When I evaluate a song for the church, my question isn’t so much whether or not it sounds like everything else we call “worship,” but rather whether the song invites the hearts and minds of believers to see and savor Jesus as he really is.
Worship. This one word in today’s church culture holds massive connotations. We’ve heard it said over and over again that worship doesn’t equal music and music doesn’t equal worship. The reality is, for better or worse, we have created a whole sub-culture of Christian music and have labeled it “Worship.” Whichever side of the fence you fall on, it’s important that we think about the place of music in the church, lest history repeat itself again.
A significant turning point in my life occurred when I traveled to Jamaica to help lead worship alongside a missionary team. With my acoustic guitar, I played many contemporary songs that were very well known back in the United States. The church body joined in the best they could and showed appreciation for my being there. When I had finished, a woman in the congregation stood up and burst into a song. Immediately, I heard tambourines and other percussive instruments join in, followed by the rest of the congregation’s voice. I looked around and saw the church gathered and connected in a way I was not used to, around a song I did not know, with a style that didn’t seem common to me. To this Jamaican church, the song was normal. To them it was familiar. It was a musical language that worked within their region and context. There was no acoustic guitar. There was no bass guitar. There was no drum set. Was this not worship? It didn’t sound like everything I was used to. They had only their hands for clapping, voices for singing, and a few instruments for percussion. The song was in a style that Westerners might call simple, trite, and repetitive, but with it, I had witnessed a powerful, loving worship of God. I saw a united prayer of a congregation. I saw a united love of the God they were singing to and about.
Standing on the other side of the many years of “worship wars,” I question how it was ever a battle to begin with. When we gather as a congregation, we are told to do all things that edify or build up believers (1 Cor. 14:26). This entails loving one’s neighbor as themselves. We are called in our gatherings to unite and sing “to one another” (Ephesians 5:18-19). Have we ever stopped and pondered what style best accomplishes that in our context? Could it be that much of the bickering about musical styles stems from our individualistic bent within our western culture. It is concerned mainly with the vertical (me and God) to the detriment and neglect of the horizontal (me and my neighbor) as well as the missional (how our unity in song looks to those outside the church).
So why is it that we sing when we gather? Is it for God? Is it for us? I’d propose our singing and our gathering, and ultimately all we do in life should be for both. In doing what God commands, we are always doing what’s best for us. We gather to remember and we sing to remember (because we need to be reminded) that the sacrifice of Jesus is sufficient. Sometimes the way we treat our music in the church comes across like it’s the new medium for us to connect with God. Simply put, the Christian’s sacrifice and offering has already been accomplished (1 Peter 3:18) and it’s Jesus who brings us to God.
When I evaluate a song for the church, my question isn’t so much whether or not it sounds like everything else we call “worship,” but rather whether the song invites the hearts and minds of believers to see and savor Jesus as he really is. If we are only looking for one musical style within worship music what is preventing us from creating a new standard that we will be fighting to break free from in the years to come?
So where do we go from here? I’d suggest we as local churches talk about the “why of worship in song”, amongst pastors, and amongst the congregation. Let’s not assume that we are all on the same page about what’s taking place during our worship services. I believe as churches collectively seeing the way that singing to God, to one another, and with the knowledge that the outsiders are looking in have there place we will worship through song with more passion and experience more of God’s presence than ever before.