Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God (Colossians 3:16).
While in Toronto a while back I got into a long conversation with my sister-in-law and her husband (Madeline and Brian) about goings on in their church. They have attended a fair sized Baptist church for over twenty years which recently has completely changed their worship approach much to Madeline and Brian’s dismay and heartache. They asked me my opinion about their church’s plans to have two services, one very early one for the older traditional people and another for the younger contemporary people at the regular worship hour. Their dilemma caused me to reflect yet again on one of the most controversial and divisive issues within North American evangelicalism (often referred to as the “worship wars”), and frankly, to appreciate our approach at Covenant Fellowship. Actually, this conversation with Brian and Madeline followed two recent and ongoing discussions I have had, one with some other reformed brethren who have a pretty dim view of most contemporary worship, and another with some charismatic brothers who have an equally dim view of traditional worship. As I drove home that Saturday three weeks ago I resolved to address this issue in a newsletter and explain again our again our approach to the singing aspect of our public gathering. It’s taken me a few weeks, but here it is!
This subject can be a mine field. Indeed, issues of worship style have replaced almost all others as the most important factors to consider when “choosing” churches. I will reveal my hand right up front: I loathe the “balkanization” (the splitting up into smaller and smaller separate entities) of North American evangelicalism according to the dividing lines of worship style and musical preference. We see in this pattern one of the premier and saddest examples of religious consumerism being played out in the greater church, indeed, in local churches which in Christ are supposed to be places where love and deference and encouragement reign, where dividing lines are broken down, and where people are not insistent on their own sense of fulfillment and self interest.
It’s not that we don’t each have natural preferences. We do. Different genres of music and wording speak to different ones of us. We have different spiritual temperaments. Different sorts of things bring us pleasure. There are ways of expressing our love for God and His characteristics which resonate with us differently. I grant all that. It’s what we do with this diversity that is important to me.
Not only do we have our natural preferences, we also each have our baggage. For example, when I was a little kid, my parents (mostly my dad) took me and my siblings to church – maybe until I was about 13. As I grew older I came to understand that almost none of the men and women I had known at that very liberal church were believers in any sense I could recognize. Frankly, they mostly had no clue about the gospel and the church hadn’t helped them have much of a clue. But I sat there week after week listening to that organ and rolling my eyes. I pretty much hated it. For a long time the low sound of an organ brought back many of those old feelings – dead church, unreality, discomfort, hypocrisy, etc. And since I associated organ music with hymns, for a long time even after first being exposed to the gospel I could barely sing a hymn. Thankfully that changed greatly over time.
But I also have baggage from long talks in the past with charismatic brothers with whom I worshipped for some time who insisted that I experience this or that evidence of the Spirit’s presence before they could consider me a full fledged member of the inner ring. This pressure was combined at the time with a manipulation I felt each Sunday to get into the spirit in this or that particular way. I watched many of my dear friends chase after worship experiences from church to church, and in time I was rejected as a significant believer by some of them because I would not follow suit. Yes, we have our baggage.
Along with our histories we also bring various personal convictions and theological passions into the whole discussion. For me, I bring a well earned and strong dislike for spiritual elitism. I have been immersed in certain charismatic circles in which my brethren considered that only in their churches was the Spirit REALLY active, as evidenced partly by the music and the expression of certain particular key “gifts” of the Spirit. I have been rejected by high minded friends who thought that since I was not inclined to agree with their assessment regarding where exclusively the Spirit was active, that I was not walking with God and not discerning the truth of where He was at work. But I have also been immersed in the opposite, where high minded reformed folk have written off almost all contemporary expressions as being of the flesh, and set themselves apart as the holy remnant who still yet stand in awe of a holy God, and who have come up with a nifty little way of justifying their preferences and elitism theologically. (And for the record, I do not consider either of these particular circles in which I traveled for a time to be representative of the larger movement of which they are a part).
So, we have our preferences, we have our histories, and we have our convictions. We bring all of that to the table.
At Covenant Fellowship we are committed to several different characteristics when it comes to our corporate singing. I’d like to let one section of the Q and A section of our Vision booklet provide the outline for my thoughts…
Question 10. What kind of music characterizes the morning worship?
