Congregational worship — specifically music — is a hot topic in churches. Everyone has an opinion. The important thing to remember is that we don't define worship. God defines worship. A few weeks ago I explored the following aspects of congregational worship at my church.
Man Was Created to Be a Creature of Worship
The whole purpose of our existence is to worship God and enjoy him forever.[ref]Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question & Answer #1.[/ref] When God set Adam in the garden he was given the task of keeping the garden, taking dominion of the earth and enjoying fellowship with God. All of these things are aspects of worship.
In 1 Corinthians 10:31 we read, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Every aspect of our lives is to be done toward God in worshipful obedience to his Word.
In the Scriptures, the words translated “worship” are synonymous with the words translated “bow down” and “serve”.[ref]Exodus 20:5[/ref] Joshua says in 24:15, “As for me and my house we will serve the Lord.” That Hebrew word here translated “serve” is also translated as “worship” in other passages. Romans 12:1 likewise instructs us to present our “bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service.” Every thing we do in obedience to the Lord, in service to his will, we do as an act of worship.
The bible makes no distinction between sacred and secular “service”. There are duties and responsibilities required of all men, throughout all time, in obedience to God. We don't come to worship God in sacred service and then go about our secular work during the week. Worship is not “more holy” when we gather together as the church each week than when we are faithfully serving Christ the rest of the week. Whatever we do — in both thought and action — throughout every minute of every day — should be directed towards God as worship. And what a joy to serve Jesus in this way!
Worship in the Congregation
Focusing on the piece of worship that happens on Sundays, when we meet together as saints to worship God, Scripture gives us some directives/descriptions for our worship service.
If we compile all the Scriptures pertaining to the gathering of believers we will quickly deduce that reading and expositing the Word is the priority of our gathering.[ref]https://www.9marks.org/article/why-preaching/[/ref] Just as God has chosen the foolish things of this world to confound the wise[ref]1 Corinthians 1:27[/ref] so he in his infinite wisdom has chosen the seemingly simple act of reading and expounding upon the Word to be the chief means by which his church worships him.[ref]1 Corinthians 1:21; Titus 1:1–3[/ref] And when you think about the simplicity of that task it really is profound that God has made preaching the priority.
The other elements of the worship given as examples for us in Scripture can be found in Acts 2:42–47, 1 Corinthians 14:26, and Colossians 3:16. When Christians gather together they are also to pray, sing, and eat. Each of these aspects are important for the people of God to participate in. They each involve the entire congregation in the act of worship.
David’s Example of Musical Worship
Throughout church history to the present day, much of our worship service is inspired from the life and writings of King David. In Chronicles we find that David set men in charge of choirs and instrumental groups for the worship of God.[ref]1 Chronicles 6:31, 15:16, 25:1[/ref] For further study on worship in the temple, see the following footnote.[ref]1 Chronicles 15:22,27; 16:4; 6:31–32; 9:33; 25:1; 2 Chronicles 5:11–13; Nehemiah 12:46; Psalm 134:1[/ref] These are not all prescriptive but they give us great insights into how to please God in worship.
Many of the psalms of David give us beautiful descriptions of what congregational worship looked like. They describe musical instruments, responsive choruses, hymns recalling all the great things God has done, reflective songs of confession and corporate mourning for sin, and songs of triumph and celebration.
David addressed many of his psalms to the choir director or to the sons of Korah (who were in charge of musical offerings to the Lord). Psalm 100 in particular summarizes the essential elements of congregational worship: prayers and songs of adoration, homage, confession, thanksgiving, supplication, and praise.
Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth! Serve the LORD with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!
Know that the LORD, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name!
For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.
In Psalm 100 we come before the presence of the Lord with singing, acknowledging that he is God. We declare him as supreme, our Creator and Lord, that we belong to him and he sustains us and attends our every need. We come with thanksgiving in our hearts and on our tongues for what he has done for us. We confess our unworthiness and his greatness. We praise and bless his holy name.
Worship Does Not Benefit God
In all of this we need to be careful not to think that we are somehow capable of benefiting God in our worship. As Acts 17:24–25 says, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” God is self-sufficient in himself without our worship. God does not need us to worship him, nor do we do not add anything to his nature or glory by our worship.
Worship is all about reflecting the worth or value of God. John Piper writes:[ref]http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-inner-essence-of-worship[/ref]
The basic attitude of worship on Sunday morning is not to come with your hands full to give to God, but with your hands empty, to receive from God. And what you receive in worship is God, not entertainment. You ought to come hungry for God. Come saying, ‘As a deer pants for the flowing springs, so my soul pants for thee, O God.’ God is mightily honored when a people know that they will die of hunger and thirst unless they have God.
