More thoughts on worship


Christians should be taught that our responsibilities to be like Christ do not get suspended when we step over the threshold of the worship center (or house or hall or room, etc.). Ironically, debates over corporate worship often reveal just how deeply American individualism has embedded itself into the evangelical culture. How many times have you heard church members complain about the type of music or instrumentation that is employed in corporate worship?

Just recently a pastor told me about 20 young adults who left a historic, inner city church because he would not promise to remove the pipe organ within a month of the commencement of his ministry there. Their justification was that they “did not like the worship.” So they left. The church has a storied history with many elderly members who have been faithful for decades. The twentysomethings left the church because their preferences were not being served in corporate worship. By doing so they forfeited a great opportunity for spiritual growth. And they showed great immaturity, though they probably are oblivious to it. They probably feel as if their separating from (and thereby dividing) the church was not only justified but absolutely called for in order for them to worship the Lord more wholeheartedly. I say “probably” because, although I do not know these 20 individuals, I have met their spiritual cousins and have listened to their justifications.

Well, what should a 25 year old member of a staid, pipe organ, downtown church do when the worship music does not seem to be his natural “voice?” Here are a couple of suggestions. First, he should remember the Scripture’s teachings that remain in force even in this area.

“Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another” (Romans 12:10).

“Let no one seek his own, but each one the other’s well-being” (1 Corinthians 10:24).

“Love…does not seek its own” (1 Corinthians 13:5)

Corporate worship is not a duty-free zone for Christian deference. Every church member should remember this when sizing up his or her congregation’s expressions of worship.

Secondly, the church member should recognize that he is part of a body that has multiple generations. As a church continues to exist and incorporates people of various generations or from different cultures into its membership, its voice will (read “should”) change to reflect that growth in variety. Obviously, leadership is crucial at this point. The elders–or other church leaders–must be wise in teaching and explaining how the church should work to offer its best expressions to the Lord in worship. Members should be willing to thoughtfully share their concerns and questions about this. As a pastor, I welcome suggestions that are made in humility and out of obvious concern that our church’s corporate worship be more and more God-honoring. On the other hand, I refuse to cave into the threats–implied or stated–that are sometimes made in the form of “suggestions.” Those who make them, or who would divide a church over music, are at best very immature believers and need to be encouraged to take seriously their commitment to Christ and His church.

The healthier a church is, the less likely it will face severe conflicts over corporate worship. So, issues of worship should be studied and considered in the context of a rigorous ecclesiology. It is incumbent on the leaders of a church to work hard to teach the members the importance of church life and to help cultivate a true sense of community. When brothers and sisters are relating to each other as “members one of another,” they will be much better equipped to work together in offering to the Lord their very best efforts in worship.

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11 Responses to “More thoughts on worship”

  1. Tom,
    Like most pastors, I have also been the recipient of “suggestions” regarding the style of music in our worship services. Not only have I seen it from younger members who complain about more traditional musical styles, I have also seen it from older members who complain about more contemporary styles. Christians on both ends of this debate need to follow the biblical directives you mentioned.

    As a pastor, I dream about hearing people discuss the theological and biblical substance of our music instead of obsessing over the style.

    I am really enjoying these posts on worship.

  2. One thing that I’ve learned from observing one of the local PCA congregations in my area is the importance of taking your denominational or local church confession of faith seriously. They use a mix of traditional and contemporary styles at this church, but most of their worship style utilzes contemporary music (juxtapozed with more traditional forms like responsive readings…which is kind a nifty). However, they also filter their music through their confession of faith, so that none of what they use contains theology that does not conform to their confessional standards.

    For example, they sing hymns, but you will never hear certain hymns many of us Baptists have sung for generations, like “Love lifted me,” because it says, “I was sinking deep in sin…” On the contrary, says their confession, “I was dead in sin, sunk to the bottom already, and love lifted me.” In short, if a member has a complaint about the choice of music, they listen to them and then inform them that they have to formulate an argument that the musical choice contradicts the church’s confessional statement in order for their complaint to receive the attention of their worship committee.

  3. Just wanted to assure you that there are young “twenty-somethings” out there who enjoy traditional hymns. In fact, the church where we are now does not have a pipe organ and I actually miss that sound.

    I’m 25, my husband is 28, and since he is currently in charge of music selections at our church, he has slowly been incorporating more and more old hymns back into the service. In all songs, whether contemporary or ancient, he does as the other commenter suggested and tests the theological merit of the song or hymn. Even some traditional Baptist hymns don’t make the cut– “In the Garden” is one. But there are others, such as “It is Well” and “How Great Thou Art,” that we sing regularly.

