People looking for a church often have questions about worship, and most have strong views on the subject. Of course these views are most often an extension of their own experiences. People do not insist on a specific worship format because their preference is objectively better, but because their experiences or assumptions tell them their preference should be shared by all. When imagining worship, most Christians recall memories of pleasant worship experiences. It’s natural to conclude the pleasure felt will be shared by others, and that this pleasure proves God’s preference for that style of worship. “I prefer (insert style) worship, so God must prefer it and others as spiritual as I, of course, prefer it. Those who like (insert a different style) are simply not as spiritual or mature as I.”
Years ago, after a particularly nice church service—one in which we had a balanced blend of traditional and modern worship, and everyone seemed to be blessed—I was approached by an elderly woman who said, “Pastor, we use too many choruses. We need to get rid of the choruses and only use hymns.” The very next woman (literally) who came up to me said, “Pastor, we use too many hymns. We need to get rid of the hymns and only use choruses.” Both women had been in the same service. They each found things to dislike about the same service others had found richly satisfying. Right then I realized there is no such thing as a worship format that makes everyone happy, because those looking for something to dislike will find it. I learned the truth of the saying, “Blended worship means no one is happy.”
In every service that blesses and inspires, there will be some not enjoying it because they choose to find fault—they choose not to take pleasure in it. Reasons for this differ, but almost all boil down to preference. Some believe God prefers one style of worship over another. Interesting how their understanding of God’s preference always lines up with their own. No one ever says, “I prefer to worship with hymns, but God prefers choruses” (or vice versa). Blaise Pascal said, “God created man in his image and man has returned the favor.” Man is adept at remaking God in his own image and often the only support for ascribing a worship preference to God is the assumption “Of course, God would agree with me.” This is an assumption I, for one, refuse to make.
Another reason for insisting on a certain style of worship is the conclusion that it better accomplishes an assumed purpose of worship. I hear two specific defenses for traditional hymn-based worship and two to defend contemporary worship. Perhaps you too have heard them. Perhaps you have even used them. Let me share with you why none of these defenses are convincing.
Common defenses for traditional hymn-based worship
Traditional Hymns are more respectful of God
The first claim in defense of traditional hymns is that they are more respectful of God. Modern songs are seen as too worldly and too close to the popular music of the day. Modern music, it is claimed, drags us through the mud of the world and traditional music is somehow more uplifting. Hymns give a very different feel from popular music, and supposedly this different feel is superior. Of course, I find it silly that one declares a style of music superior because it is less popular. How is this not a form of snobbishness? It is very close to saying those who prefer modern music do so because they don’t know what good music sounds like—a statement I have heard often in defense of traditional music. Notice those espousing this view usually include themselves among The Keepers of Good Music—more of an “us and them” thing.
Is there a particular musical style God prefers? Is God offended by any style of music? The deeper you dig into these questions and investigate, the more you see legalism just under the surface. This view (traditional music is more respectful of God) actually shows an ignorance of history. Those espousing this view fail to realize their most treasured songs were actually based on the popular music of their day. Bach, Luther, Wesley and other beloved composers of church music were condemned for creating music that did not show the proper respect and awe for God. Our most beloved hymns were once condemned with the same attacks used against today’s contemporary music—because they were contemporary in their time.
Hymns are rich in doctrine
The second defense of traditional hymn-based worship is “Hymns are so full of doctrine; choruses are bereft of doctrine.” Of course, this is often true.[i] But there are a couple problems with this argument. First, it is only effective if the goal of worship is teaching doctrine. I would argue it is not. Of course, the songs of the Church were once an important part of teaching doctrine. This was because most people sitting in the pews were illiterate. For those who could read, books were very expensive and hard to get. The easy to memorize format of song was a useful tool for teaching doctrine. Most people in churches today can read—whether they will read doctrine or not is a different subject. Christian publishing is quite broad and books on any number of subjects are available at low cost—many free. The availability of deep theological works on the internet makes good teaching more available than ever.[ii] Of course, some will argue it is better to have deep doctrine in songs because people otherwise will not take time to learn doctrine, but this is a very different argument. In the past, most who wanted to learn doctrine could only do so through learning to sing the songs, because of the limitations of cost and literacy. This latter argument in effect says, “People aren’t interested in learning doctrine, so we should use songs to sneak it in under the radar.” Sorry, but those lacking interest in doctrine are not going to “catch” it, regardless of how you present it. This is not a problem of format, but of apathy. And no change in format will undo apathy.
