Songs Are Like Sermons

One of the most common phrases I hear about contemporary worship songs is that they lack the depth and richness of hymns. While I would strongly disagree with that statement, I don’t hear the same argument being made for the sermons that are preached or (for most people) the Bible translations we use. When David penned the words, “Sing to the Lord a new song” did he actually mean it, or was it just a cute phrase he penned to mean something else?

One of the things I’ve been reminded about God recently is that we will never fully understand him. His ways are so much superior to ours that we need an eternity with him to be able to adequately understand him (Isaiah 55:8-9). That means that while the Bible is the inerrant and infallible Word of God, it isn’t complete. If God can never be fully grasped, then all the ink and paper in the world could never adequately describe him (John 21:25). Every book about God will fall short in some area. This is one of the many reasons we continue to meet together on a weekly basis in the church: each week we’re reminded of who God is and what he’s about: redemption. The focal point of our time together on Sundays is generally the preaching of the Word which is, hopefully, an explanation of what the Bible is saying and how that applies to our lives today. While the preacher should preach Christ alone, he will still preach through the lens of his own life experiences and understandings, and no two preachers will sound the same. If they don’t preach exactly the same way through the texts of Scripture, can both still be right and faithful to the words of the Bible? I think, and really hope, so! Until Christ returns or we are called home our ideas of God will be skewed and will need to continually be honed and sharpened. We need the church and our family in Christ to continually point us back to God and to the glorious riches offered to us through Christ. We need a new word preached in a new way every week so our hearts of stone can be turned into hearts of flesh. Yet I don’t see the same logic applied to music.

Because God is completely superior to us, all the songs in the world would never be able to adequately describe him. That means we need new songs to be written that can help us to be reminded of who God is and what he is like. As we continue to be made more like Christ through the songs we sing, new understandings of God’s character will emerge and we’ll be able to relate to him in new ways that require new words. I would hope that our faith is an ever growing faith that moves us on to depth and maturity in faith. Yes, we cling to the words of Scripture as the primary source of truth, the norma normans (the rule that rules) while the songs we sing are the norma normata (the rule that is ruled).

So why don’t we hear people say, “These new sermons aren’t like they used to be,” or “These new sermons are so lacking in depth,” or “If only he would preach more like John Calvin”? Yet so many people will say these things about the songs we sing. No-I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater and never sing hymns – there is a legacy there and helps to keep us grounded in the tradition of our faith (just as a side note, that’s why I think reciting creeds as a church is helpful). But that doesn’t mean we need to demonize new songs or new styles within music. God is a God of innovation as he calls each new day into being. Instead of harkening back to a “golden age” of music or church (which I don’t think existed), be grateful for new ways to worship the God who can never be grasped. And in all that we do, whether in word or deed, may we do it all to the glory of God.

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Worship Wars

After a week away in Chicago and some time with other EFCA pastors, I got to come back home on Friday night and prepare for meeting with the body on Sunday. Some of my discussions with friends at the conference lead to thinking through some issues related to music and church on Sunday (someone mentioned the book “When the Church Was a Family” which lead to a discussion on this issue). As an introduction to this issue, think through the question: when was the last time you viewed your family through a consumeristic lens? Does your family exist to serve you or to be served by you?

1. We live in a consumeristic world. 

The “i-everything” mindset has permeated into all our thinking. We’re able to enjoy whatever we want with a touch of our finger. We don’t like being inconvenienced or to have anything but our perfect ideas served to us. I can listen to whatever type of music I want on my phone or listen to whomever I want to listen to preach a sermon. This all leads us to draw into ourselves instead of looking for ways we can serve our brothers and sisters around us.

Unfortunately, so many people look for a church to see where they can “be fed” or where they enjoy the music or where they have their friends. There’s no looking around to see how you can serve or get involved and pour out your life for those around you. However, when everyone is looking to see what they can get out of church no one is going to grow or be made more like Christ. The pastor’s job isn’t to feed you, it’s to grow you. Growing sometimes hurts. Growing sometimes means being pushed outside your comfort zone and being forced to wrestle with deep seeded issues that take a lot of time and energy to work through.

This mentality isn’t just for the younger generation. I see many retired people who are convinced church should be all about them. They’ve put in their time and energies during their younger years to give up when they’re getting close to the finish line. Instead of continuing to pour into those younger than themselves, they draw into their own groups and similar ages friends to remember the “good old days” and wish things were the way they used to be. I need and am so grateful for older people who aren’t giving up, but are continuing to faithfully serve the church and equip the next generation to rise up and lead the charge for the next generation. My best youth worker is a retired high school principal who teaches the youth group Sunday School class and checks up on me to help me better pour into the students that attend the youth group. That’s how older Christians are to live with the next generation.

2. We are too focused on ourselves.

This is often done at the expense of those in the church we’ve been called to serve. Because we’re some consumer minded we don’t encourage those around us like we’re called to in Ephesians 5. Yes, Ephesians 5 tells us a number of different types of songs we’re to sing (psalms, hymns and spiritual songs) but at the end, Paul says as we do it we are, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” That means we must look beyond ourselves to the betterment of the body laying down our interests and passions so the church can grow.

I also think this is the primary reason people don’t sing in church. They’re either too embarrassed by their “bad voice” or they don’t want others to know how their voice sounds. It’s still too focused on yourself instead of encouraging those around you by praising God with your voice.

3. We all have unique and individual preferences.

We are all called to be a part of a body. That means we all have unique contributions to give to the church and all have a job to contribute to the betterment of the body. This means that we need to sacrifice our own wants and desires for the better growth of the gospel in our lives and the lives of those around us. I have a unique style of music I enjoy listening to and a specific style of preaching I best relate to, and I have yet to find a church that has everything I like, including the one I currently serve in. What I’ve looked for in a church is a place that I can serve. As I’ve heard said before (and I don’t remember where, so I’m sorry for not giving the credit where credit is due), “worship is a war, but it’s a war against myself.” Any time I come to worship God I need to fight against my fleshly impulses and selfish desires and wants for the good of the church I’m in.

4. We don’t love.

Francis Schaeffer wrote a book titled, “The Mark of the Christian.” What is that mark? Jesus in John 13 says it’s love. Not our definition of love where there is no calling out for wrongs, but God’s definition as laid out in 1 Corinthians 13. We’re called a family, a new family that runs deeper than just flesh and blood.

I naively thought that the “worship wars” that I’d read so much about were done and gone, and it so often to me feels like some people in the church have missed the memo that worship is about so much more than a style of music and is about God. It’s almost like the story of people who lived for decades without hearing that WWII had ended, and had been living in fear most of their lives. I pray that the church can move beyond individualistic preference and on to a family mindset.