(April 2001 – Volume 7, Issue 4)
Many see this entertainment form of worship, which we have been discussing, as a fad that will pass through our land and ultimately vanish over the horizon. If so, it will leave behind a scorched earth full of discouraged and bewildered believers who will not know where to turn next. But some are already flying the coop. Donald G. Bloesch reported recently in a Christianity Today article outlining the early signs of a backlash to the seeker-sensitive services so popular today.
Evangelical Protestantism is in trouble today as an increasing number of business and professional people are searching for a new church. The complaint I hear most often is that people can no longer sense the sacred either in the preaching or the liturgy…. Worship has become performance rather than praise. The praise choruses that have preempted the great hymns of the church do not hide the fact our worship is essentially a spectacle that appeals to the senses rather than an act of obeisance to the mighty God who is both holiness and love. Contemporary worship is far more ego-centric than theocentric. The aim is less to give glory to God than to satisfy the longings of the human heart. Even when we sing God’s praises the focus is on fulfilling and satisfying the human desire for wholeness and serenity (Feb. 5, 2001, p. 54).
The Nature of Worship
Much of the confusion in all of these matters comes because we do not understand the nature of worship. John 4:23 tells us that we are to worship God in spirit and truth. I agree with John MacArthur who writes concerning this verse, “True worship involves the intellect as much as the emotions. It underscores the truth that worship is to be focused on God, not on the worshiper” (The Coming Evangelical Crisis, edited by John H. Armstrong, “How Shall We Then Worship,” by John MacArthur, p. 176). Our worship should be centered on God as we praise Him, through word, song and prayer, and as we edify the saints through the teaching of the Scriptures so that they are enabled to live lives honoring to Him. To so honor and worship God all that we do must emerge from truth. Most would agree with that, at least in theory if not in practice, when it comes to preaching and teaching the Scriptures, for this is clearly taught in the Word (I Tim. 4:13; II Tim. 2-4; Acts 2:42; Titus 1:9; Col. 1:25). Music, unfortunately, often gets an exemption. But do we have any more right to sing heresy than we do to preach heresy? Again, MacArthur is on the money when he writes:
Music by itself, apart from the truth contained in the lyrics, is not even a legitimate spring board for real worship. Similarly, a poignant story may be touching or stirring, but unless the message it conveys is set in the context of biblical truth, any emotions it may stir are of no use in prompting genuine worship. Aroused passions are not necessarily evidence that true worship is taking place. Genuine worship is a response to Divine truth. It is passionate because it arises out of our love for God (ibid., p. 182,3).
When the church gathers for worship what is its biblical mandate? Is it to amuse and entertain? Is it to cater to the cry for fulfillment? Or is it to honor God in spirit and in truth? The difference lies largely in the area of focus. Are we zeroed in on ourselves or on our God? Once it is established that God must be central in our worship we then must examine what we do in worship. Here our practice must be in line with our biblical understanding of God and the church.
How Shall We Then Sing?
Although volumes could be written about the state of preaching today, I will leave that for another time. Instead we will draw our attention toward the subject of music since it is more directly related to the issue of entertainment. What is the place of music in worship? Far too often in modern worship its place seems to be that of setting a mood. With the right music and talented musicians it is possible to create almost any mood. Do we want happy people? Tearful? Reflective? Excited? Motivated? Music in capable hands is able to create all these moods and many others. But is the setting of a mood the biblical purpose of Christian music?
One of the few passages of Scripture that delivers insight on the theme of music in the setting of the church is Colossians 3:16, 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 (see also parallel verse Ephesians 5:19). When many Christians come to church they want to be made to feel a certain way, but the central role of music in the New Testament church is to be a partner with the teaching of the Word of God. While music is a unique way to praise God in worship, the ultimate evaluation of that music in the Christian setting should be whether or not it has aided in the process of helping the Word of Christ to richly dwell within us. Just as the authority and truth of Scripture should dominate our preaching and teaching, so should it dominate our singing.
Music as Teaching
More specifically, music serves the role of teaching and admonishing. Christian music is at its best when it teaches sound doctrine. Many of the great hymns, and some contemporary songs, are steeped in theology that reinforces the truths of the Word. Conversely music has often been used within the church to teach and promote a wide range of heresies and aberrant doctrines. It is a well-known fact that Arias (4th century) used music to spread his heretical belief that Jesus was a created being and not fully God. While the church councils, such as Nicene, condemned Arianism it continued to be popular among the masses for decades because Arias’ teachings were placed to music and sung by the congregations.
