Worship Music Style and Philosophy

What’s the music like?

Music in Worship

What kind of music pleases God? Some would advocate traditional hymns and others would advocate contemporary music. In my experience, however, an argument for either is more an appeal to personal preference even though it is often veiled in Biblical reasons. After all, traditional hymns were once contemporary. Does that mean they were inappropriate at one time? Advocates for traditional hymns find more against contemporary music than they do for traditional hymns. To them, contemporary music smells of the corrupt culture in which we find ourselves and so we should reject it. That assumes, however, that the culture from which traditional hymns came was less corrupt than ours today. How can this be? In Acts, Peter calls his own generation “corrupt” (Acts 2:40). Finding a secular culture at any period of time that was not marked by corruption is not possible. On the other hand, advocates of contemporary music argue against traditional hymns because they are outdated and don’t communicate to the people of our day. How long before the contemporary music selected becomes “outdated?” To reject traditional hymns outright is to reject music and lyrics that have stood the test of time theologically. It also rejects the notion that we have any connection to the church of an earlier time.

Keys to Music as Worship

  • Be willing to set aside personal preferences. The key to selecting music is first to remember that we are worshiping corporately and not individually. The idea of worship is to find an appropriate way to express our affections to God as a body. This means we need to set personal preferences aside. We need to rejoice alongside our brothers and sisters when they are moved more by traditional music and we need to rejoice alongside our brothers and sisters when they are moved more by contemporary music. We must remember the corporate aspect – with those in the immediate congregation and those from earlier generations.
  • Remember who you are worshiping – Make it God-focused, Christ-centered, Grace-oriented. Music needs to be lifting up Christ rather than ourselves. There is a lot of “Christian” music out there that sounds good on the surface but when you boil it all down, ends up really being about me and what I’m doing for God rather than what God has done for me.
  • Music should be incarnational. When Jesus left his heavenly home and entered ours, he came to a specific tribe of people within a specific culture. He spoke in the common language (Aramaic, rather than Hebrew), used agricultural illustrations because he was in an agricultural community, and taught in styles contemporary to the day. We live centuries after Christ’s earthly ministry and continents apart and yet are still tempted to make Christianity a cultural thing. One thing the New Testament writers make clear is that Christianity is cross-cultural. They battled the Jews of the first century over this point. Just as Christ communicated his teaching in the culture of his day, so should we. Music is key to this. If we offer music of a style that is heard nowhere else but inside the church, we are in danger of adding offense to the gospel. The gospel has offense enough in the eyes of an unbelieving world. We should not be adding to it. Music gives us a great way to model the incarnation by communicating the gospel in a contemporary cultural style.

Why Responsive readings?

They can help us in a variety of ways. They help us to learn to worship, build our vocabulary, and connect us with the broader church.

Learning to worship

Sometimes my boys do things to make each other mad. The other day my oldest two spent easily an hour putting together some rather complex lego robots and were enjoying their labors by inventing all kinds of imaginary scenarios for these creations. By the time they were deep into their imaginary world, my youngest son woke up from a nap and was eager to play with his big brothers. They, however, were afraid he would break their lego creations and told him no. The youngest was not receptive to this rejection so he pressed them further about playing. Again, they said no and took more measures to keep him out of the mix. You can imagine how the scene unfolds. First we see the teeth clamp down, then we hear some screaming, some foot stomping, and sometimes some deftly placed right crosses. When such a situation comes up there is some discipline but there is also an attempt to help them more properly handle their frustration and anger. They simply don’t know what to do when they are feeling such strong emotions and need to be taught.

Just like children need to learn how properly to respond in certain settings, we also need to learn how to respond to God’s activity in worship. Responsive readings help us to do that. We seek to use them as teaching tools. In your worship experience with us, please see them in this light – don’t just read through them without thinking about what you are reading. In fact, it wouldn’t hurt to read through the responsive readings beforehand so that you’re actually participating in worship and not just mouthing words.

Building our vocabulary

Another key use of responsive readings is to build up our vocabulary regarding God, his redemptive activity, and our condition. Without a vocabulary we are limited in our understanding and appreciation. If you want to appreciate the work of an engineer when he tells you elements of his work that excite him, you must understand his vocabulary – otherwise all you can do is nod and pretend. Reponsive readings help expand our vocabulary for the wonders of God and thus increase our own appreciation for his mercy on our behalf.

Connecting with the broader church

Finally, responsive readings help us connect with the church catholic (i.e. universal). They are often confessions of faith that were written and used in the historic church and allow us to see that we are part of something bigger than a small congregation in Katy, Texas.

Though we use responsive readings, we don’t eliminate time for individual response. Worship is also an experience. Hopefully our experience in God’s presence will be deepened through our continual learning to worship.

The Why of Worship

Why do we do the things we do in worship? That’s a great question. The pieces of worship that you find in your worship program each week are not random but rather intentional.

God Sensitive Worship

It is our intention to be extremely sensitive to the seeker’s desires. Perhaps your thinking that is terribly subjective and wondering who I am to presume to know such a thing. Again, this is a valid thought. How do I know? It’s really not a difficult task and not as subjective as you might think. We know the seeker’s desires because they are revealed in the Scriptures. After all, the “seeker” is God, not us. You may indeed know people currently seeking for truth and seeking to know God, which is a good thing and something we should pray for – but ultimately we need to realize that the reason they are seeking (if they are truly seeking God) is because God has kindled a new desire in them and their seeking is a natural response to that kindling work of God. Ephesians tells us that we were “dead in our trespasses and sins” but that God “made us alive together with Christ.”

A Pattern for Worship: Praise, Renewal, Commitment

Corporate worship is a re-presentation of the Gospel. God calls, we respond. Hence we always begin worship with a call to worship; an invitation into His dwelling place where His glory is visible. It is only fitting that our response would be praise. Still, the overpowering awe and wonder of His glory quickly moves us to a sense of our own inadequacies and we properly find ourselves in need of renewal and so we take time to confess our failings and our need. Our confessions do not fall on deaf ears and we are then relieved to find ourselves in the presence of a Holy God issuing forth great assurances of peace in Christ. Finding all the deepest struggles of our heart swept away, we hear God’s call to action and we are lead to commit ourselves to working out the salvation we have so graciously received. Thus, you’ll find the different elements grouped into three main “cycles” of worship: Praise, Renewal, and Commitment. To see this pattern in worship illustrated in Scripture, see Isaiah chapter 6.

For further reading see :

  • Worship by the Book, edited by D.A. Carson – particularly chapter 4, Reformed Worship in the Global City by Tim Keller.
  • Worship in Spirit in Truth, by John M. Frame