August 12, 2020

What Is A Song Good For?

We were having a good discussion about churches the other day over lunch at work. Not Church’s Chicken, though that would have been appropriate. No, churches, which we have in abundance here in Tulsa. (There is one stretch of road about 3/4 of a mile long with four churches lining the street. Four in less than a mile. But that is a story for another day … ) The conversation took a turn toward music in church, what kind each person liked and didn’t like. And then my friend Trish made this observation:

I think some music is good for fellowship, but not for worship.

Wow. That stayed with me the rest of the day as I helped guests find things in my electronics department at the local Target. It stayed with me all that evening, and the next day, and the next. Now, two weeks later, I am still trying to get my arms around that. “Some music is good for fellowship, but not for worship.”

So I want to open this up for discussion. Are there some songs that you deem wrong for worship, but ok if you and some friends are talking and sharing and have music on in the background? Are there styles of songs that should never be used in a worship setting, but are ok for casual listening? Or do you believe worshipping the Lord should encompass all songs and all styles? Is it ok if Church A selects songs of this style, and Church B selects songs of that style? We all know that next to programs for children the music style of a church is what attracts and retains people. Should churches take this into account in deciding what style of music they will be performing in their services?

Enough questions. Now it’s your turn. Play nice, now.


  1. Hmm, I’m wondering if the descriptor ‘corporate’ (as in “Group”) might not belong in front of “worship” , and then proceed. I can worship, privately, to Fernando Ortega or 3rd Day, but some of this stuff is very hard for the entire group to jump into (or jump around to….. there, HUG, some raw meat for ya…)

    A similar thought would be: what’s good or even great for a concert/special event, might not be what works for group worship, something that adds to and blends in with sacrament and the sharing of the word.

    there: I”m sure I’ve pissed somebody off.. back to my ramen noodle lunch.


    • +1

    • Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

      Yeah, that’s pretty much where I land on this issue also. And there’s been a lot of music over the centuries that could accurately be described as “sacred” without being appropriate for corporate worship, including some liturgical pieces (e.g. a lot of Mozart’s masses). The same is true in contemporary music. Sometimes, it seems, the congregation is content to hear great performances that place no demand on them in terms of participation. And Lord knows that clergy have a tendency to like to put on a good show!

    • This has been a big issue for me that last couple of years. Plenty of songs are great for personal worship, but seem inappropriate for corporate worship.

      As one who has done plenty of “worship leading” in my life time, I can understand how so many of these “personal worship” songs get written. Song writers are simply pouring what is on their heart into a song. I have absolutely no problem with that. The problem is when you try to apply feelings/thoughts/reactions/attitudes one individual is having in a specific context and projecting them to an entire group. Some theological ideas, even when written from an individual perspective, can be applied corporately very easily. (“I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”) Some just don’t. (“And my heart turns violently inside of my chest, I don’t have time to maintain these regrets, When I think about, the way He loves me.”)

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        As one who has done plenty of “worship leading” in my life time, I can understand how so many of these “personal worship” songs get written. Song writers are simply pouring what is on their heart into a song. I have absolutely no problem with that. The problem is when you try to apply feelings/thoughts/reactions/attitudes one individual is having in a specific context and projecting them to an entire group.

        A more generic version of this in my church tradition (RCC) is that “Private Revelations are not binding on anyone except those who received said Private Revelation. Others may accept said Private Revelation, but they are not required to.” For much the same reason as you stated. 2000 years of Institutional Memory and Institutional Experience has that effect — “Been there, done that.”

  2. Kenny Johnson says

    I don’t think the comment is necessarily wrong, but I do think this is very culturally subjective UNLESS we are speaking from a purely functional perspective. For example, death metal wouldn’t make very good worship music — not because the music itself is profane or “un-sacred” — but because most people could not participate. It’s not music that really allows for corporate worship.

    But, I would disagree that contemporary music (i.e. non-classical, chorale, or hymn-like) should be disqualified because some see it as somehow less sacred than classical/traditional worship styles. That, in my opinion, is a matter of subjective taste — and not on the objective functionality of the music.

    • Jack Heron says

      Totally – I like a bit of melodeath when studying my Bible, but I don’t think it would suit a church service (my vicar wouldn’t be able to do the growling, for one thing).

  3. Define worship.

    Define fellowship.

    • Worship = corporate gathering at a specific time and place for music, prayer and homily, all aimed at enjoying the wonder of God.

      Fellowship = a formal or informal gathering of two or more people to talk about personal issues and offer prayer and Scriptural insights.

    • Worship = the things you say and do, when you are in the presence of God whom you love and who loves you.

      Fellowship = Fulfilling the “one another” New Commandments given to the church.

      Some say that “all of life is worship”, and in a sense that is true, but the word “worship” implies a special time of relational intimacy. For example, I am married, and “all of life is marriage” and is spent supporting the marriage, putting a roof over our head and food in our mouths, etc. But it would be a functionally dead relationship if I never stopped to tell my wife I love her and to take special times to express to her how I feel about her, and to receive from her how she feels about me.

    • Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

      Heh, two different answers would be necessary based on those two different definitions of worship, the key being Jeff’s use of the word “corporate” in his definition. Corporate worship requires music that is conducive to group singing. There’s a lot of music (both classical and contemporary) that finds its way into church use but is really more in the category of performance music than congregational music. Just because one finds a particular piece of music (regardless of style) moving or appealing doesn’t make it appropriate for corporate worship.

