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Thoughts on Ecclesiastical Worship in Song – Part 2

July 29, 2007

In my previous post, I made the argument that the whole church – regardless of age, race, sex, or musical preference – must worship together. But how do we get to this point? Do we “meet in the middle” and blend styles? Or does one side give in? What should the church be singing, and how should we sing it? Well, I think the best way to discuss these questions is to break down musical worship into at least two categories: style and content. In this post I want to specifically focus on content.

Content obviously refers to the words that are being sung, and there are certainly many problems with the “words that are sung” in many of our churches today. But I think there is a bigger question to ask in regards to content: What is the purpose of worship in song? Well, part of the answer, I think, is given in the phrase “worship in song.” What I mean is that when we gather to worship every Lord’s Day, this worship includes the whole event – prayer, singing, communion, the hearing and preaching of the Word, etc. I find it ironic that many people think that worship only refers to the singing part of the service, but yet think of the sermon as the “key event.” In other words, the service is split into two parts – worship, which is where the congregation sings, and the sermon, which is where the congregation listens and learns. In actuality, though, the Bible does not make this distinction. For instance, Colossians 3:16 tells us to “let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” I think this is the purpose of worship in song – that the Word of Christ might dwell in us richly. Preaching and singing go hand in hand, and this in fact says something about content – it must be the Word of Christ!

There are a few things to say about this. First, how do we sing the Word of Christ? Well, the clue is in the phrase “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” All three of these things actually refer to the Psalms. This is how the Septuagint (The Greek translation of the Old Testament … this is what Paul’s hearers would have been reading) speaks of the Psalms. Now, I’m not saying that there is no room for any other worship music than the Psalms, but I am saying this: A) The church would do well to recover the practice of regular Psalm singing, and B) The Psalms should be the primary model for any other worship music. So… there goes about 80% of popular worship music from the last 100 years or so.

Second, what is the connection between the Word of Christ and the Psalms? If the Psalms are the ideal model for worship, then what is the Word of Christ? Well, it obviously has to do with Christ’s redemptive work, and there are a lot of themes that are included here – His life, death, resurrection, creation, conquering of sin, atonement, faithfulness, etc. – but I think the Word of Christ in song has at least three elements. Colossians 3:16 gives us a good idea of this when it says that worship should teach, admonish, and give thanks. Look at any of the Psalms – they all contain these elements, and in many cases, all three elements are interwoven within the psalm. There’s not much of a distinction. Certainly different Psalms have different themes – forgiveness, retribution, praise, remembrance, etc… but they all contain the elements of teaching, admonishing, and thankfulness. Now look at the popular songs of today. Most of them only focus on one element – predominately thankfulness – if they focus on any at all.

Third, proper content in musical worship is vital because of how it relates to preaching. Again, look at Colossians 3:16 – if the Word of Christ is to dwell in us richly, then all of worship must be teaching, admonishing, and thankful. The western church has become so influenced by 17th century pietism – which placed more emphasis on personal, emotional aspects of worship, rather than the orthodox, corporate aspects – as well as the revivalistic focus on individualistic response, that we’ve forgotten that one of the principle purposes of musical worship is that the congregation teaches each other through song! (It’s interesting to note that the layout of our churches used to have the congregations facing each other – to better facilitate this teaching and encouraging through song – but as the focus became more individualistic – what does God have to say to me, rather than the church – the pulpit moved to the center stage and the pews all turned forward). I think this has also had a dramatic effect on the purpose of preaching. Many churches that I have been to practice expository (verse by verse) preaching. Certainly this style of preaching is in response to the pathetic, opinion driven, three verses and a joke, motivational speech styled “preaching” that occurs in many churches today – so it is a good thing in that sense. But more often than not, these sermons lack creativity, beauty, and application. This is understandable, given the time-constraints of a normal sermon, because this is the only time the Word of Christ is taught. But it doesn’t have to be so. When the musical worship is full of doctrine and scripture (in context), more time can be spent on a more well-rounded sermon. Furthermore, I believe this is what Paul is referring to when he writes about the Word of Christ dwelling richly in you – a sermon, no matter how biblical or well-delivered it is, cannot dwell richly within us without biblically saturated worship music. Good worship music(as well as prayer and scripture readings) sets the table for good preaching.

Finally, the content of the church’s worship music is so important because it does teach us, whether he realize it or not. And I believe this is a big reason why the church is not as successful as it should be in America – our worship music is doctrinally deficient. Face it, you’ll rarely remember a sermon, but you remember countless worship songs. And when most of our worship songs are in the same vein as “So here I am to worship, here I am to bow down, here I am to say that you’re my God….” – no wonder there is an individualistic mindset in the church today. And not to harp on the new stuff – some of the older hymns are bad too. “And He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own. And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.” Good grief! Did they share a milkshake and play footsies too? BTW, I typed both of these lyrics from memory – so, yeah, they stick with you.

In conclusion, I believe that if the church is going to practice biblical worship, a few things have to happen. First, musical worship must come under the direction of the pastor. Certainly a church is better off having a gifted musical director, but the pastor is the shepherd of the church and he is responsible for ALL the worship material that is used. This is also prudent, as the scripture readings, sermon, and music should all be parts of a whole – especially in light of the church calendar. Second, we need to look to our church fathers for good music and inspiration. Take a look at the hymns of Isaac Watts or Charles Wesley – they don’t look much like the junk that’s getting cranked out today. It’s also no coincidence that most of these great hymn writers were also pastors. Finally, it’s sad that the church does not sing the Psalms. I think this is a must! There’s no excuse not to do it, and if our evangelical churches are committed to the inerrant, infallible Bible like they say they are, then they will do it.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 7, 2007 3:39 pm

    Interesting. I just finished part 1, and now see part 2.