  4. Kelly, Gene and Allison:

    Great observations. I have left unsaid that which probably should be repeatedly said: whatever a church sings should be true and theologically appropriate (or, regulated by Scripture). Where a church has developed an appetite for biblical truth then the content of what is sung will always be more important than instrumentation, tunes, cadence, etc. These things are not unimportant, but are far from most important.

    Also, Christian deference is not the exclusive responsibility of any one generational or cultural group. Where such humility permeates a church the typical flash-points in the worship wars can be avoided altogether.

    Again, leadership in the church is absolutely crucial at this point. Allison’s description of her husband’s work reflects the kind of gentleness and wisdom that can help a church grow in its corporate worship.

  5. I’m starting to feel old but I guess that is OK. I remember a worship service 30 years ago in Tucson, AZ. The Holy Spirit was present in a tremendous way. The congregation was singing a contemporary worship song. Suddenly, as if on cue, the congregation stopped and a woman sang a solo. Then, as if on cue, the congregation resumed singing. I will never forget that service and the corporate feeling of being before the face of God. Only 10 or so years ago I was in Orlando, FL and I was in a worship service with a classically trained orchestra. We were worshiping with Handel’s Messiah. The Holy Spirit was present in a tremendous way. No one wanted the time to ever end and the congregation worshiped Almighty God as one body. I will never forget that service and the corporate feeling of being before the face of God.

    It isn’t the style. It is the substance brought to the service. The hearts in the pews should be lifted as offerings and not served a dose of entertainment. I’ve seen all “styles” fall flat on their face.

    I certainly agree with Tom that the “worship wars” are a waste of bullets. They are also a waste of targets when we are supposed to focus on a singular target.

    This quote below is what Tom said and is certainly worth thinking about in depth:

    “A significant part of what is involved in worshiping “in spirit” is being authentic. This requires sincerity and honesty before God in acknowledging who we are and who we are not as we approach Him in worship. It also requires humility that refuses to allow individual preferences to undermine corporate expressions of worship.”

  6. As a young 20-something I am ashamed to be associated with such a horrible mentality (althought it has rightly been pointed out that those of greater years participate in the same failure.)

    I am also ashamed to admit that I was one who elevated a certain style of worship above another as the only legitimate form of worship.

    Thank God for His grace.

    One question I’ve got to ask (I guess to Allison) – what do you find doctrinally incorrect about “How Great Thou Art” and “It Is Well?”

    I just reread the lyrics to both and can’t find a thing to alarm me…maybe I’m missing it.

  7. Tom,

    I haven’t posted in a while, but I have been reading your posts. I must say that I am truly blessed by what you have been saying about worship. This is a subject that as you know is important to me. I trust we will be able to be a blessing as we discuss it in our upcoming conference in January.

    I am thankful, I can count you a friend.


  8. As a young pastor of a “contemporary” style church which also has a worship pastor younger than me–we talk theology. We plan services that glorify Christ, adhere to doctrinal integrity, and give a great mixture of old hymns and new choruses that are rich in content. He told me just the other day that a few years ago (before I came) he shifted the focus of worship away from trite praise songs that give the repetitive mantras to finding more theologically rich contemporary songs. Much of what is coming out of Matt Redman, the Passion movement, and Caedmon’s Call are rich in theology yet contemporary. I like to use the term “contextualized” style of music. IF the content is Biblical and theologically sound, then the style of music needs to fit the context of the congregation. Each congregation has its own “worship” personality and I believe that the style needs to be indigenous. It’s been very fun discussing theology with my worship pastor as we seek to make our worship gatherings glorifying to God and reverent, yet with a contemporary praise team with drums and guitars.

  9. Sean,
    Though our church’s worship style is blended and leaning toward traditional, we seek to follow the same principles you articulated. The worship pastor and I have been working together for 11 years and we meet together weekly to review the content of our worship service. Like you, our focus is primarily on content and then style.

    By the way, Sovereign Grace Ministries has produced some excellent “contemporary” arrangements of great hymns.

  10. Thanks, Tom, for the kind words about my husband’s efforts. It’s been a long, slow process (over 4 years) to revitalize the worship from some of the more sentimental and theologically inaccurate songs/hymns.

    Jeff, there are some really theologically bad hymns, but thankfully, “It Is Well” is NOT one of them!

    Sean suggested some good contemporary musicians creation sound spiritual songs, and Kelly gave a nod to SGM for some rewrites of old hymns. At our church, we sing a mix of both.

    I would also recommend the Indelible Grace series (out of Nashville) and the music from Red Mountain Church (in Birmingham) as examples of other musicians who are updating some fantastically rich old hymnody with contemporary sounds. Some of my favorites include “And Can It Be,” “Thy Mercy, My God,” and “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go.”


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