Answer 10. We are committed to having as part of our worship a combination of traditional and contemporary hymns, psalms (traditional settings and newer arrangements), contemporary praise choruses, and ancient doxologies. We desire not only to worship in music forms that are contemporary, but in forms and genres that have been of encouragement to the church over the centuries. Some people refer to this as a “blended” worship approach. Usually we sing two or three hymns and psalms, and three to four praise songs or choruses. Right now our Sunday singing is usually accompanied by either piano or guitar, or both together. Whereas we welcome a diversity of instrumentation, our emphasis is upon the voice as the primary “instrument” of praise.
I have noted along the way that people with more charismatic leanings often find us lacking, and that people with more traditional leanings often find us lacking. But we are committed to a blended approach anyway. I guess ours is a kind of experiment. Can people with different musical interests and approaches and histories coexist in mutual encouragement and love, when in some ways no one gets all they might otherwise want? Can we characterized by attitudes of mutual deference as we seek even in our singing to love the Lord with all of our hearts, and love one another as He has first loved us. I think we can and have been so characterized, and for this I praise God? Because really the issue is one of love. The external form of our singing is really way down on the list as to what is important to God, and how we love God and love one another is way up high on the list. Indeed, if we want to know where the Spirit is active we don’t really look at the nature of the worship (unless it is just dismally dreary or freakishly wild); we look for the fruit of the Holy Spirit, primarily the fruit of love which binds all others together in perfect unity.
Covenant Fellowship is made up of people from varied backgrounds, and with varied interests and tastes when it comes to the praise of God in singing. We sing via a range of musical styles. We have people more traditional in their tastes and people more contemporary in their tastes. There is a mix of genres almost every Sunday, though the relative amount of contemporary and traditional music varies from Sunday to Sunday. We are trying hard to fulfill our commitment to blended worship, and to derive the benefits and blessings of the different sorts of musical expression.
I want to take a few moments to speak to the blessings of the different genres of praise. Then I’d like to speak a bit to how love brings us together across our different preferences. Then I’d like to talk a little about where we’re going with our singing.
First, what an incredible rich heritage we have when it comes to the ways in which the church of Jesus Christ has expressed its love and praise and adoration to its great God over the centuries! Wow we’re blessed. Not only do we have the book of Psalms (which is enough in itself) but we have the early Christian hymns already set apart in our New Testaments; we have the beautiful chants and doxologies of the early church, we have the great hymnody of the early reformation era, the vast 18th century English protestant hymnody, the 19th century and early 20th century revival hymns, the heritage of black spirituals and gospel music, and now in the last 30 years another near explosion of Christian songwriting, including today the praise and worship movement perhaps at its best in England and Australia, the rediscovery of Psalmody, and the new hymnody which enjoy so much now at Covenant Fellowship. I mean, we are rich folks, incredibly rich.
Our desire is to tap into the best of what has come before, and try to take from the best of what is out there today, as well as write our own worship music. For the church at its best is a creative church, writing and singing the “new song” in ways expressive of contemporary cultural patterns while at the same time drawing from its rich heritage, finding itself in communion with the believers of past ages who gave so much to the cause of Christ. Not everything that has come before is good. Remember, when it comes to hymns, we are singing from a “best of” CD so to speak. Many of the hymns of ages past were perfectly dreadful, just as many of the praise choruses today are perfectly dreadful. It takes time to weed out the bad and see what stands. We will not fully embrace every hymn or song we try, though we will continue to try new psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs as we go along.
Singing a mix of genres – music from different eras – fulfills in my view the intent of what
Paul was getting at when he told the churches at Ephesus and Colossi to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs in gratitude in their hearts to God. It is possible that this singing constituted one of the means as to how they would teach and admonish one another. No, that word “psalm” didn’t necessarily mean only what we call the book of psalms, and that word “hymn” certainly didn’t mean what today, post reformation, we call “hymns.” But the use of the three words does speak to and suggest a diversity of old and new, older psalms and newer spiritual songs, and lends credence to the ongoing role and calling of the church to write songs of praise to God while building upon the heritage of past believers.
