Weary of the Worship Wars

I Surrender “Some”

Ethnic GuitarsWhen I came to Christ at age nineteen, my life was dramatically and irreversibly changed. Many of those changes were immediate. I stopped doing and selling dope. I cut my hair. I burned my rock albums (no CDs then!) and shaved my mustache, the final vestige of my worldly life, before going to Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC). Those early years of my Christian life were formative, and the rigors I associated with BJU were absolutely necessary in order to distance myself from friends and influences I feared could suck me back into the world. I would kid that it was either prison or BJU, and I found at BJU a refuge and community of believers who worked hard to disciple students. For that emphasis I am forever grateful. Plus I met my wife, Kathy, there. We’ve been married and in ministry for more than thirty years. So going to BJU was truly worth it all!

After my first year of university studies, I had the opportunity to travel as a summer evangelist with Neighborhood Bible Time. I was a relatively new Christian—only two years in the faith. During one of our crusades at a Baptist church in Texas, I was exposed to music that I had associated with my past—drums and electric guitars. I was shocked and critical of this worldly sounding music that was paraded as Christian music. There was no blessing for me that day. You see, my pre-conversion musical tastes (if I can use that expression) were heavily rooted in the late 60s and early 70s rock culture— Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Grand Funk Railroad. Yeah, some of you may remember those! No, I didn’t go to Woodstock, but like thousands of others who wished to vicariously live the legend, I claimed to have been there.

While being grounded in the faith at BJU, I also became grounded in a subculture of fundamentalist Christianity. During my time there, I learned principles of good, godly music for the first time. Vespers wasn’t actually a favorite required attendance activity, but I truly learned to appreciate music that had not been part of my repertoire (I use the word loosely). To this day I enjoy classical music and stately hymns. With others I decry the shallowness of much contemporary music today. However, though I learned a great deal about music at that time, I realized with the passing of time that the authority of many pronouncements given to distinguish God-honoring music from worldly music were simply not rooted in the Word of God. I was introduced to a new vocabulary that included words like “syncopation,” readily adopted those words into my expanding vocabulary, and used them as weapons in teaching people to discern between the good and bad or between the good and the not-so-good.

Armed as I was by the musical experts, I took sides in the worship wars for a number of years and loudly repeated what I had heard from those who knew music and were able to determine what music was acceptable to God. As a pastor I hammered and hollered the tried and true ways that had been imparted to me by the high priests of sacred music. If I wasn’t fully convinced of what I was saying due to a lack of musical giftedness, I simply yelled louder—a technique to convince people by the force of persuasion. I made lists of “good” and “bad” music and sought to dictate musical choices to church members. Now I surrender some. Although I cannot wholeheartedly embrace everything being written today or yesteryear (for that matter) and still have my opinions and preferences, and although I am convinced that Scripture provides examples and principles to help form our musical choices, I am less assured of my ability to determine music for others and to call into question all music that sounds strange, worldly, or inappropriate to my ears and tastes. In addition, though there may be some exceptions I can’t anticipate, I do not make musical choices a test of Christian fellowship or see those choices as evidence of true spirituality.

I am not saying that all music is good or that all music is acceptable to God or that we should shirk our responsibility to declare the whole counsel of God when it touches on this issue. I am simply saying that I am not in the place to make that decision for others to the point that I criticize their choices, call into question their spiritual integrity, or claim to know whether God accepts their worship. He may not accept it and certainly does not accept all that is offered to Him as “worship.” There may be times when there is evidence of unacceptable content in the lyrics sung and in the fruit produced in lives of the worshippers. Yet I do not for a moment think that any group of musical professionals has been charged with the task of authoritatively establishing the guidelines outside of which there is not true worship.
Guitars of the WorldAfter significant time spent in other cultures, I have also come to understand that some aspects of worship 1 necessarily reflect our culture, whether in the broad sense of the impact of Western civilization or in regional specificities. In the area of music, we can see this fact in the effect of classical music influences in many of our majestic hymns, the influence of marching bands in invigorating and outdated gospel songs, and the influence of popular music in many contemporary choruses. We should not expect worship in other cultures to reflect our situation nor seek to impose our worship language on others. The accoutrements of worship may differ. The style may offend our sensitivities, but the act of worship and the One worshipped remain the same. There must be an attempt to be neither uncritically accepting of all that is called worship nor rashly refusing to accept the reality that much that is unknown to us in our worship experience is a worthy and acceptable sacrifice to God.

