On Knowing and Worshiping God; Great Expectations; and False Humility

But someone will say, “If the Divine substance is incomprehensible, why then do you discourse of these things?”

So then, because I cannot drink up all the river, am I not even to take in moderation what is expedient for me? Because with eyes so constituted as mine I cannot take in all the sun, am I not even to look upon him enough to satisfy my wants? Or again, because I have entered into a great garden, and cannot eat all the supply of fruits, would you have me go away altogether hungry?

I praise and glorify Him that made us; for it is a divine command which says, Let every breath praise the Lord. I am attempting now to glorify the Lord, but not to describe Him, knowing nevertheless that I shall fall short of glorifying Him worthily, yet deeming it a work of piety even to attempt it at all.

Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 6, 5

To paraphrase a bit of Bohoeffer, there is a costly grace in worshiping God. It is grace that calls us to worship God. But it is costly to worship God.

God is worthy of perfect worship. But the sensitive worshiper knows even man’s best is not worthy of God in his glory. I don’t know how many flocks Abel worshiped the Lord with. Did he have ever occasion to ponder, “Last year’s flock was a little better than this year’s.” In one sense man can never really offer “the” best, but only “his” best.[1] God, in His grace, covers even the purest of our offerings and makes it fit for Him.

I am not sure pure worship is found by the one seeking perfect worship. The one loving worship more than God is not worshiping God. Widow’s mites always have more value than spare doubloons.

But it remains true that “whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” The Lord accepts widow’s mites, not tycoons’. When someone has a suspicion that God might deserve or expect a bit more in corporate worship, it is not the time to revert to Adam’s, “The woman…” or Aaron’s, “You know the people…”

As far as I know, the first and second greatest commands have not switched rankings in the polls.

God calls us to worship him with our best. Pastors should do the work of elevating the congregation’s idea of what our best should and can be: always better, even if it is never good enough.

[1] Thinking musically, if we were really concerned to offer God “the” best, shouldn’t we have come up with a text for the third movement of Dvorak’s Dumky Trio already?

Why Praise and Worship Music Isn’t

Belinda Luscombe wrote an informative for Time magazine concerning Christian song-writer Chris Tomlin.[1] The November 19th, 2006 article alludes to the nature, sound and purpose of Tomlin’s music, and in so doing reveals the principal short-coming of Praise and Worship music.

According to the main licensing agency for Christian music (CCLI), Chris Tomlin “is the most often sung contemporary artist in U.S. congregations every week… that might make Tomlin the most often sung artist anywhere.” CCLI marketing manager Paul Herman says, “He has really captured the heart of the church.”

Since Chris Tomlin obviously has a tremendous role in shaping the worship of the contemporary church, he has a tremendous role in shaping how contemporary Christians conceive of God and proper worship of Him. As such, his music (and Praise and Worship music as a whole) certainly deserves evaluation and biblical critique.[2]

So what is his music like? “Tomlin’s How Great Is Our God … currently the second most popular modern chorus in U.S. churches…is not particularly profound–the title pretty much sums it up–but it’s heartfelt, short and set to a stirring soft-rock melody that sticks in the mind like white to rice. That’s Tomlin’s gift: immediacy.”

The secular evaluation of Tomlin’s music, or at least his most popular piece, is that it is simple and memorable, with a soft-rock sound. Tomlin himself states, “I try to think, ‘How do I craft this song in a way that the person who’s tone-deaf and can’t clap on two and four can sing it?’ I hope that when someone hears a CD of mine, they pick up their guitar and say, ‘O.K., I can do that.’” To this, Luscombe responds, “Which is not the way people react to, say, Handel’s Messiah.” This off-the-cuff comparison to Messiah deserves some pondering.

There is certainly nothing wrong with desiring to write accessible music– music that can be easily sung or played. It would be improper to criticize Tomlin or other Praise and Worship musicians for having this desire. While Messiah is more complex than anything Tomlin has written, complexity alone does not make Messiah better. As Christians, we are to strive for things that are “excellent, virtuous, lovely, pure, and praiseworthy” (Phil. 1:10; 4:8). The characteristics of simplicity and complexity can certainly contribute to the goodness of certain music, but by themselves they are not determinative of goodness.

One danger in comparing the complexity of Messiah with the simplicity of Tomlin is failing to take into consideration the intended performers of the music. Messiah was written for choral use, not congregational. As such, it is not an extremely difficult piece. We sang several selections from it every year in (public!) high school choir. Tomlin writes for congregational use, not choral. Since he intends the congregation to perform his music, it would be foolish of him to attempt to mimic the choral aspects of Messiah. Regular attenders of a church with a choir should be able to recognize this distinction. The choir sings a different type of song than the congregation. This does not make one or the other superior, or inferior. Rather, each group sings songs appropriate for them.

What separates Tomlin, and Praise and Worship music, from Handel’s Messiah, is not complexity, but sound and purpose. After describing the nature of Tomlin’s music as simple and memorable, the author describes the sound of Tomlin’s music as “soft-rock” and “pop-sounding.” With this, two questions come to mind: why would one choose to write music with such a sound for the worship of God and is such a sound appropriate for worship of God?

