I think, by now, it is pretty apparent that I find modern evangelical worship highly suspect at best. I may be closer to the mark to say I utterly despise it. There are exceptions that sneak into the repertoire of of the four cord playing mono syllabic “worship leader”. But those are usually of such high quality (Ex. Is He Worthy) that to deny them would reveal an idiocy beyond the pale. And naturally those trilby wearing strummers are just waiting for the song to get old enough for them to, “fix” it (Ex. In Christ Alone Remix).
I write all of this, not because I felt a cooling of the coals from the fires of “The Worship Wars” fought so valiantly in the 90’s and early 2000’s. But as an excuse to quote D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the subject.
“Still worse has been the increase in the element of entertainment in public worship – the use of films and the introduction of more and more singing, the reading of the Word and prayer shortened drastically, but more and more time is given to singing. You have a ‘song leader’ as a new kind of official in the church, and he conducts the singing and is supposed to produce the atmosphere. But he often takes so much time in producing the atmosphere that there is no time for preaching in the atmosphere! This is a part of this whole depreciation of the message.” – D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers
The Doctor spoke here as a prophet. Today we have the advantage of looking back over the carnage wrought by the seeker sensitive movement and, for the strong of heart, able to see where it’s infection is still bubbling merrily away in our churches. Obviously, I would point to the current state of what passes for “worship music” as one of these pulsating boils on the bride of Christ. I have heard all the arguments, and while I am by no means advocating for Psalter only, or pure hymnody. I am arguing for a reassessment. Here are a few things I would suggest be considered and tried.
1. Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs
Only anything is a bad thing. It smacks of legalism. What is interesting to me was that during the worship wars that charge was widely used against those arguing for hymns. But the charge was never reversed toward those who were praise chorus only. Looking down your nose on those who do not follow your diktats on debatable issues is legalistic.* However, I think that Scripture charges to the fore with an excellent directive:
“Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart,” – Ephesians 5:19
Lo and behold, a compromise! The first two are pretty self explanatory and I would posit that the third nicely can encompass modern praise music**. If the instruction is that all three should be used in the worship of God then perhaps the command should be followed. The advantages are numerous, legalisms can be avoided, scripture is bound to the heart (Psalms), Doctrine is ingrained (Hymns) and with that foundation the choosing of current church music will be more wisely done and saints will be encouraged (Spiritual Songs).
Connecting to the next point, there is something to be said for the old school pianist who could play anything. Bands and praise teams require rehearsals and end up with a limited repertoire of old chestnuts that congregations seem to enjoy on repeat. God has blessed us with an enormous catalogue of music to sing in the worship service, the ability to draw broadly and deeply is a real advantage over being limited to four chord songs because that is what the band knows.***
2. Jesus at the Center of it All
This will sound trivial but bear with me. Move the music off the stage. put the band out of view, if there must be a praise team, put them mostly out of sight as well. One person behind a podium to keep time is acceptable. Now if you think I am trying to set worship back a few decades, I am. Not because I think worship was perfect, but I do think it was less distracting. One more note, size matters not. I have been in tiny churches that were so proud of their music set up that sprawled the platform and was revered. The problem in both the small church boastful of their good ole country worship and the mega church advertising their awesome band is that both have ignored the reason they are there. And before you argue that these people mean well and are leading the congregation in worship. The evidence points to the contrary. Lip service and good intentions are not just the purview of politicians. It is a show plain and simple, Paul Washer has observed that if you found the soundboard plug and kicked it out of the wall in most churches during the singing, everything would stop. Congregations are not singing, they are attending a concert followed by a lecture. The distractions should be removed, the body needs to be taught to sing, and they need to sing across the spectrum. A final note on this. A wise pastor can greatly help his song leader by not allowing him improvised prayers or sermonettes. At least not until it is painfully apparent how well he actually understands doctrine. This is a further symptom of a concert mentality, in reality these are sophomoric attempts to impress or remind and congregation of how “in touch” he is with the spirit, or his emotions. As he is probably about to sing on repeat for the next five minutes, “Jesus at the center of it all.”
3. Teach the People or Experience isn’t Everything
Related to the above, and what concerned Lloyd-Jones so much is the entertainment or emotional factor. Listen to how services are described today, Roger Ebert could hardly have done better. Rather than be pleased that God was glorified, or discussion or considering how to apply the Scripture taught, the service is rated on how they felt during the music, and if they liked the sermon. I take it back, Ebert could do better, he had a broader criteria than felt, liked, or didn’t like. I am fond of teaching, church isn’t about you. It is about God. Music like the sermon should be exegetical, it is driven by the text and it’s application to the congregation. It should not be driven by the little treadmill of the band’s ten most familiar songs or, worse, what songs most often the congregation really likes. As I pointed out earlier this is evidence of a congregation not being led in worship but having their desires catered to. Manipulating emotions is vile, programing to please people is a failure in the first order. Churches gather to worship God, not to have a positive encouraging experience.
