Worship. This one word in today’s church culture holds massive connotations. We’ve heard it said over and over again that worship doesn’t equal music and music doesn’t equal worship.
The reality is, for better or worse, we have created a whole sub-culture of Christian music and have labeled it “Worship.” Whichever side of the fence you fall on, it’s important that we think about the place of music in the church, lest history repeat itself again.
A significant turning point in my life occurred when I traveled to Jamaica to help lead worship alongside a missionary team. With my acoustic guitar, I played many contemporary songs that were very well known back in the United States.
The church body joined in the best they could and showed appreciation for my being there. When I had finished, a woman in the congregation stood up and burst into a song. Immediately, I heard tambourines and other percussive instruments join in, followed by the rest of the congregation’s voices.
I looked around and saw the church gathered and connected in a way I was not used to, around a song I did not know, with a style that didn’t seem common to me.
To this Jamaican church, the song was normal. To them it was familiar. It was a musical language that worked within their region and context. There was no acoustic guitar. There was no bass guitar. There was no drum set. Was this not worship? It didn’t sound like everything I was used to. They had only their hands for clapping, voices for singing, and a few instruments for percussion.
The song was in a style that Westerners might call simple, trite, and repetitive. But in it and through it I had witnessed a powerful, loving worship of God.
Standing on the other side of the many years of “worship wars,” I question how it was ever a battle to begin with. When we gather as a congregation, we are told to do all things that edify or build up believers (1 Cor. 14:26). This entails loving one’s neighbor as themselves. We are called in our gatherings to unite and sing “to one another” (Ephesians 5:18-19). Have we ever stopped and pondered what style best accomplishes that in our context? Much of the bickering about musical style stems from our individualistic bent in Western culture. This bent is concerned mainly with the vertical (me and God) to the detriment and neglect of the horizontal (me and my neighbor) as well as the missional (how our unity in song looks to those outside the church).
We gather to remember (because we need to be reminded) that the sacrifice of Jesus is sufficient. Sometimes the way we treat our music in the church we act like it’s the new medium for us to connect to God. Simply put, the Christian’s sacrifice and offering has already been accomplished (1 Peter 3:18) and it’s Jesus who brings us to God.
When I evaluate a song for the church, my question isn’t so much whether or not it sounds like everything else we call “worship.” It’s whether the song invites the hearts and minds of believers to see and savor Jesus as he really is.
If we are only looking for one musical style within worship music, what is preventing us from “limiting” and constraining worship? What prevents us from creating a “new norm” that we’ll just be fighting to break free from in the years to come?