December 3, 2020

iMonk Classic: Worship, CCM and the Worship Music Revolution (part three)

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
Circa 2002

This is the third and final part in our series of classic iMonk posts on worship. You can read or review part one HERE and part two HERE.

Evaluating Worship Music Using Scripture as a Guide

As I type, I am saying to myself, “Have you noticed that you are making some people fairly upset by publishing your opinions about worship music?” And I answer back, “Yes, I have noticed that, but I have more to say, and I’m going to say it.” A voice- the voice of reason- says “Michael, listen to me. QUIT NOW.” Another voice, the voice of enthusiasm, says “Oh shut up.”

Many years ago, I heard Dr. John Piper say that one should choose a book of the Bible and make it a lifetime passion. As anyone who knows me realizes, I took the advice and invested myself in the study of Mark’s Gospel. The advice was good, because the study of that book has proven to be a gateway into the study of the rest of scripture. Over the last three years, I have expanded my interest to another part of scripture, the Psalms. This has been a rewarding study as well, particularly in the area of worship. I want to apply some of what I have learned in the Psalms to the evaluation of contemporary worship and worship music.

(Let me digress to say that there are some excellent resources on the Psalms that have been very helpful to me. For a detailed scholarly commentary, the three volumes in the Word Bible Commentary by Craigie, Tate and Allen are more than you would ever need. Weiser’s volume on the Psalms is helpful, and Walter Brueggeman as well. On the side of preaching and teaching the Psalms, I would recommend three authors. First, Dr. James M. Boice’s three volume set of sermons on the Psalms, and Eugene Peterson’s little volumes, A Long Obedience In The Same Direction, and Answering God. C.S. Lewis’s Reflections on the Psalms has many important insights. I would also recommend Petersen’s translations of the Psalms in The Message, as well as using two different translations when reading any text, perhaps the ESV and the NASB.)

The relevance of the Psalms for worship music is obvious. This is the hymnal of Israel. Any Christian hymnal, whether ancient or modern, will show the influence of the Psalms over the development of worship music. The New Testament explicitly commands the singing of Psalms in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. While I do not believe the regulative principle restricts worship to only Psalm singing, I readily admit that the majority of scripture written explicitly for the use of God’s people in worship is contained in Psalms, and they must occupy a primary place in the church’s worship. Even CCM recognizes the primacy of the Psalms, as anyone familiar with contemporary worship music knows. A large segment of contemporary worship music is built upon the Psalms, and many of these are among the best offerings of that genre.

David Playing Harp, Chagall

We should realize there are two voices within the Psalter. Many of the Psalms obviously originated in individual experiences. They report the kind of poetic and prayerful reflection many people have in episodes of great stress or loss. One of the appeals of the Psalms is that almost anyone can read and relate to some experience or feeling in a Psalm. On this level, the Psalms are very “raw” and sometimes seem inappropriate for public worship. Along with emotions such as gratitude, trust and praise, there is also intense questioning of God, despondency, prayer for the destruction of enemies, complaining, and even crude sentiments of revenge. The church has often struggled with how to relate these honest sentiments to worship and prayer. I have sometimes told students that if you didn’t know who your enemies are, you wouldn’t benefit much from the Psalter.

There is also the voice of God’s people in celebrative public worship, and this is the aspect of the Psalms that most comfortably fits into corporate worship music. Here the Psalms proclaim God’s attributes or celebrate His deeds in ways that are designed for congregational participation. While these psalms are not entirely absent the questions or emotions of the more individual psalms, the vast majority of these texts translate easily into music and readings of praise to God for his goodness, power and love. These Psalms are heavily represented in both traditional and contemporary worship music.

Now, I bring up these two voices because I want to talk about what I think is the major issue facing those of us who believe in the regulation of worship by scripture. How do we evaluate lyrics and style? I can almost physically feel the agony and the emotion over these two matters when contemporary worship is discussed. I think the Psalms can be very helpful here, though I can’t say that my reading of the Psalms will be universally acknowledged as solid. Let me give an example.

