Tony Cummings takes a look at our attitudes towards worship and the role of music. He suggests how a bit of history might shed light on the present. and the future.
God made man for a purpose. That purpose is given in the well-known catechism: "To glorify God and to enjoy Him forever." God made us to be worshippers. That finally was the purpose of God in bringing us into the world.
Definitions of worship are usually tiresome and often unhelpful. But the great Bible teacher and author A W Tozer did it better than most by pointing to the inner reality beyond the external form when he spoke of three dimensions of worship: "to feel in the heart", to experience "a humbling but delightful sense of admiring awe and astonished wonder" and lastly to enter into "awesome wonder and overpowering love". To facilitate worship God gave us music. It is not true, as some would insist, that music is the only vehicle by which true worship can be expressed or experienced. We need to pay more attention to the biblical injunction to make our very lives an act of worship; either like Brother Lawrence (in his 'The Practice Of The Presence Of God') over a steaming bowl of washing up, or in the 'listening to the quiet' of some meditative traditions.
Neither is it true, as others would insist that worship is the only truly biblical function for music. The false dichotomy between the secular and the sacred in such arguments has caused much harm and often produced an aesthetically stunted church unable to appreciate that wherever art is excellent it reflects something of God, whether the expression be an Impressionist painting or a soaring sax solo.
But undeniably music, that glorious gift which can speak to your head, heart and soul has a special capacity to be a vehicle for worship. From the time of King David onwards it has been music, which has been the primary vehicle in drawing men and women into worship of God. But what kind of music?
Arguments that only music that is suitably reverential to reflect God's majesty, suitably simple to suit congregational singing or suitably rhythmic to appeal to young people flounder if they attempt to imply that there is any single 'right' musical form with which to worship God. Considering how God must delight in the sheer dazzling variety of His creation it is hardly surprising that the musical forms through which man, created in God's image, has expressed his true worship have forms as diverse as the cultures, which moulded them. Wherever one chooses to look and listen history spells out a tale of heartening cultural diversity. During King David's time lovers of God worshipped Him with Hebrewic tonalities, stringed instruments and all manner of percussion instruments. During the Renaissance, the Lord was celebrated with anthemic creations for massed choirs of staggering complexity. During the Wesleyan Revival, worshippers boisterously sang theological treatises set to melodies often gleaned from fair or pub. And during the last three decades of the Charismatic Renewal many churches have drawn closer to God while singing the deliberate simplicities and Biblical paraphrases of a thousand new songwriters. Yet despite history showing us how dazzlingly diverse are the forms of music through which God draws close to Christians in worship, many believers are woefully reluctant to attempt to transcend these differences.
Theirs is a perspective so enculturalised that they look condescendingly on differing cultural expressions of worship. They might play lip service to the doctrine of the unity of the Church but in practise make little effort to learn new cultural languages which divide them from other believers even though those differences have less to do with theology than with Church tradition or ethnic difference. So the sad spectacle of the High Church Anglican sneering at the Redemption Hymnal-toting fundamentalist or the black Pentecostalist dismissing as worldly the rock culture Greenbelter goes on. If the Church is to take seriously the Biblical instruction to strive for unity in the Body of Christ, a good means of developing tolerance and understanding is for us to expose ourselves to worship music traditions outside our immediate Church experience. Although music is an aesthetic entity, and different kinds of music clearly appeal to different kinds of people an appreciation of many differing art forms can be learned. It would do wonders for true, biblical church unity (rather that the woolly-minded theological compromise often offered by organised ecumenicalism) if a Baptist could learn to appreciate the glories of the Anglican liturgy and a Restoration house church member could grow to enjoy the musical glories of a Thomas Tallis.
At this present moment in Church history, 'Worship' has become a topic of endless discussion, some would say obsession, within the evangelical church. Books by the dozen are published on the topic and hundreds of new worship songs continue to be published and recorded. The driving force behind this of course is the Charismatic Renewal Movement. Such has been the clamour from the world's charismatics that an outsider could be forgiven for believing that charismatics invented, or at least rediscovered worship and that before their emergence no true worship took place. The party line sometimes put around was that the church had sunk so deep into hymn-prayer-hymn traditions that the outward form, singing a religious song about God, was all that remained and that the mysterious inner reality had disappeared.
Like all generalisations it had some truth. A Spirit-grieving dead orthodoxy, helped by the heresies of liberal theology had indeed settled over much of church-going Britain. But now ironically more and more of the charismatic movement, as Pentecostalism did before it, has found that it has itself created 'a new liturgy'. Admittedly it has the outward appearance of being unshackled by tradition, but in reality is so tied into worship formula; (x choruses, y prophecies and z tongues/singing in the Spirit) that in some churches it too shows distinct signs of becoming another manifestation of a dead tradition. What are we Christians to make of this phenomenon? Possibly we need to consider Christian poet Steve Turner's observation that "history repeats itself...it has to...nobody listens".
And possibly too, we need to bring that historical perspective to bear when we think of the fraught theological questions, and aesthetic considerations which every believer must ask sooner or later concerning Christian worship.
We have devoted these pages to praise and worship because we recognise how utterly essential it is for every Christian to be a true and genuine worshipper of Christ. Nothing is more worrying in the emergence of the new wave of trendy, neo-evangelicals beginning to populate 'Christian' art festivals than to see how devoid their lives appear to be of a genuine worship-dimension. However much truth there may be in their blistering attacks on archaic hymns or the plastic superficiality of many contemporary choruses, they are deceived if they believe Christians can escape the centrality of worship in the Christian life.
Articles in the following pages take the reader beyond the earnest but repetitive writings of much charismatic praise writing to look at issues and personalities sometimes overlooked.
From interviews with two of the finest composers of praise and worship songs - Dave Fellingham and Phil Lawson Johnston - through to areas seldom considered in worship discussions - what God is doing in (a) Europe and (b) in Britain's black churches - this batch of features will hopefully broaden your field of vision. And none may broaden it further than our profile on St. Thomas's of Sheffield. Here is a church, which is using video, and the acid-house beat to bring a new dimension to praise and worship. To many conservative believers such actions appear faddish, even freakish. But for the Cross Rhythms team, who incidentally represent Anglicanism, the black church, Calvinist Reformed, Catholicism House Churches and the Jesus Army, the NOS services of St Thomas's are an exciting pointer towards tomorrow. While seeking to value and retain all that is excellent from the past, we must surely learn to incorporate cultural elements from the present. If we don't we risk our churches, and particularly our worship services, becoming cultural irrelevances (guitar strumming Charismatic praise) or archaic musical museum pieces (the hymn-prayer-sandwich) to men and women so far untouched by the gospel.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.