“Secular” Music in Worship

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I want to get a few thoughts up here about using secular songs in church worship. I’ve had some opinions about this for quite a while, but lately as I’ve seen more churches revisit this trend, I’ve been revisiting my stance on the whole thing.

There’s definitely some pressure to consider including secular music in a purposeful way, especially as some high-production, “popular” churches are including recent pop songs, or playing “oldies but goodies” in themed worship services (maybe you’ve seen examples of this at North Point Community Church in GA, who have done a “Beatles Sunday” and some 90s themed weeks of music where their worship band has covered *NSYNC and other 90s pop stuff). First, to be fair, I don’t think any one of the churches I’ve seen doing this chooses a whole set of secular music; they’ll have one or two songs with a transition into two or three worship tunes. But I’ve been seeing this happen more and more in quite a few churches, and I’ve really been trying to figure out what motivations are behind this trend that recurs every five to ten years. I’m not totally sure since I can’t find many pastors, worship leaders, or churches saying much in writing about why they’re choosing to include secular popular music in their worship setlists. So my goal here is not to judge motivations, per se, since I do think some of the folks making this decision are well-meaning in their desire to use music to reach out, and build community and engagement. And obviously, I can’t see their heart either way. If you’d like to check my opinions with someone else’s, read this critique from piratechristian.com which, though it may seem harsh, is intensely biblical and, I think, justified in its evaluation. In-fact, I’d highly recommend that post as well, as it exposes the connection to wider trends of silliness in the Bible-believing church.

But what I’d like to do here, as a worship leader and pastor, is address the decision of whether or not to include secular music in our worship gatherings, which I think can be done totally independent of a critique of anyone’s motives. The plain question is, should we do it?

And my short answer is, emphatically, no we shouldn’t. Now here are a few key reasons why I say this.

  1. The commands of Scripture are limiting, in a good way. Study what your Bible says about music, and its role in the church, and you’ll find some specific commands and exhortations that keep us, if obeyed, from singing secular music in church. The Old Testament is key, especially the composition of the Psalms, as we see content and form really married together. And actually, God has given us the words to the Psalms, and not the sheet music; so really, content plays the greater role. Everything related to the worship of Israel in the OT, including worship at the temple, is taken very seriously, and is all explicitly done for God, and speaks of Him. I can’t imagine the Levite priests including a Justin Timberlake tune as part the worship at the Temple (though I really do like JT’s stuff). This isn’t just because the style obviously wouldn’t translate in any way to ancient Israel, but because the content, or really the whole package, taken together, would be an affront to the purpose of worship. Jump ahead to the church age, and read the commands for us today in the New Testament, telling us to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). My question here is, how can singing as a congregation, or listening to the worship band perform a pop song from secular radio, help the word of Christ live in our hearts and minds? Even if the song connects to the theme of a message or preaching series, we have to ask ourselves as we plan worship, does this song teach and admonish and encourage a Christian to know and walk with Christ? Does it build Godward thankfulness into our hearts as we sing or hear it? Maybe…depending on the song choice. Which leads me to the next point.
  2. We only have so much time in a worship gathering. On average, a worship leader gets the majority of their church people once a week in a corporate worship setting. And that’s probably an hour, to an hour and a half, with around thirty minutes of music. Many churches that provide more than two services work with even less time, and will have an average of three to four songs per service. Working with that short amount of time, I ask you, worship leader, would choosing to play “Can’t Stop the Feeling” make the wisest use of that time? Maybe you have some real thoughtful reasons behind playing a secular song. But are you maximizing your opportunity to do what Scripture says is most helpful to the souls gathered in your church, to play a song they could have heard twice on the radio on the drive there? Is that song helping the word of Christ dwell in the hearts of your people – you included – as well as a song written for this purpose? There has been such a resurgence in the past few years of skillfully-written, doctrinally rich worship music, I really believe there’s no excuse for not packing your worship setlist with as much Gospel treasure as possible, to send your people into their week fully armed and encouraged with the glories of Christ. Don’t waste time in your worship gatherings.
  3. The church should, purposefully, offer its people something different. In our culture, our church folks are bombarded by messages, arguments, and temptations from a fallen world. Especially with our widespread pseudo-community spread across social media, communication is lightning-fast, and often counter to the message of the Gospel. I hear the argument often that, since our people see live music produced on stage at concerts, and on shows like The Voice, we should attempt it in church because it’s what people like and want. But I don’t buy that. I think we should be skillful at always communicating and presenting the Gospel as attractively as possible, and adorn this beautiful message as beautifully as we can; but this does not equal providing what people see and hear in the rest of the culture. In-fact, I would argue that since culture bombards us the way it does with so much content, it’s best for all of our hearts if the church is different, both in the kind of content speaks into our lives, but also often in how it’s presented. If our people watch The Voice every week, with all of its audio production and pro lighting, it may be best to purposefully provide a little less in worship, to allow for contemplation of what we’re singing. If people are hearing hedonistic song lyrics about sexual revolution on the radio and on their Spotify playlists six days a week, is it really helpful to choose one more song from that catalogue for our worship gathering? Again, I ask, is picking music like this really helpful? Or as helpful as it could be? Some people…a lot of people…might like it. But are they really being built up in the faith, and given weight and substance to keep them treasuring Christ until the next Sunday, and to help them through their next trial?