I recently listened to a tape of a discussion by a panel of reformed pastors in front of a large audience of similar men on the question of whether to use contemporary worship music. I don’t think that contemporary worship had a friend in the room. Now the overall undertow of the various questions and answers was simply this: Is there a way, Biblically, to rule out the use of contemporary worship music entirely? Believe me, these guys would have taken anything and run with it. They talked about associations with secular songs, tunes that were out of sync with texts, terrible theology, and the emotions created by particular rhythms. But, even after ninety minutes, they weren’t able to come up with a way to say that CCM- as a style- was inappropriate.

The reason, I believe, is the Psalms. The Psalms simply won’t let things be simple. Whenever you make a criticism of contemporary praise and worship music, there sit the Psalms. If you say a song is too repetitive, there is Psalm 136. When you say a Psalm has too much “I” and “me,” there are Psalms 30 and 131. If you say a song is too subjective, there is Psalm 3. Psalm 137 defies any attempt to make it tame enough for the chancel choir. And so on. The Psalms will not stand idly by while the genuine voice of any questioning, suffering, rejoicing saint is stilled as “inappropriate.”

So where are we? We are at the point of saying that the Psalms lend a lot more depth and freedom to the possibilities of worship than many of us would without them. Still, this is a corporate worship book. Israel took up all these songs, complaints, prayers, curses, questions, dances, praises, celebrations and made them into the worship experience of God’s people for thousands of years. I think it is safe to say, that if the book of Psalms did not exist, few denominational committees would commission such a book for the congregational worship of God. But it is what we have, and as I said earlier, I believe it holds a primary place in shaping the worship of any congregation seeking to be faithful to a Biblical pattern of worship.

So where do we go from here? Am I saying that anything with a reference to the Psalms can be used in worship without regulation? No, listen carefully. The Psalms give us a pattern. They give us a hymnal to use as an example in pursuing worship in our own time and place. I do not believe the Psalms are meant to be the only words we use, but like all of scripture, their message about God and their description of God are meant to be the central content of our worship, and certainly of our music.

David, Chagall

Current studies of the Psalms have made some interesting observations on the structure of the book of Psalms as a whole. A short article is no place to explore these ideas, but it can be summarized briefly as follows: The book of Psalms gives considerable evidence of being constructed with some care. The book begins with a description of the righteous man meditating on God’s Word (Ps 1) and an affirmation that the world is full of conflict until the coming of God’s Messiah (Ps 2). The first part of the Psalter seems an escalating account of the troubles God’s people experience in the world. The center of the Psalter turns towards an affirmation of confidence in God, despite the troubles of the righteous. As the books rounds the 90’s, it begins a confident celebration of God as King of the world and of the people that He has redeemed. At the high point of the Psalter, Psalms 105-107 recount the faithfulness of God to his people, and Psalm 119 then celebrates the Word of God, a word that is the source of hope for the man of Psalm 1 and of every other psalm and experience. The book moves to a resounding closing crescendo of praise.

In other words, there is structure around themes in Psalms, and every human and national experience comes together as God speaks His Word to create faith, hope and worship, and eventually brings his King to rule over the earth. The Psalms, like all of scripture, point to Christ as the key to history, experience, redemption and worship. (Luke 24:44) If we take the Psalter and isolate its contents from its message, we distort it as much as if we selected other parts of the Bible for isolated use and certain misuse and misunderstanding. It is a book that tells of God’s redemption, God’s promises and God’s triumph in the midst of a world of enemies, questions, pain and sin. God has sent His Word. God will send His king. As new covenant worshippers, we enjoy both.

So I would like to present the possibility that the book of Psalms does give us a good basis to evaluate worship music. And these are the criteria that I would use.

1. The presentation of the person of God should follow the clear teaching of the Bible. Biblical words and images are to be strongly preferred. Biblical language should be used in proportion to its use in scripture, so the worship of God as King would exceed worship of him as, for instance, husband.

2. The history of redemption is the great theme of worship, and personal experience cannot be divorced from what God has promised and what God has done in history. Songs that celebrate and recount the history of redemption are to be preferred, particularly as they recount God’s faithfulness, sovereignty and covenant love.

3. While songs of personal experience are appropriate, the great emphasis of worship should be the victory of God and the realities of the Gospel. Music should never obscure that fact that my own experience is not the center of redemptive history.

