Worship Music, Personal Preference, and “Relevance”

From high school until very recently, I have done PowerPoint in church and I have thus had a lot of time to consider styles of worship music. In my travels for short-term missions or teaching English overseas I have also gotten to take a peek at what Christians in other countries do in worship services. Most of my experience is with evangelical Protestant-types, but I have seen some Catholic and Eastern Orthodox worship also. Given my long-running captive audience exposure to evangelical worship music and my own musical preferences inclining toward bagpipes, military marches, and hard rock, I almost never choose to listen to contemporary Christian music. Worshiping God is both natural to me as a creation of God and repulsive to me in my fallen state, so music used in worship simultaneously follows and defies my personal preferences — never mind the ways musical preference expresses itself in corporate worship.

When new Christians start figuring out how they want to do church, naturally the way that they do music in worship will reflect their culture, yet the very use of the music will run against the desire to please themselves all the time. As I understand it, the Catholic Church initially developed plainsong to focus worshipers on God and keep them from focusing too much on the rhythm and pleasure of the music apart from its use in worship of God. Although worship and adoration of God should be pleasurable as a natural interaction between us the creation and God the Creator, we go to offer something acceptable to God rather than bring him down to the level of our own sensibilities. God became man so that he could do as a human what we could not do for ourselves and restore his image in us that Adam corrupted in the Fall. Worship is not simply a “come as you are” party hosted by God because his condescension toward us in the Incarnation meant to raise us to be like him rather than stop at making him to be like us. The condescension of God and the meteoric rise of fallen humanity are at odds in Christian worship.

Protestants have for some years now had the hymns vs. contemporary music debate. Contemporary Christian music is sometimes excoriated for turning adult worship music into children’s songs substandard even for children. Hymn hardliners get skewered for repressing creativity. My own taste being what it is, when I hear a contemporary Christian worship song, I wonder why the band is a bunch of pansies and refuses to rock out like any decent set of musicians. Were there to be an offer to do some rock and roll songs on Sunday to make me happy, I might just refuse because I want my rock and roll to be high quality and not just a charitable concession to my tastes. Then again, worship is for God and not for us, although we receive proportionally more that we give to God as we receive his grace. The forms of music naturally reflect our culture but worship has to be relevant to God. How do you touch upon what people recognize as music while offering worship acceptable to God?

You could call me a hymns guy as far as worship music goes: hymns are in a style of music that I recognize as music, whereas I might regard something else as a melodious racket and not really music; hymns have a gravity and sanctity to them that facilitates reverence toward God; although you can listen to them on your iPod when you are working out, hymns are in a style that seems largely set apart for worship of God and not simple entertainment; the hymnal can always take a new song or two but it has stuff from 500 years ago and maintains links with Christianity from ages past. I even get angry when it seems that someone is trying too hard to match my preferences. I know the world does not go my way, so why should going to meet a transcendent God who is hidden rather than illuminated by his own light be according to my preferences?

Some Christians use instruments in musical worship, while others go strictly a capella. I once visited a Greek Orthodox church, and someone I met was doing research on other Orthodox churches. She found that Orthodox Christians in India use instruments in their services, whereas the Greeks typically do not. When I was in a Roman Catholic church in Ghana for a wedding, I saw big drums with “Catholic Charismatic Renewal” stenciled on the sides. In other African churches, the worship music had African rhythms and dancing accompanied it. There is a lot that people do. Although we “sing a new song” to the Lord (Psalm 96:1), I don’t suppose we have to rush to bring new music styles to worship a transcendent God who is present in every time and every place because he has already heard them from all eternity. Nevertheless, we need not have every new song go through rigorous bureaucratic scrutiny before it features in the local church.

One problem that I see in some non-Protestant traditions is that the common people sometimes cannot understand the worship if it is done in a sacred language like Latin (for the Roman Catholics) or Slavonic (for the Russian Orthodox). I understand that the liturgy is often the same service after service. If the liturgy is formal speech above most people’s immediate comprehension, the point is to have worshipers internalize and conform themselves to what the liturgy says about God rather than serve up liturgical breakfast cereal for the people entering the kindgom of God as little children. Although a decent liturgical service is by no means seeker-sensitive, the learning curve for new Christians should not be prohibitively steep. As long as the catechism brings converts up to speed, then great; otherwise, I would hope to see the service books modernized every few decades so that worship will edify worshipers so that they know, love, and serve God better for having gone to church.

The key things in putting worship together then are reverence toward God, sources in historic Christianity, sources in today’s Christianity, and edification of and increased devotion in the worshipers. Though we employ diverse forms in worship, the forms are critical and not simply disposable. They have to correspond with what we already understand to be reverential. They have to have continuity with history because we in the Church Militant are one with the Church Triumphant. They have to have modern sources for the same reason as the need for them to have continuity with worship through history. They have to edify worshipers so that the tongues used in church may edify the whole and not merely the in-group who already understands, glossolalia or no. Let us reverentially, with a sense of tradition, bearing fruit after receiving the mercies of God that are new every morning, offer worthy and worthwhile worship to God every day we meet together, and with that I will abandon my clammy antipathy for contemporary Christian music.

Image from Wikipedia.