Worship is a complicated thing. Jesus said we are to worship the Lord in spirit and in truth. But what does that mean? Simply put: true worship exists only when God’s Spirit is present. God, whose creativity is limitless, who made every snowflake and fingerprint unique, lives outside the box. He calls us to do the same. I think that’s why I enjoy contemporary praise and worship music.
It is music that’s outside the box.
I’ve recently asked people in our church if they enjoy the contemporary worship songs we sing at the beginning of our Sunday services and if so, why. Their answers have expressed individual preferences and commonalities.
“When I arrive at church, still preoccupied with worries like my job, or an argument I had with my wife, the music helps change my focus. It draws my attention away from me and towards God.”
“It lifts my soul and I can feel God speaking to me.”
“The words are like my words. They reflect the way I feel.”
“They’re personal. Hymns are about corporate worship, but for me, when I sing worship songs there are only two people in the room — God and me.”
“I love music. It’s the centre of my life. But I can’t pick up my guitar and play most hymns. They’re too complicated. Worship songs are for everyday musicians like me.”
“I feel God’s peace when I sing them, in a way I don’t feel when I sing hymns, though I love singing old hymns too.”
“Worship music speaks to my kids. And when it speaks to my kids it speaks to me.”
“I create my own harmonies when I sing, so every time it’s a new song. I know my being able to do that is a gift from God. So I give the gift back to Him every time I sing.”
We live in a generation that’s more familiar with electric guitars than pipe organs. From today’s grandparents down, we’ve grown up listening to rock and roll. It’s the musical backdrop of our lives. And if we are to authentically express our faith and worship God, it must be in our own language.
That does not negate the value of traditional church music. I’m quite convinced God enjoys Gregorian chants, Baroque oratorios, Wesleyan hymns, country gospel and contemporary worship songs equally, if they are sung with a heart of worship. Otherwise, we’ve missed the point and our music, no matter how beautiful, is a clanging symbol or a sounding gong in God’s ears.
During the late 1990s, a church in Watford, England, lost its musical focus. People came from miles around to hear each Sunday’s performance, drawn by the thrill of their dynamic music ministry. Worshipping God, however, became a secondary concern. The pastor was disturbed by this misplaced allegiance and cancelled all music for a period of time. When the fast finished, worship leader Matt Redman wrote,
When the music fades,
all has slipped away and I simply come
Longing just to bring something
that’s of worth that will bless your heart.
I’ll bring you more than a song;
for a song in itself is not what you have required. You search much deeper within through the way things appear, you’re looking into my heart.
Music is at the heart of worship. It is intimate, emotional. It expresses our passion for the God we adore. It is a reflection of who we are at our most basic level.
Joni Eareckson Tada once said, “We are finite creatures, and although God chooses to live in us, we cannot contain His infinite nature.”
I think of that whenever I open myself to Him in worship. Sometimes my tears flow — not a very attractive idea for a control-loving Presbyterian like me. But if my worship is to be authentic, it has to be about Jesus, not me. I need to put aside my personal security and open myself to His touch. And for me it’s through contemporary worship songs that I am the most real before God.