This article was taken from the preface of Worship Under The Influence: Rediscovering the Joy of Acceptable Worship.

 

Organ Pipes or Six Strings? 

When in our music God is glorified, and adoration leaves no room for pride; 
it is as though the whole creation cried, Hallelujah! 

So has the church, in liturgy and song, in faith and love, through centuries of wrong; 
borne witness to the truth in every tongue, Hallelujah! 

Let every instrument be tuned for praise! Let all rejoice who have a voice to raise! 
And may God grant us faith to sing always: Hallelujah! 

— Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000) 
 


I still remember it vividly in my mind.  Early on in my ministry I was helping start a contemporary worship service in a historically traditional style church.  Things had been going fairly well, but I still sensed some uneasiness within the congregation of where it all might be going.  I was returning back into the sanctuary with about five minutes until the start of the service.  As I walked down the far right aisle, an elderly woman stepped out from her pew seat and cut me off.  It was evident by the look on her face there was something serious on her mind.  “Young man,” she said, “I’ve got a problem.”   

What kind of problem might it be? I worked with the youth group, as well as leading music, and I thought it might be something connected with that.  “Well, Ma’am,” I replied politely, “maybe I can help you with it?”  The next words out of her mouth completely threw me for a loop.  She sternly replied, “If you would just leave your guitar at home, then you would solve my problem.” The momentary awkward silence between us and the piercing look in her eyes made that twenty something “wet behind the ears” worship leader freeze up.  What could I say?  Looking back, I wonder what I would say now?  I sheepishly climbed the platform and began leading the opening song, trying my best to not make eye contact with my complainant.  Did she hold the solution to Biblically faithful worship?  Was getting worship right really that simple?  Just leave my guitar at home and all would be well?  Could I not have unwisely and imprudently replied, “‘Well Ma’am, if you would allow me a moment, we could remove the organ out of the sanctuary and then all myproblems would be solved.”  Was it just that simple?  Is that what was needed to make worship right?  Remove the organ and all would be well in my worship world?  Of course, not.     

Unfortunately, consumer driven worship often makes the solution to our self-inflicted problem that simplistic.  Change the instrumentation, turn up the volume, and everything will be just fine and dandy; or even worse, fire the non-dynamic worship leader who lacks charismatic “stage-presence,” and find someone who can play more radio friendly up-tempo songs with gusto.  God will love our loftier vision, the pews will be packed, and as Mr. Pragmatism might ask, “What could possibly be wrong with that?”  This is certainly the belief many have employed in the modern era; however, we are still left asking why there is so much division, unhappiness, restlessness and even anger between church members and various age groups who claim to be bound together in unity through Christ?  Like determined wrestlers, each stylistic side dogmatically grapples with the other, hoping to gain the advantage for the pin.  Rather than content, worship style consumes the modern church’s efforts, with the unsatisfactory result being compartmentalized worshippers who never become conversant on matters of substance and cannot enjoy the unity Christ died to give them.  Unified forever by the cross of Christ, separated on Sunday by our preference is the treasure-less desert island on which we have landed.  Of course, the danger of consequence is that a church estranged in its corporate worship will find it difficult to unite for other types of ministry, witness, and fellowship throughout the week. 

The story is told of two men sitting in the back of a church listening to a Christian rock band on the platform.  While the young band was evidently sincere, the best that could be said about them musically was that they were just — well, dreadful.  After enduring a couple of songs, one man turned to the other and said, “Well, we must be getting ministered to because we're certainly not being entertained!"  This humorous story brings up a noteworthy question: “How does a local congregation understand the role of music in its life and worship?”  For what purpose did God give it?  And for what purpose do we use it?  Is it for entertaining attendees or attracting unbelievers?  Could the Bible give us other reasons worth considering?  Modern music ministries often fall prey to the individual I-pod approach to song selection.  Hundreds of people come expecting to hear in church what is on their mobile device or car radio, and it makes for an impossible situation for any worship leader to accommodate. 

Yet, even confronting this reality risks conceding that music, bands, lights and sound systems are the center of the service, and that other Biblical essentials like Scripture, prayer and communion — not to mention confession, repentance and pursuit of holiness — are peripheral options.  Like Christmas ornaments, we mistakenly believe ourselves free to hang what we desire on our own personal worship tree.  This ill-considered and shortsighted quest for personal liberty in worship, however, leads us to another question: “If Christian worship is according to our personal preference, then what need is there to consult God’s assessment on the matter before us?”  Are we the ones who are actually in charge of worship?  Or considered another way, if what we long to do for God in worship matters more than what God wants us to do for Him, then where does that leave us?  In Thomas Cranmer’s preface to the prayer book, we glimpse the struggles he faced in trying to straddle the worship divide of his own day.  In the end, he sought not to.  Having found it hopeless to please everyone, he writes “…it was thought expedient, not so much as to please and satisfy either of these parties, but rather as how to please God — and therefore to profit them both.”   

If we take the common crutch of personal preference to its conclusion, could we not more simply send out a weekly survey and adjust accordingly for the next gathering?  Regrettably some churches, in spite of all the worship wisdom available to them over 2000 years, resort to this sort of sightless path — some literally, but others in spirit and culture.  It is truly amazing how after all the teaching and historical information available to us, there is so little unity among ‘latitudinarian’ Christians as to how public worship ought to be conducted.  This is in essence the broader lingering protestant dilemma: seemingly no unified expectations when gathered for worship.[2]  Are we destined to forever be chatting about worship but never coming to any knowledge of the truth about it?  Has the modern church ever taken something so seriously in its own mind, yet given so little thought to God’s? 

     Though Justice against Fate complain, 
     And plead the ancient Rights in vain: 
     But those Truths do hold or break 
     As Men are strong or weak. 

