In this article, I argue that worshiping God is a response to beholding God. Therefore, helpful worship music aids the worshiper in beholding God – which means giving precedence to truth-filled lyrics.
The Biblical Example
I submit three passages as a brief case for Biblical worship: Exodus 34:6-8 (Moses), Isaiah 6:1-4 (Isaiah), Matthew 14:28-33 (Disciples).
Exodus 34:6-8 comes after Moses asked to see God’s glory, in chapter 33. For something to be “glorified” means that it is made-known or revealed. Moses’ request essentially was to received a greater revelation and comprehension of Who God is. This is evident both in what Exodus records Moses requesting, but also in how God answered the request. God gave Moses a glimpse of His glory when He proclaimed truth about Himself to Moses. Notice that in verse 8 Moses responded to this revelation by making haste to boy low and worship. Worshiping God was Moses’ response to a revelation of God.
Isaiah beholds God in a vision (Isaiah 6:1-5). Verses 1-3 depict a terrifying display which verse 3 sums up well: holy, holy, holy. God’s holiness is of the superlative degree, with nothing and no one coming close. When God’s attribute of holiness is revealed to Isaiah, he is ruined. I can see the man ripping his clothes and falling to his knees. Isaiah’s sight of God destroyed him, because of how utterly un-godly he was. Isaiah’s worship is more implicit in this passage, for by highlighting his sinfulness he was proclaiming the sinless-ness of God. He agreed with the Seraphims’ claim that God is superlatively holy. Worshiping God was Isaiah’s response to a revelation of God.
Jesus demonstrated His power in Matthew 14:28-33. First, He walked on water. Second, He made Peter walk on water. Third, He calmed the storm. Immedietaly following these three demonstrations of Jesus’ divine power, the disciples worshiped Him. They declared what their eyes had seen: “You are certainly God’s Son!” Christ’s demonstration of power manifested to the disciples Who He was. In light of this revelation, the disciples worshiped Him. Worshiping God was the disciples’ response to a revelation of God.
The Biblical example is that worshiping God is a response to God’s self-revelation of God. Moses saw God’s love and justice, and responded by worshiping Him. Isaiah saw God’s holiness, and responded by worshiping Him. The disciples saw God’s omnipotence, and responded by worshiping Him. Why is this the Biblical example?
Worshiping any particular thing is responding to said thing by glorifying it. By worshiping something, you revere and draw attention to it – you show its worth by broadcasting its value. If this is worship, then worshiping God is a response to revelation of God. In worshiping God, we glorify Him and magnify Him as being worthy of attention – just as we do with anything else we worship. I believe this is why the Biblical example of worship is a response to revelation of God.
If worship is a response to God, then responding to something other than God is worshiping something other than God. A response to anything else by definition would be a worship of said thing and not God. I can claim that I’m worshiping God by watching a football game, but if my elevated pulse, loud voice, and sweat are because of the game itself, then I am not worshiping God. I’m responding to the game. I am giving the game my attention and, in my actions, proclaiming it to be worthy of attention. My life at this moment glorifies the football game as being something valuable and pleasurable.
Helpful vs. Unhelpful
If worshiping God is by definition a response to His self-revelation, then how should our congregational worship music be written in order to reflect this? Perhaps our worship music should be filled with the self-revelation of God. We need worship songs filled with truth. Doctrine should saturate our hymns. Essentially, we are looking for melodic doctrine. If we want to worship God through song, then lets put God in our songs. In fact, why not make the lyrics all about God and what He has done? Is this not most helpful?
What about the music? If the lyrics are to be exalted due to their unique role in revealing God, then the music needs to take a back-seat to them. The music should compliment. A worship song should not be built to exalt the music. A song in which the lyrics fold into the music, so as to make the music something of a focal point, is not a helpful worship song. A helpful worship song would be one in which the music serves to lift the lyrics up into the spot-light.
What about the performance? It must do as the musical composition does: compliment the lyrics. Lights, instruments, media – everything serves the purpose of lifting-up the truth-filled lyrics. If the performance draws attention to itself, it is unhelpful.
The Contemporary Worship Movement
If you have participated in both contemporary and a traditional worship services, you probably notice the different responses evoked in each. In practically every instance, contemporary music will coincide with an increased crowd dynamic (in terms of energetic expression, at least). Why is this so?
There are typically lights, louder music, more repetitively rhythmic instruments, and more dynamic performances. The biggest variable of all, however, is how the contemporary songs are written.
Contemporary worship music compositionally models popular “secular” music. The song structure is designed to lead the listener through a series of dynamics that keep him engaged. These dynamics are designed to provoke the listener emotionally. The composition needs to stir the listener. The techniques used in this form of song-writing are the foundation of every contemporary worship song. When a contemporary song abandons this technique (ex. “In Christ Alone“), the song is dubbed “hymn.” We can tell it isn’t composed in the same dynamic technique as “contemporary worship music.”
There is nothing wrong with any particular expression during worship, but we are interested in what is stirring one’s emotions. Is the composition or performance stirring your emotions, or is God’s truth?
Imagine singing “Nothing but the Blood” in a contemporary service: synth, airy guitars, repetitive kick drum, ambient lights. The song lasts 9 minutes, the chorus runs 20 times. Now imagine singing “Nothing but the Blood” in a small congregation: out-of-tune piano, daylight, old pews, no dynamic changes in the performance. What would the difference be between the first and second scenario, emotionally? The variation is the amount of emotion evoked by the “contemporary” qualities of that first performance.
The contemporary worship service provokes a response to something other than God. The songs are composed with a dynamic technique designed to affect the listener emotionally. This dynamic is the focal point of the contemporary worship service. The lyrics are thereby downgraded to serve the dynamic. The lyrics complement the dynamic. Even with theologically rich lyrics, the dynamic structure and performance create an atmosphere in which the worshiper has an obstacle course of emotionally distracting elements to traverse through in order to arrive at a position where his worship is principally a response to God’s self-revelation.
If I am responding to the lights, I’m not worshiping God: I’m worshiping the lights. If I am responding to the bass, I am not worshiping God: I’m worshiping the bass. I am worship what stirs me unto a response. How is it helpful to lead a brother or sister into such an environment?
Scripture is silent in reference to a “holy genre” or worship music. However, Scripture does reveal what is helpful and unhelpful in a worship service. It may be that the contemporary worship movement is unhelpful. Not sinful, but unhelpful.
The Biblical example of worship doesn’t include charades. It points us to this: beholding God. As worship songs are filled with God’s self-revelation, they will be helpful. As worship songs are filled with fluff and rhetorical devices, they will be unhelpful.
Moses, Isaiah, and the disciples beheld God. They received Divine self-revelation and in light of it glorified God. We too have received God’s self-revelation: Scripture. May we flood our worship services with Scripture! As it is done, I believe we will quickly begin to see the positive affects of God-centered worship music.