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The United State of Worship

  • By Bob Liparulo Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jul
The United State of Worship

On a hill overlooking Nashville, Tennessee, sits what used to be a quaint and spired church, designed to draw eyes and thoughts heavenward. Now, done up in Goth black, the building houses a bar and music club. One night not long ago, however, it became a church again, as the band Sonicflood filled it with worship music. The packed crowd alternately raised their voices in praise and lowered their heads in long, silent prayer.

A twentysomething man with spiky hair and metal-studded nose, lip and eyebrow, looked around at the amalgam of ages and personalities. "The music drew me back," he said, meaning back to the Christianity of his youth. "Now I'm attending church again and talking to God all the time."

Worship music will do that. It turns you to God, draws you closer to him.

"More people than ever seem to be hearing it and participating in it," says Jeff Deyo, Sonicflood's former lead singer. "It's amazing, the movement of God through music right now."

Of course, God's people have always sung his praises. Psalm 100 tells us to "worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs." Martin Luther, in addition to launching the Protestant Reformation, penned the triumphant anthem "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." Most of Johann Sebastian Bach's music was written for the church. And it's no coincidence that Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and the hymn "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee" share a melody line. Then in the late 1960s, the hippie-style worship of the "Jesus People" movement birthed what would become contemporary Christian music (CCM).

"What we're seeing today is a revival of praise and worship music," says Mac Powell, lead singer of the Christian rock band Third Day. In 2000, the ten-year-old band released Offerings, their first worship album. "We recorded it to honor God, to thank him for everything he's done," says Powell. "We would have been happy if it sold just half of what our albums normally sell." Turns out, it became Third Day's best-selling album, with consumers scarfing up a million copies.

Already one of Christendom's top stars, Michael W. Smith scored his biggest record when he released Worship two years ago (it sold over a million copies in its first nine months and inspired a sequel, 2002's Worship Again). "Its success is both surprising and gratifying," says Smith. "I've led worship in church for 20 years but always released contemporary music. So I finally cut an album of the music that's closest to my heart---and boom!"

Boom is right, and not just for Smith and Third Day. Worship music is thriving, whether it's in church or on CDs. With a whopping 5.7 million albums sold, Songs 4 Worship: Shout to the Lord from longtime worship label Integrity Music and late-night TV hawker Time-Life Music became each company's best-selling double-disc set. According to the Gospel Music Association (GMA), for each of the past two years, consumers purchased 50 million Christian recordings---double the number from 2000. This figure comprises all genres---rock, country, pop, gospel---but worship accounts for about a quarter of it.

"God is calling his people to him, and we are all responding, baby Christians and mature Christians alike."  --Stu Garrard, of "Delirious?"

Pastors have noticed an increased interest in worship music, as well. Recording artist Terry MacAlmon reports that the number of invitations he receives from churches around the country to lead worship "has exploded. The congregations are bigger and more passionate about praising and worshiping God." And sales of his worship albums have spiked accordingly: from a few thousand two years ago to a quarter-million this year.

This worship resurgence is hardly limited to America's neck of the woods, either. "This is a global phenomenon," says Valerie Davis, marketing director for Vineyard Music. "In the past four years, we have planted music ministries in New Zealand, South Africa, the U.K., Canada---a lot of countries. A worship album we just recorded in Turkish is going gangbusters. People all over the world are hungry for worship."

Our response to God's call

So what's stimulating this growing appetite for worship music? The pat answer is "God."

"Of course, it's God," says Stu Garrard, guitarist for the British band Delirious?. "He is calling his people to him, and we are all responding, baby Christians and mature Christians alike. We hear his call, and we are answering back, sometimes with songs and music."

Okay, but what's God using this time to get our attention?

"For one thing, it's the uncertain times we live in," says Smith, whose Worship was released (coincidentally?) on September 11, 2001---the day the Twin Towers came down and America's guard went up. "Frightening events drive people to seek comfort in God's arms. He is in control even though the world seems completely chaotic."

