I once visited a church that took great pains to mimic the liturgical practices of the 17th century New England Puritans. Three hundred and fifty year old liturgy is not my preference, but the worship was reverent and orderly, so I enjoyed the service in the company of my musty brethren just the same. Nonetheless, at the conclusion of the service I was told by one of the church leaders that the antiquity of the worship style was unsatisfactory.
“Over the next few weeks” the man breathlessly intoned, “Pastor so and so will be introducing an order of worship that hasn’t been seen for centuries.” (Silly me – I thought that’s what we had been doing for the previous two hours). He finished his remarks with his hands clasped reverently before him, raised his eyebrows in a knowing look and slowly nodded his head.
Apparently I was expected to react with some sort of “old timey” demonstration of glee – a Genevan jig perhaps. However, when my response lacked the level of animation required to satisfy the man, he turned away to offer the right hand of fellowship to another visitor.
Do not misunderstand me. I’m not saying I don’t appreciate traditional liturgical worship. My grievance is with those who imply – nay, insist – that old is always better. In fact it’s not just better, they say, it is positively more godly to sing the old hymns, to minimize the use of musical instruments, to adhere to a liturgy that was fresh and new when William and Mary ruled England. Yet that point of view is simply not correct. Old isn’t better just because it’s old (we are speaking of “traditional old” as opposed to “biblical old”). Liturgical practices common in the 17th century are not necessarily more pleasing to God than songs of praise written yesterday and sung to the accompaniment of guitars, keyboards and drums. The issues aren’t copy-write date and grammar; the issues are reverence for God and obedience to Scripture. And according to the witness of Scripture, rigid adherence to 17th century form (or 5th or 10th or whatever), isn’t necessarily the same thing as reverence and obedience.
Now, obviously liturgy involves more than just music and singing, but when we discuss different approaches to worship, the exchange always ends up in an argument over musical styles. That being the case I’m going to cut to the chase and focus on the hot topic of our day: is there a style of music more biblical than another? Or to put it another way, is contemporary worship music too corny for the kingdom of God?
The Bible tells us praise may be offered to God using a variety of instruments and through various vocal and other physical expressions. We are told God may be reverently praised with trumpets, lute’s, harps, timbrels, stringed instruments, flutes and clashing cymbals (Ps. 150:3-5). He may be glorified through singing, shouts and the lifting of hands (Ex. 14:21, Ps. 9:11, 33:3, 35:27, 47:1, 63:4, 95:1, 119:48). Clapping and dancing before God in praise are acceptable to Him as well (Ps. 47:1, 63:4, 2 Sam. 6:14, Ps. 149:3, 150:4), yet I don’t recall the last time that I saw either included in the liturgy of a Reformed church (my tradition).
In the Newer Testament we see hymn1 singing was suitable worship (Matt: 26:30, Mark 14:26, Col. 3:16). In other words songs that were not word for word Scripture put to music were considered reverent praise to God. We don’t know when the hymns which Jesus or Paul sang were written, but I think it’s safe to assume that at least some of them where contemporary to the first century.
Contemporary or not, the songs sung by God’s people during corporate worship must met the criteria of reverent obedient singing. Our corporate singing must be decent and orderly (1 Cor. 14:40), and useful in teaching and admonishing (Col. 3:16). We should sing in the spirit at times and with understanding as well (1 Cor. 14:15). Obviously these criteria may be met singing contemporary praise songs as well as traditional hymns.
In fact, the Church should be producing new praise songs (drawn from God’s Word and explaining the text) on a regular basis as our understanding of Scripture increases. Indeed, we may be remiss in our duty to sing songs that are useful in teaching and admonishing if we stubbornly refuse to sing anything other than “the old traditional hymns.” Would you continue to attend a church where the pastor refused to preach the whole counsel of God, never moving beyond the basic milk of the Gospel? Of course not. Likewise, we should be giving careful thought to the songs we sing each week.
To conclude; nowhere in the Bible do we read there is one type of music God prefers over another. As long as the music is skillfully presented (Ps. 33:3) and meets the other criteria discussed above, there is no reason to favor one style of music over another. Indeed it becomes a matter of preference and we should expect to see a variety of worship styles throughout the Body of Christ. This is fine. Problems arise when Church A looks down their nose at Church Z because Church A prefers a complicated high church liturgy while Church Z sings contemporary worship songs with electric guitars and drums. As long as both Churches are meeting the Biblical criteria for worship, song selection doesn’t matter. The sooner Churches A and Z understand this, the better.
1. The Greek term (umnhsantes), used in the Gospels is the verb form – “hymned” – as in “…when they had ‘hymned,’ they went out to the Mount of Olives” [Mk. 14:26]. The word can be used to refer to the singing of a religious song (which is not scripture set to music) or the singing of a psalm. In Colossians 3:16 the word used (umnois), refers specifically to a hymn as something different than a psalm or “spiritual song.” See William Hendriksen,New Testament Commentary: The Gospel of Mark, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975), 576.