4. The language of a particular song may be either personal or corporate, but the clear emphasis of a corporate worship service should be the voice of the congregation speaking of their experience with their covenant God. Just as the Psalms integrate the personal into the congregational, so should our music today.

5. Songs that approach worship outside of the framework of Biblical revelation and redemption are to be considered inferior, and their limited use is more appropriate for individual worship rather than the worship of the congregation. We must be clear: They are not wrong, and they may be high expressions of reality and devotion, and still not be appropriate for congregational use.

6. Worship music should invite and encourage all God’s redeemed people to sing together in recounting the great deeds of the Lord on their behalf. Songs by individuals and groups should facilitate the worship of the congregation and not replace it. This should be an important concern for all music.

7. The Psalms have a pattern of declaring an intention to worship God in the congregation as a result of His mercy shown to an individual. Worship music should recognize this, and allow individual praise that invites the congregation to join in praising God for what he demonstrated to one that is true for all.

8. The great events and elements of redemption should joyfully occupy the worship of the church. The experiences and feelings of individuals form part of that worship, but they are not the final substance of it. (The “I” finally becomes the “We.”)

King David, Chagall

What about style? Do the Psalms help us settle the issue of what kind of music is appropriate for worship? Fortunately, God is wiser than to lead any one culture to assume that its particular norms and preferences should speak for the church in every time and place. I heard a very good brother make the case that certain hymn tunes conveyed the majesty of God better than others, and not being a relativist, I believe him. The tune of “Holy, Holy, Holy” and the tune of “Jingle Bells” are not interchangeable. But the majesty of God may be addressed in a variety of musical styles, and as I have said in a previous article, a congregation is under an obligation to represent the diversity of its culture in its worship by the use of what is best in its setting, and what most gives glory to God in a way the entire congregation can affirm and participate in.

I might give a practical note here. I remember many years ago, the musical group “Glad,” had a portion of their concert where they did the hymn “We Praise Thee Our God Our Redeemer Creator,” in a number of different styles and settings from classical to Beach Boys to Barber Shop to Bluegrass. The point was always well made in the excellence of each presentation of the hymn, but another point needs to made: there are few, if any congregations where that kind of diversity is present, desirable or manageable in worship. In other words, while occasional forays into diverse expressions are probably healthy and manageable (as many churches have done with occasional youth led services or jazz services), the elders need to so regulate worship so that a discernable and dependable cultural flavor is present and worship praises God and involves the congregation in the broadest, but most participatory manner of worship possible.

So I conclude my third, and I believe final, discussion of worship music. I have questioned the claims of the CCM revolution in worship music, and found them to be lacking. I have suggested that the Bible gives the leadership of a congregation the guidance and content necessary to have a reasonable and beneficial use of the regulative principle. And I have shown how the book of Psalms in particular provides an example of Biblically ordered worship. What remains is for those of us who know the God of the Psalms to heed the invitation of Psalm 100.

Song of David, Chagall

Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth.
Serve the LORD with gladness;
Come before Him with joyful singing.
Know that the LORD Himself is God;
It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves;
We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.

Enter His gates with thanksgiving
And His courts with praise.
Give thanks to Him, bless His name.
For the LORD is good;
His lovingkindness is everlasting
And His faithfulness to all generations.



  1. The great thing about the holy spirit is that he’s crying out and groaning in all of us. To say that david could verbalize my worship better than I can is to say that my unpretentious, heartfelt worship is somehow inferior to another mans experience. It feels like your saying everyone should love their dad the way I love my dad.

    • Thats good for you Chris, but what about the millions out there who can’t verbalize because that is just not who they are? We are not all poets and song writers.

      And can you learn from David and the other people of scripture? For that matter, can you learn from the millions who have gone on before you? If you dig into the Christian hymnary it is incredibly rich and stretches back to the time of Christ.

      Perhaps some of the things we see in scripture survived because they are really God’s gold standard that he has graciously passed on to us.

      And I am not saying this as questioning you or your integrity, but heartfelt is not always necesarily worship. I just came out of 10 years at a church that everything was always heartfelt, but content wise some of it was really a lot of fluff and emotionalism, almost like infatuation. And it sure felt good at times.

