After leading worship recently at my home church, I was packing away equipment and chatting with the various members of our team who were serving that particular Sunday when an elderly lady came forward to chat.
After saying hello she said –
“Dave, I love the sense of the presence of God around our Sunday’s. I love how young our team is here at church and the music is amazing. But sometimes, I just wish we’d sing my favourite songs…”
She then told me what her favourite songs were – they were older hymns and I have to confess that I didn’t know them, nor had I ever heard them before, but I told her that our team is always trying to learn not just new songs, but also re-learn old songs. I confessed to her that often we don’t sing my favourite songs either. We both acknowledged the compromise that congregational worship is when it comes to songs, and off she went.
If only all ‘discussions’ about worship were like that….
I’ve always loved this quote from a letter written by a pastor in to an American Newspaper about new trends in church music –
“There are several reasons for opposing it –
One, its too new.
Two, its often worldly, even blasphemous.
The new Christian music is not as pleasant as the more established style.
Because there are so many songs, you can’t learn them all.
It puts too much emphasis on instrumental music rather than Godly lyrics.
This new music creates disturbances making people act indecently and disorderly.
The preceding generation got along without it.
It’s a money making scene and some of these new music upstarts are lewd and loose.”
It was written in 1723 about Isaac Watts – writer of some of the great hymns like When I Survey the Wondrous Cross and Joy to the World. It might have been written in 1723, but the same sentiment could be read time and time again in blog articles, church newsletters, books and reports. Just one search on the Relevant Magazine Website for ‘worship’ yields about a thousand results.
Nothing seems to divide opinion like worship, or more specifically, sung worship.
I’ve played music since I was a teenager, playing in bands in pubs and clubs and at the same been leading worship in my home churches. Throughout those years and a couple of trends seem to come up.
Amongst my Christian friends playing outside congregational worship there seems to be a great deal of negativity towards worship music. It’s too simple. It’s unimaginative. It’s not particularly good quality. They are suspicious of the big business of modern worship and are uncomfortable with the fact that its a whole genre in and of itself. They are struggling to see the real in it.
They are yearning for authenticity.
And inside the church we have a whole other set of issues and questions so plainly illustrated by the complaint leveraged at Isaac Watts. It’s too new. It’s too traditional. It’s too ‘touchy-feely.’ It’s too concerned with ceremony. And on and on.
Yet sung worship is important to God. The Bible is littered with over 100 references to music in the place of worship. God obviously believed it had a place at the heart of the church amongst His people. Maybe it’s because music has this ability to speak to us and through us when we struggle to find the words ourselves.
Hans Christian Anderson said “Where words fail, music speaks” which is an amazing thing for a man so gifted with words to say. But it’s true – at least for me. You see, I struggle to think about a significant time or place in my life where music doesn’t form part of that memory. Music is, if you like, the soundtrack to all of our lives.
So as a teenager navigating school and hormones and all of that, Nirvana and Rage Against the Machine were the soundtrack to that time. They felt like an outlet.
Or when I think about meeting my wife Joy, I think so fondly of times driving in my car listening to Bon Iver.
Or in the early days of our marriage hearing ‘Oceans’ by Hillsong United for the first time I just remember sitting in our living room as both of us wept as we acknowledged our lack of courage and yearned for more faith.
Or as I think about a significant period in the life of our church as we knocked down our old building and built the new, songs like ‘Blessed Be Your Name’ seemed so real during that time.
Or as I think about navigating a personal tragedy in my own life over the last number of years, Hillsong’s rearrangement of Cornerstone became a song littered with truth that I held on to. And still do.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “Music…will help dissolve your perplexities and purify your character and sensibilities, and in time of care and sorrow, will keep a fountain of joy alive in you.” And I believe this to be true for the church.
As we gather in worship, whatever that looks like for you, we have this incredible opportunity to sing of the truth of who God is. We get to come before him and proclaim Him in the midst of our own lives – fears, failures, hopes, dreams, hurts, pains – and ask Him to move. Ask Him to draw near. Ask him to heal. Ask him to change things in us, through us and around us. And I’m so thankful that music somehow stirs us and speaks where we can’t. I’m so thankful that worship is about a decision in our heads to engage and a compulsion from our hearts to praise when we feel like it and when we don’t.
Ephesians 5:19 speaks of “…addressing one another in Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.”
Worship, when its true, is about something that happens in the heart.
Can we become too concerned with the style?
New, old, modern, traditional, ancient, hymn, Psalm, free, prophetic etc, etc. We can become concerned with any single one of these preferences and they are all important and all have their place. But they are not in and of themselves the answer, whichever stream we ascribe or pay most attention to.
Can we become too focussed on being relevant?
We have to learn to honour the past, and glean from it the songs and structures, wisdom and insight that speak to us today, but it cannot be at the expense of being relevant. As my friend Karl Martin (pastor at Central in Edinburgh) says “You do not honour your forefathers by adopting their practices but by adopting their principles.”
Psalm 145 says –
“One generation commends your works to another; They tell of your mighty acts.”
And if we do not speak and sing in a language that the world today understands, then one generation will never pass the baton on to the next. Every generation, and every move of God, seems to find its own voice and so often its own songs. Time and time again (particularly in the Psalms) the Bible talks about ‘Singing to the Lord a new song’ and this generation, and every generation, has to sing the new songs of their age. Its not a choice, its necessary. But relevancy alone isn’t the answer.
Can we become too obsessive over the content?
So often I hear the phrase ‘…but the content of the old songs is so much deeper…’ or ‘…the songs were just better back then…’ but really? Sure, there are poorly written songs today, but there were too in days gone by. Charles Wesley is widely credited with writing 6,000 hymns but the reality is that only about 20 of them are commonly remembered. And even then we don’t sing all the verses.
I’ve grown up in Presbyterian churches my whole life so I have a real appreciation for older hymns. They are rich and a treasure to the church. But if we think there is no depth in the writers of today then we are committed to doubting God’s ability to speak and move through the songs and styles of His church today. It’s as if we’re saying “He only spoke through these writers, in that style, at that time.” Content is important, but alone it’s not the answer either.
Worship is something that happens in the heart that draws us to respond with our all and leads us to a transforming encounter with the risen God. When something happens in the heart we want to sing about the Name above all names. We want to sing about our own stuff. And we want to sing ‘Your kingdom come, Your will be done.’
Worship has this extraordinary power to open up our hearts. It’s like it is able to bypass our brains sometimes so that our heart can speak what it wants to say.
In my life, I have found that it’s in this place when I open up my heart and my life to God, that I have encountered His presence and His power. Psalm 95 tells us that as we come with thanksgiving we come into His presence and 2 Corinthians 3 reminds us that where His presence is there is freedom and transformation. And that is why we worship.
Worship is about so much more than singing, or songs, or ceremony.
In the place of worship where we proclaim Him for who He is, gather as the church corporate to seek Him in our midst, tell him about our stuff and to ask Him to move, there we meet Him. And with our hearts and our lives open, we can be transformed.