I normally talk marriage in this blog, but I’m not JUST a wife. I’m first and foremost a child of God. And I’m a child of God who isn’t exactly easy-mannered. I’m opinionated. And sometimes those opinions just have to come out. And so today I’m going to tackle a really hot button issue: worship music in church.
I’d like to share with you the seven things I most wish I could say to both worship leaders and to those in the pews who complain about music (and this isn’t directed at any particular ones from my church, or from conferences I’ve spoken at . These are just general, universal observations!):
1. The Date the Song was Written is not Nearly as Important as Singability
I don’t care when the song was written as long as it is singable and meaningful. If I don’t know when to come in, what the melody is going to do, or what the words mean, then I can’t worship. If I’m concentrating on sounding good when I sing and on not embarrassing myself, then I’m not thinking about God.
Some worship leaders only like to sing songs out of hymn books. But just because a song is in a hymn book with written music doesn’t mean it’s musical. Those hymn book publishing companies had to fill up that book with something, and there’s only so many “How Great Thou Arts” and “To God Be The Glories”. So around 1912, they hired a bunch of people to write completely unsingable songs called something like “Whithersoever the Lamb Shall Goeth, Shall I Also Be”, or “Mine Eyes Have Beholden the Rose of Sharon, and I March To Find My King”. Or whatever. If a song isn’t widely known by the congregation, then it should be sung only if it’s one you want to introduce and teach, because it’s so marvelous, not just because you think it fits with today’s message.
Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with hymns–as long as they’re the good hymns. And how do you know what a good hymn is? Simply ask anyone over the age of 50 what their favourite hymn is, and you’ll get great answers. Old Rugged Cross. How Great Thou Art. Immortal, Invisible. How Marvelous, How Wonderful. O Sacred Head. All great. All singable. All recognizable.
Hymns are not the problem, and if people think young people won’t relate to hymns, then they’re simply not playing them correctly. If a hymn has been a favourite for 100 years, there’s probably a reason. So younger people, don’t be hymn snobs. These songs are usually very musical and very powerful doctrinally. Just update how you play them, and everyone should like them.
But at the same time, don’t play something nobody knows. If it was written in 1912, but nobody liked it even in 1912, then it’s probably not meant for 2012, either.
Yet don’t be a contemporary music snob, either. God has different and unique messages for each generation, and often the way those messages are spread is through song. We have some wonderful songwriters writing worship songs today, and if we never sing them, then we miss out on God’s message to the church today. The date it was written should not matter; it’s musicality and relevance should.
2. Performance Songs are Not Congregation Songs
I love contemporary Christian music as much as the next person. I download Christian music off of iTunes. I listen to Christian radio, and I sing along. But not all songs are congregation songs. Some are meant to be solos–or meant to just be played on your iPod.
Just because a song means something to you, and has a great message, does not mean that it works well in a congregation. To be sung by a bunch of people at one time, the tune should be obvious, there should not be numerous pauses, and there should not be weird timing. If there is, then it’s better to use it as special music–or not use it all in the service
3. The “Eye Shadow Should Match Your Purse” Philosophy of Worship Doesn’t Work
If the pastor is preaching about the inerrancy of Scripture, not every song you sing needs to be about the inerrancy of Scripture. Do you know how hard it is to find songs on Scripture? This is what leads people to look flip through hymnbooks and choose those obscure songs written in 1912 (see #1, above), and it’s silly.
The worship songs do not have to match the sermon, because that’s not the point of worship. Worship isn’t about teaching people the sermon; worship is about giving God His due. And as we do that, and focus on God, it prepares our hearts for the sermon. It’s much more important for people to encounter God during worship, so that they’re willing to listen with open ears, than it is to use those songs to preach a specific message. Let’s focus on God during worship, and who He is, and then we’ll be ready to listen to the pastor.
4. Worship is About God, Not About Me
I attended a Good Friday service a few years ago, and the worship team was very polished. They had every instrument imaginable. They had wonderful vocalists. But about 2/3 of the way through the worship package I leaned over to my mother and whispered, “if the next song begins with the word “I”, I’ll shoot myself“. In retrospect, I was glad I had not brought a gun with me, because that would have been messy.
Worship should focus on God, not on my reaction to God. Worship should remind us who God is, not remind us of how much we love Him, or how much we want to serve Him, or how much he means to us. It should be about who He is and what He does. Now, this shouldn’t be a hard and fast rule, because there is room for songs that tell of our personal response to His love. But when worship packages are entirely focused on what we think of God, instead of simply looking at who He is, then our focus is misplaced. Especially on Good Friday. A song or two about, you know, the actual crucifixion would have been nice.
5. The Worship Leader’s Job is Not to Drum Up Emotion
Do you know the song “Celebrate, Jesus, Celebrate?” If you do, you’ll know that those are just about the only words (there’s also a chorus, but it doesn’t have that many words, either). Anyway, the song says “Celebrate, Jesus, Celebrate” four times in a row, and then moves to the chorus.
I was once in a church where we sang the verse–and I kid you not–eight times before we moved to the chorus. That’s 32 “Celebrate Jesus, Celebrates”. Does anyone else find that extreme?
It’s almost as if the worship leader was trying to get us to shut off our brains so that we’d enter some sort of trance-like state. I don’t think that’s the proper role of worship.
I have no problem with repeating a chorus or two, but let’s not get ridiculous. We aren’t Hindus; we’re not into mantras. We’re into using our brains as we worship a living God. And if concentrating on that living God doesn’t promote reverence, drumming up a false emotional frenzy isn’t going to do so, either.
6. No Instrument is Satanic
When the organ was introduced, people were all worked up. How could we add that loud instrument to worship? It was edgy. It was new. It was controversial.
Every instrument at some time has been edgy and controversial, even the ones we now consider boring. Instruments are not the problem. If an instrument is too loud, that’s the sound person’s problem, not the musician’s problem. And people need to get over their fear of instruments. If the song selection is good, the instruments shouldn’t matter.
7. Silence is Golden
I love singing. I really do. My daughters and I harmonize together. But there are times when I would prefer that we just not sing.
Communion is one of those times. When I used to lead worship, I insisted on having the piano play quietly, but not singing anything, because sometimes I believe it’s important to give people room to pray. When we sing, the words enter their brains and then it becomes harder to pray about specific things God may be speaking to you about.
Sometimes I think we sing too much, and we don’t pray (or just listen to Scripture) enough. Worship is more than singing; it’s also responding to God, and listening to God, and listening to His word, and prayer, and even giving. So while singing is wonderful, I think many services would benefit from more silent times to pray, or saying some creeds together, or hearing more Scripture read out loud.
We’re in church to encounter God, not to be entertained. And I believe that all congregation members should worship, and be in church with a sense of reverence and awe, regardless of what the music is, and even if it’s not your cup of tea. If you don’t worship, that is not the praise team leader’s fault. Nevertheless, I do think that praise team leaders could encourage worship more effectively by doing some of these things. What do you think?
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UPDATE: I changed one sentence to make it clearer that I’m not intending to criticize worship leaders as much as I’m trying to get people–both in the pews and in front of the microphones–to think about this a little differently. Sometimes the problem is with people complaining that the music isn’t their style, and I think we all need to work on just worshiping God, and getting rid of the distractions!