A lot of you know I’ve been working on a term paper on the subject of popular music and worship. Those of you who are interested in reading the fruit of mylabors can read the entire paper here: The Sacred and the Profane. Beware, it is not for the faint of heart (or those with short attention spans).
For the rest of you, here is just the introduction…
The corporate worship of God is a sacred activity. It is a divine occupation that transcends the normal busyness of life by providing Christians an opportunity to engage in dialogue with Almighty God. It is a mystical conversation between God and man in which God reveals some small part of himself and in response we humbly declare his praise. Furthermore, it is an opportunity for believers to join with one another corporately as they speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
Standing at odds with the worship of God in any shape or form is the fallen world in which we live. Although created by God for his glory, our world in its fallen state has failed and continues to fail to intentionally bring him the glory he deserves. Undoubtedly, God’s glory is still manifested in many ways, not the least of which is his creation and in his benevolent dealings with mankind. But on the whole, our fallen world serves other gods, one of the most influential being the god of culture.
Historically and biblically, one of the primary elements of the corporate worship experience is that of music. Music provides a vehicle for the expression of worship that is nothing short of a gift from God. From the earliest wanderings of the children of Israel in the desert through the glorious visions of worship seen by the apostle John in the book of Revelation, the Bible is full of accounts of music being used as a tool in worship settings. As such, it is a sacred tool, given to us by God so that we may more richly and fully engage in the sacred activity of worshiping Him.
However, as much as one might think such a sacred tool would be inherently separate from any other use, this is not the case. What is such a capable and fitting tool for the service of worship also fundamentally fulfills several other purposes in our world, including communication and entertainment. In fact, it has served a multitude of purposes in all cultures since the dawn of creation. Such is the power of music, and such is its influence in our daily lives.
Naturally, a problem presents itself when we are faced with the fact that those in our world find enjoyment in forms of music that could possibly stand in opposition to the sacredness of worship. If music is a form of communication, then what does a secular culture communicate through music? Surely it does not communicate the righteousness of God. If it is mere entertainment, do the unregenerate find amusement in the things of God? Most certainly they do not. As such, what does the music of a specific culture communicate and how does it express it?
These questions present a number of fundamental difficulties to those responsible for leading worship. What do we do when God’s precious gift of music intersects with a fallen world? What is the result when that which is sacred is mixed intentionally or unintentionally with that which is profane? Should we fight to the bitter end to keep them separate? Should we allow the two to coexist peacefully? Should we seek to redeem one with the other?
The exploration of these issues is the goal of this paper. In all honesty, this discussion will undoubtedly raise more questions than it answers. However, this dialogue must be taking place among those who lead worship in our churches. At the risk of over-generalization, it is my observation that many of the leaders who are responsible for services of worship in America are simply blindly following popular trends and the whims of mass media marketing. Many church leaders are not even aware that there is a potential conflict of interest taking place week after week. My first and foremost goal in this paper is to provoke a dialogue as to what is acceptable for the sacred activity of worship. We owe it to those whom we shepherd to be able to give an educated response concerning our philosophy of music in worship as it intersects with secular culture.
This paper intends to provoke dialogue by exploring both the terminology and philosophical perspectives needed to hold an informed discussion of this issue. It will also present several possible approaches to the reconciliation of worship music and culture and analyze the strengths and weaknesses of each approach from both philosophical and biblical perspectives. As a framework for this part of the discussion, I will be using H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic work Christ and Culture.
Finally, I hope to encourage humility in this ongoing discussion as worship scholars, worship leaders, pastors, and worshipers wrestle with a deeply divisive issue that has been approached from numerous standpoints throughout the history of the church. As one who has engaged in such dialogues in both academic and casual settings, I am well aware of how intensely personal any discussion is in which validity of one’s philosophy of ministry is called into question. Nevertheless, this conversation is unavoidable. It is indeed possible that there will never be any consensus on this issue, but such is the nature of the body of Christ. Regardless, it is the duty of those in church leadership to develop well-informed responses.