The heart of worship

The music used in church worship services is a topic on which almost every Christian has an opinion, and the odds are pretty good that if you were to poll almost any group of Christians you would find a range of opinions and even convictions about what kinds of music should be used, what instruments should be used, how the music should be led and by whom, how loud the music should be, whether or not hymn books should be used or PowerPoint slides… The list of areas of possible contention is quite lengthy and certainly not exhausted here.

This is a topic I have thought about before, and one on which I certainly have my own opinions, but it is also one that I have been thinking about more lately. The CD player in my car died a while back, so any music in the car now comes via radio. Particularly when my children are in the car, that usually means a station that plays exclusively contemporary Christian music (because that is the station my kids want). While I appreciate some of the contemporary Christian music the station plays, I certainly do not like all of it. As with most radio stations, this one tends to play a relatively small number of songs over and over again. Beyond that, though, some of the songs make me feel almost anything but worshipful–like irritated, aggravated, agitated, frustrated… You get the idea. Some of them, in fact, are not at all what I would even consider “music.” But I digress…

Recently, as we were driving somewhere and this station was on, my wife looked at me, recognizing that I was not particularly fond of the selection airing at the moment, and asked, “Do you ever wonder what the worship in heaven will be like? Do you think we will all be surprised?” My wife generally shares my taste in Christian music, so she was not chiding me; rather, she was gently prompting me to consider whether or not I was allowing my own opinions and tastes to cloud my thinking or even to cause me to be judgmental. (I actually have no idea if any of that was her intention, but that was what struck me as I thought about it. I suppose I will find out if that is what she had in mind after she reads this!)

My thinking on this subject was stoked further as I was reading the preface to Douglas Bond’s book, The Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts. Watts was an eighteenth-century hymn writer in England who wroye powerful hymns that are fmailiar to many Christians who grew up in church, most notably “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Bond was making the point that the Church needs the “voice” of Watts in our worship services today. He first referenced the relative lack of depth in many contemporary lyrics, commenting this way on his experience in a worship service he had attended: “Try as I might, I could find little in the various lyrics that required any degree of thought about anything.” Bond went on, however, to explain that even when the words of Watts’ most famous hymn had been sung in a service he was attending, he was not at all moved, despite the fact that “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” had previously caused “the gospel of grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone [to become] irrevocably real” to him. What was different this time, then? Here is Bond’s explanation…

[T]here were many elements in that worship that distracted me from taking the words on my lips and into my heart as my own and singing them. The swaying worship leaders and all the paraphernalia of the indie-rock band filled the stage, and the volume was cranked up so loud that I was eventually forced to take my seven-year-old out of the place, his hands clamped tightly over his ears. I watched rather than sang because in this kind of entertainment venue, it matters little whether the congregation participates in the singing. It’s fine if they do, of course, but it makes no difference to what one hears. The emotive vocal reflections and the pinched facial contortions of the well-meaning worhsip leader are difficult for most of us to emulate, and the occasional unexpected repetition of lines or addition of improvised lyrics leaves one singing something other than what the worship leader is singing. Not to worry, no one will hear you anyway.

I agree wholheartedly with Bond. As a result of my recent pondering about the worship we will experience in heaven, though, I caught myself, and had to admit that some people–difficult though it is for me to fathom–may be perfectly capable of focusing their attention on the Lord and worhsipping Him in the midst of the loud and unpredicatble style of music being used. And maybe, just maybe, God likes that kind of music on occasion, too. Scripture assures us that He is a God of order, so I cannot believe that He enjoys it when the music devolves in a cacophony of chaos. Most importantly, though, what I will always agree with Bond about, is that God is not pleased by a show loosely disguised as worship. Bond used the term “entertainment venue,” and when what purports to be a worship service becomes more a show, with the focus on the leader(s) of the music, the lights, the volume, the choreography or gyrations of the guitarists and drummers and singers, God is not pleased nor honored. Quite simply, bottom line, if the focus is on anything other than God, He is not pleased. We could debate the particulars of that. For example, could one of the worship leaders be focused on God even if he or she does not come across that way to me? Or could one of the audience members be focused on God even if the worship leader is not? The answer to both questions is certainly yes, meaning that we cannot judge anyone else in any worship service. God, we must recall, looks at the heart, not at the external.

I still have my own thoughts about what is and is not appropriate in a worship service, you no doubt do too, and I am sure neither of us is likely to change that anytime soon. Yet I do not think that is really what matters. What we need to concern ourselves with is the focus of our own hearts…because that is exactly what God is concerned with, too.

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