God has done marvelous things for us! The love he has shown us in Jesus Christ is beyond our ability to understand (Ephesians 3:19). The joy he gives us in salvation is beyond our ability to express (1 Peter 1:8). The peace he gives is also beyond our comprehension (Philippians 4:7). Words simply fail to describe adequately the experience of salvation we have in Jesus Christ.
How shall we respond to these magnificent blessings? With worship — with praise and thanksgiving, giving glory and honor to God. This is our privilege and our joy. Our relationship with God is characterized by love, joy, peace, praise and worship. All that we do should be for his honor and glory — and we rejoice in being called to proclaim his praises (1 Peter 2:9).
In recent years, many congregations have changed the way they do things in their weekly meetings. Church services are called worship services. Song leaders are called worship leaders. We have more music, and a greater variety of music. The goal, of course, is that we become more conscious that we are gathering to worship our Creator and Savior, and that we express that worship in the words we sing and in the emotions that songs can convey. In a way, the “culture” in the church is changing.
It should be no surprise that some of us find this change uncomfortable. We have grown used to our traditional way of doing things, and we can easily view a change in music as an unnecessary interruption of our comfort levels. With that in mind, I would like to share with you a slightly edited letter I sent a member in response to questions about our changing worship format:
You question whether a revised worship format can bring anyone closer to God. It is true that simply changing terminology and behavior cannot force anyone to change their hearts. However, it can facilitate a change of heart. I do not know what songs were done in your church area. I do know that contemporary worship songs have helped many members come to greater awareness of why we gather each week: to worship, to praise God, to rejoice before the Lord.
Salvation is a wonderful gift — better than winning a million dollars in a sweepstakes. Should we treat it as a ho-hum, matter-of-fact experience? I think not. The knowledge of salvation should make us excited, expressive, enthusiastic, anxious to praise our Father and Savior. For many people, this is done with lively songs.
As you note, the way people sing praise to God has varied from culture to culture and century to century. Eighth-century chants were effective worship expressions in the eighth century. Today, they are not. Eighteenth-century hymns were also worshipful in the 18th century. Some still are; others are not. Each type of song began as contemporary music. As time went on, it became traditional and some other style became contemporary. Today, different styles are becoming contemporary, and 18th-century hymns do not invoke worshipful thoughts in large segments of the population.
You suggest that we are changing our worship song styles without scriptural precedent. I believe that Scripture actually gives us precedent for much greater change. Scripture tells us about very expressive worship styles:
- “I will be glad and rejoice in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High” (Psalm 9:2).
- “Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart!” (Psalm 32:11).
- “Shout with joy to God, all the earth!” (Psalm 66:1).
- “May the righteous be glad and rejoice before God; may they be happy and joyful. Sing to God, sing praise to his name, extol him who rides on the clouds — his name is the Lord — and rejoice before him” (Psalm 68:3-4).
- “Shout for joy, O heavens; rejoice, O earth; burst into song, O mountains!” (Isaiah 49:13).
- “My lips will shout for joy when I sing praise to you — I, whom you have redeemed” (Psalm 71:23).
- “Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation” (Psalm 95:1).
- “Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem!” (Zephaniah 3:14).
- “Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise” (James 5:13).
Have you ever shouted for joy — in the presence of other believers — at the blessings God has given you? Have you ever exulted in God? Has your heart leaped for joy? Have you clapped hands in worship? There are scriptural precedents for these. We want our worship services to allow people to express their praise and joy in the Lord.
You note that some of our minority members prefer traditional music. That is true. It is also true that some of the majority members enjoy minority music. We want to provide a variety of musical styles that reflects the variety of people that we have in our fellowship. Of course, music preferences change over time, too. After listening to a style of music for a while, it can become more enjoyable.
Another thing that we need to consider is the people who do not attend our services, and yet we want them to. What styles of music will help them worship? What songs will best express to them the joy Christ is giving us? What will magnify the Lord to them? If we want our church to grow, if we want people to stay to hear the gospel message, then we need to consider their preferences, too. Some songs are more beginner-friendly than others. I hope you can take that into consideration, too, because that is another reason we wish to have more variety in our worship music. We want the church to grow, to bring more people to salvation through Jesus Christ.
Worship and cultural diversity
Worship styles are fundamentally a matter of culture. That means that the outward form of the worship service does not need to be the same everywhere. The key to the worship service is that a suitable environment is created in which people can come into the presence of God in the context of the body of Christ. Worship is a meeting between God and his people.
Robert Logan puts it well when he explains that the worship service should take people through a process of active response to God – helping them recognize who he is, what he is like, who we are and what we are like in relation to him, the change he desires to make in our lives, and our proper response to his will for our lives (Beyond Church Growth, page 77). This should be done in a way that is culturally relevant. In other words, the goal of worship, leading people to meet God, is best attained in the context of their particular cultural expectations.
Why we worship and what happens to us when we do are the substance of worship. How we worship, or the form, is rooted in our culture. If we first understand why we worship God, then we can adapt the form so that it is culturally relevant. This means that although it is essential that the substance of worship be the same everywhere, the form of worship will inevitably vary from region to region and from congregation to congregation. Certain forms of expression are more comfortable, expressive or appealing in some areas than others. Resources also vary from place to place, allowing some to enjoy worship styles that are not feasible in other places.
We do not need an identical worship form in all our congregations. What we need is to provide an environment in every congregation that allows a congregation to express its worship and praise to God in a way that is meaningful to them as they experience and share his forgiving grace and empowering love. Because our congregations come from different cultures, we will naturally gravitate toward varying worship environments.
Joseph Tkach, 1996