Former GMA president Frank Breeden agrees with that observation. "Since September 11, people I talk with in all sectors of society want to hear the unique message of the gospel, loudly and clearly," he told Christian music magazine CCM. "They don't want ambiguity or polite conversation. They want something they can count on."

Kirk Franklin, whose blend of gospel, hip-hop, and praise music has made his latest album, The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin, a hit on both Christian and mainstream charts, believes people are fed up with a pop culture that has become "very shallow, very degrading, and very immoral. The antidote for that is God. Gospel and worship music help cleanse us and bring us into his presence."

Another reason for the swelling number of worshipers, suggests Garrard, is "the broadening diversity of worship music styles. Not everyone likes hymns traditionally rendered. So when musicians started giving worship music a more modern sound, with rock tempos and electric guitars, a whole generation of people said, 'Yeah, that really makes me want to think about God. I can praise him to that.'"

"We tend to think of worship as something we do, accompanied by music. But it's everything we do." --- Mac Powell, Third Day

David Crowder co-founded University Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, primarily because his fellow Baylor University students considered the area churches boring and irrelevant. He then discovered that the modern worship music he played there attracted churched kids, but not the young nonchurchgoers he hoped to reach. "So we started writing our own worship songs until we found a style that appealed to them," he says. That style, a folksy alt-rock fusion, instantly found an audience; The David Crowder Band's album Can You Hear Us? became Sparrow Records' biggest-selling debut release ever.

So now there's easy listening (like John Tesh's A Deeper Faith), country (the Amazing Grace compilation CDs), urban gospel (Fred Hammond's Speak Those Things), rock (Third Day's Offerings and Offerings II), traditional hymns (George Beverly Shea's Rock of Ages), choral music (the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir's Be Glad), light rock (Rebecca St. James's Worship God), modern rock (The Newsboys' Adoration), even heavy metal (ZAO's All Else Failed).

"Something for everyone," says Bill Gaither, whose "old-time religion" sound was once considered revolutionary and has since become a perennial favorite. "People have different tastes regarding almost everything. The proliferation of music styles means a proliferation of worshipers. The packaging---that is, the musical style---doesn't matter. What's important is the message, that its focus is on God and glorifying him."

Ending the 'worship wars'

Some people don't see it that way; they think musical style matters a lot, especially when it comes to their church. They don't like the idea of messing with tried-and-true worship, even if introducing variety would attract new believers who'd otherwise stay away. Pundits in the media call this brewing debate between the traditional and the modern "the Worship Wars," and have suggested that whole churches and denominations are splitting and crumbling over the issue.

"The concept of worship wars seems like a colossal oxymoron," points out Chris Dolson, senior pastor of Blackhawk Evangelical Free Church of Madison, Wisconsin. "To put the term 'worship' and 'war' together just seems odd, kind of satanic."

Fortunately, Christian researcher George Barna found that the brouhaha was probably blown out of proportion. A 2002 study revealed that only 7 percent of Protestant churches have "severe" or "somewhat serious" music issues rattling their congregation. And only 17 percent of church people said they would likely leave a church if its music style changed. Most churches ease tensions over music by blending musical styles or giving each style its own service.

More alarming, says Barna, is the reason for the rift in the first place. "Most of the people who fight about their musical preference do so because they don't understand the relationship between music, communication, God, and worship," he explains. "Church leaders foster the problem by focusing on how to please people with music or how to offer enough styles of music to meet everyone's tastes, rather than dealing with the underlying issues of limited interest in and comprehension of the fervent worship of a holy, deserving God."

His study showed that while pastors described the purpose of worship as connecting with God or experiencing his presence, congregants were more likely to understand worship as activity undertaken for their personal benefit.

But these aren't the worshipers that some musicians witness from the stage. "I see the tears streaming down their faces," says Franklin. "I see them lifting their hands in praise. No doubt about it, they're there to honor God."

Music's place in worship

Still, worship itself---like love---is difficult to define. In Scripture, it is shown (such as in Psalm 89:7 and Hebrews 13:15), but not explained.

