The Ever-Changing Act of Worship


I love music.  And despite being an amateur I do consider myself a musician. Since the dark days of middle school I’ve played the guitar, and being in my mid-30’s I still enjoy finding opportunities to play. Naturally, and other musicians will understand this, many hours have been spent loitering in Guitar Center, playing guitars I’ll never own through amps I’ll never afford. It’s therapeutic, and thinking back at some of the most painful events I’ve gone through, each day I inevitably found myself either plugged into a Twin Reverb, or in the acoustic room, sitting on a way-too-rickety-for-OSHA wooden stool. I just sort of gravitate there.

As much as I enjoy playing, looking at printed music intimidates me, mainly because I never had the discipline to learn how to read it. I do regret that. But because of time and effort and more time, I was fortunate enough to learn a thing or two through chord charts and tabulature, but also through playing with extremely talented people in worship teams and a super-awesome band (which was clearly ahead of its time and obviously deserving of a worldwide tour). They are lessons I learned either from listening to other musicians work through the creative process, or by simply listening to music, how it sounds, and discovering what makes it better (or worse). Some of the most important lessons for me turned out to be very Solomonesque in that they are mostly about time, because there is, as he put it, a time for everything.  A time to play aggressively and a time to be mellow.  A time to keep up with the beat and a time to simply let a chord ring out.  And the often overlooked time for silence.

Because music is so near and dear to my heart, I adore corporate worship. Worship, of course, is more than music.  We worship through music, yes, but also through Communion, offering, fellowship, and the message, and even our whole lives are an act of worship!  But let’s be honest, when we ask each other “how was worship today,” we aren’t asking whether the wafer was fresh or stale. For better or worse we simply want to know how the music was. For me as long as it doesn’t include “Kum-ba-ya” or “As the Deer”, I’m happy, but not everyone is so laid back.  After all, contention over worship styling has existed for eons.

Worship wars can be a byproduct of generational gaps, but the conflict predates and goes far beyond the modern “contemporary vs. traditional” scene*.  Michael Wood writes in Ancient Worship Wars: An Investigation of Conflict in Church Music History that “For the most part, the earliest church fathers were in agreement on various issues in their writings. But the music that was agreed upon was born of conflict. Early Christian worship borrowed heavily from that of the Jewish synagogue.” However the music wasn’t simply influenced by Christianity’s Jewish heritage. Wood notes that the Early Church “grew and flourished in a pagan Graeco-Roman environment whose popular ideas about music were at odds with Christianity’s.”  Sound familiar?  I suppose the disagreements the Early Church experienced demonstrate another truism from Solomon, that there is nothing new under the sun.

Wood follows trail of discontent from arguments about the use of instruments and pagan styling into a whole different controversy, as “Athanasius** takes the position that psalm singing is not meant to be enjoyable,” even going as far as to suggest that the reciting of psalms should be monotone, as to ensure nobody would enjoy it one bit. This line of thinking is absolutely contradictory to the performance-driven worship that exists in modern contemporary churches.  We love our music and we want it done well.  And speaking as a musician there is a legitimate performance aspect to worship that cannot be ignored. Because if we are going to use our time, talent, and energy to worship God, then it is something we should want to do well. He deserves that, right? I don’t think Athanasius would disagree that God is deserving of our highest quality when it comes to worship, that we should strive to offer God our best. But he argues through his writings that the purpose of our worship is not to benefit us or to placate our opinions; it’s to worship God and God alone, and our enjoyment is irrelevant.

He’s right, but I think he takes it too far.

As with many things balance is reasonable. Again from Wood, “Augustine writes how he struggles between two extremes.  The first [being] when he allows the emotional power of music to overtake him, leaving his mind disengaged. When this happens, he only realizes it in retrospect and considers it to be sinful. The other extreme occurs when he is so mindful of music’s emotional power that he wishes church services would forbid music.” Obviously those are two extremes: that music is either so emotional it subconsciously takes him away from worship or he realizes how emotional the music is, and he is resentful of it, preferring no music at all. I think it’s easy to get caught up in the first extreme, though I doubt many people, (and I include myself in that number,) are reflective enough to recognize when their enjoyment of worship supersedes their actual worship.  We simply answer the question that worship was great, and then follow up with various aesthetic reasons why. But whether it is subconscious or conscious, Augustine nails it.  His isn’t commentary on styling as much as an obvious declaration that worship doesn’t happen when we allow it to not happen.  It isn’t worship when we focus on the music rather than God.  It isn’t worship when we allow the style of worship to distract us from worshipping God.  When our preferences are given greater priority than the worship of the creator of everyone and everything, we elevate ourselves to the object of worship, and if we become worshippers of ourselves, there is very little room for anything else.  The challenge is how to coexist and worship in an environment that does not reflect our own preferences.

The unpopular and insensitive answer, and one I tend to react with, is simply “get over it.” However the more difficult answer, one that serves a larger kingdom-focused purpose in regards to maturity and discipleship, is that through proper teaching we should explain what worship is and what worship isn’t. As a minister who was privileged to serve in a rural church whose congregation did not have the resources to expand beyond A Capella music, I learned very quickly that worship is not being upset at the lack of guitars. Worship is not complaining that “I’m not connecting with the worship,” or that “I don’t like how the music is different than what I’m used to.” Worship is an ever-changing presence in the Body of Christ, and in 30 years, worship styling could either morph back into polyphonic sacred music or it could closely resemble future pop sounds. All that matters is that through such music, instrumental or no, contemporary or no, that God and God alone is glorified.

There’s a time for everything.  One could even argue that there is a time to have disagreements about how things are done.  But that time is not Sunday morning.  That’s God’s time. It is not time for petty bickering or sitting in the pew stewing over the addition or subtraction of instruments or songs.  It’s a time for when we worship God with all of our heart and all of our soul and all of our strength – to Him alone be the glory.

* Note: conflict is not simply limited to styling.  The Restoration Movement, the tradition of which I am a part, is split on whether or not instruments are appropriate for worship, the non-instrumentalists citing the lack of instruments in the New Testament to legitimize their position.

** Note to fellow Restoration folk: this guy wrote a creed which offers a great understanding of how to explain the Trinity.  Check it out.

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