Funny thing about this Argument from Doctrine is that many who sing these doctrine-heavy songs don’t themselves espouse the doctrines in the songs. Many who hold staunchly to Premillennialism unknowingly sing songs that are Amillennial. Many Arminians sing songs espousing Calvinism—and vice versa. If the songs are teaching doctrine then how does this happen? It happens because the people do not understand the doctrines in the song—no matter how many times they sing it. Often, the leaders themselves don’t recognize these other doctrines. If the purpose of singing in worship is to learn doctrine then even traditional worship fails miserably. If hymns were enough to teach and instill doctrine, then why have a sermon? I am not saying hymns and other songs cannot be used to support and “drive home” the doctrines taught in the message. I am saying that hymns are not the only way to do this, and this argument fails to show hymns as superior to modern music. It merely shows different forms of worship fulfill their purpose in different ways because the congregation of today has different needs from the congregation of yesterday.
Common arguments for modern worship
Modern worship attracts seekers
It’s often argued that modern worship is superior because it attracts modern seekers better than traditional worship[iii]. Of course, this makes the same mistake as those defending traditional worship. This assumes the purpose of worship is the attraction of seekers. It is popular today to create services geared toward attracting people. While there is wisdom in this, it overlooks some important facts about worship. The purpose of worship is to give God’s people an outlet for the worship and adoration they long to pour out to Him. It is the corporate expression of a worshipping people.
Corporate worship is important for several reasons. One reason is the assurance that comes from knowing you are not alone in the world. The devoted Christian life can be lonely at times. Coming together to worship God assures us there are others to lean on and others to learn from. Another reason for corporate worship is education. No, I am not bringing us back to doctrine. However, even though the purpose of worship is not the teaching of doctrine, it does involve teaching God’s people how to worship.
Of course, while I argue attracting seekers is not the purpose of worship, it is important to remember corporate worship can attract or repel. Worship should not be designed solely with the intent of attracting seekers, but neither should it be designed to repel them. The culture of the people you are trying to reach must be taken into account. We often forget culture can be defined broadly or narrowly. For example, we have the American culture. Then there is the Texas culture. We can go even deeper and see South Central Texas, where I currently reside, has a unique culture very unlike North Central Texas, from where I originate. We can divide culture further and further and see there are cultural differences between ages within a single people group. There are also huge cultural differences between the churched and the unchurched.
Modern worship is less difficult to follow
Others argue modern worship, because of its repetition, allows the worshipper to get lost in worship, without giving much thought to the music or words. In other words, modern worship requires much less mental investment on the part of the worshipper. This argument actually cuts both ways. Yes, modern worship is written in such a way the worshipper can simply get lost in the joy of worship and think less about chord changes, reading music or what words come next. No one can doubt this is beneficial, because even hymn singers seek to learn the songs until they become second nature. This is a basic attribute of music. However, there is also a negative to this simplicity as well. Some find this lack of engagement leads to boredom and daydreaming. Yes, this can be blamed on the heart condition of the one getting distracted. But it must also be taken into account when trying to use this argument to support modern worship as superior to traditional.[iv]
So what style of worship is best? If you even ask that question seriously you do not understand worship. Worship is not a matter of style, just as worship is not a matter of place. When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman, she became uncomfortable and tried to change the subject to an age old battle of whether the Jews or the Samaritans were properly worshipping God. Jesus refused to take the bait and said, “A time is coming when you will worship neither here nor in Jerusalem…God is spirit and his worshippers must worship him in spirit and in truth.”[v] Jesus was not going to be drawn into the argument. He cut through issues of place, style, form, etc. Worship is an act of the spirit pouring forth truth. As Christians, Jesus is not just the one we worship;[vi] he is the center of our worship.
We approach Jesus when we worship, so take that question and ask it again, but this time as “What style of music does Jesus prefer when we approach him?” This is easily seen as a silly question. Whichever music draws us into the presence of Christ is best. Worship not only draws us to Christ, it also makes us mindful of Christ approaching. With this in mind rephrase that question again as, “What style does Jesus prefer when approaching me?” Once again, a silly question!
The best worship makes you mindful of Christ’s presence and helps you draw close to him and lay aside the cares of the world. No style is better than another; any style must reflect the heart of the worshipper. Style is a matter of personal preference. To divide the body of Christ over personal preference is ludicrous and sinful! It is best to find a way for all to worship together. Since there is no perfect universally accepted style of worship or musical genre, a major part of worship is going to be tolerance of those whose preferences differ. Isn’t it interesting that worship is often described as sacrifice? In Christian worship our first sacrifice may involve sacrificing our own preferences.
[i] There are choruses I refuse to sing because of the bad doctrine they teach, or at least imply. But there are even more hymns I refuse to sing for the exact same reason.
[ii] Of course, care must be taken because the amount of bad teaching on the internet far outweighs good teaching.
[iii] I once asked the young people in church to tell the congregation what they thought of when hearing an organ. One responded loudly, “Hockey Game!” Modern seekers do not hear the same old instruments and songs with the sense of devotion inspired in the hearts of long-time Christians.
[iv] Of course, those who learn a hymn as second nature can sing it word for word while daydreaming.
[v] John 4:21-24 my paraphrase.
[vi] Scripture tells us it is appropriate to worship Jesus. Hebrews 1:6 records God’s command for worship to be directed to Jesus.