As ministers of the Gospel, and of the word of Christ, let’s be purposeful, and really help our people. Give them real Gospel glory every week. Let’s not miss the brief chance we have each week to really provide life to our gathered church.

What only Jesus can do.

faithmapping“We treat our worship leaders as priests, expecting them to lead us into God’s presence in a way that is inaccessible apart from their charisma, emotion, and music. Every time we credit a worship leader with ‘leading us into God’s presence,’ we are anointing them as priests, and crediting them with doing something that only Jesus can do.” (emphasis added)

Daniel Montgomery and Mike Cosper, from their book Faithmapping (highly recommended book on the church!)

Nothing of these cynical utopianisms…

On reading Augustine, Russell Moore says,

“Exchanging pagan gods for a Christian one will not a conversion make, if the goals are the same: to achieve temporal prosperity and security.

How many times have we seen Christianity used in recent years in precisely the same way the polytheists of ancient Rome used their cultic devotion? Who can forget the television evangelists telling us, as the embers of the fallen Twin Towers still smoldered, that the September 11 attacks were God’s judgments on America for specific sins? How often do we hear the promises of God to his people in the Old Testament applied to America, as though Christian “revival” is the key to economic flourishing and military victory for the United States? And how often do we hear of the vanquishing of “judgmental” and “puritanical” religion as the key to getting America on the right side of history?

“Augustine would have nothing of these cynical utopianisms, and neither should we.”

Russell Moore, in a longer post on The Gospel Coalition here.

Thoughts from our 2015 WORSHIP WORKSHOP

Worship Workshop 2015

Last weekend about forty of us gathered for a worship workshop for our church team. We’ve been doing this for a few years now, and it’s been one of the best things we do together, in my opinion. It’s the non-negotiable thing we have to do as a team each year, at least once.

I took a chunk of the time (which I haven’t done each year) to teach and discuss something pressing for us as a worship team. This year we talked through ways to fight our culture of distraction, and pour effort, time, and resources into serving our church family with our gifts. Here’s a list of what we discussed, and what we’re striving for in our church family, and specifically as part of the corporate worship and music leadership.

  1. Obedience to do what Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 AND Hebrews talk about what we’re to do when we gather. These are some of the significant places that talk about our corporate worship gatherings. Ultimately, these passages restate what Hebrews 12:1-2 says to do when we gather as Christians – look to Jesus, the Author and Perfector of our faith!
  2. Faithfulness to be at church every week and keep doing it week-in and week-out. Show up. Whether you sing or not, or run PowerPoint or lights or not, whether it’s difficult or not, show up and be with the church, with the family of God.
  3. Orient your life around church, in a healthy way. What I mean by this is, don’t overbook your time, but consider the church in your decisions, and in how you use your time and resources. Ask yourself, will this build and encourage the rest of the church? Will this help me be a part of this church, for the good of my own relationship with God, for my family, etc?
  4. Don’t necessarily look for someone else to come along, some professional, to make things better. YOU do it. We’re the ones. One of my pet peeves is when I hear things like, “if only a pro sound engineer came, our band would finally sound halfway decent…” That may definitely be true. But If God hasn’t provided a professional sound tech, guitarist, or French horn player, or whatever, then that’s who God has ordained to have (or not to have) at your church at that particular time. He might be calling one of you (us) to step up and lean into that responsibility more, and to learn more, so we become that person.
  5. Improve. Commit and sacrifice to spend time getting better, to serve the church with your gifts. Take lessons, study songs, practice your instrument, start following helpful blogs or twitter accounts (churchsoundguy, etc). Spend time alone to do these things, if it helps make the time that you’re with the church better. Forgo distracting (fun) things for this.
  6. Be with God. Pursue your relationship with Him, and fight for your personal holiness and sanctification. Robert Murray M’Cheyne famously said, “The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness.” This is absolutely true of anyone on the worship team, serving at some level of leadership in your church. If the busyness and the “fun” stuff we’re all pursuing is not giving holiness to one another, it’s worthless and unhelpful.