"For many people, worship means singing in a church service or listening to an album, but it's so much more than that," says musician and author Michael Card, whose latest CD, A Fragile Stone, features a collection of what might be called "thinking man's" worship songs.

In his book Jesus Among Other Gods, theologian Ravi Zacharias writes, "Worship is a posture of life that takes as its primary purpose the understanding of what it really means to love and revere God."

"Music is merely an expression of what is already going on inside of your heart," says popular praise and worship artist Ron Kenoly. "Worship is a heart attitude before it is anything else, before it becomes translated as music."

"It's a lifestyle first," concurs Mac Powell. "We tend to think of worship as something we do, accompanied by music. But it's everything we do, because we're God's children. The music is only a part of that, a way to help take our minds off the pressures of daily living and turn our undivided attention heavenward."

In his Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis suggests our temporal worship should be considered only preparation for the eternal praise we will lavish upon God in heaven: "Meanwhile, of course, we are only tuning our instruments. The tuning up of the orchestra can be itself delightful, but only to those who can, in some measure, however little, anticipate the symphony."

With that image in mind---every worshiper like a member of a symphony, playing together for an audience of One---we can understand musician and worship leader Chris Tomlin's belief that worship music helps bridge denominational divides. "Conservatives and charismatics can stand in one room, listening to the same music, worshiping the one true God," he says. "Music unites."

It does that by turning all thoughts to one deserving person, the triune God. "That's where worship differs from other music, even other Christian music," says Smith. "Instead of drawing attention to the performer, it points only to God. Its direction is vertical, not horizontal. Instead of evoking thoughts of human friendship and love, it evokes the traits of God and praises him for those traits."

Risky business?

Worship in heaven will be perfect and pure; here on earth, we're still working out the glitches.

"I had more cautions about doing a worship album than anything else I've ever done," admits Smith. "I was afraid people would immediately think I was trying to jump on this worship bandwagon thing. It's one of the few times where I've woken up in the middle of the night and knew God had a word for me, and that word was, 'This is what I'm calling you to do.' So, of course, I did it."

No one wants to point accusing fingers at musicians who enter the worship arena under suspicious pretenses. We'd prefer to believe their motives are as sacrosanct as the act of worship. But you gotta wonder: Why are so many record companies suddenly releasing their first ever worship albums and so many artists shifting from, say, rock to worship?

"It's about God, sure; but it's also business," acknowledges Delirious?'s Garrard. "If the labels didn't make money, they couldn't put out godly products. That's hard to swallow when you're talking about worship, but it's true. I like to think about all the musicians who wanted to do worship years ago but were discouraged by the record companies or the realities of the marketplace. Now, they can do it without starving themselves out of existence." (For the record, Delirious? was cranking out worship CDs long before it was fashionable---or profitable.)

Just how far should Christians go in their efforts to balance profitability and ministry, or to reach broader audiences? According to singer/songwriter Steve Camp, who has become something of a CCM industry watchdog in recent years, last fall's Come Together and Worship tour, featuring Smith, Third Day, and preacher/author Max Lucado---and sponsored by Chevrolet---went too far.

In an open letter to the industry, Camp wrote, "We have now actually digressed to charging people money to worship the Lord." He also questioned the wisdom of partnering with a secular corporation to do ministry.

On the other side of the coin, Chris Tomlin's concerns lie with listeners. "We have to avoid worshiping the worship music instead of God, to whom it's directed," he says.

This is not a trivial---or new---issue. Even Augustine wrote that he feared music appealed to him strongly because of the aesthetic pleasure it afforded him rather than because of the sacredness of its words.

Tomlin's solution: "No matter how beautiful a song is, how catchy, we need to always remember that we're sending it up to God. Sending it with ourselves attached."

And Bill Gaither points out a perceived problem that really isn't a problem at all: "Some people think that if a song's new and sounds different from what they're used to, it must be bad or wrong or can't glorify God," he says. "There's a lot of questionable stuff out there, but it's not necessarily the new or 'modern' worship. We should create the structure of our worship from the entire spectrum of songs---from ones written yesterday to those that are hundreds of years old---based on their godliness and ability to stir our spirits."