      Remove the corporate element, however, and things get a lot fuzzier and more subjective in my opinion. But really, if it’s not a corporate thing, the question becomes moot anyway. I mean, what music one plays (if any) during one’s private time with God isn’t really anyone else’s concern.

    • The use of music to frame a time of worship in a church service seems so natural that it is often unquestioned. It seems as if you would never have a corporate meeting of christian people without it. Should this be the case? Has it always been the case? I don’t really know. It just seems as if when structuring our corporate worship, usually into a ‘church service’ or a ‘small group’, we include music without questioning why, and perhaps choose music simply because it is music that appears to be ‘christian’ rather than because it has any place in whatever it is we are trying to do when, we structure our corporate meetings.
      It might be more useful to consider why we are meeting, what we hope our to achieve in our meeting or to put it differently, how are we to honour God, and aid others in doing the same, in our corporate meetings, and let that influence the place we give music within them.

      • Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

        There are some groups that have historically not used music in the services. Others have limited their music to a capella singing or limited the musical texts to the psalms. Heck, if memory serves, there was a big controversy when polyphonic music (e.g. organ and choir) started to replace monophonic music (e.g. plainsong or Gregorian chant) because they were asking similar questions.

        Some of my favorite times at conferences (both now in Anglicanism and in years past in Messianic Judaism) was when folks (usually a buncha old guys and really young idealists) would get together in the mornings for the daily morning liturgy. Usually it was at some ungodly hour and it never had music. There’s an unpolished simplicity to such a service that I find really appealing. That said, I wouldn’t want it to be the norm for Sunday morning worship.

        Also, now that you mention small groups, I’m surprised we haven’t ever used music in our home group considering we’ve got several musicians (including our music director) there. I admittedly hid my musical talent under a bushel when I first joined this church because I was tired of everyone expecting me to bring my guitar and open every stinkin’ gathering with a song or two.

  4. I think of many of the Christian Ska bands I used to listen to fit in this category. All our friends could go to a Five Iron Frenzy concert for great fellowship that had some worship element, but I hardly find it appropriate to sing “Welcome to Canada” on a Sunday morning.

    • We took our kids and some others to a Luis Palau crusade years ago, and Five Iron Frenzy was the lead band. All I remember is LOUD, but they probably weren’t all that bad.

      When I went out back to find a restroom and relieve my ears as well, I saw some friends from church and I remember yelling at the top of my voice, “IS THIS WHAT HELL IS LIKE?” They said (or rather, yelled) “This is nothing; you should go to Acquire the Fire!”

      My agreement with Luther still holds: “All the music in the world.” But that assumes that you actually LIKE the stuff.

    • Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

      Oh, yes… Christian Ska. I was a HUGE fan of the O.C. Supertones back-in-the-day. They had a few songs that were more geared for worship, In fact, I remember playing one or two in church in years past. Never really understood the appeal of FIF, though. I found most of their stuff to be pretty banal and the guys voice got on my nerves.

  5. I can see her point. Personally, I think that Sunday morning should be reserved for worship. I’m not against contemporary worship at all, and feel that a lot of it fits well, even with ancient liturgies.

    The best example I can think of for a “fellowship moment” I’ve experienced was once in Bulgaria, after I had preached at a church where I had gotten to know a lot of the folks well, the whole congregation turned and sang a traditional Bulgarian folk song, a goodbye song for me and my group of visiting Americans. I get a little misty thinking about it…

    I do believe that Ray Charles and Norah Jones are best reserved for the bedroom, though. Or the roof of your church. Whatever turns you on. Literally.

  6. Jeff. Really?

    Where have you been the last 10, er, 15, er 25 years?

    I want to laugh and I want to cry and I fear most of all that you are serious.

    • Uhh, Bob, it was not a “question”. It was a statement that said in shorthand “There are a lot of definitions of these terms in different churches and groups, so before answering the question it might be a good idea to define the terms a bit more clearly” and I believe that Jeff misunderstood the context. Let’s move along…..

  7. Dear Jeff,
    Firstly, I realise in the past year I haven’t alway expressed myself as graciously as I could have here. Please, please, I ask you and Ch Mike and the other imonks to forgive me for this. I have no excuse. I am trying to get my footing again.

    Secondly, I’ve lived my life within the world of music. So this hits very close to my heart. I should like to share my thoughts on this; please, be patient with me: Last year, on Jan 4th, to be exact, I wrote a similar response to an iMonk post, “What Has Changed”. I just spent the better part of half an hour finding that post, because my thoughts then are similar to my thoughts now about fellowship music and worship music. They’re vastly different, and I’m sorry to say, most churches tend to confuse the two.

    Here’s a bit of what I wrote then:

    “January 4, 2011 at 9:02 pm
    I’ll be honest, here…I find this whole thing very, very sad. I feel a grief in my spirit…

    I’ve marked my time in various and sundry Northpoint-type Churches. And I left that type of Christianity due, in no small part, to the reality of the Worship Machine, the Worship Show, the burnout as a volunteer in Music that comes from rehearsals as demanding as anything I ever did in preparing for professional music.

    There was no distinctive difference save the brief prayer at the beginning…

    I was saddened to be a part of the Show. The Congregtion, the audience, was pandered to just as any rock concert audience in which I participated either as back-up or as ticket-buyer. And I grieved the loss of awe, holiness, communion, personal-ness.