As an example, one can visit African churches today where worship services are essentially the same as those in nineteenth-century England from where missionaries were sent forth with church organs. While the organ may be suitable for worship in any culture (I say this only in the interest of trying to be gracious), if borrowed from another culture and incorporated into the worship of the new believing community, we must exercise great care in imposing essentially foreign worship forms on another people. In some countries a piano is out of place in a church service because of its association with certain nonreligious establishments and styles of music. While neither of the above instruments is innately evil and both can be used in the service of worship, they may not be culturally appropriate in all places. We recognize that our worship forms are only one way to worship God. In entering another culture, we should be observant and allow believers the liberty to adore God in their own worship language. The “strangeness” of their worship does not necessarily mean it is “strange” worship.

What I have said about other cultures has some repercussions to our understanding of the diverse cultures of North America. We should not overlook great regional and generational diversities. We learn a music language. That means that not all music will affect all believers the same way. Personally, I would not be troubled never again to sing or hear “I Come to the Garden Alone” or “Count Your Blessings,” among others. In my opinion those songs are sentimentally insipid, and the genre holds no spiritual interest or edification for me. I realize that many Christians, especially perhaps among an older generation, however, matured in a Christian environment where those gospel songs were a staple of their worship. When I hear those songs, I sing them and do not disdain those who hold them dear. Yet we should not expect a younger generation to sing those songs with enthusiasm any more than we would expect an older generation to sing some of the contemporary songs popularized by Christian artists with enthusiasm.

Practically speaking, musical choices have to be made. Churches may determine what music is appropriate for worship services and cannot cater to the tastes of every member. And members should not expect church music to reflect personal tastes. But after all, who decides? Does a music pastor or worship leader decide based on his tastes, preferences, training, and convictions? Does the senior pastor, who may not have musical training but does have strong opinions, determine what music should be used? Each church must decide, although I am reticent for one lone musical guru from inside or outside the church to make these choices and in effect impose his musical choices on the entire body. I’m not suggesting one path to follow or congregational confusion. Some churches have a music team that meets and works in connection with the pastor or pastors and operates under his or their leadership. Some churches may allow youth and college and career age groups to use music that might not be acceptable to the entire body for a morning service. For many, that idea may be a bitter pill to swallow if they have the impression that the young people are rockin’ ‘n’ rollin’ in the youth room. Some might seek a blending of the old and new. In my opinion, no generation should neglect the great hymns of the faith that accurately teach God’s people about Him. We may often disagree about musical choices, but we might consider the reality that God receives worship from music of which we may not approve.

References:

Frame, John. Worship in Spirit and in Truth. Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 1996.

Kauflin Bob. Worship Matters: Leading Others to Encounter the Greatness of God. Crossway Books, 2008.

Kuiper, R.B. The Glorious Body of Christ (Banner of Truth Trust, rep. 1987)

MacArthur, John. The Ultimate Priority. Moody Press, 1983.

Old, Hughes Oliphant. Worship: Reformed According to the Scripture. (John Knox Press, 1984.

1. I recognize that music is only one expression of corporate worship.



Steve DavisDr. Stephen M. Davis is associate pastor and director of missions at Calvary Baptist Church (Lansdale, PA). He is also adjunct professor at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA). He holds a B.A from Bob Jones University, an M.A. in Theological Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando, FL), an M.Div. from Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA), and a D.Min. in Missiology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL). Steve has been a church planter in Philadelphia, France, and Romania. His views do not necessarily represent the position of Calvary Baptist Ministries.
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