Luscombe uncovers the purpose for his style by writing, “Tomlin is the chief American practitioner of the pop-sounding ‘praise and worship’ music that has replaced traditional hymns in congregations looking for a younger crowd. ‘We’ve been closing the gap between what you would hear in church and on a rock radio station’ says Matt Lundgren, worship leader at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill. ‘Artists like Chris Tomlin help bridge the gap more and more.’”

The purpose of “Praise and Worship” music is to get the church closer to the type of music the world enjoys. Consider again the quote regarding the purpose of such music– “[to close] the gap between what you would hear in church and on a rock radio station.” Praise and Worship music is written and used because it sounds like the music on a secular rock and roll station: please note that this is not my evaluation, it is their own evaluation. The purpose of this music is to blur the line between what one would hear at church and what one would hear on secular radio. This is the reason that Handel’s music is “good” in the biblical sense of the term, and Tomlin’s music is not.

With his music, Handel meant to bring heaven to earth. With his music, Tomlin means to bring rock to the church. After composing the music for the “Hallelujah Chorus” in Messiah, Handel stated, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself.”[3] Those who write and perform Praise and Worship music on the other hand, apparently state, “I hope this sounds enough like the current Billboard top-40 that people like it.”

Here we are facing one of the questions of the age. What determines acceptability in worship? Popularity? Chris Tomlin “is the most often sung contemporary artist in U.S. congregations every week.” Pragmatism? “Tomlin is the chief American practitioner of the pop-sounding ‘praise and worship’ music that has replaced traditional hymns in congregations looking for a younger crowd.” Tomlin is unquestionably popular, and churches which use Praise and Worship music seem to attract large crowds with ease. Popularity and pragmatism, however, do not determine what kind of worship God delights in: His Word is the sole guide.

It is entirely possible to demonstrate that Praise and Worship is aesthetically inferior to Handel (or Bach, Mendellsohn, Haydn –and a host of other “classical” composers who wrote music for church use), but one does not need to do this since the purveyors of Praise Worship music have already admitted to a more grievous sin than just writing trite music.

God’s Word admonishes us to not be conformed to the world (Rom 12:1), and to not love the world (1 John 2:15). When used in this way, “the world” refers to all those elements of secular life that characterize mankind’s rebellion against God and desire for self-satisfaction. One does not have to listen to a secular rock and roll station very long to discover that the music it plays definitely qualifies as belonging to “the world.” The music you hear on secular radio stations is sinful because it is the music of life apart from God. It is the music of rebellion and sexual gratification that glorifies man in all of his fallen-ness. Yet this is the music that Praise and Worship musicians want to “bridge the gap” to. This is what we are supposed to think when we hear it: “Hey that sounds like something I heard on the radio the other day.” How can music meant to sound like a rock and roll station be called, “worship” when God calls it “worldly”?

Such music touches the emotions, often in a profound way: it is meant to. If Praise and Worship did not create fuzzy feelings, it would not be so popular. Perhaps you think, “It’s not that bad. After all, it only sounds like the ‘soft’ stuff.” Is our God the kind of god that is sung to as a woman being seduced by a man? Is God adored in Scripture with soft caresses and tender kisses? Is eroticism acceptable worship? Praise and Worship stirs the emotions– but which emotions; and are those emotions properly worshipful of God? Oh if only our emotions could be touched by James 4:4, “Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”

God is not glorified by his enemies. And He is neither praised nor worshiped by the vast majority of Praise and Worship music.

[1]http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1561156,00.html (Unless noted otherwise, all quotes in this Music Notes from this source.)

[2] (1 Cor. 2:15; Phil. 1:9-11; 1 Thess. 5:21; Heb. 5:14; 1 John 4:1).

[3]R.W.S. Mendl, The Divine Quest in Music, (London: Rockliff Publishing, 1957), 63.

Leviticus 10: Thoughts on the long obedience of the Regulative Principle

Leviticus 10:1-3  Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD has said, ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.'” And Aaron held his peace.

I am a proponent of the regulative principle of worship.[1] I believe we should only approach God in worship on his terms. I believe the worship “it truth” means doing what God says: not doing more, and not doing less. Nevertheless, this ethos can be presented in a less than ethical way. Those who hold to the regulative principle can certainly include Leviticus 10 in their arsenal of passages. And I am afraid that this passage, and others like it, is too often used in just that way: as a weapon to bludgeon the opposition.

God is particular about how e is worshipped. He did not really leave anything to the imagination. God’s instructions for worship even included the recipe for the incense he wanted to be burned in his presence (Ex. 30:34-38). God was concerned about the smell of the place of worship. Selah.

For some reason Nadab and Abihu decided to innovate. Any probing into why they made such a decision is pure conjecture. Scripture simply gives us no indication why Aaron’s sons did such a thing. Outside of this passage there is no indication they were scoundrels like Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas.[2] In fact, Nadab and Abihu were given the privilege of going up Mount Horeb with Moses and seeing God (Ex. 24:9-10). The only possible hint as to the reason for their sin in Leviticus might be in 10:8-11 where Moses institutes the command that serving priests are not to drink any alcohol. Perhaps Nadab and Abihu entered their service drunk and offered their worship in a stupor.

