What is Worship Music?

I’m going to buy multiple copies of Paul S. Jones’ little booklet What is Worship Music? and give them out to anybody who will read it and take his thoughts seriously. I like it that much. I will also promote the booklet in church.

Paul Jones’ premise is simple: “We need to follow biblical principles for worship music, not the world, youth culture, or ideas based upon mistaken notions of success.” Nothing original there and almost anybody in the gamut from “liturgical robes and organs to flip-flops and digital drum sets” would at least pay lip service to that premise. However, Jones goes on to give a very simple outline of the purpose for congregation worship music.

I. Praise: the lauding of God for his acts and attributes, acknowledging his supremacy in all things.

II. Prayer: communication addressed to God.

III. Proclamation: any activity that proclaims the Word of God – quotations, explanation, teaching, and preaching.

Recently I conversed with a man in a large church that had just acquired a new “worship leader.” (As we all know nowadays, “worship leader” does not mean pastor. It means the guy who plays the guitar.) Anyway, he specifically poked fun at my church because we have “the guy up front still waving his arms” instead of a “praise and worship team.”

Well, first of all, I have always wondered if the redundant “praise and worship” wasn’t a subconscious double emphasis on the part of its proponents to convince themselves that what they call “praise and worship” is really worship! But, secondly, in our church “the guy up front still waving his arms” is on the pastoral team, if not a pastor. When the music necessitates, he directs with his hands, but when it is unnecessary, he leads with his voice.

All that is secondary, however. The main point is that the pastors are the worship leaders and it is God’s plan that corporate worship be led. Period.  Even in heaven worship will be led by the elders. “Music is not in competition with pastoral work; rather, it is pastoral work” (Emphasis his). He says later, “Music in worship cannot be conformed to biblical standards unless it is actively supported by the church leadership in word and deed and is adequately funded.” I’d add “and led by the pastors” as well.

I personally do not have a problem with guitars, bass guitars, drums, and tambourines. I have grown past the superstition of my fundamentalist upbringing. And I love organs and grand pianos. I think they all have their place in corporate worship, but I strongly believe that if the pastor is to take his responsibility of worship leadership seriously he will diligently research the music choices he selects or allows to see that the ensemble of hymns offers up a balanced diet of praise, prayer, and proclamation. He will very soon discover that limiting himself to the best selections is not a matter of superiority or legalism, but merely of common sense. You can only sing so many songs in a year or in one service.  Also, once the pastor realizes that the congregational music is supposed to have a corporate emphasis (“we” instead of “I”), he will once again be limiting his selections. In other words, pastoral thoughtfulness naturally imposes huge restraint on what the congregation sings.

I have suggested elsewhere that the “three C’s of congregational music” are:

1. Content.

2. Continuity. This is singing songs that have been in the Body of Christ for a long time and help us celebrate the unity of One Body. As T. David Gordon said in Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal about Bernard of Clairveaux’s 1153 “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,

Set to Hans Hassler’s 1601 musical setting, translated into German by Paul Gerhardt in 1656 and into English by James Waddell Alexander in 1830, and, yes, harmonized by an obscure German composer named Johann Sebastian Bach in 1729.  From Bernard to Alexander, 677 years passed.  It took nearly seven centuries for this hymn to travel from medieval Latin to modern English. After seven centuries of input form some of the church’s finest musicians and theologians (James W. Alexander was the son of Princeton Seminary’s first professor, Archibald Alexander), who was I to prevent my church from knowing it?

Ouch! It’s so obvious. But we regularly have educated Christians pass up our church because they can’t tolerate the old hymns. Gordon graciously refers to these people as idiots! “I observe from the term idiotes (from the adjective idios , “one’s own”)  was not originally a term of contempt (as our word idiot normally is); rather, it was used to describe people who could speak only their own language, their own idiom, and not those of others.” We minister to people who are naturally “idiots,”  but we need to teach them a different musical language. Thus, you will see in a service that offers a variety of styles (as our does in a moderate sense) some people only responding to the music that is “one’s own.”

