This is the fourth and final post in this series of guest blogs on "Finding Our Voice in Worship." The question I want to consider is this: How can we help a church find an authentic voice in worship? Let me offer 5 observations.
1. To be authentic we must be thoughtful and deliberate.
It takes time and energy to find and prepare music -- to plan for worship.
Arranging a meeting between God and His people can never be something we take lightly or engage in half-heartedly.
In the Psalms we have precedence for being thoughtful in our planning of music and worship, intentional in our choices of tunes and instruments to accompany our singing. We see inscriptions giving directions for specific instruments, specific tunes and specific occasions. This is an example we should follow as we find and compile the music that will carry our church's voice. If we are to see improvement and growth, we must be thoughtful and deliberate in our planning and preparation.
2. To be authentic we must be committed to truth.
We must be more concerned that God is rightly proclaimed and His Word is clearly set forth, than we are about hearing our favorite songs in worship. We must be more concerned that our music rightly reflects the truth of who God is, than sounding like the world we are trying to evangelize.
We should not look to the world to set our standards and shape our voice. This is a great dilemma in our day. In a failed quest to be relevant in the eyes of the world, the church is largely looking to the world to set and establish musical style. Unlike many eras of the past in music history where the church determined the direction and bent of musical composition and the world was following the lead of the church -- today the roles are largely reversed. Marketing and sales seem to have more influence over the anthems and songbooks being churned out than the glory of God and a desire to make Him known.
Compare this to what God teaches us in the first psalm. Consider how he choose to begin the Psalter. What would you expect at the beginning of a book of worship? An exhortation to praise? An opening prayer? No, God instead begins with a blessing and warning:
Blessed is the man
Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly,
Nor stands in the path of sinners,
Nor sits in the seat of the scornful;
But his delight is in the law of the LORD,
And in His law he meditates day and night. (Psalm 1:1–2)
The opening words of the psalms are a warning to God's people not to imitate the world, not to go after the world. Rather, we are to be a people who delight in the Word of God. In a day when the church is looking to the world to set the pace and birth the styles, this is a warning we must heed in church music.
As God's people we must be committed to truth--committed to accurately reflecting the glory and splendor and holiness of God. Willing to set aside anything that diminishes that glory.
3. To be authentic we must embrace the new as well as the old.
We must keep a healthy balance of old and new in our music.
We must continue to sing and cherish the old, established, proven hymns. God has been at work in every age. His Kingdom is greater than just what is happening right now. We are but a vapor and He is infinitely great. We acknowledge His greatness and our own smallness when we look beyond the present and include the great hymns of the faith from ages past in our worship today.
But we also must not disregard the new songs of our day. The voice of the church is not stagnant. As God is at work adding to His church, sanctifying new gifts, growing us in the knowledge of truth, there is always a new song and fresh praise.
I find it helpful in sorting through music to think in terms of four categories:
1) "Discarded Music"
This is music of the past--some of it of poor quality and questionable usefulness, even in its day--but it also includes music that may have had a brief usefulness, but for whatever reason, did not endure or become a lasting contribution of its age or generation. We know the past largely by what has endured, but every age has had its share of discarded music. History has proven most music does not last beyond its own generation. We should generally avoid what has faded away. However, once in a while, rummaging through the forgotten music of the past, you just might find a discarded jewel.
2) "Treasured Music"
This is also music of the past, but this music has endured and has become a lasting contribution of its age or generation. It has value and quality and depth beyond its age. Here is where you find the great hymns of the faith--music we should continue to value and sing, remembering that we are part of God's Kingdom through the ages. (This category would include hymns such as the Doxology, "A Mighty Fortress," and "Holy, Holy, Holy.")
3) "Temporary Music"
This is music of our day that seems below standard and destined to pass away. Some of it may have a brief usefulness, but much of it lacks those qualities of worth I mentioned in my second post: insight, perfection and inexhaustibility. In general we should avoid this music as well.
4) "Potential Treasured Music"
This is music of our day that seems destined for endurance. Search for it and embrace it. While contemporary music is the hardest for us to judge and discern, and no one can tell exactly which songs God will choose to preserve in His providence for ages to come, we should be musical treasure hunters. (A few of my choices for this category include "In Christ Alone," "How Deep the Father's Love" and "I Will Glory in My Redeemer.")
We must guard against two false views of church music.
First: The music of past generations is superior to the music of today, so we should be content to sing only the old proven songs.
Second: Music of past generations is no longer relevant to today, so we should be content to sing only the new songs of our day and time.
Neither view is accurate or acceptable. We appreciate and benefit from great preachers and great messages from the past--but at the same time we continue to preach and write new sermons, instructing the people of our day in the truth of God's Word. We are enriched by the insightful, deep prayers of saints of past, such as the Puritans--but at the same time, we keep praying, voicing to God the concerns of our day, the cries of our hearts in our words. We must strive for this balance in our music as well--enjoying the fruits of our heritage in church music, and adding our own new song to God's praise through the ages.
4. To be authentic we must nurture and pray for our gifts.
Every church has its own voice, its own gifts, its own strengths and weaknesses. We must avoid trying to make the church fit a determined mold or be just like the church down the street. We must help the church develop its own gifts to God's glory.
We should pray for gifts:
Pastors and elders who understand the value of music and are committed to helping the church find its voice
Worship or song leaders (who understand both music and theology)
Service musicians, instrumentalists and vocalists, who are committed to serving together in a humble and gracious spirit (not lone-rangers who ride in to save to day, or prima-donnas who must be pampered and coax and delicately tip-toed around)
People who are committed to honoring God with their music and who are willing to esteem others better than themselves
Pray that God would add such gifts to our churches and that He would grow and sanctify and mature those who are already serving.
5. To be authentic we must be have patience and humility.
We need patience--
Great music does not happen overnight. It takes time to develop and nurture musical gifts. It takes time and many hours of rehearsal for individual musicians to become a well-blended ensemble. It takes time for choirs and congregations to learn and embrace good music. We must be committed to reformation over the long term and pray that God would continue to grow us spiritually and musically.
And we need humility--
Worship is about God--it is not about us. We need to cast off and put down this idea that Church Music should conform to what I want to hear. Whether it be "I only want to sing my music--not all that old stuff." Or "I only want to sing what I already know--don't teach me anything new."
The voice of the church is not the voices of individuals all wanting to do their own thing. It is the voice of patience, humility and charity as we come together in unity in a common purpose to glorify God. When Paul exhorts us to sing "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs" he does not say "singing what you want most to hear" or "singing what you find most comfortable." He says "speaking to one another." In verse 21 he says: "submitting to one another in the fear of God." This is esteeming others better than ourselves. This is saying that the glory of God and the voice of His church are more important than me.
Paul also says "making melody in your hearts to the Lord." We sing from the heart (not just the lips) and we sing to the Lord (to His glory and His praise, not our own).
We must ask: "What will most honor God?' What will best declare His glory and carry His Word and rightly make Him known? What will best "speak to one another" and communicate clearly His truth?
Paul instructs us in Philippians 2:4 "Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others." We need this in church music. It is not about us-- It is all about Christ and the glory of God. Paul says of Christ in verse 9 of Philippians 2: "Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven and of those on earth and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father."
This is the goal of God-centered church music:
To see every knee humbly bowed down at the name of Jesus
To hear every tongue confess that He is Lord to the glory of God the Father.