  2. Unconvinced. I think this series might better be entitled “My worship is better than your worship.” Aren’t we supposed to become all things to all people that by all means we might save some? I could rant all day but I have to go get my 52 year old bottom in gear to get to church with my electric guitar to lead worship. Peace.

    • One more Mike says

      You and your electric guitar are not “leading worship”. You are performing. Worship is word and sacrament. Which are you? When you try to be all things to all people you are nothing to anyone. If you haven’t figured that out at 52, then you’re right where you should be. Rock on.

      Gotta drive past 2 mega-wannabes and 14 variations of “baptist” to get to a small Lutheran church with a piano and an organ and hymns by Bach and most importantly, word and sacrament.

      Peace be unto you.

  3. Pam Burns says

    Most hymns of the church considered “traditional” to todays culture have melodies that were taken from bar songs at the time of their composition. I love traditional hymns, but I also love contemporary music when it is prayerfully composed and skillfully presented.. It is an enhancement for me and many others in worship. I still say that any style of music can be used for true worship if it is not done in a sacrilegious manner. Some hymns of the church sound like funeral dirges and all I want to do when I hear them is escape the building. Some contemporary music is pointing to self and not to God. Worship should lead the Body of Christ toward adoration of the Lord and into the “Holy of Holies”. If any particular style can do that for a congregation it becomes worship. A right attitude of the heart on the part of the worship leaders and the congregation is essential. The Lord will give discernment to the leadership of a church body if they seek it and do not close their minds with prejudice against a particular style.

    • Am pretty sure the “bar song” thing is a myth.

      • The use of secular song as a source for worship (with appropriate lyrics substituted) is an ancient practice. The “bar song” stories probably derive from the practice of contrafactum, one of the four sources for early Lutheran chorales (which also included reusing Roman chant melodies, German devotional songs, and new compositions). My latest edition of Grout/Palisca/Burkholder states that “Luther and his colleagues used many well-known secular tunes for his chorales, substituting religious words. The texts were most often wholly new, but sometimes included clever reworkings of the existing poem”.

    • “I also love contemporary music when it is prayerfully composed and skillfully presented.”

      I love it as well. But is it worship? From what I’ve seen in my local mega-wannabe, no. It’s just a performance put on for the paying customers.

      And I’m with camillofan; I also think the “bar song” thing is mostly urban legend. Were there specific hymns that might have been based on popular songs? Maybe even bar songs? Perhaps. But to tar the entire genre with that brush? Not hardly.

      • Why can’t a contemporary song be worship? Bach is no more Biblical than say an R&B or pop style. The Biblical authors knew nothing of polyphonic music. I’m not a fan of the mega-church spectacle, but I’ve certainly seen modern music presented in a way that isn’t idolatrous. Pipe organs can be idols too, you know.

      • Kenny Johnson says

        And aren’t you tarring CCM as worship when you only equate it to the Rock-show megachurch performance? Most churches aren’t mega churches! And I’ve been to several churches with CCM as their worship music and it’s (almost) never been presented as performance.

      • It is probably not helpful to say that (your) music is not worship. It may be more clarifying and helpful to the conversation to say that music is not at the core or the center of christian worship. The sun around which all the planets of the worship order must revolve is of course Jesus — but it is distinctively Jesus as we meet him in the Word and at the Table. Music and all other adjunct activities that take place in a Christian worship service must be enslaved and put into the service of the Word and the Table. If they are not doing that, then that is where music becomes a dangerous distraction, no matter what kind of music.

        What do I mean by “put into the service of the Word and the Table?” Simply this. Music’s job is to point us to the Word and the Table — specifically the Word we are focusing on today in this service. The Table we are sharing today in this service. Music should amplify the Word. Music should clarify the Word. Any other use of music in a Christian worship service is in danger of being a distraction and leading us to idols.

        Again, it’s not about the structure of the music. It’s about the direction of it (to borrow from Wolters).

