I lead the worship music you hate. I’m the one. If you’re one of the many bloggers who’ve jumped on the recent trend of criticizing modern worship music — or the Facebook posters who give them an audience, it’s me. I lead the worship music you hate. I didn’t start the fire, but I sure as heck keep it going. All morning long.
There is a great divide over worship music today. On one side stands a sincere crowd of traditional worshipers, praying earnestly with pious hands pressed together for the speedy return of the previous two thousand years of church music, looking longingly back at days gone by when A Mighty Fortress is Our God jealously guarded The Old Rugged Cross.
Meanwhile, a great distance beyond them, just within earshot across the chasm, a throng of modern worshipers crescendo with a mighty sound, swaying with hands held high in affected worship, joyously resounding, “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever.” And forever. And then again in a reprise.
The other group would probably snicker that after those first few forevers they’d still be singing it. On repeat.
That’s the criticism from the traditional camp: modern worship is too simple, too impermanent (the songs change too often), and — most importantly — much, much too redundant.
And that is precisely the music I choose to lead in my church. That’s right.
And for very good reason that goes far beyond my preference, I have to say — I’m not going to stop leading the music you hate in church.
Not because I dislike hymns. Not because I have a disdain for church history. And certainly not because I don’t appreciate the power of the words of those old faithfuls. Or even because I can.
No, I’m not going to stop leading charismatic modern worship for a very different reason, one that might surprise you:
My job is to disciple worship in church.
My job is to turn the hearts and minds of God’s people to him and open wide their hearts to his Spirit, so intimacy with the Holy Spirit becomes an infectious longing in people’s hearts. So they can’t get enough of God. And so they know how to worship him deeply.
That’s my job.
There’s a purpose to worship, an important one every worship leader must fulfill in church, and here’s the thing. I don’t think hymns best fit that job description. Certainly not alone.
That may sound harsh, but bear with me. If you love hymns, I understand your perspective, and it is valid. The benefits of traditional hymns and their rich, theologically sound lyrics and connection to church history are certainly of value to the worshiper who enjoys them. But I want to share with you another perspective.
There is something everyone in this discussion about worship styles misses.
If You Can’t Stand Modern Worship, Please Understand There are Three Essential Reasons I’m Going to Lead Worship Music You Hate in Church
1. While traditional music has rich, theological words, teaching truth is not the primary purpose of corporate worship.
Not even reminding of truth. It is not primarily a cerebral activity. Nor is it primarily an emotional one, a common, wrongful accusation of charismatic worship. The purpose of corporate music is to worship in Spirit and truth in communion with God and to glorify him in his love as the Holy Spirit speaks intimately to our hearts.
The sermon’s purpose is to remind, teach, and center us on truth and its application.
Hymns have their place, as well,
Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart. (Ephesians 5.19)
But notice Paul tells us to sing spiritual songs? These are the charismatic ones that bring people into intimate worship of God on a heart — not cerebral — level. Notice Paul focuses the passage on the heart.
Colossians has a similar verse on the subject,
Singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (3.16)
Biblically, connecting the heart is the focus in worship, sharpening the mind is the focus in teaching. Sure, they’re both engaged at all times. But we shouldn’t lose sight of those purposes, because they inform how we choose songs and how we structure our corporate worship. God wants to spiritually minister to our hearts as we worship him. It is an intimate love experience, one that brings him great honor as we lay our hearts before the throne.
It alarms me when some argue that the way they personally connect with God is primarily cerebral. It’s as though they are fighting against an emotionalism movement they think isn’t based on a solid foundation.
But this is not about emotion vs. intellect. There is a principle here we need to understand. Just as Nicodemus we need to learn,
The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit. (John 3.8)
Sometimes when I read criticisms that modern charismatic worship is based on emotions, when I see it deepening people’s spiritual awareness of God in heartfelt worship, I feel like responding, “You are [the church’s] teachers, and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3.10)
Worshiping in Spirit and truth is a matter of being led by a God who speaks and leads on a spirit level.
Sure, some worship leaders aren’t in tune with what God is doing and repeat a chorus for the sake of the song. Others may focus too much on instrumentation rather than responding to God. But many of these songs loathed for their simple repetitiveness, accused of manipulating emotions for effect, are actually extremely effective at bringing people into a deeper spiritual awareness and experience of God’s love for them.
That’s what’s happening here, and it’s essential.
Churches that emphasize love of the words, tradition and theology, without discipling this focus on spiritual songs that bring people into a living, active relationship with God in his Spirit often end up at a more shallow level of knowing and growing in God, whatever style of music they choose.
