The Third Commandment

Chapter 16 – Evaluating Contemporary Worship

In the years that I have been in the ministry the most common question asked by those seeking a new church home is, “what sort of music do you use?” This is just one indication of the struggle which has embroiled the entire evangelical world as contemporary forms of music, and indeed of all of worship, have increasingly been incorporated into worship. It is noteworthy, though, that the motive of most of these questioners has changed.

It was once normal that those calling churches were looking for contemporary services. This has changed because of the prevalence of contemporary worship and its attendant musical styles. Most who ask about music today seek a “traditional” service. Christian Contemporary Music is no longer the exception in evangelical churches; it is the norm.

Given what we have seen in the New Testament about worship, can we call this a positive development? Sadly, given the biblical directives on worship we have considered to this point, we can only conclude that the contemporary worship style is distinctly unbiblical.

This is a hard statement which many will view as uncharitable. However, it is important for Christians to examine the practice of their churches (even those to which they have a strong emotional attachment) in light of Scripture. I have endeavored to establish a foundation in my previous posts, examining what the Bible tells us about God’s expectations in worship, so that we may evaluate current worship trends correctly. Consider first the music of the contemporary service.

Superficial Singing
The music which we sing in church is to be participatory, reverent, and challenging. That challenge is to be both doctrinal and ethical. The standard for music of this sort is to be set by the Psalms, which demonstrate all of the biblical criteria. We are permitted to utilize other hymns of praise and songs on spiritual, biblical topics, but they are to be patterned after the Psalms in their suitability for congregational singing, their attitude of reverent awe, and their capacity to “teach and admonish” the church.

One of the hallmarks of Contemporary Christian Music is its total unsuitability for participatory singing. It is a performance-oriented style, requiring the presence of gifted artists. This is why contemporary churches have multiplied “praise bands” and “worship teams”. The instruments do not accompany singing in the traditional sense; they neither establish the melody nor follow the rhythm of the words sung. Contrary to the claims of its proponents, contemporary music is one of the most difficult styles in which to participate. Increasingly, congregations retreat into the background as the microphones of the musicians are turned louder and louder.

I noted earlier that the dominant emotion of this style of worship is supposed to be joy. Outside observers might be more likely to describe the mood as “giddy.” What is certainly missing from contemporary worship music is a sense of awe before the greatness of God. Some sentiment is there, but not a sense of astonishment at God’s perfect holiness.

Most disturbing, though, is the complete lack of doctrinal content in contemporary worship music. Contemporary songs may instruct, but as often as not they instruct wrongly. Miscommunication of the nature of God and the key doctrines of Christianity are the norm in contemporary worship music. When the truth is communicated, it is typically in a dull, repetitive manner with little recognition of the complexity of truth. One cannot learn much from contemporary music, and ethical challenge is unlikely as well. The whole approach to contemporary church music is to make the listener “feel at home,” not to challenge him to give himself entirely to the service of God.

Not all hymns that people call “traditional” have genuinely followed the pattern of the Psalms. Some hymns are frankly quite bad. However, the entire genre of Contemporary Christian Music constitutes a radical departure from the Scriptural pattern. Such music has no place in worship, and must be abandoned by the church that would worship God as He demands.

Superficial Teaching
While music may be the most easily recognizable aspect of contemporary worship, more than the songs has been changed. When a trap set is to be found on stage in a church the likelihood of serious biblical exposition is low. It is astonishing how much our music sets our expectations for all else in worship. Silliness in singing does not engender sobriety in study.

The teaching has consequently suffered in contemporary churches. Sermons are shorter and, on the whole, lacking in serious content. Joke-filled performances have become the norm, while the singing, or “worship,” portion of the service expands, pushing out serious, doctrinal, biblical preaching. Ethical challenge is as absent as doctrinal instruction. Calls to repent and walk according to the commands of Christ are simplified to “What would Jesus do” generalities, and the church is not truly challenged to follow Christ in thought, word, and deed.

Superficial Worship
The modern church would do well to remember the implications of the Third Commandment for worship. It is not at all surprising that some pastors have begun to employ foul language in their sermons! Years of unrestrained silliness in worship have brought the church to this place. It has been far too long since evangelicals understood that worship was an activity to be approached with sobriety and reserve. Instead we have approached worship as though it were a party, and as with the parties teenagers sometimes mistakenly think they can control, this party has gotten out of hand.

In worship we approach God, who is the sovereign ruler over all, and we are expected to approach with an attitude of fear, reverence, and respect. We should have a great sense of awe when we draw near to God. Biblical worship will encourage that response, not a sense of ease and comfort before God. Contemporary worship may be very suitable to the tastes of this generation, but if it does not lead us to fear and reverence God, then it will not be worship acceptable to Him.

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