In the year 1543, John Calvin wrote to the Emperor Charles V a treatise entitled The Necessity of Reforming the Church.  In his opening statement, he makes a most daring declaration about the significance of worship in the life of the church.  From Calvin’s perspective, our salvation and how we worship cannot be separated.  They were to be understood as two sides of the same reformed coin: 

"If it be inquired by what things chiefly the Christian religion has a standing existence amongst us, and maintains its truth, it will be found  that the following two not only occupy the principal place, but under them follow all the other parts, and consequently the whole substance of Christianity: that is, a knowledge, first, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped; and, secondly, of the source from which salvation is to be obtained. When these {worship and salvation} are kept out of view, though we may glory in the name of Christians, our profession is empty and vain."

The church of aspiring trendiness has certainly produced its share of worldly additions and well-intentioned distractions.  Too often — with God’s desires for worship as a token on the mantle for show, and with little Biblical restraint — it has perilously sought as Calvin warned against, “to be wiser than God Himself.”  There comes a season in every congregation’s life, however, where it must be convicted by the Holy Spirit enough to ask in the Reformer’s words, “Has our profession become, empty and vain?”  No church — no matter its current reputation or godly heritage — is beyond sailing toward the sirens of record attendance yet crashing on the rocks of unacceptable worship.  A knowledgeable sailor of good judgment knows the danger of the sea and therefore respects it; but too many self-assured captains of worship never even acknowledge there are any perils when setting out on the vast ocean of worship.  There are.  A worship ministry can be capsized by the weight of selfish ambition, broken apart by a squall of bad doctrine, flooded with worldly-wise visions of grandeur, and have crew members washed overboard by the crashing waves of jealously, congregational conceit, and self-absorption.  When these sorts of things are not guarded against there will be ill-fated repercussions for the witness, unity, and ministry effectiveness of the local church.  The wise and humble church vessel ought never to see itself above honest self-examination in regards to the course it has charted for worship.   

In Stephen Lawhead’s epic adventure Byzantium, the young monk Aidan is sent along with a small group of his fellow monks as a special envoy to see the emperor himself in the legendary capital city of Constantinople.  He dreams about what awaits him there in that most special city, most of all the chance to worship in the most magnificent church in the world – the Hagia Sophia.  He is persuaded that in that holy place he will be able to worship and pray like never before.  In the end, because of unforeseen circumstances and the distractions around him, he never does.  As he prepares to leave the great city and church behind, he reflects: 

"I climbed aboard the ship and watched the sun set in a dull glow of red and gold as violet shadows slowly stole the seven hills from sight.  Only then did it occur to me that I had stood in the greatest church in all the world, and I had not breathed a single prayer, or offered up even the most fleeting thought of worship.  That never would have happened at the simple abbey.  What was wrong with me?  The thought kept me awake most of the night."

As those called to lead in worship, similar thoughts ought to keep us awake for the church today.  Like the character Aidan, a man whose life was set apart to worship God, too often it might be said of us that we stood in our grand churches filled to capacity and yet never truly breathed a Biblically modeled prayer, or even gave a fleeting thought to what pleases God in worship.  R.S. Simpson warned: “The tendency in Protestant worship is to suggest that the value of worship lies in its effect upon the worshipper.  That is not so…the central thing in worship is objective, not subjective.  In worship, we certainly receive, but primarily we give.  Worship is offering.”  Like Abraham binding his son Isaac upon the altar, the hard part for us is the fact that worship — prior to being a subjective choice — must be an objective obedience that pleases God before it satisfies us (Gen. 22:9).  

There is an eastern proverb which translates something like this: “He who rides a tiger can never dismount.”   At some point in recent history, the modern church decided to mount the tiger of entertainment as a means of attraction and church-growth, and ever since it has been either uninterested or helpless to dismount.  Seeking the power of the tiger, it lost its ability to control it.  Well-intentioned liturgies, enjoyable experiences, passionate performances or even loud worship is not the measure of all things.  Before we can expect to get anything back from God in our worship, we must aim to give it in a way that He will accept.  After all is said and done, that should be our chief delight.  An objective obedience should be the foundation on which we make our subjective choices but all too often an ambition for secular success, not divine acceptability, has this reversed.  We might leave impressed and satisfied with our colorful innovations that aimed to please somebody seen as significant — but does God?  At the end of the day, how we worship must be connected to what God has said His expectations are.  

To produce a mighty book,” Herman Melville said, “you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there are who have tried it.”  This book certainly makes no claim to be mighty in any way, but without apologies it most certainly takes on a mighty theme.  The possibility of going to church but not worshipping as God desires should shake us to the core; it most certainly did the best of Christianity before us, not least of all the Church Fathers and the Reformers.  How to worship God rightly consumed their energies and efforts as they shaped, and later reformed, Christian worship; in fact, it can be argued that the greatest leadership legacies of the church are centered on the shaping and reforming of worship according to Scripture.   

What if our hearts, like our spiritual forefathers, were humble enough to confess ignorance apart from Scripture and adventurous enough to explore the hidden coves of ecclesiastical wisdom?  Then perhaps the lighthouse of what pleases our God could reveal a haven of restful worship for the modern church’s weary soul.  Would it not be wonderful to find a unified vision and expectation in our local congregations, where everyone from the back pew to the platformed pastor could say in peaceful agreement, “Worship was great today because our God was pleased with it.”  Our carnal natures too easily strive with exhaustion to please man, but not so much to enter the rest of God (Heb. 4:11).  It is time to lay aside our culturally conditioned visions of success, and obediently return with joy to what pleases the Author and Lord of it all.  He has openly revealed His heart and expectations to those pastors, leaders and churches that have ears to hear.  Ready to listen?