The Good, the Bad, and the Holy

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The Good, the Bad, and the Holy

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, United Artists, 1966
With apologies to Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood and all Spaghetti Western lovers everywhere, I adapt my title from your lexicon. It strikes me that we music/worship leaders are in precisely this business: we must know the differences between the good, the bad, and the holy when it comes to the arts involved in public worship. This a practical outworking of the summation of the teaching of Jesus to the Disciples: “Be in the world, but not of it.”

The Good.
While not every genre of worship music contains equal musical value, there are discernible standards of quality within each one. In addition to these genre-specific standards there is also just plain musicianship. Good tuning is not a matter of opinion. Balance and blend should not appear and disappear with personal preferences. Lyrics can be poetic and powerful, simple and profound, or banal and trite. The message of the music can be narcissistic and untrue or it can be Christ-centered and theologically accurate. It is up to us to make informed judgments on potential music and use what is “good.”

The Bad.
What makes something “bad” in worship? Maybe a better word would be “wrong.” A common phrase when I was growing up in the South was—“That just ain’t right, Y’all.” This consideration rises above the analysis of the music to the way we use it in worship. For many years, I have said that a good definition of music ministry is having the right song for the right moment. We have all witnessed the discomfort when a song that is not at all right for the moment we gave it. It seems to go on forever. This is the kind of “bad” I mean. While the potential “good” in music is a judgment of style and content, the potential “bad” use of the song is a question of taste and placement . When a worship service flows smoothly from event to event it is very much like the “invisible style” of classic American films. As the story unfolds on the screen, the viewer is unaware of the camera or the editing. This invisible style was actually quite demanding of the filmmakers while it was easy on the audience. To eliminate the “bad” from worship is to accommodate, not distract, the worshiper.

The Holy.
Here is the best part of this discussion! Into a society of darkness, public worship shines the Light of the World. Our people are immersed in a culture of death (films, video games, television, suicide, infanticide, euthanasia, racial violence) we proclaim the message of life. The majority of media and educational systems proclaim a message that is not truth at all. It is a moving target of hopeless relativism devoid of hope and meaning. People need to hear the truth about God and people and time and eternity—the truth, the Holy truth.

Six Ways to Be In the Culture but Not of It

I see six ways we can speak the language of the culture around us while speaking the truth of God in love.

1. Speak the language but say Holy things. Remember there is more to the language idea than just words. Music is a language, as are image projection, lighting, and architecture. Once we began to lead in the languages of the people, we must infuse all of these languages with the holy Word of God! There should not be a language barrier between worship leaders and the people they are leading in worship. Worship is about participation in holy things.

2. Use music that is diverse in style but consistent in content. While the Lord Himself is the audience of worship, the people are the presenters. Worship leaders have two choices:

  • Select a single set of languages and not worry about those who don’t understand.
  • Endeavor to lead worship in as many cultural sensitivities represented by the congregation as possible.

The unifying factor is the content of the music—never let the cultural expression overpower the theological content. The truths we hold in common are the binding ties within a congregation. congregation. The variety of styles and language serve as joyful diversity based on a theological unity.

3. Engage modern technology in service of ancient truth. Knowing the Truth, Jesus said, would set people free. The timeless messages of the gospel,

  • the ancient, amazing narratives of the histories,
  • the previous passion of the prophets,
  • the pathos and ecstasy of the Psalms,
  • the overlapping timelines of the New Testament histories, and
  • the day-to-day wisdom of the Apostles are all readily expressed in art.

This is the age of the image and it is the day of the performing artists in worship:

  • Vocalists and instrumentalists for making the music,
  • actors for reading scripture,
  • dancers for displaying emotion and,
  • writers for new insights.

Finding the proper tech for each presentation is an art in itself. What does not communicate is empty tech—tech which serves no truth—an effect without a cause. It is like a passenger train arriving with no passengers!

4. Develop a visible, real atmosphere of love while speaking the truth.
In the worship environment everything speaks—music, spoken words, written/projected words, lighting, architecture, design, symbols—everything. To develop an atmosphere of genuine love, leaders must evaluate all of these factors to be sure that they speak welcome and warmth to those who enter. Above all these factors, the genuine warmth of the people toward others is the most essential factor. If people show their love toward others in worship, the pastor can speak otherwise uncomfortable truths to the congregation and warn of sin and it consequences. If the congregation is not judgmental, the scriptures can be the judge of the hearts of those in the room.

5. Address the enigmas and paradoxes of life. We all want our services to be bright, cheerful experiences, but there are gray areas of life, enigmatic issues where the meaning and application of the Word is not clearly set forth. Art can deal with these things better than public speaking. For instance, several years ago a controversy arose over the question of why some people are healed as a result of the prayer of faith and others were not. How could this be? At that same time Christian songs came out dealing with the issue. One was “Trust His Heart” by Babbie Mason. The chorus said:

God is too wise to be mistaken. God is too good to be unkind
So when you don’t understand, When don’t see His plan
When you can’t trace His hand, Trust His Heart.
Songwriters: Eddie Carswell / Babbie Mason
© Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

This explosive subject would be difficult to explain in a sermon, but a song—a work of art—deals it with effectively.

6. Be genuine and open, not phony and slick. People who are immersed in the culture of the world are easily deceived by those who appeal to their unregenerate natures. However, people who question the moral bent of society are often suspected of hidden agendas. To speak the truth of the Gospel in love to people who suspect all Christians to be phonies, requires a consistent openness and authenticity that cannot be broken or even cracked. We cannot, we dare not try to fool them.

Today, like worshipers in every age of Christianity, we can speak effectively to this world. We have to learn to speak their artistic languages and we must do that without following them in to sin. We must know the difference between holy and the profane (Ez. 22:26). We must judge what is good, bad, holy.

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer
© 2017 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

For an article that presents the principles behind this piece go to: “Sacred Music: What Should It Sound Like?”

The Good, the Bad, and the Holy

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