Last week we posted part one of this series. You can review it HERE. In this group of three essays from nearly ten years ago, the iMonk observes the sea-change taking place in evangelical church worship and music and shares his reflections about them. Today, part two.
THE LORD IS MY SONG
Toward a Reasonable Regulative Principle (Part 2/3)
The LORD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him. (Exodus 15:2)
Growing up in a large, fundamentalist Southern Baptist Church in western Kentucky, I never knew there was anything potentially controversial about worship. In fact, I never knew there was such a thing as worship. “Are you staying for preachin’ service?” was the question someone always asked after Sunday School. I knew about singing hymns, choirs, soloists and quartets, preaching, praying, offerings and invitations. I knew about revivals and crusades, but I never thought about worship.
Our church taught us that Southern Baptists were the only true Christians in the world, so I easily avoided knowing anything about any other Christians. When my best friend’s brother got married in a Roman Catholic church, I got so nervous that I walked out of the church in the middle of the service. The first time I attended a Methodist service with another friend, I was scared to death. What kind of rituals did these strange sects practice? I was an unlikely candidate for coming to appreciate the broader worship tradition of Christianity.
As a senior in high school in 1973, I got involved in the Charismatic movement in our community, which just happened to be dominated by Roman Catholics. We gathered in a church basement and sang choruses while Father Somebody played a rollicking electronic organ. They were raising hands, singing with enthusiasm, anointing the sick, talking in tongues and generally doing everything that would get a Baptist boy thrown to the lower reaches of purgatory. But I also felt, for the first time, a sense of dynamic corporate worship and the expectancy that God was present in the power of the Spirit.
Though I would abandon that Charismatic fellowship and move far away from much of their teaching on the Christian life, I retained my fond memories of the worship we shared. As a youth minister, I used contemporary worship music extensively, and designed youth worship experiences that followed the pattern of those charismatic days. As an enthusiastic consumer of CCM, I believed Larry Norman when he said, “I ain’t knockin’ the hymns. I just ain’t dead yet.” I knew the answer to the question, “Why should the devil have all the good music?”
As a pastor, campus minister and worship leader, I had largely embraced the “worship renewal,” even after I came to fully Reformed convictions. In 1995, our campus experienced a twelve-week “awakening” that was covered by our denominational press and attracted the attention of many people around the state. Contemporary worship music- and not preaching- was an integral part of that event. Before, during and after those days, I taught our students over 120 worship songs from the Vineyard and other sources. I am not embarrassed to say that I have seen the powerful effects of the “worship renewal” up close, and I have certainly seen the emotional and spiritual impact of this music and worship style on all ages.
It has been in my role as a pastor that I have thought most deeply about worship. Local churches that dwelt securely in Zion are now being exploded from within as a generational war over worship music makes its way into every corner of the body of Christ. Some churches have been able to make a transition, while others go to multiple services to deal with the demands of diversity. But many churches do not have an easy road in this area. The people often are not ready to deal with the demands of blended or contemporary worship. Some of the most painful pastoral conversations I ever had were over worship music. I had families leave my church because we used songs in worship that were not in the 1956 Baptist Hymnal. Even today, preaching on the weekends to a congregation of less than thirty, I can sense the tension caused by the use of too much CCM.
My own evaluations of CCM in worship are not theories dreamed up in an ivory tower. I have been using CCM in the same worship setting for almost ten years. I have been in the front row to observe its effects, impact and potential. I believe there are many artists and writers offering up solid worship music for the use of discerning worship leaders. At the same time, I have also seen the limitations of CCM, and my concerns are not musical prejudice. Anyone who knows me, knows that I am not prejudiced against CCM, as my music collection demonstrates. My concerns are pastoral, and Biblical.
