The heart of worship

I’ve been musing about this for years and have finally decided to put it down in electronic pen and paper. It concerns something I’m afraid is taken for granted by many people in the “worship movement”. I can imagine some who know me thinking that I’m just trying to justify what the generous would call my “conservative style of worship”, or what the more critical might suspect is my rebellion against a perfectly unassailable institution that I happen to have trouble participating in because – well, I must not feel enough love for God within my bones.

At ten years of age, my family stepped into the equivalent of a post-Yorktown environment at our new Baptist church: the decisive battle had been fought in the War on Hymns, but the sedition of obstinancy fomented by over-aggression was still stewing. I was a little too young to notice or care about the debate and its significance; all I knew was that we didn’t sing as many hymns as at my previous church, and people seemed to be more “into” the singing, what with holy hands and vocal interjections lifted spontaneously and frequently. I recognized the musical style as more modern (the drums), and for what it was worth, I approved of that.

The controversy had repercussions for the next 10 years at least, with Loyalists whispering among themselves, even occasionally rounding themselves up for a sortie against our progressive leadership. As I grew, my thinking began to echo the prevailing sentiments, “What is the deal here? It’s just a different style of music, people! Get over it! Get your fix of hymns and southern gospel on the radio.” I sang along, enjoying a good lyric and melody here and there, and sincerely praising God when I thought about it hard enough. When I was older, I got to where I played piano and keyboard for the services. Lacking the talent of singing and playing at the same time, I was kept from singing somewhat, since I was genuinely occupied with something that required a bit of thought, but I always prayed that what I was playing would glorify God and allow others to worship Him.

Then I went to college. A Pentecostal college. I joined the “symphonic band”, which was not interested in playing good music, but rather sought to compete with the four or five worship choirs on campus. We played such worthy symphonic masterpieces as “Majesty”, “Hallelujah! Jesus Is Alive”, “Let the Veil Down, Let the Praise Go Up”, and “Enemy’s Camp”. I had the opportunity of playing in no less than forty different Pentecostal churches across the Eastern U.S., and what I saw increasingly sickened me. Everyone talked about how important worship was, but their lives didn’t show much fruit. I began to wonder what the big hype about “worship” was.

The conviction was birthed in me that “worship” is not something you sing, but something you do. We have trained our ears so that when we hear the words “worship” or “praise”, we automatically think of singing. Yet singing “I worship You” with all the meaning and fervor you can muster no more accomplishes actual worship than saying “I wash you” to your car actually cleans it. Even in our relationships with other people, saying “I love you”, while admittedly a sugar rush for awhile, can quickly become meaningless if not accompanied by loving action. It is the Parmesan cheese which falls on the plate next to the spaghetti that children will spend too much time trying to eat while leaving the noodles and sauce untouched; it’s the crunchies invariably accompanying the fish platters from Captain D’s (or Long John Silver’s) that tempt the immature to neglect the actual meat.

I’m convinced that there is a pervasive, unconscious belief that good worship covers a multitude of sins. If the first and greatest commandment is to sing powerful praise and worship songs, then surely a generous helping of Redman or Tomlin will make up for bad attitudes gone unchecked, the nursing of unhealthy habits, and outright disobedience. Too many times have I heard someone say, “Boy, I really had a bad week! I can’t wait for worship Sunday.” Notice that by “worship”, these people mean “singing”, not the acceptable act of worship that requires living out a life of discipline and sacrifice that might well have spared them the bad week in the first place.

What does biblical praise and worship music look like? You’ll be hard-pressed to show me that singing was as integral to the Christian’s life in the first century as it is now. Paul mentions it all of three times (1 Cor 14:26; Eph 5:19; Col 3:16). Moreover, in both of those passages it is quite clear that Paul was expecting “songs, hymns, and spiritual songs” to be sung by the believers to one another every bit as much as the singing done “in [their] hearts” to the Lord, “for the strengthening of the church.”

This reflects the Psalms, which show no shortage of those whose sole purpose was to instruct or exhort the human hearers to praise God; only in the occasional (but oft paraded) example is it mentioned that this was to be done with music. When the Psalmist said “Praise the Lord” and “Hallelujah”, those were not his acts of one-on-One worship, but acts of convocation, calling his fellow Israelites to recognize God’s glory. The acts of one-on-One worship consisted of more than bland and emotive ejaculations (“I love you”, “You make me want to dance”), but were responses to specific acts or attributes of God; sometimes they were requests. In short, biblical music was intended as “horizontal” at least as much as it was “vertical”; that which was horizontal was didactic and exhortative, the vertical was specific and testimonial, and both necessarily consisted of doctrinal, not simply emotive, content.

