The following is a sermon I preached in February of 2021. An audio version can be found here
Both of the churches that our family attended when I was growing up were more on the progressive side when it came to praise and worship (this was in the 1980’s and 90’s). As far back as I can remember, they utilized drums and guitars along with other modern instruments in order to aid in their worship. Most of the songs were modern songs and not hymns.
This was right in the middle of what came be known as the “worship wars.” Traditional forms of praise music were being replaced by new and contemporary forms. As some of you know, this was rather controversial. The old guard didn’t want to let go of the hymns and the simpler form of worship, while the new guard was all for this transition. Let me tell you – there were some battles fought over this. There were many churches that split over this.
But as far as I could tell, it wasn’t all that controversial in the churches I attended. While I am sure there were some critics, the majority had embraced contemporary and that was what was normal to me.
After I graduated from High School, I went off to Bible College. I felt the Lord leading me into ministry, and so that was the next step for me. My school was a “music school.” They had a great music program and every day in chapel we were treated to one band after another leading the music. Each band had drums, guitars, keyboards, and sometimes other instruments. So here you had all these gifted musicians gathered together in one place and they were all happy to serve.
That is just a brief introduction to my formative years and what I was exposed to in terms of praise music. If some of you are sitting here thinking that I am just a traditionalist who only likes the old hymns because that’s what I grew up with – then that’s just not true.
We all have had different experiences. I know lots of people who grew up in churches where it was hymns only, piano, organ. And for them, when contemporary forms of music were being introduced into the church, it was like a breath of fresh air. What once seemed stale and dry was being replaced by a form that for them was like a breath of fresh air. Well, that just wasn’t my experience because I never knew the traditional form – or at least I didn’t have much exposure to it. I was certainly exposed to many of the great hymns, but it wasn’t the norm.
As I was finishing up preaching through 1 Timothy, it became clear to me that we need to talk about this subject – the subject of worship.
- Worship is not cheap entertainment
When I was in Bible college, one of my professors preached a sermon in chapel on Isaiah 6. In that sermon he had a punch line that he said over and over and over – “worship is not cheap entertainment.” The effect was powerful and memorable. I don’t think there would have been anyone who left the building having not gotten the message. He was rightly concerned about what he was observing at our college. And, wouldn’t you know, about 3 years later, this same professor was invited back (he was now pastoring a church in Calgary, Alberta), to teach a modular class. And guess what? In chapel he preached the exact same message! I guess he thought we really needed to hear that word.
But what was he getting at? A lot of young people (some older folks as well) will spend a lot of money to go to a concert. People will do that for the thrill and the experience of hearing the music that they love. But here’s the thinking. We can now go to church or to Christian college chapel service and hear good music (maybe not quite as good) but certainly good music. And here’s the kicker – it’s free!
Friends, worship is not cheap entertainment. When you think of worship music as entertainment, then you know we have some faulty thinking going on. But that is how a lot of people approach things. It’s the job of the people up front on the stage to entertain, and then everyone else is just a spectator. You’ve got the performers, you’ve got the audience and they are all crying – entertain us!
Of course, it is never that blatant, but that’s kind of the underlying expectation, and it’s hugely problematic. Worship is all about encountering Almighty God – seeing Him for who He is – worshipping Him in the splendor of His glory. Like the seraphim in Isaiah 6, we cry: “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!”
- Music is not worship – Music is a way to worship
We are getting into semantics here. That is just how we use language. “Music is not worship – Music is a way to worship.” It is really important that we understand what I am saying, so listen up. The word worship is not synonymous with the word music (or praise music). Often times when we think about worship, we are thinking about the music that is sung in church or what we hear on Christian radio. But you see, that is a deficient understanding. It doesn’t capture the whole of it.
When we gather together to worship, it is not simply the music and the singing that constitute worship – it is the whole service, from start to finish. That’s why the music committee is thinking carefully about how we label things. We are trying to shift the language of “worship teams” to “praise teams.” It is a more descriptive, it is more accurate.
