Music in Its Rightful Place: The Importance of Capacity and Context

In our last worship leader’s mentoring session, we talked about the role of music in worship. In the modern worship landscape, music and worship are almost synonymous. Of course, the more informed amongst us are keenly aware of the separation, but often struggle to articulate the difference or to hold the tension.

I posited seemingly disparate themes to the group:

1.  Music and the Heart of Worship

For many of us who were around in the 1990s, the role of music in worship was beginning to reach dizzying heights. The praise and worship movement which began with grassroots, organic musical expression began to mature until we got to the point where we began to exalt musicianship and excellence above heart. Musical servants gave way to worship artistes.

Against this background, Soul Survivor Church’s Mike Pilavachi wrestled with the idea that the church had become connoisseurs of worship, rather than participants in it. So, he sacked the band. Until  the church learnt how to bring its own offering of worship, there would be no musicians on the platform.

Out of this context, Matt Redman’s song “Heart of Worship” was born. It spoke out of, and to, a church in a particular season where worship did indeed become a spectator sport. Pilavachi challenged us to all be performers of worship – for the audience of One.

2.  The Power of Music

Music is inherently powerful, either within the context of worship or otherwise.

We all know this instinctively. When we watch a horror movie, the best way to dampen the suspense and sense of encroaching fear is to simply block your ears. Once that happens, the tension and stress of a scary scene is almost immediately lost.

Plato once said:

Give me the making of the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws, I will control its people.

Historians say that the music of the Beatles, broadcast from the West, penetrated the Iron Curtain and helped spark the collapse of communism. Mikhail Gorbachev said “it taught the young people of the Soviet Union that … there is freedom elsewhere.” The music of the Beatles catalysed a political and cultural revolution. This is the power of music.

Pioneers of church worship recognise this power, too. Lamar Boschman said:

Music is one of mankind’s most fundamental avenues of communication, and one of the most successful because it transcends the conscious mind and reaches the subconscious.

Music affects us; it moves us; and it stirs our emotions.

In the context of worship, the question is: where does the power of music end, and the power of God’s Spirit begin?

3.  Music and God’s Presence

We often hear worship leaders say something like this: “we enter into God’s presence with singing”; or “God inhabits our praises”; or “as we play and sing, the Holy Spirit is going to move in our midst”.

The suggestion is that somehow, musical praise might somehow bring down God’s presence.

We might ask the question this way: did the sound of the trumpet bring down the walls of Jericho?

Harold Best says:

Whenever we assume that art mediates God’s presence or causes him to be tangible, we have begun to trek idol territory. Our present-day use of music as the major up-front device for worship is a case in point. We need to ask ourselves if we, as worship leaders, are giving the impression that we draw near to God through music or that God draws near because of it. Is music our golden calf?

Can we worship without music, and if so, why don’t we? Why do we put ourselves in the way of temptation?

4.  The Scriptural Impetus of Music in Scriptures

Despite the inherent dangers of music and the risk of idolatry, it would seem clear that the Bible mandates the use of music to accompany worship and sacrifice, even if the Bible doesn’t clearly define the relationship.

We see example after example, such as Miriam’s celebration song after the Exodus; David’s establishing of musicians and singers to minister around the Ark; the use of musicians when Hezekiah restored temple worship; Paul and Silas’ singing hymns in the prison. Even the largest book which sits in the middle of the Bible is a collection of sung verses.

Holding It All in Tension

So, how we do hold it all in tension? We know that music is Scripturally-mandated. We know it has something to do with God’s presence. And yet, we know it is dangerous and can often steal our hearts. It causes us to mistaken emotional hype and sensation with God’s tangible presence.

Music must be given its rightful place. Worship is first and foremost about the heart. Music is a tool. But it is an effective tool.

Here are some thoughts:

  • Music gives structure. It unifies the gathered church to sing one melody to one rhythm; it moulds us together out of our disparate thoughts and focuses us back to God.
  • Music engages us. It beckons us and calls us away from our own burdened souls; it moves us emotionally and gives voice to our innermost cries.
  • Music affects us. It moves our faith beyond the realm of the intellect to something which is felt.

Ultimately, music is not the end of worship, God is. Music and the musicians are merely servants.

Good Music versus Bad Music

If music is an important tool (and I think it is), then the question is: what of good music and bad music?

In my church, we are blessed with a pretty decent group of some 50 or so musicians and singers and we are always pushing ourselves to only get better at our craft. You might say, well, if music isn’t the end game, should we care how excellent we are?

And what of the small church down the road with hardly any musicians, all of whom have plenty of heart but less so musical competence?

What of quality?

This is where, as my wife pointed out to me (because she always has lots of revelation) that context and capacity matter.

If music is used to serve the people, as no doubt it must, then we must ask: what people are we serving? If we are serving a church full of musicians in Nashville, then mediocre garage band quality might just not cut it. Even now, amongst our church musicians, some of them get easily distracted with the slightest hint of off-pitched singing or imprecise rhythm. (Thankfully, God has gifted me with musical dullness so I can’t hear all the imperfections!).