    The Worship Machine is manipulative, emotionally-driven, programatic concertising…carefully orchestrated for full emotional effect; carefully planned with lights, powerpoints, drama, and The Message. My God! How far we’ve come from Jesus sitting on the ground, cooking a couple of fish!

    [ …] Like Malachi, I long for the day when we might offer unto the Lord offerings in righteousness because it isn’t about us, it’s about God. It’s about Thanksgiving in Communion, Breaking Bread, singing Psalms and Hymns and Spiritual Songs with voices that we can actually hear…our own and our neighbours.

    [ … ]”

    Hymns…Psalms…Spiritual Songs. These are real, theoretical differentiated musical forms, with each musical style. They have different uses and fulfill different needs in the life of the Church. It has nothing to do with specific style of music. A Hymn, written in the 15thC or a Hymn written in the 21stC is still a Hymn by virtue of the fact that it is written in the form of a Hymn, not a symphony, not an instrumental trio, not a recitative. So something written “ska” style could be a hymn, or a psalm, or a spiritual song.

    For corporate worship, there has to be some basic rules that used to be, but seldom are, adhered to: the music has to be singable by the vast majority of the folk in the group. Most music, these days, is cribbed from bands with gifted lead singers, like David Crowder, for example. His vocal range is unique to him. But how many folk in Church can sing like David Crowder??? Not many… and it shows because the women can’t hit the high notes any more than the men can. I remember, in my last Evangelical Church, being asked to not sing unless I could stop “sounding like an opera/trained singer” (most churches want what I call the “vestal virgin voice”: breathy, girlish, soft and sweet). Corporate music has to be singable and American voice ranges are getting lower (there are lots of reasons for this…). So David Crowder is best left to small groups and trained bands to enjoy. Or as recordings.

    If you pay attention in traditional churches, hymnbooks in the last several years have been re-written to lower the voice parts. But, then, this leaves the basses and the altos in the basement. So that’s another problem for those who actually like to sing parts. And this actually changes the harmonics of the whole. What’s a Congregation to do??? It’s kind of a mess…

    At the end of the day, the music scene in the Church is quite complex with no easy answers. Using pop(ular) musicians for worship is not an answer because the music is often too hard to sing, the band parts difficult to reproduce. Finding worship music that appeals to the body is looking at the problem from the wrong point-of-view…shouldn’t we be trying to find that which is pleasing to God? What gives glory to God and teaches the body something True about Him? And then what, exactly, are we expecting in the first place? For that, I think we might well re-read last year’s post, “What Has Changed” ( as well as other excellent posts about worship and post-evangelicalism as part of the conversation about these things.

    For me, I am in a new place, singing a new song, learning new modes of Worship and Fellowship. I am no longer a part of the Weekly Show (see last year’s post). It’s been a steep learning curve, and I have a lot more to learn, yet. But I am content in the post-evangelical place I find myself. And, again…forgive me the lack of love my words (not my heart!) oftimes seem to produce here.


  8. I don’t think it’s entirely an either/or proposition, but, yes, for the most part I think that music that’s enjoyed for listening purposes doesn’t necessarily fit for corporate worship in a church setting. Actually, one thing I get annoyed at about a lot of newer worship songs is that they’re just too complicated. People don’t know the melodies, and the words are trying to do too much. I think that hymns even though they can be more complex are for most part singable by congregations simply because people have heard them for a long time, and they know the melody. The newer worship chorus that have remained popular are those that are for the most part are simple to play and sing. Chris Tomlin’s How Great is Our God is a good example of a song I think that will stick around for a while. It’s like four chords, the words are easy to memorize, and it has a simple, Biblical message.

    As far as other things, I have been in other corporate settings outside of a church setting that I’d consider worship even though they were really a concert setting. I think of the times I’ve seen U2. Certainly the whole concert wasn’t worship, but parts of it definitely were. I could name a bunch of other bands as well. That’s why I say the line isn’t always cut and dry.

    • You’re right about U2, ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ is a song that when they play, something happens.

      • At least in my “01 Camry it does….if I have the volume up loud enough… (18 Singles anyone ???)

  9. Donegal Misfortune says

    I don’t want to make this sound subjective, but I will. There has never been a more gripping, heartfelt worship experience, musically, than when I had the privilege of gathering together with fellow believers in a few churches in some of the Baltic countries. In several very cosmopolitan, mtv drenched cities where there is more marketing via music and performers than I have ever seen even here in America, the churches I went to truly had an alternative culture, its own way of doing things; it was like I stepped into a completely different Kingdom if you will with its own language, gestures, sounds, music, and dress. I wasn’t exactly sure what was being said during the service, which didn’t matter so much as I was able to participate as the liturgy followed the Lutheran service that I am acclimated with as the bulletin was in the home language but the headings of what was being done were in Latin, Greek or German. To be honest, I felt like I was in a church for the very first time. The fads and fables of contemporary music lost all of its top 40 glamour in that very moment. Since I have been back, I have been wrestling with hearing one type of music through the week at work that everyone listens to, or from walking into a store, or walking down the street, or in the background of a movie/tv show, and not hearing anything any different when I walk through the doors of a church.

  10. Jesus is in the redeeming business. Ypu can sing the dumbest, most theologically vacant, crappiest song to him, and he’ll turn it into something profound that’ll impact the lives and walks of everyone in the room.

    But that doesn’t ever justify the singing of those particular songs. Need I remind everyone of God using the donkey to talk to Balaam? God can use anything, but he wants our offerings to consist of our firstfruits, not our leavings. So when we offer him music, here’s what I think he’s pleased with. (I could be wrong, but here goes anyway.)

