Every summer we give our choir and orchestra some time off and scale back a bit in our approach to Sunday morning worship. This year, it’s been more like a complete reset. We cleared off the platform and started from scratch with only the instruments we were going to use this summer (plus, I’m a neat freak when it comes to this kind of thing — fallen world stuff). With that, it’s clear that we’ve taken a more “contemporary” approach to the music. Because there’s always questions and concerns when it comes to worship style I wanted to make a few points, and include a few articles, that might prove helpful.
- Worship is for the church. This means that anything we do in worship is for the purpose of engaging the believer (head and heart) in worshiping the God of the universe, exalting Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. This pursuit is without style. Now, there are times churches can become stale and stagnant. Jump starts can help, but style (one or the other) doesn’t make this happen. This is a heart matter.
- Worship (not worship style) is evangelistic. Some people change styles because they believe they can reach the lost with contemporary “language” of updated styles. However, if the words are devoid of the gospel, it doesn’t matter. The Scriptures make plain that God inhabits the praises of His people and many will see and fear. Essentially, it’s the worshipers worshiping who become evangelistic, not a band or orchestra, praise team, or choir. Therefore, the aim in any approach to music is to engage the believers, not try to be more attractional to the lost.
- Worship is preaching and preaching is worship. The proclamation of the Word of God is still central. Little grieves me (and frustrates me) more than when people say they love the preaching, but can’t stand the music, therefore, they are going somewhere else. On the other hand, whatever style a church uses to communicate gospel truths in songs, it should be excellent, energetic, impassioned, truth-filled… because that’s what gospel preaching should be. There is no excuse for boredom in the pulpit or the pew.
The style of music a church sings is relatively unimportant.
- Most important are the truth of the words being sung. Since a church sings music in order to worship God, our songs should function like a musical confession of faith. Those confessions of faith should contain substantial truth about God, or else we’ll hardly be worshiping at all.
- Two principle purposes of putting such words to music (questions of style aside) are (i) to assist the heart to emotionally engage with the truths being sung, so that one’s emotions properly conform to those truths; (ii) to help the congregation remember, even memorize, those truths. We sing to God to stir up our hearts to exalt and honor him.
- The style of music a church uses is ultimately unimportant. Style is passing.
- It’s only worth paying attention to insofar as different styles may do a better or worse job of helping people properly conform their hearts to the truths being sung.
- Even then, many people can learn to adapt, especially when their pastors teach them that our musical preferences provide us an excellent opportunity to “count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). This is especially true if a church hopes to reach a variety of people from a variety of walks and stations of life.
- In short, what we sing is far more important than how we sing it.
It’s Probably Not the Worship Style
I was at a denominational meeting not too long ago, sitting at a table with half a dozen other pastors and elders. At one spot in the agenda we were supposed to take 10 minutes to talk about vision and direction of the denomination. This led to a conversation about our churches and why so many RCA congregations keep losing members. An older man at my table lamented that his church continues to shrink. What used to be a rather large church has declined to a shadow of its former glory. He quickly offered an explanation, “People just don’t like traditional worship anymore. We have the hymns and the liturgy and the organ. The growing churches have guitars and drums. Our style just doesn’t work anymore.”
I wasn’t sure quite how to respond. There can be a hundred reasons for a church’s decline–some of them the fault of the church, some of them not. But I knew a little bit about the church this man was from. It’s a church with classic worship and liberal theology. They have hosted pro-gay events before (to cite one example). Knowing this, I asked the man if he thought the gospel was faithfully preached each Sunday. Of course, he said he was certain it was. I suggested that the reasons for their decline were probably more complex than simply their worship style. I didn’t get far in the conversation except to add that there are plenty of examples of thriving churches with classic worship and we shouldn’t assume our church problems can be fixed by a simple change of instrumentation.
I don’t share that story to suggest that liberal churches always shrink and robust gospel-centered churches always grow. But I do wish church leaders would stop assuming that their problems boil down to a certain worship style and can be fixed with another. I run into church leaders fairly often who struggle to make sense of their declining numbers. I feel for these brothers (and sometimes they are sisters in my circles). I don’t know all the reasons for church growth or church decline. Growth does not equal faithfulness any more than decline equals failure. Sometimes situations, histories, and circumstances are outside our control. Regenerating human hearts always is. So we should be slow to judge another church’s fruitfulness.
And yet, we can ask better questions. I’m not against changing worship styles. There may be good reasons to do so in some circumstances. But I doubt very much that’s usually the real problem. Instead of assuming that young people will flock to our churches if we drop the organ and plug in the guitar (and we have both at our church), declining denominations and shrinking churches should ask deeper, harder questions:
Is the gospel faithful preached?
Is the Bible taught with clarity and passion?
Are the sermons manifestly rooted in a text of Scripture?
Do the elders/pastors and deacons meet the qualifications for church office laid out in the New Testament?
Are the sacraments faithfully administered and protected?
Is church discipline practiced?
Do the elders exercise personal care over the flock?
Are there good relationships among the staff and other leaders?
Is the worship service put together thoughtfully and carried out with undistracting excellence (as much as possible).
Do the people in the congregation sing the songs with gusto or are they going through the motions?
Is a high bar set for church membership?
Are the people of the church engaged in personal ministry?
Is the congregation marked by increasing prayer and evangelism?
Do the pastors believe in the complete trustworthiness of all of Scripture?
Do they take adequate time for study and preparation?
Do they truly believe and eagerly rejoice in their church’s/denomination’s statement of faith, creeds, and confessions?
Are their lives examples of personal holiness?
There are scores of other questions you could ask. These are only a sample. It may be after facing these questions that a church decides to change a few programs or alter a few songs. But until a congregation asks these tough questions, the quick fixes will not fix much of anything. Don’t assume the style is the thing. Check your substance first.