The worship wars have been raging for decades. When I first began pastoral work almost 40 years ago there were Christians who thought the presence of guitars and drums in a church proved that the antichrist had infested the music department. These days if you’re not blowing people’s eardrums out and offering Starbucks at the “break time” you’re way behind the curve. Lots of medium-sized books have been written about this subject and opinions (as you know) proliferate. But there are at least ten questions that it seems to me every pastor should be asking about worship no matter which particular “flavor” of praise happens to be the favorite.
1. Does praise play a central role in our worship gathering? This may seem obvious, but in many churches, even though the lyrics mention the Lord, the “singing time” is not about him. It is a relatively brief opportunity for late-comers to get seated and a warm-up for the preaching. In some cases it is a warm-up for the announcements. Biblically, singing praises is a specific and crucial way in which the body experiences the presence of the Spirit and the importance of the gospel (compare Eph.5:15-21 and Col.3:16). It is every bit as important to healthy body-life as good preaching or praying.
2. Does our praise lead directly into the Word? Many churches insert the announcements or a “fellowship time” between praise and teaching. Feel free to disagree, but I think this is a mistake. Praise puts a Christian’s mind in a spiritually receptive mode (or it should). That’s the time to get into the Scriptures and hear the Lord’s voice. Put the announcements at the very beginning of the service and get them out of the way fast. Don’t let Sunday degenerate into a club meeting.
3. Can (and do) the men sing this praise music? Two thoughts here: Are the songs pitched so that non-voice-trained men can sing them? Many of the hymns and choruses are played above the range of most men in our culture, unless they’re trained to harmonize. And second, are these songs overly sentimental? We call some contemporary praise offerings “Jesus My Boyfriend” songs. Frankly they sound like a woman should be singing them to her lover. This does not inspire men to worship. If the average men can sing the music, then everybody can. And if the men do sing in a church, everybody is probably singing.
4. Does the music serve the congregation? Ideally there is a balance between music that the worship leaders respect and music that is useful to the congregation in expressing love and loyalty to the Lord. But not always. Some music is so technically sophisticated that normal folks just stop and listen instead of entering in. If the people are actually singing and meaning it, then we’re on track. But if it’s great music that few can or will sing with, something’s wrong.
5. Does it point to Christ and the gospel? Many contemporary worship songs (and some older hymns) focus much more on the church than on the Lord. Praise music should focus our minds on God, in Christ, by the power of the Spirit, according to the gospel. The best ones are prayers put to music, like the Psalms.
6. Can the people hear their own voices? We do contemporary music at our church. Part of contemporary worship is volume (though not always). On the other hand some contemporary praise is so loud that it raises questions about the essential nature of the activity. Biblically, praise is happening when people sing real lyrics to real music. If they can’t hear their own voices, does this enhance the purpose of worship? Human voices are miraculous instruments of praise. They should not be habitually drowned out by other instruments. Try using a decibel meter if you haven’t already, and keep things under 90 if you can. BTW: Just knowing you measure the sound will quiet some complaints.
7. Is the music appropriate to the surrounding culture? This may sound odd. Isn’t our worship music for us? Well, yes and no. The church is not a living museum where visitors observe actors in period costumes performing quaintly irrelevant activities from a bygone era. The music we use as the vehicle of praise should in some way make sense to non-Christians who hear it, even if they themselves don’t have a heart for the Lord (1 Cor.14:20-15).
8. Could we serve communion with this worship set? This is more or less an acid test for me. If the praise music would be totally inappropriate for communion, we should ask if it is New Covenant worship or just a fun concert.
9. Are the musicians “performing?” This is something that all good worship leaders discuss regularly. Worship is not a gig. It’s an opportunity to help “non-musician” brothers and sisters lift their voices to the Lord. Good worship music comes in under the voices and lifts them without drawing too much attention to the people on the stage.
10. Does the PA system work? This may seem terribly mundane, but it is just as spiritual as any other aspect of public praise in our world because it affects everything else that’s happening on stage and in the pews. We live in a very sound-savvy culture. Cheap or poorly handled sound technology detracts from worship. If you use a PA (no law says you must) then treat it as an “instrument.” Budget for the best sound reinforcement and training you can afford according to the sort of music you normally use in a worship setting.
Everybody has specific tastes in worship music and no church escapes critique these days on these subjects. But I have found that asking at least the above questions helps me clarify what I’m looking for in our ministry.
Just a Thought,