    * Songs based on the scriptures. In context, of course. “Blow the Trumpet in Zion” is one of those songs that people sing joyously, yet don’t realize it’s about how we’d better panic ’cause the end is near. (Joel 2:1) Sometimes teaching pastors need veto power over the worship pastors who won’t bother to check for context.

    * Songs that praise God, that specifically tell him how great he is, or what he means to us, or how we feel about him. True, sometimes the lyrics might make us cringe, ’cause what the songwriter feels isn’t how we feel. Worship leaders need to exercise a bit of discernment there. Sometimes what we feel about God isn’t healthy. We shouldn’t be singing about how we want to tackle Jesus and make out with him. Songwriters who feel that way (particularly the men) need to discuss that stuff with a counselor, not write worship music.

    * Songs that discuss what God is like (i.e. theological content), or what wonderful things he’s done for us in the past, or what he’s going to do for us in the future–any kind of teaching song, like most of the hymns. Those are always good.

    * Lots of repetition. I know; some people absolutely loathe repetition, and swear that if we sing this chorus one more time we’re leaving, and making a scene too. But the purpose of repetition is to put this song into people’s heads, and get them to the point where they’re meditating with God on the truths in it, and the Holy Spirit is revealing stuff to them. That’s a much deeper level than just singing the words off the PowerPoint. Sadly, most churches never go there, and find the very idea controversial.

    Okay, there’s my two cents. Critique away.

    • On the first 3 *’s, I agree wholeheartedly. on the fourth, I don’t loath repetition but have been in churches where the chorus was sung so many times that the congregation was breathless and exhausted. That feeling was then called the Holy Spirit. So a little repetition, absolutely, but not to much. I acknowledge how subjective that can be, but I resent being told the the feeling that I can just as easily get form singing at the top of my lungs at a Van Halen concert is the Holy Spirit ( And I like Van Halen)

      As to style and instrumentation – I have my preferences but I think that we should use the talent available and make it singable. I know that you didn’t address that at all but I didn’t want to make a separate response.

      • Yeah, there are a lot of folks who confuse breathlessness with the Spirit. Or a good set of subwoofers. (‘Cause you can really feel him then.) Or their own happy feelings, because we just sang their favorite song. Twice!

        And of course there are lots of worship leaders who take advantage of this confusion, and can program a worship set that’ll make everyone feel it was “anointed.” Every time. Even if no actual fruit comes out of it.

        But it’s real easy to make a laundry list of what not to do. Best thing is to have level-headed people in charge, who understand the purpose of worship, who strive to grow the congregation towards Jesus instead of just entertain them, and who are willing to put their own music preferences second to that. The rest will fall into place.

      • I also agree with K.W.’s first 3 points; don’t really think much of repetition. Or do you mean repeating songs over various worship services to get the congregation to learn the songs?

        At our church, usually 2 new songs are introduced each week (or they haven’t been sung in several months). Quite often they’re just plain hard for most of us to sing; either really high notes or a lot of syncopation without a pattern to latch onto. I suppose they’re good songs for a praise team to sing, but lately our praise team has just been the worship leader, the pastor and a drummer (who doesn’t sing). I think congregational singing is most appropriate for a worship service, and the few singers who are adventurous enough to add their voices to the praise team somehow don’t fill the sanctuary! Hard to sing over the drums.

    • I think that you’ve missed an important category: Missional songs. Songs that say what we’re going to *do* once we leave the worship service. It’s all well and good to give God praise, but if we don’t actually change our behavior or work to bring about the kingdom, then it’s just a “clanging gong or clashing cymbal” – noise without substance. When I’m looking for music for a main worship service, I look for a song that has a “go do this” theme (related to the message, of course) for the last song in the service, since it’s the song that is most likely to be in people’s heads for the rest of the week.

      On repetition: Including a song in services on a frequent basis will get you to that familiarity. Repeating the same chorus endlessly in a given service can easily border on “kids worship”, and is why most adults get turned off by it.

      • I left out missional songs because I’m not familiar with them as a category. What few songs we sing that have to do with what we’ll do afterward, usually are along the lines of trusting in God, calling out to God, or otherwise continuing the practices we’re already doing. Sometimes in mid-song. Regardless, I love the idea. People need to write more of ’em.

        I don’t know that too many folks think of repetition as “kid-like.” More often they assume the repetition is because the worship leader loves this song, won’t put it down, and doesn’t seem to recognize that three times is enough already. More often it’s the folks who don’t meditate as part of their regular devotions in the first place, so of course they’re not quick to identify repetition as something that creates an atmosphere of meditation. They don’t have the patience for meditation or repetition, of course.

  11. quote ~ “Lots of repetition. I know; some people absolutely loathe repetition, and swear that if we sing this chorus one more time we’re leaving, and making a scene too. But the purpose of repetition is to put this song into people’s heads, and get them to the point where they’re meditating with God on the truths in it, and the Holy Spirit is revealing stuff to them. ”

    Okay. I admit, I’ve had opportunities most corporate singers haven’t. I’ve sung Handl’s “Messiah”…all, or most of it…since the fourth grade. That would be (mumble, mumble) since 1965. Taking out the years I was having Babies, and the year my Husband died, but then compensating for the years of multiple “performances”, I guess I’ve sung this sucker about 45-50 times. Not counting the sing-alongs with the recordings. In the car, in the house, at rehearsals. To say I have vast swathes of messianic KJV prophecy memorised would be an understatement. So, yes, there is something to be said for repetition and memorisation.