2. Modern worship allows worship leaders to more effectively disciple people to listen to the Holy Spirit and to what God is speaking to their hearts in worship.
In traditional music, a church usually sings through the four or five verses of a song and it’s done, with little room for variance by the leader. It’s more of a rigid form. One can still hear the Holy Spirit, of course, and have an impactful worship time with him. But with modern worship songs, the leader often takes more freedom to go back to a certain verse or repeat a chorus that he feels God is impressing on his heart to say to the church at the moment.
There is opportunity for a fresh word from God. When a worship leader repeats a chorus, often slower, quieter, faster, or louder, it is because he realizes the Holy Spirit wants to speak a particular message, whether intimate and personal or triumphant and resounding and the people will be ministered to by God’s heart through the dynamic change. It draws them into a response.
This personalization during the service to what the Holy Spirit is saying through worship is less possible — and hardly done — in a traditional worship setting. It isn’t as conducive to that kind of worship. But it’s vital for a leader to be able to lead the people of God in what God is doing to meet with the Holy Spirit in a personal way.
This is absolutely how the Spirit of God uses worship when one grows in listening to his voice and how he wants his leaders to lead — in tune with his intimate voice.
Do you see how singing spiritual songs, charismatic expressive ones, are essential in this?
If you find yourself apprehensive, have you allowed the Holy Spirit to teach you to listen this way? In a way that is powerfully transformative? If you grow in it, you will find God moves powerfully through it and it profoundly deepens your relationship with him. In fact, this is how God moves in personal revival in our hearts.
From a worship standpoint, while hymns can be very powerful, it is my experience modern songs are most effective in discipling this.
3. However, most poignantly, you can’t have a missional church — one focused on reaching and discipling the lost — and lead primarily with hymns.
Hymns have a purpose. And I love singing one in church now and then. I even find myself humming one from time to time in personal prayer times. And if there are pubs in heaven, I’ll raise a beer and belt out A Mighty Fortress is Our God with Luther when I meet him (because that’s how I picture the song should be sung, with a good German believer in a tavern).
But as a vision for the church, it’s just not honest to say you can be a church with a mission to reach and disciple the lost in the 21st Century if you also want to sing mostly hymns in your church, unless you have a specific nursing home missional identity. This vision can be great for a group of people who love worshiping with hymns and want to sing them together in their own congregation. But it’s lousy for a missional church.
It’s just not honest to think otherwise.
In the 21st Century, music shouldn’t be watered down or seeker-sensitive. But playing 16th-18th Century music in your church and saying you are missional about reaching 21st Century people isn’t reasonable as a vision.
It would be like Paul saying I became a Greek to the Gentiles and a Gentile to the Greeks in the hope that I might save some, anyway, although they didn’t have any idea what I was doing.
If anyone disagrees, I wonder how much time they spend with the lost.
I’ve sat in enough traditional services with non-Christians to know when the majority are turned off by the style not the substance. I have to say, in all honesty, most have a relieved look on their face when they realize the service is wrapping up.
And we should consider them first with our vision to reach them with the gospel.
We have to reach 21st Century Americans with music designed for 21st Century hearts, as we model worshiping in Spirit and truth, instead of trying to squeeze them into a church model that honors 16th Century tradition. Otherwise we’ll do little more than tell Greeks and Gentiles to be Jews — and honor their ways and traditions — before coming to Jesus.
Would Paul do that? Would Jesus?
This is uncomfortable for us because we’d have to rethink church, but God forbid we put our preference before their salvation in our church vision.
And if non-Christians are uncomfortable in our churches, we want it to be the gospel that makes them uncomfortable in their sin — because of the Holy Spirit’s conviction — not the package we offer it in.
Hey, I love hymns. But I love people more.
And I want, more than anything, to bring them into an encounter with the love and power of Jesus in a way that helps them hear the Holy Spirit speak to their own hearts. In a way theological and profound, but personal and real.
So whatever worship style you love at your church, whether traditional or modern, Old Rugged Cross or Lead Me to the Cross, Isaac Watts or Chris Tomlin, I pray you put that first. That you don’t lose sight of a vision that makes it all about people meeting with Jesus. Not our personal preference, but whatever is most effective at leading people to meet the Holy Spirit in the temple of their hearts, and give themselves to him where they find him there. And where, in that holy place, they can learn to love a God they know intimately.
That is the purpose of worship.