The worship of God is not for God’s benefit but for ours. Our worship of God reveals his glory to us. Our rendering of worship to the Lord demonstrates our own acknowledgement of our need for him and his grace. In the corporate praise and worship of the congregation we hear each other praising the Lord, reminding us afresh of his greatness and majesty.
Selecting Music that Pleases God
In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul explains in reference to church meetings, “God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.” And later, “Let all things be done decently and in order.” We understand from this passage that God delights in order because it enables us to be considerate of one another and also to understand the truth. However, the Scriptures nowhere outline a specific order of worship for our services. This is because God is primarily concerned with our attitudes when we approach him.[ref]Mark 12:33[/ref] We worship God in the beauty of holiness,[ref]Psalm 29:2[/ref] in spirit and in truth,[ref]John 4:23–4[/ref] in prostrate humility,[ref]Exodus 33:10, 34:8; Isaiah 49:7[/ref] and bold jubilation.[ref]Psalm 89:15[/ref]
So,when choosing music to sing, the only factor that ultimately matters is this: Will this music be pleasing to God? Matthew 15:8–9 says “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. In vain do they worship me.” When the heart is far from God, worship is vain, empty, non-existent. Our nearness to God is the defining, vital, indispensable essence of our worship. The only way we will know what music pleases God is through continually bathing our minds in the Scriptures to gain a true knowledge of who he is.[ref]Psalm 119[/ref] By meditating on the attributes of God, we may know what pleases him. Jeremiah 9:23–24 says, “Let him that glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord.”
People sometimes assume that music itself is not a language. They think if the lyrics honor God than it doesn’t matter what the music sounds like. But this is to ignore the way God created music. Tones and harmonies, rhythms and counterpoint, timbre, scales, chords are all part of a science that God created as a language to communicate the beauty of emotion.
Whenever you study a new language you quickly learn that the tone of your voice is vital to understanding the meaning behind your words. The same is true of music. Throughout history men have studied the science behind the power of music to speak to your emotions and it is truly fascinating. Goethe, Bach, Sire, and Copland have some great pieces of literature on the subject.
What is important for us to remember is that God created music to speak to us in a powerful way. It is not a neutral vehicle for the conveyance of words but rather a powerful interpreter of those words. And if God is primarily concerned with our heart attitude when we worship him, we should take care that the attitude of our music is pleasing to him and fitting for his worship as well.
What follows are four criteria I use when seeking the Lord’s wisdom in choosing a song to sing congregationally.
The idea is making God big and man small. Here are a few passages that speak of the exaltation and greatness of God.
The LORD reigns; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake! The LORD is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples. Let them praise your great and awesome name! Holy is he!
And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
“Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.
Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.
Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength. Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness
We sing songs that in lyrics and music reflect an attitude of reverence to God, a trust in his kind providence, praise for his greatness and love, and gratefulness for his salvation.
Our worship songs must be theologically accurate. What we sing reflects what we believe. It is a confession of our faith. Lyrics become the grammar of our life. We want to sing songs that help the Word of Christ dwell in us richly. Keith Getty writes, “Songs can be short, they can be long. They can be any structure. That's not the issue. But we do have to write songs of substance, because there is a direct correlation with what we sing as to how we live our lives. In the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy, the people were told they had to learn the song. It was 20–30 verses of what God had done for his people. They were told to learn the song so it would be a witness against them if they ever fell away. That's how important what we sing is to how we live our lives.”
Before the Reformation, the church fell into a bad habit of singing liturgy in Latin which few could understand. Part of the work of the Reformers included reintroducing hymns and psalms so that all God's people could praise him. Church music should not be a performance by a few people but a unified act of worship.[ref]Psalm 149:1[/ref]
Worship is required of every creature — individually and corporately — because God created them.[ref]Psalm 95:6[/ref] When we are overcome with gratitude to God we will not be focused on ourselves, we will sing with confidence and joy.
It follows then that music should be easy to sing. All ages must be able to sing the songs. Melodies based on folk music are easiest to grasp. Words that reflect our common speech are most impactful.
Especially when church member come from a diverse range of backgrounds. The types of songs chosen should be easy for everyone to sing. And as a liturgy of music is developed, eventually the congregation will start to all become familiar with the songs as they are repeated and learned together.
We should not be singing all old or all new songs. The age of the music does not make it good or bad, but it's theological correctness and ability to be learned and embraced and easily sung. It's not about converting people to a hymn but confirming them in rich theological truth. In Scripture we see the importance of learning a song that spans generations, recalling the goodness of God — such as Psalm 78. We also see an emphasis on writing new songs in response to what God is doing today. Psalm 98 and 96 are two examples of such songs that were written by the current generation to praise God for his present mercies and goodness.
Today we have an abundance of great music from all ages at our fingertips. We would never have the time to learn it all. We are so thankful for this and yet at the same time we must strive to use the utmost care to seek out those songs that would please the Lord.