I have the worship music tastes of a seventy-five year-old woman.
There I admitted it. That’s because a seventy-five year-old woman was picking out the hymns and gospel songs in the church where I grew up. My iPod playlist is really eclectic—ranging from George Jones to Andrew Peterson to Taio Cruz. But, when it comes to worship, nothing gets to me like Fanny Crosby. And, if “Just As I Am” is played, I’m going to want to cry, and probably walk the nearest aisle (even if it’s on an airplane).
I’m left cold by what people call the “majestic old hymns.” I tried to like them, to fit in with the theological tribe into which I was adopted, but I just can’t do it. They sound like what watercress-sandwich-eating Episcopalians from Connecticut might sing (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
And, though I like a lot of contemporary music, much of it sounds to me like many of these songs were written by underemployed commercial jingle writers, trying to find words to rhyme with “Jesus” (”Sees us?” “Never leave us?” “Diseases?”).
But the more I reflect on what I like, and why, the more I’m convinced that my preferences are almost entirely cultural and nostalgic.
I’m not saying aesthetics don’t matter in worship. The Spirit equips God’s people to sing and to play and to write music. So when music is not good this is often evidence of, at worst, disobedience, and at best, misappropriation of talents. And the Scripture commands us to worship in “reverence and awe” (Heb. 12:28).
Worship is directed toward God, yes, but worship arises out of a specific community. The psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are teaching ( Col. 3:16). They build up the rest of the Body. That’s why we’ve got to care about what, and how, others hear when we are “addressing one another” (Eph. 5:17) musically.
What I am saying is that most of our varying critiques of musical forms are often just narcissism disguised as concern about theological and liturgical downgrade. That’s why I think we need more, and better, worship wars.
Thankfully, we don’t hear as much about “worship wars” these days, but I wonder if that’s because of growing maturity or if it’s simply because we’ve so segregated ourselves into services and congregations that reflect generational and ethnic and class-oriented musical commonalities. Maybe we need to reignite the wars, but in a Christian sort of way.
What if the war looked like this in your congregation? What if the young singles complained that the drums are too loud, that they’re distracting the senior adults? What if the elderly people complained that the church wasn’t paying attention to the new movements in songwriting or musical style?
When we seek the well-being of others in worship, it’s not just that we cringe through music we hate. As an act of love, this often causes us to appreciate, empathize, and even start to resonate with worship through musical forms we previously never considered.
This would signal a counting of others as more significant than ourselves (Phil 2:3), which comes from the Spirit of the humiliated, exalted King Jesus (Phil 2:5-11). It would mean an outdoing of one another, in order to serve and show honor to the other parts of the Body of Christ. And, however it turned out musically, it would rock.
Okay, so I exaggerated a little about my old woman tastes. In the time I’ve been writing this article the background music has included both Conway Twitty and Christian Hip-Hop artist FLAME. But I know myself; you turn on “To God Be the Glory,” and I’ll get misty-eyed.
When I insist that the rest of the congregation serve as back-up singers in my own little nostalgic hit parade of back-home Mississippi hymns, I am worshipping in the spirit all right. It’s just not the Holy Spirit. I’m worshipping myself, in the spirit of self-exaltation. And it’s easy to be a Satanist when you can get your way in worship planning.
Let’s declare war on that, in ourselves and in our churches. Which reminds me: “Onward Christian Soldiers,” what a song…
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About Russell Moore
Russell Moore is President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He formerly served as Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and executive director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. Dr. Moore is the author of The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective (Crossway, 2004) and Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches (Crossway, May 2009).
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