Any worship leader must spend time developing his or her Biblical convictions in this area. I am blessed in having a diverse worship background to draw on. There is no aspect of this issue that I have not experienced personally. I have led Vineyard choruses to swaying students and I have led Hymns to rooms of senior adults. And I have reversed the music with the same audiences and tried that as well. I’ve directed large choirs and “kickin'” worship bands. I have a file of “fan mail” about my ministry as a worship leader and a mental library of comments made to and about me in the process of working through these issues. I’ve been told to do more and to do less, to turn it down and turn it up. All of this has motivated me to develop my convictions and my understanding of a Biblical approach to worship. The journey has not been short or easy, but I am glad I’ve come this far.
For those who missed out on the other big historical arguments on worship, the regulative principle says that we should only do in worship what God has commanded. For some, this means doing absolutely nothing God has not explicitly commanded, for others it means simply avoiding what God has explicitly forbidden. Yes, it can be a mess. My view is that the Bible both commands by example and by principle what God expects in worship. The Bible also prohibits certain things in worship, and we should take that seriously as well.
Even with the regulative principle, however, Christians have a lot of work to do. Better writers than myself, including some very conservative advocates of a strict regulative principle, admit that we cannot be too narrow, because the Bible simply is not so specific that all questions are settled. Examples abound: When should public worship occur? Who should read scripture and how much? What should be the place given to evangelism in worship? Can children be addressed directly in worship? What kinds of instruments are permitted? Can someone sing a solo? Is there an order of worship and, if so, can it be varied? What about the Church year? Testimonies? Missions appeals? Those who strictly answer these questions are generally pressing scripture further than it can naturally and easily go when interpreted normally.
The regulation of worship by scripture is clear, however, in many practical ways. God must not be presented visually. Preaching of the Word is required. The scriptures must be read. Prayer and singing are normal. Worship is an activity primarily of the people of God, and it is participatory for all. Everything should be done decently and in order. These are not matters of culture or interpretation. They are simple derivatives from the Bible itself. While scripture does not shape these “regulations” into a strict order of service, no community of believers is without much guidance.
Now, I think it must be said that the regulative principle, no matter how one understands it, is a long way from the worship pragmatism of the seeker sensitive crowd. The needs and interests of the “audience” aren’t the source of anything beyond the most obvious concerns of intelligible communication. This isn’t entertainment for people, but worship for God. While it must be intelligible and clear, it is not conducted by surveys of customer satisfaction.
The regulative principle is a great help to church leaders. For example, if a drama is put forward for a worship service, the leaders of the church must not simply ask is drama Biblical? It is a more complex issue. Can drama fulfill the command for the scriptures to be read publicly? Can it preach the Word? Or is it simply entertainment? Such questions “regulate” the drama into the boundaries of worship, rather than rule it out of hand. A worshiping congregation would do well to ask their leaders to evaluate all worship by the regulative principle, and to support their decisions in doing so.
One other example that may not sit as well with everyone. The Bible describes many different acceptable physical responses in worship: raising hands, bowing down, the corporate “Amen” and so on. It is in the spirit of the regulative principle that worship should not force worshipers into behaviors that are not scripturally advocated (running laps, jumping up and down during the sermon, endless individual “amens”) nor should it design worship in such a way that all the congregation cannot participate. Those churches that have told their older members to get with party or move to another church are not being true to the repeated Biblical command that worship be for all the people of God. It is the responsibility of church leaders to use the regulative principle in such a way that everyone is included without anyone being a dictator of worship at the expense of everyone else.
I have a great interest in how the Bible presents “firsts,” such as the first record of the corporate worship of the people of God. In this case, the relevant passage is Exodus 15:1-18. What I see in this passage is the central place of God-centered, God-revealing content, expressed in culturally appropriate public worship.
The context is the immediate aftermath of the crossing of the sea and the destruction of Pharaoh’s army. In many ways, it is a high point of the revelation of God through His actions in history. God has decisively demonstrated His nature and His covenant love for His people. In other words, the Israelites are in the same place as any group of Christians gathered for worship on the other side of Easter.
This is a passage that breathes the air of a God-centered faith, a faith that is echoed in dozens of Psalms and many other passages of scripture such as Psalm 40:1-3. “I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry. 2 He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. 3 He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD.” It is a reminder that worship is a celebration of deliverance and the worship is directed towards the One who has rescued us.
