Over the years, churches have split over such issues as pews or chairs, carpet colors, or whether to build new or renovate the current facility. But perhaps no other issue has been as debated and divisive in our churches as the topic of worship. God has created each of us in His image, and so we share that commonality with each other.
But part of this image also means we are created uniquely. Our God is a creative God who loves diversity, which we see in such things as sunsets, snowflakes, race, and worship preferences. Therefore, when we desire to sing before the Lord, we all have songs that fit our genre preferences or are more relatable to our life stories, and other songs that do not. And while diversity of interests can be a great thing in our churches, what songs churches sing on Sundays can also cause a lot of division; that is unless we keep the main truths of the Bible the main things.
So what does the Bible say about worship? In the infamous exchange with the woman at the well, Jesus tells her that true worshipers of God will worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:22-24). From these few verses alone, we can gather three important principles for what the Bible says about worship.
First, worship is not just something we do on Sunday mornings. The woman was concerned with upon which mountain she should worship God. Jesus’s reply was to say that a day would come (and now has for us) when location would not matter. The apostle Paul says we are to glorify God in everything we do (1 Cor. 10:31). Therefore, we are to seek to worship God on Sunday mornings at church, on Sunday afternoons as we rest, on Mondays-Fridays as we work and study, and on Saturdays as we prepare to gather again.
Secondly, worship is to be unto the Lord. The whole focus of this conversation was how and where we should worship the Father. If we are not worshiping the Father, then we are engaging in idolatry, and thus breaking the second commandment. Consequently, all the songs we sing are to be about Jesus, our prayers are to be directed to God, our offerings are to be given to God, our preaching must be centered on Christ, and how we work, parent, study, etc. should be glorifying to the Lord.
Thirdly, we see from John 4:22-24 that our worship to the Lord must be bathed in truth. If what we are singing about is not true, it does not glorify the one true God but someone else. If what we teach is not true, it does not glorify the one true God but someone else. If the way we work and study is not a picture of Christ to this world, we are not glorifying God but someone else.
Finally, our hearts matter when it comes to worship. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind (Luke 10:27). Therefore, we cannot be passive when it comes to worship. We cannot simply be going through the motions. We sing out of the joy we have in the Lord because of what Christ has done for us on the cross. That is our motivation, and the deeper the incredible news of the gospel is driven into our hearts, the more joyful and passionate our worship of Christ will be.
So that is a pretty general picture of what worship is to be. But it is also important to cover what the Bible does not say about worship, particularly as it relates to the music on Sundays. First, the Bible is not specific about what instruments should be used. Now some may argue that the Bible does say we are to praise God with a cymbal or a harp. But I think we are pretty much in agreement those those are not the exhaustive list of instruments. However, I mention instruments because some are quick to allow some (organ, piano, violin), but then are dismissive of others (guitar, drums, bagpipes J). But we must see those for what they are: personal preferences as opposed to biblical principles.
Secondly, the Bible does not say what genre of songs we should sing. To say that we should only sing modern songs dismisses the rich theology and God’s work through some great hymn writers. On the other hand, to say that we should only sing old hymns likewise dismisses the rich theology and God’s work through some modern songwriters. Both can be glorifying to God. Both can be full of truth.
But I want to be careful as to not fall into the trap of setting up a false dichotomy. By that I mean that I do not want to imply that there are only two musical genres: traditional and contemporary. The truth is our musical preferences are much more diverse than that. To give you a few examples of what I mean: Lutherans and Baptists have different hymns in their hymnals; people make distinctions between “classic” hymns and the rest of the hymns; contemporary music can be anything from praise music, to Southern Gospel, to Rap, to Folk; and even contemporary music within each of these genres can means songs from 1970 to 2017 with each preferring their own decade of music.
Therefore, churches can sing hymns in church and still not meet the preferences of those who want to sing particular styles of hymns. Churches can sing praise songs in church and still not meet the preferences of those who want to sing a particular genre of praise music. Churches can sing contemporary songs in church and still not meet the preferences of those who want to sing songs from a particular decade.
So we quickly see how difficult it is to cater worship styles around the diverse preferences of an entire church. Regardless of how the worship sets are composed, some personal preferences must always be given priority over others. Not to mention, attempting to cater to the variety of worship preferences in the church fails to teach congregations about one vital aspect of Biblical worship: sacrifice.
Across the Old Testament, worship of God involved sacrifice. Everyone who wanted to worship Yahweh had to bring forth animals or crops to sacrifice; animals that were the pick of the litter, and crops that were the first fruits of the harvest. In other words, people had to sacrifice what was of high value to them in order to worship God.
As we move into the Gospels, the principle of sacrifice continues, only we see an even greater emphasis on God sacrificing for the sake of His people. Jesus gives up equality with God to come dwell among us. Jesus sacrifices fame, honor, and his desire to avoid the cross; in order to do His Father’s will and die on behalf of us. The Father gives up His only Son to be mocked, beaten, and crucified for our sins.
In response to God’s great mercy, Paul encourages the church in Romans 12:1-2 to, “Offer up your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God,” as our spiritual act of worship. Just as Jesus came to sacrifice His own life for the sake of others, so His true followers seek to sacrifice their own lives for the sake of God and others.
Husbands are called to lay down personal preferences for the sake of their wives. Leaders are called to humbly set aside personal preferences to serve others. Workers are called to set aside personal preferences to submit to their boss’ authority. Citizens are to set aside personal preferences to obey governing authority. Children are to set aside personal preferences to honor their fathers and mothers. In every sphere of life, worship of the Father involves setting aside personal preferences in order to love God and others. Therefore, we can reasonably conclude that worship in the church likewise includes setting aside our personal preferences of music and songs in order to love God and others. This is worship that glorifies the Father.
And in a miraculous way, this is also worship that brings us the most joy. Jesus ultimately sacrificed His life for the joy set before him (Hebrews 12:1-2). It was of great joy to him to give up his life for the sake of others. Likewise, he teaches us in Matthew 10:39 that whoever loses his life for Christ’s sake will find it. It is the old flesh that cries out, “My greatest joy is in having my personal preferences met.” But it is the renewed heart, a heart captivated by Christ’s sacrificial love for us on the cross, which cries out, “My greatest joy is in sacrificing my life for the sake of Christ and others.”
In summary, true worship is directed to the Father, filled with truth, lived out in every area of life, and sacrificial, for the glory of God and our personal joy.