I recently read Brandon O’Brien’s article, “Bieber Fever and the Worship Wars”, and I must say that it elicited a bit of confusion on my part. I thought the ‘worship wars’ were pretty much over. At least, the tension I experienced in the ’90’s has long since evaporated. I really do think that if we, as church leaders, will stop telling the Church there’s great tension out there somewhere in Christendom, then people will move on and begin to, hopefully, focus on being a follower of Christ.
I’m not naive, though. I do realize there is a bit of tension regarding worship music. But, it’s no more important or prevalent than the discussion of pew Bible translations or small group curriculum or whatever is being discussed at the average church. And, I do feel there is a good bit of positive leadership being given in our churches about what matters in our worship – exalting the glory of God alone for who He is and what He has done for us through His Son, Jesus Christ.
What Guides Our Worship
The first place we look for direction in our corporate worship is Scripture. But, even then, there is disagreement on what the Bible tells us to do and not to do. Some will follow the Regulative Principle that states that Scripture regulates, or guides, what we do in worship. If it’s not in the Scripture, it can’t be used in our worship. Others will follow the Normative Principle, which states that as long as Scripture does not forbid the use of something, it can be used.
Historically, the churches which emerged from the Reformation, and which were established in early America, followed the Regulative Principle. Since one facet of the Reformation was sola Scriptura, or ‘Scripture alone’, churches focused their worship structure based on commands from the Bible. And, this included music, which was limited to scripture for its text. The Psalms were, for a long time, the music of church gatherings. Hymns, written by sinful man, were not considered as suitable elements in worship.
Over time, many churches have evolved from the Regulative to the Normative Principle. You can witness everything, from videos and effects lighting to army tanks on the platform. Music is no different. Stylistically, music reflects more and more the style of the day – and, there are many styles out there!
How Do We Deal with This
In light of O’Brien’s article, a few things arise that may help us focus on what really matters in our worship.
1) Giving preference to musical style is a form of idolatry. And, that’s sinful. It’s perfectly fine to prefer, or choose, a musical style to listen to, or to accompany or worship music. But, when we elevate style over substance and give importance to that at the expense of unity and purpose, then we’ve arrived at idolatry. At the root of idolatry is pride, which says “my opinion/desire/want is more important than yours”. Our focus is on self and not the primary purpose of worshipping God alone.
Why do we prefer one style over another? O’Brien cites an article by Melinda Beck that explains the physiological processes in establishing our “favorite music”. Beck states:
Hearing familiar, favorite music stimulates the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter involved in pleasure and addiction, providing the same rush as eating chocolate or that winning does for a compulsive gambler.
O’Brien makes the observation,
The power of “familiar, favorite music” may help explain why musical style is so important to younger worshippers. They may interpret the dopamine release they experience while singing a contemporary worship song—or even a secular song—as a profoundly spiritual experience.
Older worshippers have the same problem. It’s just that their preferences were formed long ago.
…research also showed that musical tastes formed in the teen years become part of the brain’s internal wiring, as that is the time when some neural pathways are solidifying and others are being pruned away. That’s why the music adults tend to be nostalgic for is the music from their teenage years.
2) If we get a rush when we hear a preferred style of music, why can’t we get that same excitement when we hear the Gospel?
Our ultimate, highest joy should be when the Gospel is proclaimed. When we hear that God, who is the sovereign Creator of this universe and all that dwells in it, sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross for my wrongs against His holiness, and that Jesus rose from the dead, validating his deity and, thus, his Word, we should get the ecstatic. That’s the Good News!
3) Why can’t we develop a ‘worship worldview’?
As Christians, we talk often of a ‘Biblical worldview’, or even a ‘missional worldview’, yet, when it comes to worship, we forget the world and focus on self. Having a worship worldview would involve creating and nurturing multi-dimensional relationships within the church. Our purpose would be to submit to each other in a way that honors Christ, not ourselves. The Apostle Paul states,
…be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. Ephesians 5:18-21 ESV
Submission to another involves putting pride and selfish desires away and, instead, serving with gratitude. That gratitude is knowing that we are saved by faith in Christ alone. A demonstration of that gratitude is care and service to others. O’Brien suggests…
…an environment in which congregants lobbied for the type of music that moved their friends and loved ones—because each wanted the other to be moved in worship—questions about which is “best” would become inconsequential.
I agree. But, more importantly, I suggest we lobby for the kind of worship that honors God alone and that proclaims the Gospel to everyone. Let’s worry less about style and more about the message in the music.