Archives For Worship Music

I’ll explain what I don’t mean by that in a minute; first let share my experience with worship leading.

I was a junior in high school when I asked a friend to teach me to play guitar, partially out of boredom. He graciously taught me a few Nirvana songs and a few basic chords (in that order). From there, I started trying to bang out a few worship songs in an effort to train my rookie fingers to go where they were supposed to. This means that my intense efforts at training my fingers to play the guitar coincided with my first personal experiences with playing “worship music.”

I have been a Christian as long as I can remember, but I don’t recall having been passionate about my faith prior to this point. I repeatedly sang basic songs like “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” as I laboriously positioned my fingers for each of the four chords the song requires. I can’t tell you how many times I played that song in those months, but it was A LOT. As my muscle memory kicked in and I developed the ability to switch chords without prolonged pauses, the song itself began affecting me. I can still remember the night that I got down onto my knees as I continued to strum the guitar and sing that song directly to the Lord. It was the first meaningful worship experience I can remember.

Why? Why should forcing my fingers to move into unnatural positions bring me into a deeper expression of praise? I am only recently realizing that it has a lot to do with the embodiment that playing an instrument requires. Though we think of singing praise songs to God as a spiritual experience (and it is), it would be impossible without the body. When we sing to God we are using our brains, mouths, vocal cords, and lungs in addition to our souls. The praise may be spiritual, but it works in conjunction with the physical, embodied functions of the bodies God created. All of this deepens the impact. Just as the physical practice of taking communion deepens the impact of remembering Jesus’ sacrificial death—chewing the bread, tasting the wine—so the physical involvement of singing deepens the truths we express when we praise God. It involves the heart as well as the mind.

So adding another dimension to that embodiment by involving the arms and fingers sinks these truths into our hearts. “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” became ingrained—not just in my mind, but also in my muscle memory. I believe that the authenticity of worship that came from this experience stems in large part from the involvement of my body. Prior to this, my worship consisted of words. Now more of my body was involved, and my desires were being shaped at a deeper level.

Presumably, all worship leaders have experienced something similar. They went through the initial process of training their bodies to engage with music at a deeper level. And week after week they participate in embodied practices that express worship to God. These processes help the truth to sink in, and the worship deepens.

I know that many worship leaders become calloused to the truths they sing about. Through over-familiarity a song can lose its potency, and a worship leader can become numb to the powerful truths embedded in the song. Nevertheless, the solution to this is not stepping away from embodied practices that can help the truth to sink it, but instead to continue to pursue creative ways of expressing truth so that it has the greatest possible impact.

When I titled this post “Why Worship Leaders Are More Spiritual,” the full thought I’m getting at is not that worship leaders are more spiritual than other people, as if singing into a microphone were a sign of spirituality. What I am actually suggesting is something more along these lines: worship leaders are more spiritual than they used to be. The idea is that worship leaders are engaging in a powerful means of expressing truth, and that truth is bound to sink in more deeply as it involves more of the person.

God created us as whole beings, and we are made to glorify him with every integrated aspect of our being. Worship is more than contemplating spiritual concepts. Worship is meant to seep into our bones, to transform our hearts, to come to expression through our fingers, our voices, our footsteps, through every gesture and pursuit. Learning the guitar deepened my faith. You may have no inclination to follow my lead in this, but all around you are embodied practices that can deepen your faith. Pick a handful and pursue them to the glory of God.

InstrumentsMy parents’ church is relatively small. As you travel north through California, their little town is nestled right at the end of wine country and the beginning of the Redwoods. It’s both beautiful and sparsely populated (both great reasons to live there!).

But this also creates unique challenges for leading a worship team. At some churches, each spot in “the band” runs several layers deep. Many churches have multiple bands that alternate from one Sunday to the next, with substitutes for each position. But not when you live in a remote area.

My dad has led the worship team in their church for most of my conscious life. My earliest memories of his worship leading are of him waving his hand conductor style as the congregation sang hymns to piano or organ accompaniment. Eventually they worked in some praise songs, and it was only a matter of time until some of the songs were led on the guitar. In other words, as styles changed, their worship music got more modern.

But here’s what I love about the music in my parents’ church. They have always praised with what they had. I remember a period when much of the instrumentation was put onto a floppy disc and played via MIDI off of a keyboard. When I was in High School and could barely form a cord with my rookie fingers, they had me playing backup electric guitar. I sounded awful (I remember it well), but I was there and willing, so they let me praise.

That little church has seen a handful of musicians come and go. When one guitarist would head off to college, another high school student would rise up and fill in. As you can imagine, none of these guitarists sounded like Chris Tomlin (perhaps they do now!), but they had willing hearts, so they helped the congregation praise God.

They also had a period of time when the primary instrument was the mandolin. They had a world-class mandolin player with a willing heart, so they worshiped to the mandolin. Sometimes they’ve had drummers, sometimes they haven’t. Sometimes they’ve filled things in with a flute, other times a violin.

My dad has faithfully led that church in worship through the years, and its musical style has changed frequently—not because they were trying to impress anyone or keep up with a specific style, but because they praised God with what they had.

Worship leaders with a bigger pool to draw from have to make more difficult decisions about what style they will go for, what instruments to feature, etc., but my dad has never really had to worry about those things. He has just led with what the Lord has brought. Sometimes this has meant that they have “reverted” to my dad leading the congregation with his waving hand as my mom and other pianists played hymns. But from everything I can tell, the church loves it all. They are there, after all, not to sound cool, but to praise God with whatever is at their disposal.

There is, I believe, a place for excellence in the musical worship that we offer to God, and the instrumentation we use can itself glorify him. But the moment we feel ineffective in praising God because we can’t perfect a certain style, we can be sure that we’ve begun to equate worship with a genre and missed the point entirely.

