01 Mar “Thoughts About Worship Music” by Dave Gadoury, Senior Pastor
Churches must constantly ask the question, “How will we worship?” Today, this means specifically finding the balance between the use of contemporary worship music and traditional hymnody for congregational singing.
While leadership teams of churches in a variety of settings will address this issue differently, depending on the culture of their individual congregations, there are some principles that should always be kept in mind. This list is not exhaustive, but it represents important values in my own church’s current context.
Expressing the culture of the people
It should go without saying that authentic corporate worship music should be expressive of the culture of the people. That is to say, the way believers (new or old) worship together should reveal the invasion of gospel truth into the culture of the people.
This is the genius of the gospel. Its truth remains the same, but it has the power to adapt to myriads of cultures, languages, and ethnic groups. Early Jews worshipped in Hebrew or Aramaic with songs that sounded like those they had sung before; Romans worshipped in Latin or koine Greek, no doubt accompanied by the lire, cithara, and lute; early Viking Christian worship no doubt included the harp and pan flute; Latino believers’ worship today is expressed in Spanish and the ubiquitous strumming of the guitar.
If this principle of the cultural relevance of Christian worship music is valid, then an interesting question is how does this apply to early twentieth century American culture? What kind of music is naturally expressive of such a culture, and how can this be redeemed for the sake of the gospel?
While the answer may not be altogether clear, it is certainly true that historic Christian hymnody is markedly outside of mainstream culture. On the contrary, it is more likely typical of a unique “religious” sub-culture now alien to the ears of most un-churched people.
Churches wishing to honor this principle by correcting the way they worship will inevitably experience tension between such an adjustment and the habits, preferences, and familiarities of “churched” people accustomed to the counter-cultural worship style of the previous generations.
Dealing with that tension successfully will require love, discernment, and patience.
The presence of the uncommitted
The New Testament provides very few detailed descriptions of the worship gatherings of the early church. Those that exist are often more descriptive than prescriptive. One passage dealing directly with the conduct of corporate worship offers some cautions and directives, including this particular admonition: “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?” The timeless application of Paul’s principle seems to be that the way we worship needs to take into account the assumed presence of unbelievers among the worshippers in these quasi-public settings.
In short, we should ask ourselves, “Will the way we worship draw people in to faith, or alienate them from what they view as peculiar or foreign?”
So once again, we come to the question of the cultural connection between Christ’s followers and those whom we seek to reach. Will they be drawn in by worship with which they identify, or by that which seems foreign and unnatural? If the answer is the former, then it would seem that those overseeing worship should make sure that the way we worship is in harmony with our contemporary culture more than with the traditional and familiar worship habits of the sub-culture of our past. Doing so must mean that worship music will have a contemporary sound rather than one marked by ancient hymns and liturgical musical instruments.
Keeping first things first
Finally, it is no coincidence that on five separate occasions Jesus gave marching orders to the church in which fulfilling the Great Commission is at the heart of our existence. It is not a diversion for us to be constantly asking, “How can we reach more people for Jesus?” This concern is not a self-interested craving for numbers and greatness. Instead, it is at the heart of what the church is as a missionary enterprise. If we are not asking how we can build better bridges between the lost world and the life saving gospel, we have indeed lost our way.
In an increasingly secular, unchurched, and unbelieving culture, it will be more and more difficult to reach people far from God by interesting them in our experience of worship. Our greater burden must be to find ways to get ourselves and our good news out of the church and into a broken world and into the lives of the people who live there. But as long as Sunday worship remains a useful means of helping seeking, inquiring, and open minded people move closer to God, then we must aim to worship in a way that best connects with their contemporary minds and hearts.