    But what are we memorising? When I was 7, my Mum bought me records, you know, the small, round, vinyl things with the holes in the middle, that had the multiplication tables set to music. Music + words make a profound impact on the Human Brain because one uses two different portions of the brain: one for words and concepts, one for music. Way cool! Just ask anyone from the 60s who still knows all the words to “Lay, Lady, Lay”. I’ll bet some of you are listening to it, in your head, even now… St Augustine of Hippo once wrote, “He who sings, prays twice”. So this isn’t exactly a new idea. So having the whole of “Messiah” memorised is one thing…but having other musical offerings is quite the other.

    I guess I am questioning if everything being offered is Truth with a capital “T”. Some lyrics are absolute theological drivvel. Some are profound in their simplicity. Scripture, of course, is wondrous. So…I guess that’s what I’m thinking here. Like every computer geek knows: garbage in, garbage out.

  12. Randy Thompson says

    My wife and I have had numerous conversations about worship and music recently.

    For the record: I am a pastor and introduced praise songs to my former church in Connecticut, and my wife is a musician and was the musical leader of the Worship Team there. It was a great experience. I am neither a contemporary snob nor a classical snob. My musical interests are eclectic, ranging from Mahler to U2 to B.B. King to Buddy Miller to bluegrass, blues, country, world music, etc. In other words, I have no axes to grind over musical genres.

    However. . .

    My exposure to contemporary Christian (worship) music recently has raised a lot of questions. Recently, I attended a retreat, and there was a band there to lead the worship. The band was a good one, a very good one, and I was impressed with them, musically. I also do not for a second doubt their sincerity in leading worship. However, I found it impossible to worship, and I don’t think I was alone in that, as many others in the group were standing there, rather aimlessly, listening more than singing. Out of it, in terms of worship, I began reflecting on why I was out of it. I wondered whether this was my issue, or something bigger. Since I’m totally open ended when it comes to music, it wasn’t about my musical tastes being offended. My experience was not one of someone who likes classical music and was being offered rock.

    I had similar experiences recently at a couple other Christian gatherings where contemporary music was at the forefront.

    So what was wrong, then, if it wasn’t me?

    I finally came to a few conclusions.

    1. Because the band members were excellent musicians, the music was more about performance than worship. The music itself overwhelmed the words and the audience. In other words, the music was about itself, not the servant of the lyrics. To get to the lyrics and to worship, you somehow had to ignore the music, which was impossible to do. This wasn’t the intent of the musicians, but that’s how it came across.

    2. I was profoundly struck by the fact that most of the music we attempted to sing would be OK (or even great) to hear sung by a performer during worship, but the music itself didn’t lend itself to participation by the congregation. There was no clear melody. If you had a great voice, you could make some of these songs work and work well possibly, but they are not sing-along tunes. And, if they are not sing-along tunes, musically singing, what use are they for corporate worship? (That, by the way, is a remark that is not specific to any one musical genre; there are also similarly unsingable hymns.)

    3. Whether the music is traditional and classical, or contemporary, or whatever, if it doesn’t have a melody line that people can follow, it fails as worship music. If there is no coherent melody to sing with, the congregation becomes a group of listeners instead of worshippers (although, please note, you can be blessed by music as a listener). By definition, worship music (of whatever sort) should engage the voice and heart of the worshipper. If the music makes everyone an audience, it radically misses the point, even if the “audience” is an enthusiastic one.

    4. There is a difference between worship leaders and performers, and I fear that too often worship leaders don’t know the difference.

    5. There is a difference between having an aesthetic (musical) experience and a spiritual one. (Someone who knows Kierkegaard could help on this point!) . When music takes on a life of its own in worship, there is a danger that people are having an aesthetic experience and thinking it’s a spiritual one.

    6. Genuine worship doesn’t need music (although music is a huge help).

    I don’t know if this fits in here, but I heard N.T. Wright give a series of talks at Gordon-Conwell Seminary a couple years ago. He made a passing remark about worship that was terrific. The gist of it was this: If you’re going to pick more than one piece of music for a worship service, pick one hymn per century!

    I like that approach.

    • Can I “like” this? Profoundly? And a lot? With two thumbs up, even?

    • Highwayman says

      Very well put, Randy, I like that approach too and I totally agree with your comments.

      The good old hymns are often old (i.e they have lasted) mainly because they ARE good, with sound theology and straightforward tunes, so everyone can put heart and soul into singing because they know where they’re going and won’t get caught out by the band going into a trance and repeating two lines fifteen times over.

      Of course, there are also good modern hymns and songs which recognise this basic requirement, written by people such as Stuart Townend, Keith Getty and Graham Kendrick, to name just a few – there are many others.

      To my mind it’s better when the words focus on biblical truth rather than emotional feelings – I can sing, “At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow”, even when “…Lord, I give you my heart, I give you my soul, I live for you alone…” rings very hollow and I have to shut up to avoid being a liar.

      Far too often, those leading the music not only forget that the congregation is there to participate, but don’t even notice most people standing there like lemons because they can’t work out how to join in.

      • Randy Thompson says

        I love everything I’ve heard by Graham Kendrick. More to the point: I love everything I’ve sung by Graham Kendrick!