A trend for eternity

At the end of the day, "there are a lot of people worshiping God to whatever kind of music helps their spirits soar," says Kirk Franklin. "Even if some of it's made for the wrong reasons, God's going to use it for good. And I guarantee you, for every insincere person in this business, there are a hundred with genuine hearts for God."

People like Twila Paris, who penned such worship staples as "He Is Exalted," "Lamb of God," and "We Will Glorify." "I pray that more than ever God will lead each of us into a place of true worship," she says. "That we will encounter his presence and power and that his desire will be accomplished in us."

That is, after all, what worship is all about. And regardless of tempo, rhythm, or volume, it is precisely what God is looking for. Jesus said, "Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks" (John 4:23).

And the music that accompanies our praises will always find a way into the hearts of those who love God, just as it pulsed again in that little chapel-turned-bar in Nashville. And in the chest of that spiky-haired young man who'd heard it calling him back to the faith.

That some journalists have called the current resurgence in worship music a "fad" and a "trend" doesn't worry people like popular worship leader and recording artist Matt Redman. "To be honest, I find that quite funny," he says. "If it's a trend, then it's the only eternal trend there is! Worship is here to stay---throughout all time and eternity."

A Christian Reader original article. Bob Liparulo is a writer living in Colorado Springs.15 Worship Leaders

Okay, we can't include everyone. But at the risk of upsetting a few folks, here's a quick roll of some of the church's most innovative and inspiring ministers of music.
---Edward Gilbreath

King David
The composer of some of the greatest praise songs of all time (see The Book of Psalms), he was a man after God's own heart and not afraid to lift his hands---or dance unabashedly before his Creator.

Charles Wesley (1707-1788)
When not spearheading the Methodist movement with older brother John, he wrote 8,989 hymns: "And Can It Be," "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing," and on they go.

Fanny Crosby (1820-1915)
Blind since childhood, she nonetheless had a prolific spiritual vision. "To God Be the Glory," "Blessed Assurance," and some 8,000 others are staples in every Christian hymnal.

Bill & Gloria Gaither
"Because He Lives" and "There's Something About That Name" are just two of this influential duo's southern gospel classics.

Andrae Crouch
Infusing gospel with '70s R&B and rock, he inspired a generation. Signature songs like "My Tribute," "Bless the Lord," and "The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power" have become contemporary standards.

Keith Green
Before his death in 1982, he was a key figure in the Jesus movement of the '70s. Songs like "There Is a Redeemer" and "Your Love Broke Through" helped shape contemporary Christian music.

Don Moen
As a worship leader, songwriter, and creative exec at Integrity Music, he has had a major impact on the sound and direction of modern worship.

This British band is widely credited for starting the modern rock worship movement. Their well-known song "I Can Sing of Your Love Forever" has become a modern classic.

Darlene Zschech
Internationally known for her wildly popular anthem "Shout to the Lord" and her role as worship pastor at the 12,000-member Hillsong Church in Sydney, Australia.

Fred Hammond
A talented musician, producer, and director of the exciting Radical for Christ choir, he has transformed gospel music with rousing beats and a clarion call to rediscover true worship.

Marcos Witt
One of the most prominent worship ministers in Latin America and in the U.S. Hispanic community. A musician and Bible teacher, he has helped thousands draw closer to Christ.

Rich Mullins
His tragic 1997 death took away one of the church's most honest poets, but songs like "Sing Your Praise to the Lord" and, of course, "Awesome God" bespeak an awesome legacy.

Twila Paris
This modern-day hymnist has written and recorded more than 200 songs, many of which are sung by churches around the globe.

Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir
Since the early '80s, this 275-voice choir of the influential inner-city church has inspired audiences with its Grammy-winning recordings and heartfelt ministry of praise.

Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today International/Today's Christian magazine.
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