the Christian life, but are not primarily about “me.” Songs that show depth and thought and humility and even, yes, might use a word I have to go look up. But ultimately songs that glorify God through their words, not simply their classification as “worship.” And while I realize that not everyone studies the words of songs in quite the way that I do, shouldn’t this be one of the most important considerations in our worship? Shouldn’t it be of much greater consideration than whether we think every song must have drums, or no song should ever have drums? (hmmm yes blanket statements are so helpful!) 😉 I hope so.
so…I am always on the search for good songs, and honestly, always finding them. There is so much depth and beauty of song-writing out there. And this song, both old (words by John Newton) and new (music by Red Mountain Church), describes so beautifully why it is we sing, which of course it the most important thing of all:
No Sweeter Subject
Now may the Lord reveal his face,
And teach our stammering tongues
To make his sovereign, reigning grace
The subject of our songs.
chorus: No sweeter subject can invite
A sinner’s heart to sing,
Or more display the glorious right
Of our exalted King.
Grace reigns to pardon crimson sins,
To melt the hardest hearts;
And from the work it once begins
It never once departs.
The world and Satan strive in vain
Against the chosen few;
Secured by grace’s conquering reign,
They all shall conquer too.
Twas grace that called our souls at first;
By grace thus far we’ve come;
And grace will help us through the worst,
And lead us safely home.
See Red Mountain Church’s website for free chords and sheet music: http://www.redmountainchurch.org