      • Yes! In a nutshell – the songs you quote here focus on ME! My Heart. My life. My soul etc. Real corporate worship songs focus on God – His Power. His love. His glory. His utter awesome amazingness!!! I too find it very difficult and embarrassing singing those Me- songs in places of worship – to bare my soul so publicly feels like taking my clothes off!
        I was brought up in the Methodist church and I still find Charles Wesley draws me ever closer to God – because that is where the focus of all his songs lie.

    • That’s my biggest peeve: Worship leaders who don’t actually lead. They’re too wrapped up in their own performance to look offstage and see whether anyone beyond the front row is keeping up. And the set list is too rigid for them to adjust it when they realize that nobody’s following.

      I’m glad that these folks find their own music so meaningful that they can get carried away with solos and scats and riffs and so forth. But if no one else is carried away–and they can’t be bothered to do something about it–then that’s just selfish. It hardly honors God.

    • sarahmorgan says

      “1. Because the band members were excellent musicians, the music was more about performance than worship. The music itself overwhelmed the words and the audience. In other words, the music was about itself, not the servant of the lyrics. To get to the lyrics and to worship, you somehow had to ignore the music, which was impossible to do. This wasn’t the intent of the musicians, but that’s how it came across.”

      Sigh….One more reason for trained musicians to abandon evangelical Christianity altogether. Because we work to give our best to God, our training and quest for excellence immediately condemns us as “performers” (the apparent opposite of “worshippers”).

      As a former worship leader, I once led a praise band for a service that was heavy on contemporary music; we were blessed with extremely talented modern musicians who were also humble and full of joy at their salvation and their opportunity to serve God through their music….and we knew what worship was (corporate and private, musical and non-musical) and were fully aware of our role as servants. Then I moved to a new (smaller) town where I’ve been vilified because of my skill/experience, and I’ve discovered that the automatic assumption here is that if you present anything that approaches musical professionalism, you can’t possibly be worshipping, only performing….the band I had previously led would certainly not have passed the “are they *really* worshipping?” test out here. A very talented musician friend of mine — one of the most humble and God-honoring people I’ve met — admitted to me that he had to “dumb down” his worship-leading (i.e., appear more ‘amateur’) for one small evangelical congregation he served; people there had apparently already complained to the pastor, accusing him of performing.

      During my time as a worship band leader, one of the biggest things I had to contest (in both the praise band and the congregation) was the tendency of non-musicians to regard those with measurable musical skill as having some sort of super-power, that made them worthy to be placed on the pedestals folks raised for them, even sort of deified (the way our culture regards, for instance, ‘rock gods’). Perhaps it’s a backlash against such deification that’s fueling what I believe is an irrational demonization of skillfully presented music in church.

      • Music is a talent many of us lack, and for this reason it is human nature to want to enjoy music as a concert when it is well done. That is not a reflection on the folks singing and playing, btw.

        The PROBLEM is that many (most?) well done professional music is waaayyyy far from the ability of those of us who can only carry a tune in a wheelbarrow, so the congregation doesn’t even attempt to participate, knowing they couldn’t hit those notes even if a eephant stepped on their toes. This in turn feeds the “peformance” aspects again.

        Sadly (and very unusually for a RC Church) we had a overwrought and high strung music director who made it clear that he prefered us in the “cheap seats” to shut up and listen to HIS work, going so far as to correct our pastor about how things should look and sound. He was canned because he could not grasp that the music was to supplement the liturgy, not shape it.

        IMHO there should be well written and delivered songs that are theologically sound AND within the scope of ability of the average person in the pews to sing WITH…….and perhaps a more advanced sound presented during a “bridge” time (frequently this is a reflection song sung after Communion in our parish) that allows the congregation to listen and enjoy. BUT….again, I am a lifelong RC. The Mass is always the focus, and music is nice but not obligatory. In many non-liturgical churches, it seems to me that the music BECOMES the service (At Jerry Falwell’s church, it is music, music, music PREACHING [often with props] music, music, altar call, music.) That surely puts the music more center stage than one would likely see in an Anglican, RC, Orthodox, or Luthern church. JMHO

      • I have a lot of “worship leading” experience as well, and I think you make a great point that many year are passing by. Saying someone is “performing” instead of “worshiping” is passing judgment on someone’s attitude and motivations. A leader might be trying their darnedest to lead the congregation, but it comes across as performance because of the way it’s perceived. Sometimes there’s just a disconnect between leader and congregation. Sometimes it’s just cynicism. Sometimes the leader just doesn’t know any better. Sometimes the leader actually is just trying to perform and bring attention to himself/herself.

        I have no problem with saying something looks like a performance. I just think he need to be careful that we assume we know a person’s heart.

      • SarahMorgan, I understand what you are saying here. I’ve had the same criticism placed on me for singing, worship leading, choir directing (when there’s even been a choir). In my new church/new denomination, where the entire service is so liturgical, we sing everything (and I mean everything…including the prayers and the readings), I “dumb-down” my singing to fit into the group, the choir. That’s how I was taught to sing as a member of the whole: to blend, to sing under the section as a support. If folk say they can hear me, I’ve failed.

        I realise, leading worship is a bit different. As a leader/director, being out front requires being heard. And this is hard to do whilst still conveying a servant attitude. But, at the end of the day, if the only opportunity to show our gifts is in worship…then I think, maybe, we musicians are missing something in our lives. Corporate Worship is exactly that: Corporate, as in “corps” or “body”: the voice, the hands, the feet, the spleen, all have to be working together, in unison, to create the whole…if one is standing out from the others, and leaving them behind, then you’ve not got Corporate Worship.