How much does it matter? Well, do you not think that Paul would find the modern church derelict in its duty to itself and others by allowing such a high percentage of our (mostly doctrinally anemic or questionable) songs, hymns, and spiritual songs to be self-absorbed and all about one’s own feelings about God? I mean, let’s face it – some of us are afraid that if we pull away from our one-on-One songs to sing songs to one another that we’re going to miss out on some of that “sweet worship time” for which many of us inappropriately value our Sunday services the most. Why should we place so much emphasis on something Paul spent little time advocating?

Paul does talk about praising God and offering Him our gratitude, which can be set to music quite well, and Hebrews 13:15 refers to a “sacrifice of praise” that we in the New Covenant offer in place of the animal sacrifices – but how much of a sacrifice is it to stand there singing songs you love to sing anyway?

The worship and gratitude we show by sacrificing ourselves and to proclaiming His truth to one another should occupy our thoughts every bit as much as the song time of our worship services. The very existence of the epistles is a result of Paul’s enormous commitment to spreading the truth revealed to him, and this, for him, was a sacrifice in every since of the word; it is his service to God through his ministry to the Church that has lasted two millennia, not his times of one-on-One worship. Offering ourselves by living lives that are disciplined and obedient to the tasks He sets before us in the service of others is the true heart of worship. Yes, the crunchies are good, but Daddy didn’t pay for your meal to have you neglect the fish in favor of them; you’re not going to get nourished, and Daddy will have wasted money meant for your sustenance on what ended up simply as a fun experience.

So what does real worship look like?

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1, 2 NIV)

(Personal note #1: “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus.”)

(Personal note #2: On review, I feel compelled to commend the music team of which I am a part, which has made great strides in this respect and has consciously avoided most of the pitfalls I described above.)

Recent Posts:
  • Thankfully the members of our praise team are very honest and “real”. Even though they believe in and seek to practice the victory of Christ in their lives, they don’t mind admitting that sometimes things are just going crappily for them. And they each understand that it is “Christ in us, the hope of glory.” Not “Singing songs, the hope of glory.” Or “Carpet time, the hope of glory.”

    What is the point of “having fun” during worship, or feeling good when singing “Your Beloved” or feeling hyper/happy when singing “Days’ of Elijah” if you are just going to feel like crap again when you leave the worship service. However if we are offering our bodies as living sacrifices, thus pleasing God, and we are being renewed and transformed day by day then we experience true victory and REAL living in Christ. This will bring forth true worship. And we won’t have to sing to express it. We can sit silently. We can sleep in peace knowing He is with us. We can face all kinds of trials and remain hopeful. So that when we do sing it will be just another way we are worshiping our Lord.

    This concludes my lengthy addition to Steve’s already sufficient treatise.

  • Thankfully the members of our praise team are very honest and “real”. Even though they believe in and seek to practice the victory of Christ in their lives, they don’t mind admitting that sometimes things are just going crappily for them. And they each understand that it is “Christ in us, the hope of glory.” Not “Singing songs, the hope of glory.” Or “Carpet time, the hope of glory.”

    What is the point of “having fun” during worship, or feeling good when singing “Your Beloved” or feeling hyper/happy when singing “Days’ of Elijah” if you are just going to feel like crap again when you leave the worship service. However if we are offering our bodies as living sacrifices, thus pleasing God, and we are being renewed and transformed day by day then we experience true victory and REAL living in Christ. This will bring forth true worship. And we won’t have to sing to express it. We can sit silently. We can sleep in peace knowing He is with us. We can face all kinds of trials and remain hopeful. So that when we do sing it will be just another way we are worshiping our Lord.

    This concludes my lengthy addition to Steve’s already sufficient treatise.

  • kev

    It’s sitemeter.com. It’s pretty nifty.

  • kev

    It’s sitemeter.com. It’s pretty nifty.

  • Brent C

    Thank you Steve

  • Brent C

    Thank you Steve

  • Thanks guys (even Kevin[?]). I must admit, though, that I thought this post might have elicited more responses than this. Not that I expected lots of amen’s all around; I hope no one would avoid telling me if I’m mistaken or misguided about something. I crave engagement and critical evaluation. If I’m wrong or misleading in only one point, let me have it. How else am I going to learn better? Undeceive me, people!