Whether it was because of drunkenness or not, this account serves to remind us of one of the greatest dangers in worship: complacency. I do not think Nadab and Abihu offered strange fire for any nefarious purposes. I do not think they were trying to worship idols. I think they were simply bored with the mundane-ness of it all. Even if the reason for their sin was drunkenness, why would you get drunk before doing your job? You do not think your job is important enough to be sober for. Nadab and Abihu had seen indescribable things; they had unbelievable experiences. They ate meals with God! (Ex. 24:11) Then they had to- literally- come back down to earth. Perhaps they just got bored with the routine of it all.

In my mind this is one of the greatest dangers for those who hold to the regulative principle. How long can one continue to just sing, pray, give, read, and preach? You look around and see groups of people using skits, movies, performances, bands, etc. and their tribe only increases. People get worn down. How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long do we have to sing the same tired old songs? How long do we have to listen to the preacher drone on…and on? We have been doing this forever and nothing happens. Everything is stale.

Why do people offer strange fire to the Lord? Why do they seek to be innovators in worship? There are times when people simply need to be told to toe the line. But wouldn’t it be more effective to get them to love the line instead? I am not sure how helpful it is to use Leviticus 10 to teach people to worship God God’s way, or else. Especially when they can look around and see that God is clearly not sending fire to consume everyone who worships him in ways he has not prescribed. In worship, as in life, we need to walk by faith not sight.

I pray that I never become bored with obedience. I pray that I never succumb to the allurement of relevance; the comfort of success; the excitement of innovation. But how is this going to happen? I must walk by faith and not by sight. I must content myself with the knowledge of God’s approval. His applause in my spirit must be reckoned louder than the applause of man in my ears. Apparently, God is not too interested in innovation. If he is not, why should I be?

“Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.” Love is the issue. Following the regulative principle is to worship what marriage is to a man and woman. Many fall to the temptation of the excitement of an affair; to the freedom of non-commitment. It is no different in worship. Following the regulative principle is settling in for a lifetime of commitment. It is a determination to love: a determination to love the law of God and follow it. The road of faithfulness is long. It can be tiresome. It can be boring. But it ends in a good place.

[1] The regulative principle is the idea that God should only be worshipped according to the explicit instruction of Scripture: worship should only include what God has specifically commanded. This is in contrast to the normative principle which states that can be worshipped in any way as long as he has not given a command against it. And in contrast to the seeker-sensitive movement which states God can be worshipped in any way that attracts a crowd.

On Singing Psalms

A few weeks ago I happened across an online conversation about music and “blended” worship. It was a somewhat typical litany of misinformation and pronounced individual autonomy, accompanied by a complete failure to grasp or articulate the real issues at hand. As is often the case, Scripture took the most abuse. Trying to rise above the fray, one man wrote that fundamentalists had to decide if the Bible really was sufficient and that people add too many restrictions to music that the Bible does not make explicit. In other words, if you cannot show me a Bible verse don’t bother me with your opinion.

Such sentiment sounds quite noble, especially to Baptists who claim the Bible alone is the sole authority for their life and practice. Unfortunately, it is completely meaningless coming from most contemporary Christians, including many fundamentalists and evangelicals.

The evangelical church in America cares very little for what the Bible says about music and this is demonstrated every week in the songs they sing and, more importantly, the songs they do not sing.

The Bible is a wonderfully diverse work. Sparkling as a multi-faceted diamond, Scripture has history, narrative, proverbs, prophecy, and poetry. Yet the largest book of all is its book of songs: Psalms. So important is song to Scripture, that not even the Psalter is enough to contain the praise. We find songs throughout the Bible, interestingly enough the song of Moses is both the first and last song found in Scripture (Ex 15:1; Rev. 15:3). Since Jews formed the early majority of the church it is not surprising that the Psalms and other Scriptures were the main source of song in early worship. As the church spread east and west, north and south, that godly tradition continued across land, time, and language. In fact, the very first book published on this continent was the Bay Psalter: Psalms for singing in the worship services of the pilgrims and puritans. But somewhere in the foggy, not too distant past, our fathers decided that God’s Word was not fit for singing.

I have spent 30 years in Bible-believing churches. I spent 4 years at a fundamental Bible college, and three years at a fundamental seminary. In all that time I do not recall ever singing a Psalm. How is it that the church can throw off thousands of years of worship history, completely ignore the repeated command of Paul to sing Psalms, and then have the audacity to claim to care what the Bible says about music and worship?

When will we find the answers to all our questions about music and worship? The answers must begin with an acknowledgment of the true problem: apostasy. The fundamental/evangelical church is a product of believers who abandoned loyalties and affections held for centuries by the body of Christ. To not sing the Scriptures in public worship of God is a sin. When we are broken over this sin– the sin of completely ignoring God’s Word at the very time it is needed most– when the gravity of it begins to break our spirits, then perhaps God will be gracious enough to pour out the health of His Spirit and bind our wounds. Until then, let us stop pretending we care what the Bible says about music.