        This came home to me at our Children’s Service and our Christmas Eve Service. During “Joy to the World”, and, later, “Silent Night”, for fun and giggles, I had asked the Choir Director if I could sing a descant to these well-known carols. Okie-dokie by him. And it was fun to “let-loose”…not in an obnoxious way, but to flex my voice a bit since I generally sing so quietly every Sunday, every funeral, every Vespers and so on. Well, I made another, younger singer very upset. Whilst I recognise that is her problem, so to speak, still, I failed to love her well. I failed to prefer her needs to my own… to appreciate her youth and to model humility. At the point that I was jouously “flexing”, it was, wasn’t it, all about me.

        And isn’t that also something to be considered in Corporate Worship? Are we loving one another well? Your Pastor and Congregation need to love all you’all well as musicians who have spent your time and wherewithal to make something of the gift God has given you. You need to love your Pastor and your fellow Believers well in understanding that they are, well, “weaker” in this portion of their journey with you.

        Sorry to go on and on about this… I just see so much hurt on so many sides from musicians who just want to be who they are and congregations who are frustrated at being left behind…

        I hope we can hear from each other and learn to lay down our own selves, our own lives, sacrificially in worship of God and learn to love each other well.

        • I am a baby boomer. The music industry became what it is today because we fell in love with music and were willing to plunk down $7 for vinyl albums. They became incredibly rich. Music was what united us as a generation.

          We elevated musicians to be the high priests of our new culture. Our sacrements were pot and LSD. Even if we were not in the counter culture, the rock gods dominated our lives.

          So does it surprise me that when the boomers take over church suddenly has worship leaders as high priests? And they are sometimes permitted to do their thing and have not had the formal training their pastor may have had. There is much more than sheer musical skill involved here, they need to know how to minister and lead us in worship. Just because the local real estate agent can spin a good yarn or talk well it does not mean he should be offered the pulpit, so good musical skill does not mean a person is suitable to lead worship.

          I love music and own a large collection, call me unrepentant but I still love Jethro Tull and some of the Stones and the Beatles. But from day one I became suspicious when musicians and concerts began to displace both worship and preaching. And I hate to say it, but in my circles some of the most messed up people I have met are musicians, whether they are Christian or not.

          Am I saying music is bad, not at all. I am saying in my generation we have placed it on too high of a pedestal and we are running into problems in the church because we have created an entertainment culture.

    • Randy summed up quite well the things I have felt about contemporary music. I recently attended a contemporary service, and although I am a singer, I was lost through most of the service. I could not follow much of the music. There is good contemporary music available, and a good worship leader will be very selective in what he/she uses. Same goes for “traditional” music.

  13. I am not a musician, but cut my teeth on Grand Funk, Yes, The Stones, ELP and have loved music ever since. I have now included classical, jazz, folk, and even some Country! There is not a lot of music I do not like.

    At my last church it was disheartening. The ‘worship’ leader would be up there belting out songs for I don’t know who (she would claim God). And many of us were left high and dry because we could not follow her cadence. Maybe she had a good worship experience but I sure didnt because I could not join in. She would have a hard time convincing me she was not performing. If I sat back and said ‘this is a God Rock’ concert, it was fine, I could handle it.

    And I used to wonder <i?Why don't they get it? Worship is a corporate event where you lead people. So I had lunch with one of the musicians after I left the church and his take was that he is performing, for God! And that people should trust the musicians expertise the same as they trust their doctor or lawyer.

    This was a factor in why I left Evangelicalism. I realise not all groups are this way, but this is seriously warped thinking.

    • +1

    • “So I had lunch with one of the musicians after I left the church and his take was that he is performing, for God!”

      It seems that many worship leaders have forgotten that there is an a congregation that they should be worshiping with. Instead, the worship team/band/whatever just takes off and everyone else is supposed to follow. This is not “leading”, in my opinion. It should be a cooperative effort and the worship leader should be aware of the congregation.

      My personal pet peeve(well, one of them) is the dimming of the main lights and use of spotlights on the worship team. It just creates more separation and how is the worship team supposed to even see the congregation when this is done?

  14. This is a prime example of compartmentalizing, which is a product of Cartesian philosophical influences on the church. I tried to resolve this in my own way, by merging an old hymn and a quintessential alternative rock anthem, “Come as You Are,” by Nirvana. I use it as an invitation to two faith community services that I hold, one called Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down, and one called Faith Community for the Over-Indoctrinated (an internet service help on facebook on Sundays at 11 am)

    • Randy Thompson says

      Sorry, but I don’t follow you here. What is a “prime example of compartmentalizing”??

  15. Here’s what some of the early Reformers said about music in church:

    — Zwingli: NO music in church. It distracts from worship.
    — Calvin: Yes, some music, but only the Psalms.
    — Luther: All the music in the world! Why should the devil have all the fun?

    I’m with Luther, except for rap; but I’m comforted by the knowledge that rap hadn’t been invented in the 16th century, or he would have excluded it.

    • Randy Thompson says

      Rap is performance. I can imagine a rap anthem, although probably not done by a traditional choir.

  16. It’s often been remarked that many traditional hymnographers freely borrowed tunes taken from popular drinking songs. This fact has often been used to justify using contemporary musical forms in worship settings — and with good reason.