    Of course, there’s only about 6 people who read this blog, so a response from a third of them is not really surprising after all! 😀

  • Steve

    Thanks guys (even Kevin[?]). I must admit, though, that I thought this post might have elicited more responses than this. Not that I expected lots of amen’s all around; I hope no one would avoid telling me if I’m mistaken or misguided about something. I crave engagement and critical evaluation. If I’m wrong or misleading in only one point, let me have it. How else am I going to learn better? Undeceive me, people!

    Of course, there’s only about 6 people who read this blog, so a response from a third of them is not really surprising after all! 😀

  • I agree that much of our modern “worship” music is a bunch of drivel–pop love songs sung to boyfriend Jesus. Unlike you, I like Chris Tomlin, but I was there for the whole Freedom Fest thing, and when did the kiddies start “worshipping”? When the big guns came out. They were jumping up and down at SOUTHSIDE BAPTIST CHURCH!!! They got worked up over a Christian celebrity.

    I love hymns, but I think the “clunkers” you referred to in your post on Heather’s blog populate the hymnbooks to a greater degree than we’d like to believe. Lots of bad doctrine and eschatology were making the rounds in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And I would also point out that there are some really good modern songs, especially those written by the Sovereign Grace folks, who strive earnestly to load ’em up with good doctrine.

    Sometimes even songs that aren’t amazing can bring conviction, revelation, and earnest worship. I hate “Draw Me Close,” but I cannot count the number of times that God has used it to actually have me “lay it all down again [(specifically my desire for a husband)] to hear [him] say that I’m [his] friend.” If I were just mouthing words, that detestable song wouldn’t get to me–but it does. I don’t like singing it, but in singing the words again to God I am brought to a place of surrender. Can God anoint crap? If it’s not against what Scripture teaches, yes. Is singing Scripturally rich material better? Heck, yeah–even if you’re not singing, you’re at least hearing rich truths.

    As for the first century church not being as musical as us, well…they weren’t laden with as much junk-music as we are, and thank goodness they weren’t constantly hooked to some sound device, but to say they didn’t do much singing would be a mistake, even if singing is not constantly mentioned in the New Testament. It would’ve been a given. While we’re talking about context and audience and all that from your other post, let’s think about the Hebrews for a minute, what a musical people they are, what dancers. Think about crazy king David, undignifiedly dancin’ in the streets. What does everybody do at a Jewish Bar-mitzvah? They dance. What do they do every Friday night at Shabbat? They sing prayers. Surely God didn’t mean for His church to be less musical, less full of song. He kinda likes it, I’d say. Think of Paul and Silas in jail in Acts 16, “praying and singing hymns to God.” Not only were they praising God and edifying each other, they were witnessing to their jailkeeper, who would become a believer that night as a result of their staying in jail when God answered their prayer and praise with an earthquake.

    Of course, the true worship of a surrendered life IS the heart of the matter. But I think God can handle the fact that music always has, and always will, stir our souls. The key is matching hearts with lips, not silencing the lips because they don’t match the hearts.

  • I agree that much of our modern “worship” music is a bunch of drivel–pop love songs sung to boyfriend Jesus. Unlike you, I like Chris Tomlin, but I was there for the whole Freedom Fest thing, and when did the kiddies start “worshipping”? When the big guns came out. They were jumping up and down at SOUTHSIDE BAPTIST CHURCH!!! They got worked up over a Christian celebrity.

    I love hymns, but I think the “clunkers” you referred to in your post on Heather’s blog populate the hymnbooks to a greater degree than we’d like to believe. Lots of bad doctrine and eschatology were making the rounds in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And I would also point out that there are some really good modern songs, especially those written by the Sovereign Grace folks, who strive earnestly to load ’em up with good doctrine.

    Sometimes even songs that aren’t amazing can bring conviction, revelation, and earnest worship. I hate “Draw Me Close,” but I cannot count the number of times that God has used it to actually have me “lay it all down again [(specifically my desire for a husband)] to hear [him] say that I’m [his] friend.” If I were just mouthing words, that detestable song wouldn’t get to me–but it does. I don’t like singing it, but in singing the words again to God I am brought to a place of surrender. Can God anoint crap? If it’s not against what Scripture teaches, yes. Is singing Scripturally rich material better? Heck, yeah–even if you’re not singing, you’re at least hearing rich truths.