And that is what we want to do. Hymns bring a richness of meaning and texture that we need. Really great hymns do what the psalms do – they teach, they encourage, they remind, they tell the story of the faith. Many people learn more solid and helpful and necessary theology through hymns than through years of sermons and classes. This is the power of music at work. We treasure our hymns. Our more contemporary Scripture music and praise music lets us sing praise in forms that may be more culturally natural, and remind us that there is not really one truly spiritual style delivered to us by past generations. Many praise choruses give us ways to memorize and hold on to bible verses. This is a great blessing. Other praise songs have brought the first person singular (I, me, my) and second person (you) back into the singing of the church. This also is a great blessing. Yes, I would say the former can be overplayed, as if the only important thing is self expression or personal love language. Nevertheless, we see this use of the first and second persons all throughout the Psalms, and the church is right to have an appropriate mix of first person and second person praise. We are reminded by this that our praise is personal and relational, and reflects an I-Thou relationship between ourselves and our covenant Lord. At the same time we remember that the church of old had a faith that was more corporate, more biblically covenantal perhaps, in its greater use of the first person plural (we) and third person (He), the latter reminding us that part of praise is not merely speaking to God but speaking to one another about God, just as we find often in the Psalms.
And of course, we have the Psalms, the long forgotten book of praise and prayer, slowly again being rediscovered, as the church remembers that it is not less spiritual to pray and praise using someone else’s words, especially if we know those words are part of divinely inspired Scripture. The psalms cover the gamut, and are a goldmine waiting to be explored.
Now, as I have said, we each tend to like some of these expressions of praise more than we like other expressions of praise. And as we look around us we see how these differences in preference divide churches from each other, and can divide churches within. We see a worship style version of what Paul warned the Corinthians about so vehemently – “I am of Paul, I am of Peter, I am of Apollos.” The result more and more is that we have worshipping congregations made up of a single generation or sub generation of people – either old or middle age or young — or, worshipping congregations made up of people who all hold in common mainly a preference for a certain style of music. This my dear friends is a sorry state of affairs.
What is that glue which can hold people of such varying preferences together in regular loving fellowship? It is of course the Holy Spirit, transforming the people of God into bearers of real spiritual fruit, primarily the fruit of love. This glue is the Holy Spirit active in transforming people and teaching them to be like their Savior, who gave up his personal prerogatives in loving service to His people.
This spiritual fruit of love teaches us to delight in the blessing of our neighbor, who may like music different than the music we like. This love makes us happy when our neighbor is happy in praise. This love moves us to sing heartily to the Lord even through forms of music not most natural to us, and this not just for the Lord, but for our neighbor who is encouraged by our singing. This love moves us to honor in the Lord the elderly woman who takes delight in “How Great Thou Art,” respect the brother who delights to raise his hands in worship, honor the sister who, when struck by a sense of God’s holiness and mercy, stands silently before Him, and treasure the child who is just learning to praise the Lord. This love will (lovingly) reject notions of spiritual superiority whether from the traditionalists or the modernists, and will, if necessary, lay down its life for the sake of those older folk who are forgotten and pushed aside in the rush to appeal to the newer generation, or those younger folk demeaned and ridiculed for worshipping God using more contemporary means. This love will bring us to church eager to see how we can serve and be of encouragement to our brethren, and eager to see how we can express our gratitude and thanksgiving to God for all He has done for us.
This fruit of love also sees and recognizes that our common bond is not in our musical tastes, our private preferences, our common hobbies and interests, but in our common dependence upon and commitment to and love for the Lord Jesus Christ, who stands before us as our common Head, who is all and in all, and who is the One around whom we unite. The more we appear to unite around matters of relative less importance, the less it seems that Jesus is our real head.
OK, all that being said, where are we going with the music aspect of our gathering? What is our goal? Well, in one sense this is an easy question to answer. Our goal is to do what we set out to do in the first place! Everything we do we can do in some ways better, or more creatively, or more passionately. And so we desire to carry forth doing better what we have desired to do all along! And within our vision there are still many ways we can grow in this aspect of our corporate life.
We will continue to offer praise to God through the great standard hymns and worship songs, often using the simple accompaniment of solo piano or guitar. We pray for continued and growing ability and discernment when it comes choosing before the Lord the hymns and psalms and spiritual songs through which we can best worship Him each week.