I notice, for instance, in “blended” or “supplemental” worship services that the congregation dutifully, and sometimes surprisingly, heartily, sings the traditional hymns and musical rubrics, such as the Doxology, Gloria Patri, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. But when the guitars come out, and we sing the contemporary songs (with repeated refrains between the verses), the place takes on another aura: it gets funky.  At this point, middle-aged women start to get down with Jesus, swaying and singing as they did thirty years ago at Grateful Dead concerts.  People who would find it odd if we repeated the Gloria Patri  or Doxology four times don’t find it odd that we repeat the refrains to these choruses numerous times, even if they are less theologically significant. (Gordon 11).

Gordon acknowledges various cultures and the legitimacy of dance, even, in some cultures, but his point is that there is a huge problem of “one’s own”-ism going on in the worship service. Pastors need to connect the local body with the Body.

3.Thirdly,  Contemporaneity. By this I mean what Jones says: “We must meaningfully interact with people immersed in popular culture, yes; but we do not have to take on its character or speak with its trendy musical accents.” Granted, Jones might not like some of our musical choices (or even instrumentation), but I think that we agree in the main and our selections are far, far from being trendy. They are, however, conscientiously interacting with the culture of our day.

I strongly encourage the members of my church to read Paul Jones’ book. You’ll see that we don’t see everything eye to eye. For example, I’m not sure that we must sing Psalms every time we congregate. However, I am willing to be corrected on this matter if I can be convinced that we are erring at this point. Nonetheless, the main heartbeat of his booklet is something that mirrors our heartbeat.

If you want to go a little bit deeper, read T. David Gordon’s Why Johnny Can’t Sing. This would be a particularly good read for the many people throughout the years who have sniffed at my insistence on hymns in the church as legalistic obscurantism or who have blown off my concerns by saying I am being elitist or — usually this is the case — that they don’t understand it so it doesn’t matter. Maybe they’ll see that I am probably not the one who is ignorant. ;-) Gordon again:

I am not suggesting that is is sinful or shameful for an individual to be unfamiliar with the sociology or philosophy of music.  Each of us is ignorant of many things.  I, for instance, do not understand the fundamental theorem of calculus, and could not explain differentials or limits (when “x approaches zero,” my understanding of the fundamental theorem approaches zero also).  But I do not deny that the teorem exists, nor do I deny that it is important.  Similarly, it is fin for some individuals to take no interest in the sociology of music, or in musicology per se; but it is not fine for them to deny that such areas of study exist, or to deny that significant individuals have taken them seriously.

It’s sort of like my third grader telling me that studying math makes no sense to her and will be totally un-useful. Ignorance always pontificates on the invalidity of the subject it knows nothing about. At the very least, if you want to admit that it is a complex matter and that your leadership takes it seriously, Paul Jones’ booklet will be a great introductory read. I’m going to order some right now!

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4 Responses

  1. I just finished Gordon’s book and hope to blog on it soon. My reaction to it is mixed. Some brilliant things. Some assumed things, I think.

    I’ll get Jones’ book on your high recommendation.

    • Encouraging words, Bob. I believe we fundamentalists caused the musical morass that has transpired because Pastors gave music over to well trained, and well intentioned musicians. Bless their hearts, but the end result was an emphasis on performance rather than participation. The good goal was to eliminate shoddy music, but the result was the downgrading of corporate participation. Then along came the marriage of entertainment and “praise arts” and many became enthralled with the trendy dynamism of “worship” so-called. It is encouraging to see that musicians are being lovingly led back by Pastors who are taking the responsibility for leading Worship. Maybe folks on the other side of the fences will see the example and thereby be blessed.

  2. Bob,

    I regard Paul Jones highly. We sing a number of “Hymns for a Modern Reformation,” words by the late James M. Boice, music by Paul Jones. We had Jones at our church several years ago for a concert, and it was amazing!

  3. [...] – What is Worship Music?- I highly recommend both Jones’ booklet and Gordon’s [...]

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