    A few thoughts. First of all be careful in how you are critiquing here. In post 1, you say you’ve been all over the map in your personal journey in understanding worship. So you follow that up with fairly harsh condemnations of how the church does things today. Sure we need to improve, and there is a lot of fluff out there, but just compare the popular CCM-style music of today versus that of 15-20 years ago — we’ve made an improvement in the content I would say. Same goes for worship in the context of church music.

    You said, “and B) The Psalms should be the primary model for any other worship music. So… there goes about 80% of popular worship music from the last 100 years or so.” I beg to differ. A good number of modern praise songs come directly from the Psalms and other portions of Scripture. Sure, I wish we would all sing Psalms more directly, as in Psalters and the like. But there is a lot of Biblical content in modern praise music. Furthermore modern music tends to reflect the emotions raised in the psalms in a more real way than the music of the revivalist generation. Raising hands, clapping and the like, are expressly Biblical after all.

    I know the American church in particular needs to improve, but I see a lot of signs of improvement. Again, consider Keith Getty & Stuart Townend, and their modern hymns (“In Christ Alone”, “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”, “The Power of the Cross”, etc.), and Sovereign Grace Ministries’ excellent music. Redmond, Tomlin, and others are producing some very God-focused songs.

    I guess I just wish you wouldn’t make it sound like we need to revive true worship, as in God hasn’t been working through His church in the last 300 years and been producing God-honoring music. Often we tend to have a remnant mentality, thinking we have the solution that everyone has missed.

    Sorry for going on at such length, I really do think your posts are very worthwhile and thought-provoking.

    Blessings from the Cross,

    Bob Hayton

  2. August 7, 2007 9:23 pm

    I wish I could temper my previous post a bit. I don’t want to sound harsh and mean. I applaud you for bringing up these issues, and really do appreciate your thoughts. It is an area of interest to me and many others, I’m sure.

    By the way, I love your emphasis on the church, and your call to bring worship music under the authority of a pastor. Very good points.

  3. August 8, 2007 9:27 pm

    Bob,

    Thanks for the response. It’s always hard to write about a topic that people are so passionate about – such as worship music – and not upset anyone (not that I feel you’re upset, but I’m sure a few readers did a little head shaking:)
    While I do agree with you in that there is some good worship music being made out there, I still think that the majority is poor – and I don’t think 80% is that far off – I’m thinking of all the “worship manufacturers” like Hillsong, Marantha, Vineyard, etc… Guys like Getty and Kauflin are a small percentage – but thankfully they’re out there.
    Also, my point is that I don’t feel a lot of this music is appropriate for Lord’s Day worship. I still love and listen to a lot of “worship” music, but I don’t want to hear it Sunday mornings. I still sit around with my guitar or mandolin and play these songs with family and friends, and I’m blessed by them, but this is where these songs need to stay – they’re folk songs, not sacred music.
    Another thing, while a lot of contemporary music contains biblical content, it’s not like the psalms. I think a lot of this music is good to listen to, but is not truly worship music. I think we have to be careful and really consider if what we do in worship really lines up with how God wants His worship to be. After all, I don’t think you’ll find anywhere in the scriptures that says, “Do what you want, or what sounds best, etc.” but you’ll find many places where God says “Do this” in regards to worship.
    Also, just to clarify, I am in favor of using physical gestures in worship. I think posture is vital because it reminds us that worship is not just a “spiritual” thing. I wasn’t speaking bad of “raising the hands,” but rather, I was speaking bad of trying to force or manipulate a worship experience where there shouldn’t have been one.
    Finally, I guess I really do feel like we (the church) need to revive true worship. I read the scriptures and look at our worship services, and they don’t really match up all the time. I really do feel like this is a huge reason why the Western church is not influencing the culture today. Worship is much more than something Christians do every week to stay on track, or to get refreshed spiritually. Worship is covenant renewal with our God. This is where He feeds us, strengthens us, teaches us, forgives us, renews us, and sends us.
    Hopefully I’ll get on with my next post on style here soon. Work’s been brutal lately, but my biggest problem is that everytime I sit down to write I have this overwhelming feeling of inadequecy and I chicken out – but I need to remind myself that this is just a forum for discussion – I hope to learn as much from this as I hope others will. Thanks for your response – I hope to hear from you again… I also appreciate your last response – don’t worry, I didn’t feel like you were being too harsh 🙂

    Brian

  4. August 9, 2007 1:52 am

    Brian,

    Thanks for your kind reply. I do agree that there is a majority of shallow music out there.

    I guess worship music by and large contains more references to the Psalms, than the Gospel Song-style hymns of the 1850s-1950s. At least in my opinion.

    Here is an interesting article with respect to psalm singing, and the question of whether we must sing only the psalms or must major only on the psalms. The author makes a good Biblical case that we are to use the psalms as a pattern, and he points to numerous Biblical songs not explicitly tied to the psalms.

    This is not to say I hear you arguing for exclusive psalmody but I thought you may be interested in it anyway.

    I look forward to the rest of your posts, and plan on keeping an eye on your blog in the future.

    Again, blessings from the Cross,

    Bob

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