Of course much Christian music, both ancient and modern, teaches very little in the way of biblical truth. Contemporary Christian music, in particular, is long on inspiration and short on instruction. Most of the popular choruses that are making the rounds today are simple lyrics of praise that, when at their best, pinpoint a single truth which is repeated in one form or another throughout the song. One such chorus continuously repeats the phrase; “I exalt Thee, O Lord.” Well, and good, He is worthy of exaltation. But why is He exalted? What instruction is given concerning the worthiness of God? Another chorus encourages us, based on Psalm 103 to “Bless the Lord, O my soul. . . For He has done great things” (3 times). But if you read Psalm 103 the remaining 21 verses tells the reader why our souls should bless the Lord. Leonard Payton, in commenting on this particular chorus writes, “What those great things are is left to the imagination, not the plain teaching of Scripture. The problem is that true, biblical gratitude must have its basis in objective facts or doctrine. If it doesn’t, it is mere sentimentality” (The Coming Evangelical Crisis, edited by John H. Armstrong, “How Shall We Then Sing,” by Leonard Payton, p. 194). With this in mind, do the modern praise choruses have a place in our worship services? I personally believe that they do, but that place could be likened to the place of dessert in our diet. Almost everyone loves dessert, but dessert must not be the main feature of our daily diet or we will suffer grave consequences. To me, a few praise choruses go a long way. To make them the principle mainstay of a church’s musical diet is to fatten the church on sweets when it needs a substantial helping of healthy food.
It might be of great value at this point to reflect upon the views of some of our respected church leaders from the past in relationship to music. Martin Luther said, “Music is the handmaiden of theology.” His enemies, recognizing the truth of Luther’s words lamented, “Our people are singing their way into Luther’s theology” (Leadership, Vol. VII, #2, p. 32). Christian History Magazine reports that Charles Wesley’s hymns included verses from every book in the Bible except Nahum and Philemon. He viewed his hymns as a primer in theology and a guide for public worship and private devotion (Vol. X, #3, pp. 11,36). Isaac Watts, the father of English hymnology, wrote hymns to compliment his sermons (ibid., pp. 20,36).
By contrast, much contemporary Christian music bypasses the mind and aims directly at the emotions. When the purpose of music is to elicit an emotional response devoid of biblical truth and with disregard to aiding in the process of the word of Christ dwelling in us richly, the net result is a romanticized Christian faith. Hearts can be moved by the skillful use of melodies and rhythm no matter what message a given song is conveying. For example, who has not felt a few goose bumps when an excellent performance of The Battle Hymn of the Republic has been given? But the lyrics of The Battle Hymn of the Republic were written by Julia Ward Howe, a liberal Unitarian who believed in the fatherhood of God over all mankind. Her hymn has nothing to do with the spreading of the gospel, or the return of Christ, but rather with the eventual dominion of humanistic “truth” over all the world. It became a famous patriotic song but is hardly a hymn that teaches biblical truth (see 101 Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, pp. 35,36). We may enjoy the beauty and passion of the song but its theology is not helping the word of Christ to dwell richly within us, and thus it’s not a proper hymn for the church.
Many modern choruses teach faulty theology as well. Jack Hayford’s Majesty, for example, teaches that “kingdom authority flows from the throne unto His own.” This “kingdom now” theology is very prevalent among many Charismatic and Latter Rain teachings. It propagates exactly what Jack Hayford, the Vineyard Movement, and the Word of Faith pundits believe, but it is not what Scripture teaches and therefore should be eliminated from our musical offerings.