Here’s the deal – All of life is worship. Not just singing, but all of life. Yes, music is a way to worship God, but it goes way beyond that. The apostle Paul said, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1).
Worship encompasses the whole of life. You can worship God through your job, through your work, through your lifestyle, through your service. And yes, corporate worship is really important, but it goes beyond that.
- What does God think about our Worship?
One of the questions that has been asked a lot is the question – what kind of music is going to draw people to our church? The thinking is – hey, let’s use music. If young people like the new stuff, then let’s play it. Let’s capitalize on it. Let’s use it to grow our church.
What’s wrong with that mindset? It’s not hard to spot, is it? We are treating church as if it is some sort of product being offered to a bunch of consumers. It is a very worldly way of thinking.
So if the question – how can we use music to draw people – is the wrong kind of question, what is the right question?
Most importantly – what does God think? What does the Bible say about praise music? How is God most honored and praised through the assembling of His people? There is a world of difference between these two.
Hear me out. I am not saying – don’t think about the congregation. Don’t take into consideration where people are at when it comes to tastes and preferences. I am simply saying that our starting point is always the fear of God – the fact that we are worshipping Almighty God.
We are not in the business of pleasing man, or entertaining man. God forbid! If that’s where we are at, then we need to shut things down. The foundational question is always – what does God think?
- Praise Music is not about getting a fuzzy feeling.
Music is powerful – Casting Crowns, Ohio, 2007, on the way to Aunt Sally’s. Those trigger words take me back in time to an experience I had of praising God through music. If you are like me and you love music, you can think of times like that. So let’s start with acknowledging the goodness of music. It is a good gift of God!
But one of the things I have noticed over the years is a tendency to reduce music to an experience or a fuzzy feeling. To be kinda crass – it’s not about getting an emotional buzz.
Back when I was in college, our college hosted a youth conference (Youth Quake) every year. They would draw well over 2000 students from all over Canada and from some of the Northern US states. It was a big deal for our college. And they would always try to bring in the biggest Christian bands to draw students.
I remember my freshman year of college attending YQ for the first time. I can’t remember who the band was, but I just remember that I was in the mosh pit up front the whole concert jumping around like a crazy man. We were right beside the speakers and it was intense! Afterwards, we were all like – that was the greatest concert we have ever been to! That was amazing! That was the buzz of all buzz’s. And for a long time, I craved that kind of experience.
But the big question is – does that kind of experience, that kind emotion result in true worship? There is no question that with those kind of experiences, a lot of what goes on is worldly and carnal. It’s of the flesh. It’s simply not true worship.
- Praise Music should lift and teach (John 4:23)
One of the key texts on worship is John 4:23. Jesus said, “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.”
Friends, God is looking for true worshippers. But just because I am at a Christian college, at a Christian conference, with a Christian band, does not necessarily mean it’s “true worship” (Christian).
No, true worship does two things. It “lifts” and it “teaches.” Notice how it says – worship the Father in spirit and in truth. To worship “in spirit” means that you are worshipping with your whole being. And yes, there is an emotional component. It should lift our hearts to God. As we are reminded of what a great and awesome God we serve, that will lift us. That will fill our hearts with joy.
I don’t know a whole lot of people who think that worship should be dry and stale. Worship should lift our hearts to the holy God. It should be emotive. We just need to remember that it’s not all about the feeling – it’s not about getting some buzz.
Along with that – true worship teaches. Just consider some of the great hymns of old. They are filled with theology. Consider the lyrics of “Come Thou Almighty King”
Contrast that with some of the Christian praise music we hear on the radio. There is little theology in them and they are what some have called 7-11 songs. They’ve got 7 words that you repeat 11 times. They just don’t teach, they don’t declare what God has done for us. They don’t exalt Christ. In fact, those songs are often more about us than about God.
