Worship Wars: Terms of Peace

Praise TeamWe’ve considered the tragic nature of the worship wars. We’ve examined this issue from the vantage point of scripture. We’ve also carefully weighed the critiques of praise songs and hymns (and offered sound defense for both). One final post on this topic:

Whether hymn or praise song, what makes a good one? If we shouldn’t be knee-jerk dyed-in-the-wool hymners or praise-songers, by what criteria should we evaluate music for congregational singing? Are you some sort of big tent, whatever-works-for-you worship relativist? No, I’m not. Here are the criteria:

Content – what we sing matters. We aren’t singing for singing’s sake. We are singing for the Lord’s sake: for his honor, glory, and exaltation. We need to make sure that we are lifting before him words worthy of his honor. Those words should be:

  • Biblical – this doesn’t mean that the words we sing need to be direct scripture quotation (some do insist on this, but without sufficient biblical justification), though this is certainly OK! In fact, I think a lot of praise songs do best when they do just this: just set some Bible to music. But even apart from this – make sure that the content aligns with the biblical witness. Our songs should reflect Genesis to Revelation, not vague odes to a generic “love,” nor doxology to the “fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man” (which wanders a long way from the God of the Bible and his particular plan of redemption). Bible, not modern therapeutic deism.
  • Orthodox – Hopefully this sounds redundant, because orthodox theology is the same thing as biblical truth. Still, it can’t be overstated. We shouldn’t sing heresy. We obviously don’t honor God when we misrepresent who he is, what he has done, the nature of the atoning work of Christ, or any other important theological truth. And, frankly, some songs are pretty sloppy theologically.
  • Systematic – One thing that hymns do much better than praise songs is proclaim the full scope of the faith. You see this in last verses. Nearly every great hymn has a final verse that looks forward to: Christ’s return, heaven, judgment day, the resurrection, etc. Usually they begin with Christ’s finished work, then move through the present application of this truth to today, then arrive (systematically) at the eschaton in verse 4. This is beautiful; this works; we should have more of this.
  • Sensible. Perhaps I’m the only one who’s noticed that sometimes songs just don’t make any sense? Sometimes they seem to start off going one way and ultimately end up unexpectedly in some other odd and strange place. Is it too much to ask that a song make sense? I don’t see how nonsense can honor God. Also: punctuation. Can we insert commas, periods, semi-colons, question marks and line breaks where they make sense? Is it more spiritual to have poor grammar and punctuation? I think not.

Quality – Not only does what we sing matter, so too does how we sing it.

  • Excellence. We should offer God our very best. The best we can make it to be. Excellent musicians, vocalists, equipment, presentation. We should be clean in our transitions, introductions, conclusions, etc. Now possibly in a particularly context we’re short on certain resources – OK, but we should offer unto the Lord the best that we have to offer. Maybe I’m only a B-level singer, but then I shouldn’t do C-level work! And where we have deficiencies, we should seek to improve. How can we be complacent when we are talking about worshipping the God of heaven and earth?
  • Good music. I’ve defended hymns and praise songs, but this doesn’t mean there aren’t loads of examples of bad ones. There are crummy hymns (thousands of them!) and there are crummy praise songs (thousands of them!). Charles Wesley wrote 8,989 hymns; our hymnal includes 13. Fanny Crosby wrote at least 8,000 hymns; our hymnal contains 13. There have been tens of thousands of songs composed over the centuries. Many of these were undoubtedly good ones. But we only have time to sing the best of the best. The cream of the cream of the cream of the crop. It’s like Major League Baseball: only the best of the best of the best ever make it through the incredible array of farm teams for a crack at “The Show.”   And this is as it should be. If a song is only so-so, we shouldn’t sing it.

Presentation – It matters what we sing and how we sing it, but how we present it also matters.

  • Congregational singing vs. Performance. One distinction that a lot of congregations need to make is the distinction between congregational singing and performance. When the congregation sings, it is not a vocal performance. It is a corporate act of worship wherein God’s people collectively seek to honor him. This is congregational worship, not individual or group performance. The purpose of worship leaders: to lead God’s people, not to entertain. The people are not an audience; they are not the recipients of song. Instead, they are worshippers. They are offering the song to God and the musicians assist them in their work.
  • Singability. With this last bit in mind, song selectors needs to wrestle with whether we are presenting this in a way that people can actually sing it. You might have a really terrific song, but if people can’t sing it, it isn’t appropriate for congregational worship. Make it a special music instead.   A lot of popular songs are sung in a key that isn’t easily managed by most congregations – re-key it or don’t sing it. A lot of popular music is sung in a performance style that is great for radio, but doesn’t adapt well to a congregational context. Change the style or don’t sing it.
  • Worship assistance. The purpose of a praise team, of a band, of an organist, of a vocalist, of anyone leading worship is to lead worship Worship is the work of God’s people (that’s why it’s called a worship service). The job of leaders is to lead the people, assist the people, guide the people, so that they can worship God in prayer and song. In many respects, the leadership should be as invisible as possible; they are the infrastructure – necessary and important, but not the thing. That’s the Lord. We should make every effort to get people’s minds and attention off of us and onto the Lord.
  • Turn it down. I love loud music. I’m guessing that I’ve flattened many thousands of auditory cilia over the years by listening to the music that I love much too loudly. However, in the context of congregational worship it would be best if we scale back the volume on the instrumentals a bit and really encourage people to sing. If it is too loud, people won’t sing. If I can’t hear myself sing, I won’t sing. We should be able to hear the people around us sing. And the purpose of leadership is to lead the people so they can sing. Less is more here.

Ardor – We should sing with gusto. Sing with some passion. There is nothing more deadly to worship than apathy. An indifferent worshipper is an energy sapper. And if you can’t sing (and pray) with a little bit of sincere earnestness, there isn’t much hope that you’re likely to hear God’s Word read and proclaimed, that you’ll offer yourself significantly in other respects. I mean, what do you have to lose? So what if you’re not Pavarotti? Only Pavarotti is (was). Belt it out! It’s for the Lord. He gave you your voice (for this purpose). Your vocal quality won’t come as a surprise to him.  Worship leadership should encourage the people in just this way.

Conclusion:   One of our members asked me recently, “Why are you writing so much about this?  We’re not having problems with this, are we?” Mercifully, no. In fact, this is not the source of the slightest bit of controversy at Mt. Pleasant. Part of the reason for this is the commitment of the leadership (musical and otherwise) to incorporate the principles outlined above in our worship. That extends from prayerful song selection to rehearsals, from scripture selection to the day of worship.

Part of the reason for writing these particular blog posts is a sense of pain over the division seen in so many congregations, including some that I know and love. This simply shouldn’t be.

We’ve opted to opt out of the worship wars. We won’t participate. We’ll sing hymns, praise songs, praise songs as hymns, hymns as praise songs; we’ll mix pianos, drums, guitars, etc.  Some wars are worth waging; this one isn’t. One ancient song of praise (Psalm 133) says: How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! Let that be a theme of your song.