We will continue to incorporate into our regular worship new hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs. To this end we continue to look for hymns and psalms and praise songs that will be edifying (in that they speak truth about God, allow us to speak truth from our hearts to God, or allow us to offer true and appropriate encouragements to one another), which will be conducive to congregational singing, and which can become a part of our regular corporate life.
We will continue to encourage and promote original music, both of the sing-along and the special-music variety. God has provided for us men and women who have tremendous gifts for writing music, gifts which we would like to see expressed for His glory. We encourage the writing of original hymns, contemporary songs of praise, and Scripture songs. We desire to see more and more Psalms put into accessible worship forms. We’d love to see some lyrically great but relatively unsingable hymns given new life with new tunes. And wouldn’t it be great if we could find effective ways of sharing songs we have written with the greater church out there? That would be very cool.
We will continue to seek to incorporate multiple instrumentation into our accompaniment of singing or into special music. By this I mean instruments like violin, trumpet, cello, organ, trombone, flute, cymbals, bass, congas, as well as multiple guitars, or piano/keyboard and guitar. In so doing we would hope to find ourselves in humble obedience to the exhortations of Psalm 150 and Psalm 98 (need I name more?), where we are called to bring everything at our disposal into the praise of our great God. But I do not mean by multiple instrumentation the “worship band” idea as generally understood these days, partly because as a small fellowship in a small acoustically active room it is hard acoustically to have a full orbed worship band and still have our voices as the primary “sound,” the primary instrument of praise. Yet we can do multiple instrumentation in a manner that will fit us and our basic approach, bringing to us for example the fullness of sound that comes from multiple guitars and/or guitar and piano, but also including the different moods and emotions that come with the addition of violinists, flautists, trumpeters, and trombonists. So, you musicians out there – are you ready to jump in?
We will continue to sing acappella music, partly because of the unique joy that comes when we have just our voices united together in praise, but also to remind ourselves that we can truly worship even with no musical aids!
We will continue to think about and consider alternative formats for our praise and worship. There is nothing inherently right or wrong about what we tend on average to do things, and we are open to improvement and change, and to varying approaches.
We will continue to incorporate new genres when opportunity arises. For example, we could include more of what people think of as the Jewish or Hebrew style, as well perhaps as the Gospel style. We could possibly add more Scripture and worship music written for children. Using a good digital keyboard we could even bring in the sound of an organ.
We will continue to pray that God would provide for us the people and gifts needed to fulfill our corporate vision, and will submit ourselves in humble trust to His provision. Thus, over time, the overall flavor of the music will shift back and forth according to the people whom God has provided to help us.
Please pray for us. It takes a lot of time and spiritual sensitivity planning our Sunday worship each week, more than you might realize. Plus, those who provide music for us, who accompany and guide us in our singing, devote a lot of time to getting ready to do this. And sometimes we have to make hard calls about the appropriateness of particular songs, or lines from hymns.
You know, as I write about where we’re heading, and as I get excited about ongoing possibilities, I am struck by a significant realization. Where we all most need to grow as God’s people gathered before Him is not so much in the outward forms of things, but in the inner person. What most pleases God is not the music itself, or whether we can carry a tune, or how good we sound, or how well our voices blend, or whether we get a certain feeling or experience out of the music, or how excellent is the melody and mood of the song. What most pleases God is whether in our hearts we come before him humbly with reverence and thanksgiving and joy, eager to offer to Him sacrifices of praise – spiritual offerings of thanksgiving – for who He is and what He has done for us. For God is our great and mighty King, the great King over all the earth. And He calls us to assemble before Him and give Him the glory due His great and wonderful name, and, as His bride, to express our love for and adoration of Him. This is the most important thing. This is where the real work of the Spirit is when it comes to our worship. The music, the outward form, is a channel of expression. It can be a hindrance (we have all been in worship settings where the music was either so dismal or so overpowering that it was just plain hard to concentrate on the praise of the Lord Himself) or it can be a help. And so it is important, but it is not the most important thing. The most important thing is whether we are fulfilling our purpose as redeemed creatures, as the holy priesthood in Christ that we have become:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9)