But what of the choruses and contemporary Christian songs that do teach biblical truth? While they surely may have a place in our worship, their weakness is that so often they offer praise to God but are devoid of a doctrinal base. David Wells analyzed 406 songs contained in the Worship Songs of the Vineyard Maranatha! and Music Praise Chorus Book, along with 662 hymns of a traditional hymnal, The Covenant Hymnal, for their doctrinal content. Songs that simply mentioned a truth but did not elaborate on that truth were considered lacking in doctrinal content in his study. For example, a song that repeated throughout that Jesus is Lord, but nothing else, would not be counted among those with theological content. On the other hand, the contemporary song Meekness and Majesty would be counted because of its development of His incarnation. This song does not simply say that Jesus is Lord but opens, “Meekness and majesty, manhood and Deity, in perfect harmony, the Man who is God. Lord of eternity, dwells in humanity; kneels in humility and washes our feet.”
Using the above criteria Wells claimed that 58.9% of the praise songs he analyzed offer no doctrinal grounding or explanation for the praise. By contrast in classical hymns “it was hard to find hymns that were not predicated upon and did not develop some aspects of doctrine” (Losing Our Virtue, p. 44).
It would seem to me that if we are evaluating Christian music by how it aids in the process of the word of Christ dwelling in us richly, then that music should be steeped in scriptural truth. Additionally, if we analyze Christian music by comparing it with the Psalms, the biblical hymn book, we would come to the same conclusion. The Psalms are not a collection of simple themes sung in repetitive fashion. They are, instead, absolutely full of doctrinal elaboration. They developed in great detail marvelous themes. This is true of almost any Psalm but take Psalm 36 for example. In this Psalm David contrasts the evil schemes of wicked men (verses 1-4) with the lovingkindness of God (verses 5-12). Today we might write, and sing, a song that simply repeats the truth of God’s lovingkindness. Hugh Mitchell writes, “Thy lovingkindness is better than life, Thy lovingkindness is better than life, my lips shall praise Thee, thus will I bless Thee, I will lift up my hands unto Thy name.” By contrast, the Psalmist wrote of the manifold extent of not only His lovingkindness but of God’s faithfulness, righteousness, and even judgments. He developed word pictures of the abundance, delights, life and light found in our Lord. Then he warns himself and his readers of the traps that are along life’s highways that just might spring upon the unsuspecting child of God. What a marvelous example the Psalms demonstrate for us with regard to proper use of music in our worship of God.
Music as Admonishment
Christian music is also to admonish. The Greek word for admonish means, “to warn, to counsel, to correct.” A proper role of the church’s music is to go beyond teaching to the application of that instruction. Music should point out danger, call us to attention, advise us on how to make proper choices. Most Christian music, hymn or chorus, is sadly weak in this regard, but not so the Jewish “hymnal” — the book of Psalms. Psalms is loaded with this very type of admonishment. Perhaps a return to a steady diet of singing the Psalms (as is still practiced in some circles) would be a wise move for those interested in allowing music to fulfill its biblical purpose. Having said that we would quickly add that the Psalms, as wonderful as they are, are nevertheless limited to Old Testament truth and thus alone could not provide a balanced musical diet for the New Testament saint.
Speaking of the Psalms, it is time to note that Colossians 3:16 tells us that we are to teach and admonish one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. I have heard this explained a number of ways but perhaps the most helpful was to learn that the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament used often and quoted by Jesus and the apostles) labeled the 150 psalms alternatively as “psalms” or “hymns” or “spiritual songs” (Payton, p. 191). This is almost beyond question the backdrop of Paul’s statement in Colossians. If so, a thorough study of how the Psalms teach and admonish might be the most profitable undertaking that Christian music leaders could do. At the very least we will discover that the Psalms not only major on praising God but do so in the context of truth in a messy world. The Psalms deal with almost every conceivable circumstance in life but do so through the lens of God and His marvelous works. What could serve as a better guide for our ministry in music today?
“Whatever else Paul’s admonition means, even a loose reading indicates that our worship music must regularly touch the entire superstructure of Christian doctrine” (Payton, p. 194). If this is true, and I believe it to be, then we must examine not only what our music says (and teaches) but also what it does not say. If songs played over Christian radio is any indication it would appear that the prominent theme in Christian music at the present time is that of God as “felt-need” meeter. If we are lonely, sad, hurting, disappointed or empty, come to Jesus who will comfort and fix what hurts. Depending on how it is presented there is truth in what these songs convey. Christ does comfort us and meet our true needs, especially that of righteousness. He calls us to the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:16). So there is nothing wrong with singing of God’s helping hand in times of pain and concern. But there is something wrong with doing so at the expense of other essential doctrines. God is more than a comforter. The Scriptures teach more than a handful of themes. The whole counsel of God needs to be explored not only in our preaching but in our singing as well. Some of these themes will not play well with modern audiences, but they didn’t play well with ancient ones either. When the author of Hebrews wanted to explain the Melchizedekian priesthood of Christ to his readers he knew he had a problem, they had grown dull of hearing and could no longer digest solid theology (Hebrews 5:11-14). So what did he do? After a lengthy admonishment (5:11-6:20) he plowed ahead anyway (chapters 7-10). They would have surely rather read a treatise on how God would make them feel better than about the life and significance of Melchizedek, but what they needed was an understanding of Melchizedek — and that is what he gave them. We would do well to pay attention to this pattern.