        • Kenny Johnson says

          “music is not at the core or the center of christian worship. . . it is distinctively Jesus as we meet him in the Word and at the Table. . . Music and all other adjunct activities that take place in a Christian worship service must be enslaved and put into the service of the Word and the Table. . . Music’s job is to point us to the Word and the Table . . . ”

          Says who?!?!? You’re at least the second person now to speak so authoritatively about what (and how) Christian worship is. Backup your authority! Gimme some scripture.

          • We will have some posts upcoming on this subject, Kenny. One way to look at the question is this:

            1. Could we have a corporate worship service without music? I would argue yes.
            2. Could we have a corporate worship service without the Lord’s Table? Many seem to think so. I would argue that it should be practiced whenever believers gather for worship. That said, it is debatable.
            3. Could we have a corporate worship service without hearing God’s Word? I would argue no.

            More to come, but that’s a start in terms of how to think about it. In the posts, I will point to Scripture as well as church history and tradition for more answers.

          • Kenny Johnson says

            That’s all well and good, Michael. But what you’re proposing is different than what Dave D and earlier, what OneMoreMike said.

            I look forward to hearing your perspective.

  4. I imagine there are people on all sides of the worship divide who would say that they agree with and strive to follow something like the above… and who’d then be able (respectfully, even) to find egregious fault, on the grounds of these very principles, with each other’s services.

    It would be interesting to conduct a discussion of actual sample slates of music for worship services, with attention also given to nitty-gritty issues like inclusive keys and decibels. I reckon that’s beyond the scope of this conversation, though.

    • I don’t know, I don’t think this is a conversation about musical style, or technique (although for some it may be).
      For me, the problem is not one of volume (but it can be), or whether it is classical or jazz. I suspect it would take me a while to like some of the hebrew stuff from 1300BC.

      I think if style was really a very critical issue, perhaps biblical authors would have addressed it, but it is one of those things that remains unknown.

      But we can address issues of content and some of the form, because we do have a record that stretches from today clear back to the psalms.

  5. I would have been interested to hear Michael’s take on these issues a little later in his writing career. I see a lot of Calvinist type thinking in these articles that doesn’t show up nearly as strong in some of his later articles.

  6. I can’t believe how narrow minded some of these responses are. I thought this community was comprised of people who are looking for a place of solace for themselves in the “post evangelical wilderness” as is said way too often on here. How ignorant is it too despise guitar led worship. I forgot that David’s entire opus was written for organ.

    • I fear that you may be missing the point. It’s not about instrumentation. It’s about the way music is employed in a worship setting, regardless of instrumentation. Please read the post again.

      • My post was in response to “one more mike’ but I appreciate the dismissive and condescending tone, it’s a real gift you got there.

    • Chris,
      I have not picked up in the article that it is about what instruments we use. I think he really is pointing to something else.

      He seems to be writing more about content and approach to worship.

    • Guys I was replying to the responses not the article.

  7. Once again, I applaud this article. Many places are so impoverished by excluding the Psalms from worship,opting for repetitive choruses and entertainment. The Psalms are appropriate for every event in a Christian’s life, not the unrealistic demands of some songs which say after finding Jesus we are happy all the time, and when those who hear the songs aren’t happy all the time, they wonder if something is wrong with them. The Psalms have a far more realistic approach. If you’re happy, depressed, angry or any other, there’s an appropriate Psalm there. Look at Psalms 42-43 which make a journey from the depths of despair to hope in God. A powerful message!

  8. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    The tune of “Holy, Holy, Holy” and the tune of “Jingle Bells” are not interchangeable.

    “Amazing Grace” and “House of the Rising Sun”, however…

    • Jon Bartlett says

      As are “Away in a manger” and “Be thou my vision”…..

      Also, “Jingle Bells” was written in 1857 – more a contemporary of “Holy x3” than CCM….

  9. This appears to be an issue that is a bit more difficult to some.

    I think it is hard to argue style of music, and also hard to argue instrumentation, all of that stuff evolves.

    But we can look at both biblical history (as it is recorded in the bible), church history and Jewish history to look at content of worship, and patterns. Robert E. Webber spent part of his life seriously looking into the question.

    The problem we face is that from the baby boomer on we have been raised in an entertainment culture that is very strong on producing an emotional reaction. I would argue from my pre-christian days that a rock concert is a secular religious experience.