This simple principle, that worship is to be a God-centered exercise in total and in its parts, and not audience driven or entertainment oriented, is the most crucial criteria to use in constructing any worship service. It is the job of worship leaders and pastors to be “lashed to the mast” of God-centeredness, and to not desert the ship on this question, no matter what winds of popular or expert opinion are blowing. The words of the Lord are so clear as to strike a reasonable fear into the heart of anyone leading worship: I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols. (Isaiah 42:8)
It is here that I will point out a second and related principle that I believe puts much contemporary worship music on the scales for a thorough reconsideration. Exodus 15, the second and third commandments (Exodus 20:3-6) and every other passage of scripture drawing our attention to a God-centered public worship service, unmistakably teaches that the God we worship must be God as He has revealed himself in His own revelation, and not God as we choose to think about Him.
We are nowhere told that we are free to conceive of God according to our own imagination or experience, even if that conception appears to have value or truth related to scripture. The greatest failure of the worship music of any time, culture or style is this failing. Rather than worshiping God as He has revealed Himself in the story of redemption, we worship God in the image of the familiar, the emotional, the entertaining and, often, the trivial. Even when we use scriptural images and language, we must test what we are saying by the revelatory content of the Bible. (I have written on these problems in two other IM articles, The Last Gasps of Literate Christianity, and Fighting Words.)
God is a warrior. He is our great high priest. He is a rock and a fortress, a deliverer and a redeemer. He is the Lamb of God, the I AM. He is the sovereign King of the universe and the shepherd of His sheep. He is bread from heaven and living water. He is our heavenly Father and the husband/protector of His people. All of these images are rich in Biblical content. They cannot be abandoned and our worship be acceptable to God. The second and third commandments forbid worship according to the design of our own imaginations and words. By this test, thousands of worship lyrics, from sentimentalized hymns to romanticized and trivialized worship choruses, fail utterly and have no place in Christian worship. They detract from the glory of God in salvation and trivialize the Holy One.
Of course, people like some of those Biblically deficient lyrics, and even worship intensely through them. Even unbelievers like many of them! For those who reject Biblical regulation of worship, the end result is all that matters. After all, they say, doesn’t God only look at the heart of the worshiper? Isn’t evangelism our only goal? Well, if the second and third commandments are still true, apparently not. Apparently sincere worship of God through humanly invented religious images is not honoring to God, and if done knowingly, is blatant disobedience. Certainly, God in His wisdom and omniscience knows what is going on, but He is not issuing a blank check to worship Him as we choose based on sincerity or results. Ask Uzziah or Nadab and Abihu.
So here I ask my readers a simple question: Is this regulation taken seriously within CCM today? Or has much CCM zealously pursued what the book of Colossians calls “Self made religion,” (Colossians 2:23) defined as “worship which one prescribes and devises for himself, contrary to the contents and nature of faith which ought to be directed to Christ?” Are pastors and worship leaders evaluating all the public worship of God for its God-centeredness and its God-revealing Biblical content? Or are we seeing the victory of the pragmatists, the emotionalists and the entertainers?
I will use one illustration. Classic Christian hymnody has generously focused on the cross of Christ, as it should, since the entire story of salvation focuses on the cross of Christ. It is the locus of the work of salvation, and worthy of our praise and adoration. Several years ago, during the “awakening” on our campus, I went looking for contemporary praise choruses on the cross of Christ. What I found was a stunning absence of such songs by the “big three” publishers at the time. (PDI was a notable exception.) While God’s holiness and grace were magnified, the cross was strangely overlooked. And those lyrics I did find were remarkable in their mediocrity. This made a monumental impression on me, especially as I noted the many lyrics dealing with romantic and “daddy” images of God. It was almost as if a different plan of redemption was being celebrated; a salvation from feelings of rejection and guilt, rather than a great atonement for sinners. (Gratefully, this imbalance has been remedied in many respects, particularly in the popular “Passion” series.)