    As for the first century church not being as musical as us, well…they weren’t laden with as much junk-music as we are, and thank goodness they weren’t constantly hooked to some sound device, but to say they didn’t do much singing would be a mistake, even if singing is not constantly mentioned in the New Testament. It would’ve been a given. While we’re talking about context and audience and all that from your other post, let’s think about the Hebrews for a minute, what a musical people they are, what dancers. Think about crazy king David, undignifiedly dancin’ in the streets. What does everybody do at a Jewish Bar-mitzvah? They dance. What do they do every Friday night at Shabbat? They sing prayers. Surely God didn’t mean for His church to be less musical, less full of song. He kinda likes it, I’d say. Think of Paul and Silas in jail in Acts 16, “praying and singing hymns to God.” Not only were they praising God and edifying each other, they were witnessing to their jailkeeper, who would become a believer that night as a result of their staying in jail when God answered their prayer and praise with an earthquake.

    Of course, the true worship of a surrendered life IS the heart of the matter. But I think God can handle the fact that music always has, and always will, stir our souls. The key is matching hearts with lips, not silencing the lips because they don’t match the hearts.

  • For the record, Chris Tomlin’s one of the best things going in the modern worship movement (the same goes for Redman). And Sovereign Grace music is the standard by which I judge the crap that’s out there. They are as close as anyone to doing it right. And yeah, if you’re talking about the Broadman hymnal, I know what you mean about the clunkers. I suppose I was thinking of ones that, even if not old, emulate the older style. “I’ll Fly Away” needs to fly away. 🙂

    If there were no mention of music in the NT, I would be more inclined to agree that it was simply “a given” that Paul glossed over. However, it is mentioned, and in specific contexts that show that it was not “the thing [we]’ve made it”. As far as the Hebrews being all dancy, I don’t much doubt it. But the Jewish churches were by no means in the majority in the first century, since the Gospel very quickly went out all over Asia Minor and Southern Europe – most of the epistles were written to largely Gentile audiences in faraway Gentile lands. Unless you can show me Roman Catholic and Greek orthodox types cutting the rug, I reserve my opinion that dancy worship music was not a universal staple of church meetings. It is hardly likely that all these foreign congregations even had their own complete scrolls of the Psalms. Bottom line, if music was as important (essential, many would say) in the performance of worship to the Lord as it was to the ancient Israelites, I can’t imagine but that Paul would have felt compelled to urge them in that direction more than he evidently was.

    I think that your parallel to Jewish music today is much closer to the ideal neglected by certain Christians in the modern church. I think it is clear that Paul recommended songs to be sung for the edification/instruction of one another, just as modern Jews use them. Actually their one-on-One worship is a unfortunately less common than corporate worship. Yet nowadays, personal worship, while undoubtedly valuable, is – well, almost worshiped. Can anyone say, “balance”?

    Perhaps what I’m saying is that stirring music should not be a prerequisite for more valuable glorification of our Creator. Sure, we can worship with simple, lame phrases, but we shouldn’t have to! When will the Church stop producing, tolerating, and excusing Junk for Jesus? And that’s not just worship music, but all aspects of culture.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  • Steve

    For the record, Chris Tomlin’s one of the best things going in the modern worship movement (the same goes for Redman). And Sovereign Grace music is the standard by which I judge the crap that’s out there. They are as close as anyone to doing it right. And yeah, if you’re talking about the Broadman hymnal, I know what you mean about the clunkers. I suppose I was thinking of ones that, even if not old, emulate the older style. “I’ll Fly Away” needs to fly away. 🙂

    If there were no mention of music in the NT, I would be more inclined to agree that it was simply “a given” that Paul glossed over. However, it is mentioned, and in specific contexts that show that it was not “the thing [we]’ve made it”. As far as the Hebrews being all dancy, I don’t much doubt it. But the Jewish churches were by no means in the majority in the first century, since the Gospel very quickly went out all over Asia Minor and Southern Europe – most of the epistles were written to largely Gentile audiences in faraway Gentile lands. Unless you can show me Roman Catholic and Greek orthodox types cutting the rug, I reserve my opinion that dancy worship music was not a universal staple of church meetings. It is hardly likely that all these foreign congregations even had their own complete scrolls of the Psalms. Bottom line, if music was as important (essential, many would say) in the performance of worship to the Lord as it was to the ancient Israelites, I can’t imagine but that Paul would have felt compelled to urge them in that direction more than he evidently was.

    I think that your parallel to Jewish music today is much closer to the ideal neglected by certain Christians in the modern church. I think it is clear that Paul recommended songs to be sung for the edification/instruction of one another, just as modern Jews use them. Actually their one-on-One worship is a unfortunately less common than corporate worship. Yet nowadays, personal worship, while undoubtedly valuable, is – well, almost worshiped. Can anyone say, “balance”?

