Depth and Mystery

Any lasting cease-fire in these worship wars is not likely to emerge from a resolution of the so-called culture wars which feed them, or from large-scale conversions of taste, or from carefully buttressed historical arguments about ancient liturgical precedents. Finally, such a cease-fire can only issue from the depth and mystery of the gospel which Christians proclaim. Christian worship is strongest when it is integrally and self-consciously related to the person and work of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. The study of Christian worship is most helpful to Christian communities when it demonstrated how this has happened in the past and how it might happen in the future in more profound ways.

—John Witvliet, The Doctrine of the Trinity and the Theology and Practice of Christian Worship in the Reformed Tradition (dissertation), Page 304-305

The Real Worship War

We are not in a worship war. Well, yes we are, but not the one some commentators like to refer to. There is only one worship war, and it is between God and Satan, each the supreme object of someone’s worship, either redeemed or lost. We are self-absorbed when we use the “war” word as a working term for the petty and overly self-indulgent skirmishes that we enter, almost always over transient, not eternal things.

–Harold Best, “Traditional Hymn-Based Worship,” in Exploring the Worship Spectrum: 6 Views, 60

Mutual Charity

There are two musical situations on which I think we can be confident that a blessing rests. One is where a priest or an organist, himself a man of trained and delicate taste, humbly and charitably sacrifices his own (aesthetically right) desires and gives the people humbler and coarser fare than he would wish, in a belief (even, as it may be, the erroneous belief) that he can thus bring them to God. The other is where the stupid and unmusical layman humbly and patiently, and above all silently, listens to music which he cannot, or cannot fully, appreciate, in the belief that it somehow glorifies God, and that if it does not edify him this must be his own defect. Neither such a High Brow nor such a Low Brow can be far out of the way. To both, Church Music will have been a means of grace; not the music they have liked, but the music they have disliked. They have both offered, sacrificed, their taste in the fullest sense. But where the pride of skill or the virus of emulation and looks with contempt on the unappreciative congregation, or where the unmusical, complacently entrenched in their own ignorance and conservatism, look with the restless and resentful hostility of an inferiority complex on all who would try to improve their taste—there, we may be sure, all that both offer is unblessed and the spirit that moves them is not the Holy Ghost.

These highly general reflections will not, I fear, be of much practical use to any priest or organist in devising a working compromise for a particular church. The most they can hope to do is to suggest that the problem is never a merely musical one. Where both the choir and the congregation are spiritually on the right road no insurmountable difficulties will occur. Discrepancies of taste and capacity will, indeed, provide matter for mutual charity and humility.

—C. S. Lewis, “On Church Music” in Christian Reflections, 96-97

Heart Worship 12

You see, I love the use of music in church worship, and I have a special appreciation for the classic hymns of the historic church—I love the beautiful harmonies, the wonderful sound of the organ, the poetry of the lyrics. Unfortunately, the church I attend makes frequent use of two songbooks: one excellent hymnal that contains all of my beloved hymns of the faith, and another (a paperback!) that contains what I considered shallow, musically simplistic, “politically correct” (whatever that means), more modern (post-1960s) worship songs. It wasn’t that the songs in that dread paperback songbook were theologically incorrect or somehow inappropriate for a worship service; I just really didn’t like ‘em.

For a long time, I would cringe each time during the Sunday worship service that I had to haul out the Modern Praise Book; I’d roll my eyes at each repetitive chorus, and I’d ruthlessly document how much worse it was than my favorite hymns. I’d subject my wife to rambling diatribes about Modern Worship Music on the car ride home from church.

But at some point in the last year, I realized that I was spending more time snootily picking apart the songs than I was actually singing. And I realized that my overly critical attitude was completely distracting me from the act of worship. It’s hard to get much out of a Sunday sermon when you’re mentally agitated over the praise song used earlier in the service. That was a problem, and I knew deep inside that the problem was more with me than it was with the church’s choice of Sunday music.

Since that moment of realization, it’s been as if a weight were lifted off my shoulders—I still prefer good old-fashioned hymns, but I’m finding that it’s much more pleasant to just participate in worship than it is to sit back and continually critique it. My wife still has to put up with the occasional music-themed rant from me, but over the last few months I’ve even caught myself starting to appreciate some of the Modern Praise Songs I used to complain about. Who cares if the lyrics aren’t quite as clever or poetic as I would’ve preferred? I don’t think St. Peter is standing at the Pearly Gates handing out awards to the snarkiest church music critics.

All this to say: sometimes you just have to shut up and worship.

Andy Rau, “Shut Up and Worship: Confessions of a Church Music Snob”

Mindful Repetition

Quite simply, there is no formation without repetition. There is no habituation without being immersed in a practice over and over again. There will be no sanctification of our perception apart from a regular, repeated recentering of our imagination in the Story of the gospel as rehearsed and enacted in the “practical logic” of Christian worship. So it is precisely our allergy to repetition in worship that has undercut the counterformative power of Christian worship—because all kinds of secular liturgies shamelessly affirm the good of repetition. We’ve let the devil, so to speak, have all the repetition. And we, as liturgical animals, are only too happy to find our rhythms in such repetition. Unless Christian worship eschews the cult of novelty and embraces the good of faithful repetition, we will constantly be ceding habituation to secular liturgies.

James A. K. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, 183

Keeping God’s Story Central

How difficult it is today to recognize the centrality of God’s story in the life of the Christian and the church. This difficulty comes from the personalizing and privatizing of individual experience, the inroads made by marketing models for congregational programming, and supremacy of the idea of the “right” to preferential choice in the relative autonomy of life in the twenty-first century. Part of keeping God’s story central is recognizing how easily we elevate the importance of our own experience at the cost of community, kingdom and even the cross of Christ.

—Robbie F. Castleman, Story Shaped Worship: Following Patterns from the Bible and History, 186-7