Thursday, October 4, 2012

Truth, Not Truce in Worship Wars

Rock is on a roll.

In most churches, anyway, rock music seems here to stay.

People who think such music befits a corporate worship service are many, and they like to think our worship wars have gone away.  And for the most part, it appears they have.

But does that mean the winning side is right to rock their victory?  Rock's conquest of corporate worship has come about more because of its popularity than because of superior arguments for its suitability.  After all, living in a republic, we Americans assume popularity is the best arbiter of truth.  But all you have to do is look at what you think is wrong with our country, and how those wrongs have come about, to realize that majority rule doesn't always work.

Most of the platitudes about resolving worship wars center on compromise.  Having both traditionalists and contemporary fans drawing a truce and "blending" music styles has become a popular approach in an attempt to keep the peace in church.  Yet prolific is the anecdotal evidence that blended corporate worship pleases few worshippers.  And it's easy to see why.  Rock and classical can hardly blend on a concert stage, so what makes anybody assume they'll blend in a sanctuary?  You may not like the opposite form of music, but you have to admit that lovers of that style think it should be done a certain way.  Whether it's rock or classical.

Who's Your Audience?

All of this angst and fuss obscures the main point, however.  Corporate worship isn't about us, or what we prefer, or whether we should defer to somebody else's musical tastes.  It's not about compromise, blending, or even the winning-out of one music style over another.  It's not even about drum sets, pipe organs, choirs, amplifiers, electric keyboards, guitars, hymnbooks, or PowerPoint slides.

Corporate worship is about the adoration of our creator God.  He is the object and audience of corporate worship, not us.

So what does He want from us when we gather to honor Him through corporate worship?

Please allow me to point out a couple of passages from scripture that the pastor of the church I attend included in his sermon this past Sunday:

"But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light."  - 1 Peter 1:9 ESV

We are to proclaim the "excellencies" of God, since we are His possession.  We have been bought with a price, and that price is Christ.  He is excellent.  He has excellencies.  What does that mean to you?  It means we don't dawdle with trivialities and the ordinary.

How do we extrapolate these truths to our personal lives, and to our corporate worship opportunities?  One way is to consider how God is excellent in all things, and how we can model that excellence back to Him.  Not to prove that we're worthy of His love, or to somehow try and repay Him with some big show, whether it's the most stupendous rock concert imaginable, or the most spectacular oratorios by choirs, orchestra, and pipe organ.  Instead, we're to authentically honor God for Who He is and what He has done for us.

"Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe."  - Hebrews 12:28 ESV

When considering the genre of rock and roll music, two words that definitely don't fit are "reverence" and "awe."  If you disagree, then please forgive me, but you don't understand rock music, or Psalm 29:2, or Psalm 96:8-9.  Society tells us that simply because we like something, it can have validity to us.  But that's not necessarily a correct assumption in and of itself.  Plenty of things we like are not good for us.

Certain songs within the rock/contemporary genre may have a limited, frivolous place in our everyday lives, since not every song with a strong beat or musician with a fondness for drums is beyond redemption (the same goes for choir members and organists, by the way!).  Like any genre, rock and roll has some songs that are artistically better than others.  Yet generally, if we're talking about "excellencies," "reverence," and "awe," I don't think I'm going out on a limb by saying rock and roll is an inferior music style for the purpose of corporate worship.

Relevant to Whom?

So does that mean all contemporary music should be banned from church?  Of course not.  It depends on how we define "contemporary."  You might be surprised to learn that a number of gifted musicians live among us today, creating good music ideal for worshipping our holy God.  They're contemporary because they're part of our generation, but the music they're crafting incorporates time-tested, artistically venerable, and - dare it be said? - traditional tunes and texts which focus on our Audience.  Thus, it is entirely possible to "blend" ancient hymns of the faith with these new songs in a seamless offering of praise during a well-structured corporate worship service.

After all, it would be unBiblical of anybody to tell today's songwriters and lyricists that they have nothing more to contribute to the world's portfolio of legitimate church music.  God gifts His people in every generation with the ability to sing, write, and play His praises.  But just like with preaching, which must never deviate from the truth of the Gospel, music must adhere to that which God tells us He wants.

Inevitably, the fact that God's people live in many different and distinct sociopolitical and geographic areas will be raised as proof that western classical music is patently inappropriate as the de-facto, universal corporate worship style.  And it's true:  in terms of historical worship, the classical genre as we commonly think of it has only existed for several centuries.

However, consider the fact that everything from ancient chants to spirituals to modern hymnody comprise the "classical" lexicon, while what we call "contemporary" worship is pretty much stuck with rock music.  Consider, too, the fact that classical music is appreciated and studied the world over, while rock music is pretty much a white, suburban, American concoction.  How relevant is rock music compared with classical music on the world stage?  Sure, tribal believers in Ethiopia and Papua New Guinea don't have pipe organs, grand pianos, or chamber music, but what legitimacy does rock music have in those cultures?  How valid is it to enshrine cultural relevance as a determining factor for how people groups should worship, anyway?  All cultures are corrupt to some degree.  No culture - not even ours in North America - has any special dispensation that lets it worship God in any old way it wants.  These scripture passages talking about excellencies, reverence, awe, and holiness are for all of God's people.  Not just us American evangelicals.  And not excluding people groups who don't even have electricity.

To the extent that corporate worship will look and sound a bit different depending on the language, local customs, political liberty, educational attainment, and wealth of God's people as they live for Him around the world, speaking exclusively of the conventional classical aesthetic will not always be the most appropriate.  But how can that reality excuse worship that is raucous, dissonant, and self-serving, like rock music is?

How you answer that question will say a lot about how much you really know about rock music.  And whether you believe God is the audience of your worship.

Why do you worship Him?  Why do you want to worship Him the way you do?

How open are you to moving closer to what He expects from all of us in corporate worship?

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