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Children in the Marketplace

Exploring the Dangers of Song-Driven Worship

Luke 7:31-32 NLT
“To what can I compare the people of this generation?” Jesus asked. “How can I describe them? They are like children playing a game in the public square. They complain to their friends, ‘We played wedding songs, and you didn’t dance, so we played funeral songs,
and you didn’t weep.’

The Problem that Will Not Go Away
Having been in professional music and worship ministry since 1975, I have had a front row seat for the changes in worship over these decades. The problem that will not go away plagues everyone involved in public worship. I call it song-driven spirituality. When the spirituality of the people of God is controlled by songs, this is song-driven spirituality. Songs are not strong enough to occupy the center of worship in spirit and truth.

Understanding Spirituality
Here is my definition of spirituality:

Spirituality is our interaction with God.

The simplest and most direct form of spirituality is personal prayer, our private interaction with God. Techniques range from daily devotionals to the Book of Common Prayer to Bible reading and improvised prayers based on a prayer list.

Public worship is much more complex. It is easy to see why—there are so many people involved! Each worshiper brings his/her own expectations into the worship service. Each house of worship has been formed around accepted sets of expectations called traditions. Each generation of worshipers supplies additional preferences to the service. A multi-generational church can have several competing sets of expectations of the same service. There is a danger in this loaded situation–songs can take the center of the service. “Worship wars” result when a single generation exerts its will over the others. There are always winners and losers and many casualties. (See my article: “The Gunfight at the Samaritan Well”

No one generation is immune to this danger. People love their worship music! All generations are prone to start and fight these wars. Why? How can good, God-fearing, loving people go to war to protect their preferences in worship? When the old folks ban contemporary songs or when the young folks throw out the hymns they are both exhibiting song-driven spirituality.

Finding the True Center
Of course, worship is supposed to be centered on the Lord Jesus. This is much simpler to say than to achieve.

  • Because people are involved, they can easily become the center, either the congregation or the leaders or both.
  • The same is true for tradition; it has a sort of inertia about it that keeps it in motion from generation to generation.
  • Ceremony or ritual can find its way to the center; there is great comfort for many in predictability.
  • Innovation and creativity are blessings but they can also occupy the center of worship.
  • Perhaps the most powerful element in public worship that can slip to the center is the music.

People often choose a church based on the music or leave one because of it. Music is one of the most powerful of all God’s creations. It is so powerful Protestant Reformers tried to use it because their movement was a worship renewal but they also tried to tightly control its use. Music is so integral to worship that it can occupy the center and most people do not even know it has happened. They equate worship with the music of worship.

Why is there so much worship music?
The various traditions of Protestant Worship developed in the years since the Reformation. Reformers were divided over what should be sung, but they agreed that music was the principal art of public worship. In the 17th through the 19th Centuries national churches and denominationalism developed different worship repertoires and approaches to public worship. In the 20th Century, the advent of recording and radio presented a new outlet for worship music.

Until the last two decades of the 20th Century groups stayed safely within their traditional houses but, beginning in 1980, portable music began to flow beyond individual traditions to form a new marketplace—Contemporary Worship Music. In the USA, my generation, the numerous Baby Boomers, led this movement. Most of us did not set the traditional music of our various groups aside, we merely sought to add “our music” to the mix.

Eccentric Worship
Song-driven Spirituality served to disrupt the work of the Holy Spirit in these years of renewal. When any group, young or old, contemporary or traditional, placed their songs at the center of the worship service, they fell prey to the chief danger of Song-driven Spirituality—off-center worship. Songs are tools that help us do the work of worship, they are not worship. To place songs at the center creates worship that is eccentric—off-center.

  • The people who own the songs at the center are not aware of this eccentricity because the tools work for them.
  • Others who need different tools are left out of the worship and left standing silent in the service. They are also subject to mean-spirited attacks by the ones whose tools are in use as immature or self-centered and certainly not very spiritual. (See my parable: “The Hammers and the House”

Jesus at the Center
The Lord Jesus, of course, should be the center of public worship. Everyone agrees but how do we put Him there? We need to guard the heart of the worship service.

  • It should be everyone’s job to see to it that no tradition or tool or technology should ever become the point of the service.
  • No personality should occupy the center. Services should be centered on Jesus and His Story and worship should be done for Him and not for anyone in the congregation or the community. Jesus should be both the subject of the service and the object of the worship.

A comprehensive theology of worship should be taught from generation to generation.

  • This needs to be a stated goal and not a general assumption. Every song, every technology, every event in the sequence of a worship service should be regularly evaluated for its Christ-centeredness.
  • The leadership needs to teach and practice a united vision for worship. Cultural influences and personal preferences divide the house. A biblical vision for worship can unite the generations. This vision should not spring from established traditions or from popular trends alone. It should be a combination of scripture and consensus.
  • Music for public worship should be drawn from the heart-songs of the people. (Heart-songs are those songs which unlock the hearts of the people.) Musically skillful people are needed to plan and produce such broadly based music.
  • The leadership of the Holy Spirit should be sought for the wisdom needed to plan and lead such worship. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is to exalt the Lord Jesus, edify the church and move in a fitting and orderly way. (see “The Ways of the Holy Spirit in Worship”
  • Public worship should be an inter-generational discourse on the glory of God. As in, “One generation will commend your works to another; they will tell of your mighty acts.” Psalm 145:4 NIV (see “Jesus at the Center”

Put Away Childish Things
Jesus accused the generation that heard Him of childish behavior. Like children in the marketplace playing games, when wedding music was played, they would not dance. When solemn music was presented, they would not mourn. A congregation must never be so childish. There are no games to be played here.

  • Older worshipers must rejoice in the songs of their children and grandchildren!
  • Younger worshipers must respect the songs of previous generations and take joy in them.

Why? So that we can be ONE, just as Jesus prayed in John 17. Music can divide us or it can unite us. The most important thing about music is this: God speaks through the music of worship. Songs help us function in the three time dimensions of a worship service: past, present, and future.

  • The doctrines of the church and the testimonies of previous generations are beautifully expressed in the songs of the past.
  • The prophetic voice of the Holy Spirit is heard in the songs of the present generation. These songs take us into the future.
  • Both traditional and contemporary songs can help us interact with Jesus today.The church needs both of these song sources of truth and inspiration.

We need to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

We must guard the heart of public worship just as we do our own hearts. No one but Jesus should be the focus. Nothing but the Word of God, the Jesus Story, should occupy the center of public worship. When we have done this work, the groups within the church will unite and the unbeliever in our midst will see no one but Jesus and hear only the voice of the Spirit.  The church functions as a counter-culture to the world, presenting the Jesus Story to all.

Three Questions
At the end of Chapter One of my book, “Worship that Pleases God,” I propose three essential questions worshipers must ask themselves if they desire to keep Jesus at the Center.

  1. Will I worship to please myself?
  2. Will I worship to please others?
  3. Will I worship to please God?

It is easy to please ourselves because we know what we want. It is common to try to please the congregation or some targeted group in the community. Research shows us what they probably want. How do we please God?

  • Study what pleases Him in the Bible.
  • Submit to biblical authority in our planning and ambitions.
  • Teach these things from generation to generation.
  • Love God and love His People!

Only these things are strong enough to hold the church together. Instead of Song-driven Worship, we can enjoy Spirit-led Worship.

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer

© 2017 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

Children in the Marketplace

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