Worship WarsIt’s clear that our churches are meant to worship (Rom. 12:1). But when we gather to worship in song, what should that music sound like?

That can be a tricky question to answer. When we look in the Old Testament, we are told to praise God with the trumpet, harp, lyre, cymbals, and other instruments. This gives us some insight into what Old Testament worship music would have sounded like, though we’re still left to wonder about the style of this music.

When we look at worship music in the New Testament, we find that we are commanded to sing:

“Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart…” (Ephesians 5:18–19)

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (Colossians 3:16)

Using music in worship is not optional in either the Old or New Testaments. We are commanded to do this. Some have argued that because these New Testament passages make no mention of instrumentation, instruments are therefore prohibited from worship. But this is an argument from silence that tries to swim upstream.

An argument from silence would work well here if we said that because instrumentation is a common and critical aspect of worship in the Old Testament, and because the New Testament writers don’t say anything against instruments, they are simply assuming that their command to “sing and make melody” will be played out in contexts where instruments were a common and critical aspect of worship. In other words, “singing and making melody” would naturally have musical accompaniment. But to argue that the New Testament is arguing against instrumentation by not saying anything is using the argument from silence backwards.

So the New Testament tells us to sing, and assumes that this will include musical accompaniment. (The qualifier that this is to be “with your heart” means that the praise originates in the heart, not that it stays there.)

But this tells us nothing of the style of music we are to use in worship. It leaves the door wide open for culture, personality, and diversity. Our worship music can be as diverse as the church itself.

And church history bears this out. Worship music has taken the form of simple theological songs; Gregorian chants; choral pieces; fugues, concertos, and suites; “traditional” hymns; praise choruses; and so on. At one point, the piano took the lead over the organ in many modern churches, only to be surpassed by the acoustic and sometimes electric guitar. Country, gospel, pop, rock, and sometimes even techno and rap are represented in worship today, to say nothing of the exceedingly diverse styles of music around the world.

Most of our churches experienced “worship wars” 20 or more years ago where praise songs and hymns were pitted against one another. The aging organist fought tooth and nail against the young guitarists. Some churches are still experiencing this. But when we consider the freedom that the New Testament leaves us on this issue, these wars are downright silly. (By the way, this freedom extends to those who choose not to use instruments in their worship as well—another God-glorifying way to worship him!)

One of the greatest lessons we learn from the Psalms is that God is to be praised in every conceivable way—and this diversity extends to musical expressions of worship. Our churches tend to get stuck in ruts, believing that worship music must always sound like Chris Tomlin or Hillsong or Charles Wesley or John Newton.

But if we take a step back and view the worship music scene globally, historically, and theologically, we will see a beautiful diversity as God’s people voice his praise in innumerable variations. And this diversity glorifies the God who created a world in which near-infinite instruments can be perfected and mastered, where near-infinite combinations of sounds, lyrics, and vocal accompaniment can be adopted—all with the intention of praising the Creator.

Acoustic GuitarOur worship leaders often remind us that worship is more than music. And rightly so. Our worship ought to extend far beyond the five songs we sing on Sunday mornings, and what we do during that time often falls far short of the worship mark.

But we should be careful not to underestimate what happens during a Sunday morning worship service. When God’s people gather and combine their voices to express the praise that fills their hearts, that’s a beautiful expression of worship.

But the congregation does not praise alone. In most of our churches, our corporate singing is set to guitars, pianos, drums, and a variety of other instruments. Have you ever considered that those instruments as instruments are praising God?

Here’s what I mean. A guitar is not an instrument of praise only in those moments when its reverberations are accompanied by praise lyrics. Every time a guitar is strummed, its metal strings and wooden body reverberate in exactly the way that God designed them to. God decided what a piece of bronze wire .012 inches thick, stretched across the length of a guitar neck and body, tightened to vibrate at 329.6 hertz, would sound like when struck. God decided that certain woods would resonate in certain ways when hollowed into certain shapes.

In other words, when I strum my guitar, the materials do what God made them to do, and this brings glory to the God who created these materials. This is true for every instrument ever played.

DrumAnd then the human creativity involved in these instruments praises God as well. First, take the formation of the instruments. The Creator put man, the mini-creator, into this world so that he would “work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). And that’s exactly what human beings have done throughout history. We use our God-given creativity for great and awful purposes. Instruments are often put to deplorable use, but in themselves they are wonderful creations that exhibit the best in human creativity (with the possible exception of the kazoo). So the existence of a Fender Telecaster praises the God who made Leo Fender and endowed him with the creativity and ingenuity to craft that unique and wonderful instrument.

Finally, there’s the human creativity involved in the crafting of each musical moment in each song. I have been involved in leading worship for 15 years now, and I have gone through a few phases in which I intentionally avoided prolonged song intros, interludes, and endings. When these moments seemed inevitable, I would hide them with a verse on the screen. I didn’t want any attention on the music itself or on the band. This isn’t all bad, and it’s true that we can go crazy with the music we create for corporate worship in order to draw the attention to ourselves. I don’t advocate this.

But I have come to realize that the music is not irrelevant to our worship as we sing together. It’s more than a convenient way to keep our singing in time and on pitch. It’s more than a manipulative tactic to boost our emotions so that our words mean a bit more. The music glorifies God. It resonates according to his design. The dynamics and interplay of the instruments reveal the creativity of God’s mini-creators, and thereby praise the True Creator.

Next week, as you stand amongst God’s people and voice your praise to God, think about all the other elements at work to bring God glory. Your own worship should be all the richer with these things in mind.