    Fast forward and we are most comfortable with the music style we grew up with. We rarely question it. I think that we should question it, along with many things we grew up with. I desire to have my thinking informed by the bible, this means that rather than my mastering the text and being able to dominate it in every respect that it dominates me and molds me.

    I think Spencer is right to ask the question ‘what makes worship true worship?’ To answer this means setting aside nit picky things like instrumentation or whether it is jazz or classical. It also means stepping out of the boomer mind set ‘if it feels good it can’t be wrong’.

    I think he is on the right track when he starts to ask questions about content and meaning, and who and what is it’s focus.

  10. The great thing about this conversation is that none of these opinions matter. I have yet to hear of a father scolding his children for loving him wrong. True Worship is subjective and the only opinion that matters is the object of our affection. The more we talk about proper worship the more sterile it becomes.

    • Chris:
      I think you are copping out on this one. I do not see you saying anything substantial other than ‘this is what I think’ and putting forth no real effort to engage what anyone is saying.

      The child analogy only works so far, but one day a child grows up. Your argument seems to come entirely from experience, not from critically engaging the sources (the article, the bible).

      By digging into the scriptures we can see the difference between worship and mere sentimentality, the psalms set down a pretty realistic template. For my own part, I think worship is learned and not necessarily 2nd nature.

      Even the disciples had to ask Jesus to teach them to pray

      • Ken,

        I appreciate the discussion. Isn’t the purpose of this forum to allow me a place to write “what I think”? Isn’t that what we are all doing? It isn’t copping out just because my responses don’t titillate your sensibilities. Even if we reference “Robert E. Webber”, isn’t he writing what he thinks based on what he has researched. And ultimately isn’t his research based on what someone else wrote? I do believe that personal worship evolves and matures and I will continue to grow, but silly off-handed remarks challenging evangelical worship are just as childish as my opinions seem to you

        • Chris:
          I said you were copping out because your answers were short and seemed trite rather than engaging in what the author wrote. Maybe I misunderstood your context and you were actually responding to others who had said things that merited your response (silly off handed remarks).

          This topic actually does merit all of us doing serious thinking because we live in an entertainment driven culture that often mistakes thinly baptised pop-culture as Christian worship.

          You are right that worship grows, but it grows in the context of community, not really something we do by ourselves.

    • Chris, the problem I have with what you say here is that I know my own capacity to deceive myself. Calvin once remarked that the human mind is a virtual idol factory. We are constantly creating God in our own image. If worship is subjective, then how am I to know I am not just worshiping a god of my own making? If you point me to the Bible as the guide, then my next question will be whose interpretation? Is that subjective too?

      I think there has to be some place in our understanding of Christian practice for learning from our family history and traditions as well. Studying worship over the years has made its practice much more meaningful to me, and I feel much more a part of God’s family that has been worshiping him for millennia.

      • Actually Mike, I was thinking tradition as well, but I have found that with many Evangelicals that holds little weight.

      • Mike,

        Yes, pointing to the bible will still result in subjecive differences. Everything is filtered through our understanding of the language, our personality , and our family traditions. I’ve got a lot to learn, that’s why I enjoy reading this blog. But as we all have learned you don’t hold on to everything that you glean from everybody.
        I believe the bible gives us a target and many, many ways to hit that target, and it isn’t to be limited by any man’s opining myself included. There are examples of worship in the bible that involve emotions, dancing, polyphonic orchestrations, solos, hand clapping, singing, awe, fear, obedience, at times it is loud and at other times it is silent, it is improvisational and it is orchestrated, it is tangible and it is other worldly, it is logical and it is absurd, it is subdued and its unabashed shaking the gates of prisons and city walls. So unless we are creating moments for “True Worship” to stretch it’s legs every week, we don’t have the sure footing to question any ones pursuit of “True Worship.” I am glad the readers have come to a form of worship that is comfortable, and has deep meaning for them. God compares himself to Leviathan in Job “Lay your hand on him; Remember the battle; you will not do it again!” My worship can be glorious and pitiful, but I know it never defines God, it is only my attempt to offer what I have from where I am at.