Lastly, the idea that somehow theologically complex or heavy songs will ruin the experience is lazy. As Dorothy Sayers has pointed out, “The dogma is the drama.” Assuming a theologically inept congregation and then catering to that will create that kind of congregation. A doctrinally robust congregation will revel in heady theology set to music. Overly simplistic songs are patronizing at best and infantilizing at worst. No parent wants their child to remain an emotionally driven brat who insists everything revolve around their felt needs. Why is is assumed that this approach is acceptable for Christians. If good theology is too boring for them and they only want what makes them, short sightedly, feel good; the pastor has failed. The dogma is the drama if a man can not see that and requires instead an experience it is a result of him being spoon fed a poor substitute. It is the equivalent of what Lloyd-Jones instructed pastors not to do, preach about or around the gospel, instead of preaching the gospel. One is living, the other is observing a corpse.
The slick sales pitch that was completely bought was that we should be seeker sensitive and our churches would grow. We were told to focus on felt needs rather than real ones. And like the brothers McCann staring out at a field of a useless crop we might finally turn to one another and say, “Boy that salesman really did see us coming.” Not only were these strategies useless they were godless. Faithfulness matters, perhaps if we worship God in the way He has stated he desires to be worshiped, He might do what He says and gather His church…
It should also be noted that simply copying the tastes and trends of the world is counter to the stated direction our gatherings are supposed to take. Christians are to be strangers and sojourners in a foreign land, churches serve as cultural centers of another kingdom. Standing apart from the tastes of the day is what we do. This does not mean there can never be innovation, or updates to liturgy or style. But it does mean these changes should be carefully weighed and considered. Bad traditions burrow in like the little tick they are and are hard to remove. It would be better to squash them before they take hold. The mechanisms moving slowly around how are we worship is a feature not a bug. It makes us different from the world and aids in our Obedience to Christ and how He has said to gather. This will not hinder church growth because church growth does not depend on us, Faithfulness does.
Preaching is to be central, it is the declaration of Christ and him crucified. surrounding that are elements of liturgy. Now a days preaching has had some revitalization, but the other elements receive little to no thought theologically. They are evaluated on entirely different metrics, Do we have time or can we get through it faster (Communion), are these songs ones we know the congregation likes and the band knows (music), do I feel like the spirit is moving me emotionally (prayer). Serious thought needs to go into all of our gathered time on the Lords Day, slap dash or routine should not take charge. When the due consideration is put into this, God is pleased and moves among his people. I prime example of this happening is when Mark Dever punched a hard reset at his church.
“Entertainment-based worship was replaced by congregational singing, including many long-forgotten classic hymns from the past. Instead of driving people away, however, over time this approach to church life—to the surprise of many—attracted droves of new believers, many of them millennials and young professionals. Today, the average age of members at Capitol Hill Baptist Church (as Metropolitan is now known) is thirty-one, and the place is bursting at the seams, with standing room only on Sunday mornings.” – Timothy George, Puritans on the Potomac
I could point to other examples such as Kevin DeYoung, John MacArthur (whatever your opinion is you can not discount his consistent and faithful ministry). An older example would be the Prince of Preachers himself Spurgeon who compiled and had published, Our Own Hymnal, for use at the Metropolitan Tabernacle. At the end of each of his sermons is a list of hymns that were sung that Lord’s Day and they tire directly to the teaching of the sermon. Lloyd-Jones would push us toward these examples and encourage us to emulate them. Not because they could serve as a handy cudgel for those of us who truly despise modern worship music, but because they exemplify wisdom in worship. For too long the western evangelical church has coasted on assumptions about worship. It is time to reconsider our approach and, probably, realign with our protestant liturgical roots.
*I do realize that introduction could be seen as splashing around in that pool quite gleefully.
**Two slight observations. First, the “Spiritual Songs should be evaluated, rigorously, before being taught to a congregation. On a simple big E on the eye chart basis they should actually have God’s name directly in it, but beyond that the less individualistic language the better. Just because Hillsong and Bethel produce a lot does not mean they are to be relied upon for theological accuracy, much less precision, and as churches they are pretty much cults so… Second, there is some consideration for the fact that what is considered a hymn today was contemporary when it first came out. I would like to think that the best are still with us but seeing as Fanny Crosby’s Jesus Sweet Lover of my Soul is still with us gives me doubts.
***There is in churches that limit themselves to any style of music a rut to be found. A Hymn only church can just as easily fail to traverse the great heights of our endowment because the tubby man in a suit swinging his arm to keep time has only about fifteen hymns that he really likes. Like most things this requires work. (which parenthetically, when a church employs a music man, what does he do all week? I just can’t imagine that it takes that much time for him to choose four songs that everyone already knows.)