    Perhaps what I’m saying is that stirring music should not be a prerequisite for more valuable glorification of our Creator. Sure, we can worship with simple, lame phrases, but we shouldn’t have to! When will the Church stop producing, tolerating, and excusing Junk for Jesus? And that’s not just worship music, but all aspects of culture.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  • I wasn’t meaning to ingnore the Gentiles–I was making a point that if God liked for his chosen people to do it in the OT, the new sons of Abraham had better think twice about tossing it. If Paul and Silas could think of a few old faithfuls to sing during their hard times, then worship was pretty much a staple, to my thinking.

    But speaking of other cultures, isn’t that what we have today, with denominations? Some of us are dancy types, some pomp-and-circumstance types, and I believe it’s fine to worship in a way that fits our inner (or outer) culture. Think of the church in Africa–they redeem their old dances and rhythms in the worship of God. On this issue, I believe we have to find the part of the Body we’re meant to be with, or we will judge those around us for not doing it right.

    I do agree that the church is out of balance, with worship music flying of the shelves and very few worshipful lives. And you’re right, music need not be primary in services–the preaching of God’s Word should. But some churches will always be more musical than others, even with perfect balance. What’s wrong with people who love to sing worshipping God in song for a long time, or with people who don’t love it just singing a few great hymns and meaning them? Nothing, but they probably shouldn’t go to the same church.

  • I wasn’t meaning to ingnore the Gentiles–I was making a point that if God liked for his chosen people to do it in the OT, the new sons of Abraham had better think twice about tossing it. If Paul and Silas could think of a few old faithfuls to sing during their hard times, then worship was pretty much a staple, to my thinking.

    But speaking of other cultures, isn’t that what we have today, with denominations? Some of us are dancy types, some pomp-and-circumstance types, and I believe it’s fine to worship in a way that fits our inner (or outer) culture. Think of the church in Africa–they redeem their old dances and rhythms in the worship of God. On this issue, I believe we have to find the part of the Body we’re meant to be with, or we will judge those around us for not doing it right.

    I do agree that the church is out of balance, with worship music flying of the shelves and very few worshipful lives. And you’re right, music need not be primary in services–the preaching of God’s Word should. But some churches will always be more musical than others, even with perfect balance. What’s wrong with people who love to sing worshipping God in song for a long time, or with people who don’t love it just singing a few great hymns and meaning them? Nothing, but they probably shouldn’t go to the same church.

  • I hope you do not think that I would disagree with most of what you said there. As I have stated already, the style of music is irrelevant. It is quality in content that Christians must not compromise. I have no intent for the church to throw a worship style out. But neither do I think that there is any value in or need for emulating the cultural worship style of seen in Psalm 150 just to be like the Israelites! (remember that phase? :D) I am not uncomfortable with those styles, but with the notion that musical worship of any kind glorifies God as much as obedience and the spiritual disciplines. Those faithful in the latter will please God infinitely more when they move in the former. That was really the thrust and emphasis of this post.

  • I hope you do not think that I would disagree with most of what you said there. As I have stated already, the style of music is irrelevant. It is quality in content that Christians must not compromise. I have no intent for the church to throw a worship style out. But neither do I think that there is any value in or need for emulating the cultural worship style of seen in Psalm 150 just to be like the Israelites! (remember that phase? :D) I am not uncomfortable with those styles, but with the notion that musical worship of any kind glorifies God as much as obedience and the spiritual disciplines. Those faithful in the latter will please God infinitely more when they move in the former. That was really the thrust and emphasis of this post.

  • If you haven’t read them already, I recommend finding the following books:

    “Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts” by Harold Best
    “Engaging with God” by David Peterson

    Both are published by InterVarsity Press and available on Amazon et al. Both argue that when the music service is treated as the object of worship rather than God, we have made an idol and that true worship is the outpouring of every moment of our lives.

  • If you haven’t read them already, I recommend finding the following books:

    “Unceasing Worship: Biblical Perspectives on Worship and the Arts” by Harold Best
    “Engaging with God” by David Peterson

    Both are published by InterVarsity Press and available on Amazon et al. Both argue that when the music service is treated as the object of worship rather than God, we have made an idol and that true worship is the outpouring of every moment of our lives.

  • Thanks for the recommendations! I definitely want to see what they have to say. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Steve

    Thanks for the recommendations! I definitely want to see what they have to say. Thanks for stopping by!

  • No problem. Your post on preterism initially got my attention, but I’ve also been spending a lot of time on the subject of worship “theology”, so you pulled me in again. Good stuff – thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • No problem. Your post on preterism initially got my attention, but I’ve also been spending a lot of time on the subject of worship “theology”, so you pulled me in again. Good stuff – thanks for sharing your thoughts.