3. Biblical worship must reject relativism, in all its forms, and embrace an objective worship of God by his people in Spirit and truth.
Christians cannot be relativists. I say this knowing that research demonstrates that a majority of evangelicals are relativists, rejecting the belief that absolute, objective, exclusive truth exists. Whether one accepts the research as accurate, or questions its validity entirely, you must admit that relativism has made inroads in the Christian community.
An increasing number of believers doubt that Christ is the only saving way. Many have rejected any doctrine of eternal punishment. In their personal lives, many Christians live out values at wide variance from the proclamation of a conservative pulpit. Yet, even with this reality, evangelicals will usually say they reject relativism, and say they recognize that on matters where God has spoken clearly, the truth is settled.
Except, however, when it comes to worship. When worship is discussed, relativism is embraced warmly. “There is no such thing as a “right” way to worship.” “All musical styles are equally appropriate.” “We all need to be free to worship God in our own way.” “Worship is simply an expression of culture, and no one can pass judgment on someone’s way of worshiping.” Any postmodernist would applaud such statements. Having once made many of these arguments myself, I can attest that these beliefs are sincerely held by genuine Christians. They are simply Biblically wrong.
The wrongness of these statements hardly needs a great deal of explanation. If there are objective values in Biblical morality, objective values in Biblical epistemology and objective values in Biblical theology, then there are objective Biblical values in worship. I would suggest that those who believe otherwise should feel the burden to make the argument for an exception in the case of worship.
If objective worship values exist, then the church is obligated to discern and pursue them. If it is true that “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things,” (Philippians 3:8) then we are obligated to read and believe the next verse: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:9) Objective values are not theoretical, but can be seen, learned, heard and put into practice. So it is with the Biblical instructions regarding worship.
If scripture says, “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts,” (Psalm 33:3) then we are obliged to be concerned with the objective value of skillful playing. If scripture says, “all things should be done decently and in order, (I Corinthians 14:40) then church leaders should be pursuing the objective value of decency and order. If scripture says “let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe,” (Hebrews 12:28) then that is exactly what worship leaders should be striving to create in corporate worship.
I know that this is tough stuff for the freestyle worship mindset that prevails in a considerable portion of Christianity. We chafe at the notion that someone is going to define these things and tell us what they mean. Those who believe we can mosh reverently will be distressed to know that will not be the case. Yet, again, the case is remarkably clear. We cannot be relativists in worship.
This does not, however, erase the fact of culture. God is not a relativist, but he has created a world of various cultures to give him glory in various ways. The city of God is made up of the worship offerings of various cultures. “They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.” (Revelation 21:26) This is not relativism, but true diversity in Christ. Biblically faithful worship that arises from cultural diversity is not relativistic.
The implications for the public worship of God are simple. As long as cultural diversity does not drift into an idolatry of entertainment or an indulgence of diversity for the sake of novelty or political correctness, there is nothing to prevent any congregation from embracing as much diversity as is reflective of its own time and place in history. The worship on the shore of the sea (Exodus 15) came from a diverse people who shared a common experience of salvation. The Lord was their song.
There is a place for music old and new within the lived-out objective values of a worshiping community. But there is no place for the culture of CCM to utterly rout the diversity from a church in the name of a supposed “worship renewal” that is actually nothing more than an expansion of commercialism. There is no place for worship leaders who become uncritical advocates of contemporary music and the opponents of tradition and heritage. There is a place for the worship leader “who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13:52)
Biblical worship is regulated worship, God-centered and God-revealing worship, and objectively ordered worship. Worship is not entertainment or the playground of personal preferences. Worship is the highest privilege and responsibility of the Christian, and the most serious work of the ministry. Evangelicals cannot surrender worship to the commercial interests that view the church as potential consumers. They cannot remake the church into the image of any generation’s preferences. Our calling is to undertake the work of worship as a reformation under God’s Word and a renewal under God’s Spirit. With a renewed awareness of the challenges that confront us, we can once again embrace the great heritage of worship that has brought us to this place, and carry on, as long as God allows us to be His people in the world.