Friends, good praise songs are going to get your focus off yourself and your own problems, and re-orient you. They will remind you of what Christ has done – they will have the cross in view – they will remind you of the grace and mercy of God. That is how you know you have a good lyric.
We are looking for songs that teach. Songs that are rich in theology. Songs that as we sing them over and over, they just sink down deep into us. In all reality, these two go together. If we are going to have a worship that lifts, we need to go down deep. And songs that have a rich and deep and robust theology are the only ones that can do that.
- Instrumentation is good and appropriate in our Music
It’s clear that Scripture gives us a lot of freedom when it comes to using instruments to aid our congregational singing. We want to be a church that utilizes a variety of instruments, and we want to do it with excellence. If you are going to lead the people of God in song, then you better be prepared. You better make sure you have practiced.
Now, you don’t need instruments to worship. You don’t need instruments to praise our awesome God. Often during our Wednesday night prayer meeting, we don’t have any instrumentation, but everyone is singing their heart out to God, and it’s beautiful, even when we go off key.
- Corporate Worship is Congregational
When we gather for worship, we are all participants. Everyone has a role to play. Everyone participates. When it becomes about a performance, when it becomes all about the person up front, you’ve got a serious problem. That’s not biblical. That’s not edifying. That’s not honoring to the Lord.
Here is the point – we want to be a church that practices congregational worship. It is not just about the person up front. We want the whole congregation to be engaged in singing the praises of our God. We want the whole congregation attending to the Word of God as it is read and preached. We want the whole congregation praying and listening intently as we pray together. We want to distance ourselves as far as we can from the view of worship that says you have the performers up front, you have the consumers in the audience.
- We Stand on the Shoulders of Giants.
One thing I don’t want to do is give the impression that everything old is good and everything new is bad. There is a lot of good stuff that is coming out that is rich in theology and will be used by the church for years to come. One of our favorite songs as a family has just come out in the last year – “Christ our Hope in Life and Death” sung by Matt Papa.
But here is what we need to keep in mind. We stand on the shoulders of giants. We have 2000 years of church history to draw from and there are many wonderful hymns that have stood the test of time.
I am old enough to have witnessed how songs that I loved in the 90’s and early 2000’s, have faded and disappeared almost. Everyone was singing them 20 years ago, but now their popularity has faded. They are not on the radio anymore, they are not being sung in our churches, their shelf life has expired. But yet think of all great hymns which have stood the test of time. The hymn we sang earlier – How Firm a Foundation dates back to 1787!
Given that we have so much to draw from, why would we limit ourselves to what is new, and catchy, and flashy and so on. The Christian church is not starved for good hymns and praise songs to sing. Far from it!
One of my favorite hymns is “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” That hymn was written almost 500 years ago by Martin Luther. Even today churches all around the world sing its powerful lyrics.
Wherever the people of God gather and congregate, they have always been a singing people. They have always sought to honor the Lord through worship and song. And that will always be the case. That is what Scripture teaches us. God even gave us a hymnbook in the Scriptures – the Psalms!
- Worship is all about the glory of God
This is what it’s all about. We want to acknowledge and declare who God is and what He has done! “Great and amazing are your deeds O Lord God the Almighty!” Amen!
We need to get our eyes off of ourselves and onto Christ. The temptation is always to make worship more about us than the living God. Well, I don’t like the praise music here, so I’m going to go somewhere that meets my needs – a place that resonates with me and my musical tastes.
Again – we need to stop focusing on self, and start focusing on Christ. We want to be a singing church. If there is a people who have something to sing about – it’s us! Our God is alive! Our great God has done marvelous things! And He alone is worthy! My hope and my prayer and my vision for this church is that we would be a worshipping community of believers. That we would be true worshippers – that we would be among those who worship in spirit and in truth. And that when we gather together for corporate worship, that there would be a real sense of the power and presence and the greatness of our God.