What Should We Do?
If we are serious about our Christian music being more than entertainment there are numerous things we could do, recognizing of course that we will probably be swimming up stream against the fads of the moment. After all, many Christians have listened to numerous hours of Christian radio, have attended Christian concerts, have been playing CDs recorded by professional Christian artists, and they are coming to church services expecting all of this to be duplicated on Sunday morning.
First, we could evaluate all the music we sing in our churches. Does it teach solid theology? Does it admonish us to correct living? Does it worship God in truth? Does it aid in the process of allowing the Word to dwell in us richly? The latter phrase means, by the way, that by study, meditation and application of the Word, it richly becomes at home in our lives. It has become a part of us. Does our music facilitate this process? Payton suggests we ask ourselves the following questions each Sunday, “Did the music ministry today cause the word of Christ to dwell in us richly? Did we teach and admonish one another with gratitude in our hearts to God for Christ’s finished work on the cross” (Payton, p. 203)? This would be a worthy exercise.
Second, we must train our churches concerning this whole area of entertainment. Appetites can be developed. We must not cave in to the world’s way of thinking. Entertainment has its place, but that place is not center stage in the life and worship of Christ’s church. The fact that the churches, which have mastered the art of entertainment, are growing by leaps and bounds, should elicit repulsion, not imitation, from those who understand the Scriptures.
Third, we could study with great profit the Psalms to discover how music is to be used to accomplish its biblically mandated goal.
Fourth, we need to teach our children good Christian music within the context of the church. They have the rest of their week to listen to whatever music they and/or their parents choose, but when they come to worship God corporately we must expose them to psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, that will aid in the word of Christ dwelling in them richly. They may not immediately like the tunes or the lyrics, but where else are they going to learn this great body of music if not in our churches?
Passion and emotionalism are often, and easily, confused in the modern church. The Christian life runs the full range of emotions; joy, peace, delight, love, sorrow, grief, concern, etc. Ours is a faith not only of the head but also of the heart. As a result it is right and proper to desire spiritual experience. The problem is that many Christians cannot tell the difference between enthusiasm for God and manipulation of the moment. Entertainment can look strangely like worship; fun can masquerade as joy; fleshly excitement can be perceived as Divine encounter.
Part of our problem today is that out of the free-love (I.e. drugs, sex) revolution of the 1960s has sprung an insatiable desire for experience. Experience has mounted the throne and barks out orders to a doting constituency that has lost patience in a world that does not make sense. If we cannot understand life, if in fact life makes no sense, at least we can enjoy ourselves. If it feels good, it may not be right, but it is better than nothing.
Unfortunately this attitude (coined postmodernism by those who like to coin phrases) has crept into the church. Christians too want an experience that makes them feel good. So dominating has this desire become that truth is increasingly taking a back seat to a good time.
What should we do? First, we should be ever mindful that the Word is our authority not experience. True delight in God should emerge from biblical truth. Next we should take a good look at the Psalms. There we find the writers absolutely in love with and excited about God. Psalm 36:7-9 for example reads, How precious is Thy lovingkindness O God! And the children of men take refuge in the shadow of They wings, they drink their fill of the abundance of Thy house; and Thou dost give them to drink of the river of Thy delights. For with Thee is the fountain of life; In Thy light we see light. Here is a man (David) finding great joy in his Lord. He is not wrapped up in the side issues; he is not drumming up feelings; he is not being whipped into a mood. He is simply reflecting on his God and his heart can hardly contain what it views. This is the spiritual experience we should crave.