On the other hand, a small home group will be much more forgiving on the musical technicalities, and be easily led by a display of heartfelt (but off-tune) praise.

Capacity then looks at what you, as a church, can afford, and what level of skill, as an individual, you can offer. As worshippers, we ought to only give God the best offering we can. If you have more to give, then give more. If you can afford a more lavish set up, then by all means bring it before the Lord as your sacrifice of praise. Don’t skimp on quality or even expense. But be prudent about it. If your congregation can’t discern the difference, then you might be a better steward to deploy your resources to other ministries which serve the congregation better.

I like how Mike Cosper, in his book Rhythms of Grace thinks about the role of music in worship. He uses the catchphrase, “Worship: One, Two, Three”. He says:

  • worship has one author and object, that is God;
  • worship has two contexts, that is, worship scattered as we go about worshipping in our everyday lives; and worship gathered, whenever the church comes together to instruct and edify each other;
  • worship has three audiences: God, the church and the watching world.

When we think about worship with three audiences, instead of One, context and capacity becomes all the more important. We understand that our musical offering is first and foremost service unto God, but we must also hold it in balance as it serves and teaches our fellow brothers and sisters, and then as it draws the seekers amongst us. Seeker-friendly and Spirit-friendly are not mutually exclusive, but part of the one continuum.

Worship for the audience of One was right for its time, but I believe now, faithful musical offering requires us to balance capacity and context to serve three audiences.

Worshipping in the Dark

We got to church this morning at about 6.30 am to begin setting up as we weren’t able to rehearse in the auditorium yesterday. About 20 minutes into the set-up, it went completely dark except for a couple of dim emergency lights. The power had cut out.

Maybe this was a temporary thing. Someone must have tripped the circuit and all we had to do was flick a switch.

Forty-five minutes later, we began to wonder whether we should all grab breakfast in the hope that when we came back, the electricity would somehow come back on.

We then sat around running through the songlist, trying to make the best use of time whilst waiting.

At about 8.30 am, we were preparing for the worst. I sent a quick text to my wife: “No power at the church”. She responded: “hahahahaa i’ll assume you mean no electricity”. Yes, that was what I meant. Despite there being no electricity, of course there was power!

We had to change tack and simplify the songlist as there were no words to be projected – so the songs had to be familiar to everyone. There was no amplification, so certain instruments became useless. And because there was no amplification, all the musos had to sing as well.

Instead of a band on stage leading the worship, everyone on the team stood in a line at the front of the stage: about 10 voices on the platform with two acoustic guitars – completely unplugged in the literal sense.

When the service started at 9.30 am, our worship leader, Dave Wong said something to this effect: the apostle Peter preached to a crowd of 3000 without any sound system. We only had 800 or 900 in an enclosed space.

What followed was half an hour of passionate singing, most of it coming from the congregation. I think it was the loudest we’ve ever heard the congregation sing. Something always triggers the congregation’s ownership of their own role in worship when the band can’t do it for them.

It reminds me a lot about what happened in Soul Survivor that led to Matt Redman’s penning of the song “Heart of Worship”. Mike Pilavachi, the senior pastor of Soul Survivor, said:

We seemed to have lost the spark.  We seemed to be going through the motions but I noticed that although we were singing the songs, our hearts were far away from Him…. Then it clicked; we had become connoisseurs of worship instead of participants of it.  In our hearts we were giving the worship marks out of ten:  ‘Not that song again’, ‘I can’t hear the bass’, ‘I like the way she sings’ …  We made the band the performers of worship and ourselves the audience.  We had forgotten that we are ALL performers of worship and that God is the audience.”

From that revelation, Soul Survivor got rid of the band and went through a season of re-learning what it meant for the congregation to bring their own worship to God. It was only when the lesson was learnt that they brought back the music, adding fuel to the flame, so the speak. The song “Heart of Worship” was born through that experience. Ever since, the words of that song have sought to lead us back to the place where the music fades and all the trappings of worship are stripped away.

There’s something about simplicity that brings us back to the heart of worship. So much of our worship today had never been seen or experienced by the early church. They had none of the technology, nor the vast hymnody. Yet people connected with God in life-changing ways.

Sometimes I wonder whether all the good of modern worship has become the enemy of the best. When we don’t educate the church properly on how to worship, we can easily let the music, the technology, the band and the worship leader become our crutches. We may not admit that they are doing the worship for us, but we certainly let them bear most of the burden.

Days like today remind us that the core of our worship cannot (and must not) ever be delegated to others to do. As much as worship is corporate, it is also a deeply personal transaction with God.

A lot of people remarked after the service that the worship was great today; that they really sensed the presence of God; that they were amazed how loud the congregation could sign; and that it was great that the whole congregation participated. We said things like “we should do this more often”.

But the sad thing is this: next week, when the electricity comes back on, we’ll be back to doing worship the same way we did before. Until the next time we are plunged into the darkness again…