We live in a very consumerist culture. Most everything that we do is guided by our personal preferences. We want to find satisfaction with the decisions that we make. From the clothes we buy, to the televisions shows we watch, our personal desires mold the choices we make each day. This mentality even affects our preferences in worship.
The most common question Christians will ask one another has to do with their preferences in style of worship. Contemporary or traditional? I’ve met traditionalists who think contemporary Christian music is of the devil quite literally. And I’ve known contemporary loving believers who consider the traditionalist to be legalistic in their choice of music.
The truth is that both contemporary and traditional worship can become idols within church. Both forms of worship can be glorifying to the Lord. And both can become stumbling blocks that rob God of His glory. Anytime we filter our worship preferences and judge them by our own personal opinion, it creates an environment where the worship of God is in crisis.
Far too often, people will base their preferences of worship style on their feelings. Some feel that the traditional sound of an organ puts them in a spiritual mood. And others feel that the upbeat twang of an electric guitar makes them want to raise their hands in praise. And the problem lies not in the musicians choice of instrument, but in the motives behind those singing praises.
David Garland wrote, “The danger for us is that we will want to keep up with our entertainment culture and its focus on the eyes by turning our worship into a religious stage show. We must walk a fine line between offering worship that is appealing and engaging without becoming simply a splashy performance, and worship that has depth without becoming tedious and flat.”
When we allow our feelings to play a determining factor in our preferences of worship, we unintentionally enter into worship with praising ourselves and not God. We are basically saying that we gravitate towards a certain worship style because it makes us feel a certain way and not because it glorifies God.
Also, music should never be used to coerce feelings of spirituality. Our feelings in worship should spring forth from the words that we are singing. And our words of praise must be grounded in the truth of God’s Word. True Christ centered worship cannot be fabricated.
The words that we are singing should be the focus of our worship, not the tempo of the song or the instruments that are being used. We should always ask, “Who is being glorified in this song?”
There are traditional songs that are very Christ honoring and totally focused on God’s glory. One of my personal favorite traditional songs of praise is ‘Behold Our God.” I also love to sing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” written by the reformer Martin Luther.
I love these two traditional hymns not because of their beat, how they make me feel, or the instruments that are used, but because of the words. They are totally void of praising man and solely focused on glorifying God.
However, there are songs in the traditional genre are very popular but void of praising the Lord. My general rule of thumb when listening to the words in worship is to ask who is being sung about, God or me? For example, there is a widely renowned traditional hymn called “I Am a Friend of God.” The lyrics are very repetitive with the congregation repeating that they are a friend of God, and that He calls them friends.
Is the song heretical? No.
Who is the focus of this song? Me.
Also there are some very Christ honoring contemporary worship songs. Some of my personal favorites from the contemporary genre are “All I have is Christ” and “Show us Christ.” There are other contemporary forms of urban Christian music by artist such as Tripp Lee or Lecrae that are saturated with Gospel truth. Many are quick to dismiss these forms of music based on their fast tempo, but their lyrics are more Christ centered than many traditional hymns.
And there are also contemporary songs that make the hearers want to raise their hands, but give no praise to the Lord. On of the biggest pitfalls of modern contemporary Christian music is vain repetition. Saying the same thing over and over, and what is being said is based more on how we feel about God rather than speaking the truth of who He is.
Some contemporary songs unfortunately speak of God as if He was their spouse and not the sovereign Lord. One contemporary song that is very popular with younger believers describes the love of God as being like, “…a sloppy wet kiss.” Jesus is not our romantic interest. And to sing songs that portray Him as such is very disturbing, not to mention extremely man centered.
If the words that we sing could just as easily be sung as a love song to our significant other, then it’s not praise to God. Again, praise should be centered around leading our minds to dwell on truth. The purpose of praise is not to promote warm and fuzzy feelings within us. Worship should not be void of emotions, but it should not be led by emotion either. Singing Gospel truth leads us to experience emotions of thankfulness and gratitude towards God.
Genuine Worship is driven by what we KNOW to be true about God, not by what we feel. And it is the knowledge of His truth that should drive us into the emotional state of thankfulness and praise. Knowledge leads to emotion, not the other way around.
Also we should ask “Who does the worship draw attention to?” Some of the most God glorifying, humble worship that I’ve attended has been contemporary praise. But I have also seen contemporary worship being sung by bands that jumped all around the stage and gave the impression that you were attending a rock concert. The attention was primarily on the musicians and the excitement they created, and glorifying God was secondary to their performance.
Kent Hughes wrote, “Congregational worship has taken the form of something done for an audience as opposed to something done by a congregation. Stages, theater-seating, programs, “special music,” and the adoption of the posture and gestures of secular performers by worship leaders all suggest that the priority of the contemporary church is entertaining congregations, not worshiping God.”
So the issue at hand is not musical style. Both traditional and contemporary can be glorifying to God. The crux of this issue is in the content that is being sung. The question we must ask centers around if the lyrics are grounded in the character of God and in Biblical truth. Or are they aimed more towards generating an emotional reaction from a crowd.
When planning the Sunday morning songs, far too many worship leaders ask the question, “What do the people want to hear and experience?” Rather than asking, “What songs would speak the greatest truth and bring the most glory to God?” Sadly, there are far too many churches that are more concerned with their “image” rather than the glory of the Lord.
Praise is not performed for our preferences, but for God’s glory.