    However, what’s missing is from the discussion is this: drinking songs were, by definition, already being sung corporately! By contrast, as many commenters above have already noted, many contemporary song leaders appear to have forgotten that congregational singing should be the very point of their efforts.

    “Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall / Ninety-nine bottles of beer /…” Everybody sing together!

    I mean it.



    • I’ve always heard that Luther and Wesley borrowed tavern songs and gave them Christian lyrics for hymns. I looked that up on the internet a while back and found a few sites that vehemently denied any such thing. The rationale seems to have been that Luther or Wesley “could not possibly have done such a thing” because of the profane nature of the songs.

      Whether it’s true or not, I think they darn well WOULD have done such a thing.

      And so would Jesus, so there.

      • WenatcheeTheHatchet says

        The case I read wasn’t the sacred/profane divide, it was about the huge difference between the post-Baroque isometric setting we’ve all heard and the actual Renaissance period version with heavier syncopation, assymetric metrical phrasing, and the lack of the major/minor tonal system we now take for granted. At least that was the explanation I heard from one of my teachers who was a Baroque and Renaissance specialist. At a more blunt level he said you can’t sing the original “A Mighty Fortress” as it was written if you’re inebriated. I was polite enough to not ask how he knew this. 🙂

        • Sounds like a drinking song to me. “A bul-wark nev-er fai-ai-ai-LING!” [slams beer stein to table, grabs and kisses waitress]

          Same with Star Spangled Banner, but that would be unpatriotic to suggest.

          • Anacreaon in Heaven!

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            “And long may the sons
            Of Anacreon entwine
            The daughters of Venus
            For now and all time!”

            (Dr Demento would play “To Anacreon in Heaven” to kick off his July 4th shows.)

    • Well, yes and no. Bach composed hundreds of original scores; what survives is a mere fraction of all his works. But even Bach was influenced by Italian composers of his time.

      There is an ancient hymn to the sun god which some believe inspired one of David’s psalms. There are few if any original thoughts. But human thought, like words in a dictionary, can be blended and combined into an infinite number of combinations. Reusing can be more than merely imitation. I simply wish Christians could be inspired by great music, rather than merely what is trendy. I think of examples of great musicians and songwriters of my generation who were reduced to recording Jesus ditties after getting “saved”.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Reusing can be more than merely imitation.

        In classic SF fandom, there is a whole novelty-song tradition of this called “Filk”.

        I simply wish Christians could be inspired by great music, rather than merely what is trendy. I think of examples of great musicians and songwriters of my generation who were reduced to recording Jesus ditties after getting “saved”.

        This is another symptom/effect of The Evangelical Circus. The metastasized Jesus Junk Syndrome that inspired another SF fanninsh tradition in the Eighties: The impression that “Christian = Crap”.

  17. Worship=bread and wine.
    Fellowship=fried chicken and potato salad.

  18. Where Ever We Go by the Newsboys. It’s a fun song to listen to, but only gives glory to God in a subtle, very round about way. I play it at youth events, like an outdoor party, be wouldn’t recommend it for Sunday morning.

    Some songs are just fun, but they’re never going to make it into the hymnal. Christians should have fun. Roller skating is fun, but we don’t do it in the sanctuary.

    • I agree. I love a lot of the music of U2, and find it quite Christian, but I can’t see it in a worship setting.

      For me, I think it has a lot more to do with WHO is being worshiped and/or praised than it has to do with style, type, or “history” of the music.

      And I love your last line too, Clark.

  19. “Everybody Praise the Lord” is one of many songs which are not worship songs. Call it mood music: fun, peppy, songs to warm up the crowd? Not necessarily bad, but not worship. Nine out of ten songs categorized as “Praise” music are this sort of mood music. It could be argued that they are about God, but do not worship God. Perhaps the definitions need to be reclaimed (praise vs. worship).

  20. As long as “Devil in the Phone Booth” stays off the playlist, I’m usually fine with it.

  21. Some observations/opinions:

    – There are very few genres of music that are inherently inappropriate for congregational singing in worship (think improvisational jazz or atonal classical). However, within a given genre, there are songs that are meant for group singing and songs that are meant as performance pieces, as many have already noted.

    – There are appropriate places in the worship service for performance music – anthems (often labeled “special music”), offeratories, preludes/postludes, etc., so there’s no need for an “either/or” approach to the types of music used in a worship service. Both are appropriate, in their respective places.

    – In order to effective lead corporate/congregational singing, highly trained musicians (including singers) often need to “dial it back” (a phrase that I prefer to “dumb down”) so as to not overwhelm, distract, or confuse those whose musical abilities often don’t exceed staying in tune while singing the melody. I’ve got a baritone voice that’s been trained to fill the room when singing solos; but I don’t do that while leading hymns, because many in the congregation wouldn’t be able to sing along, especially if the choir is doing multipart harmony and I’m singing the bass line. Similarly, all of the ‘ruffles and flourishes” that many trained musicians like to include can often cause confusion for the casual singers in the congregation – what are the right notes to sing, what’s the right timing, etc. As frustrating as it can be at times, keeping it simply for congregational singing is the way to go; save the top tier stuff for the performance pieces.

    – Note to musicians using amplified instruments: If the more seasoned saints in the congregation are either (a) turning off their hearing aids or (b) bringing earplugs to worship, turn the volume down a few notches. The house full of college kids two blocks away may be impressed that your amps go all the way to 11, but the Good Lord will still hear you just fine if you set them at 5.