Basically, the driving factor in all of this is, let your identity in Christ free you to give things up for the sake of His church, for His kingdom. Philippians 2:5-8 tells us to “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who…emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant.” Obedience and servanthood that is like Christ’s will take us to the cross, to lowliness, to sacrifice, for the sake of the most glorious things. We’re fighting at our church to sacrifice much effort and expend much energy to building up the body, and refining our various gifts to do this better and more.

 

A Case for Reading Good Books and Singing Good Songs

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In his book Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith builds a case for an understanding or “anthropology” of mankind that is liturgical. He argues that we are liturgical beings, shaped not only by ideas, but also, and even more so by our practices. We practice routines and habits in our daily living, that shape us over time into certain kinds of people.

Now, if this is the case, then reading and thereby immersing ourselves in certain “worlds” in reading fiction, for instance, just might shape us as well. Our imaginations are stirred by the stories we read and hear, and stories have proven to shape us into certain kinds of people in the same way as our real-life routines. Think about this: if I carve out some time to read through a book over, say, a couple months’ time, and this book captures my imagination and brings me into contact with a world where good is lauded and portrayed as good, and evil is exposed for being truly evil, my mind and heart might take on the rhythms and feelings and colors of that world of the story.

May we not neglect to immerse ourselves in the Bible, since it’s truly the only Story ultimately capable of really transforming anyone. God does not work through any other book or piece of art the same way. But I obviously think of Lewis’ Narnia books, or Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, both top favorites of mine, as stories worth reading for their shaping influences. In these stories, we immerse our imaginations in worlds where Hope is real, Joy is solid, and there are sovereign purposes at work in the universe. And spending repeated sittings in these books may, over time, turn you into the kind of person who thinks the same ways about the world and about yourself. If you read trashy fiction, enough exposure to it just might shape you into a trashily-minded member of the created order.

In a similar vein, I’ve thought recently about how this liturgical anthropology has a very specific bearing on the content of our songs in corporate worship in a church setting. Does your church sing songs that are vague, disjointed, and/or theologically messy? Worship leaders, do you listen to, and pick songs for your church families that are rich in truth, and that express that truth clearly and poetically? Smith’s anthropology argues that even the way our songs express truth will shape us, even if everything the songs say is technically correct. Go through enough rhythms of singing true, but sloppily written, vague songs in church and you’ll start to think the same way the songs do.

In my role of picking songs for my church to sing in worship, I’ve had a couple times in the past few months where I’ve had to seriously consider scrapping a song, or a verse of a song, that caused more head-scratching and confusion than not. And I confess I had to get over my own pride in these situations, to stop singing a song I really do love to sing, but that wasn’t helpful for a gathered church.

I want to make sure I feed my own soul with the right kinds of shaping influences, and this is probably needed now more than ever in my lifetime, and in our cultural moment. I want to think clearly about God, myself, and the world; and I want to love good and abhor evil. Not in a gooey, subjective way, but in a real, solid, clearheaded, die-for-what-I-believe-in way. To do this I need all the help I can get.

To play, or not to play (“Oceans”)?

Oceans

I’ve had a few good conversations this past week, with friends who plan and lead corporate worship, about evaluating the songs we choose to sing together in our churches. I think these conversations ultimately edified all parties involved, though not everyone ended up in mutual agreement. It all serves as a good reminder to me of some of the dividing lines right now in corporate worship, as well as a reminder of the reasons we pick the songs we do at our church. It might not be surprising that my conversations centered around the merits of Hillsong’s “Oceans” and John Mark McMillan’s “How He Loves,” and whether or not these (and songs like them) are good choices for gathered, corporate singing.

First of all, “Oceans” has proven much more popular than “How He Loves,” though both have been pretty huge the past few years. “Oceans” has really been the “silver bullet,” “hip new thing” of the past year, placing as one of the top 10 most-searched-for, and most-downloaded songs of 2014 from the CCLI database; and judging from what I read on The Worship Community and what I see and hear about from other local worship leaders and churches, this song has been played quite a bit the past year. It really resonates with lots of folks, and I’ve gotten quite a few suggestions for it too. But we don’t play it at our church for corporate worship. Here’s why. Please don’t write me off as a curmudgeon.

Just know at the outset that I really do love both “Oceans” and “How He Loves.” My heart has been drawn to worship Christ through listening to, and being led to sing along to these songs. I think they’re beautifully written, and pretty well-crafted in melody and in lyric. But these are two very current examples of a “type” of song that I find unhelpful to include too often in the gathered worship repertoire of a local church.

The problem I do have with these songs, is that they’re so heavy on metaphor and figurative language, that meaning is obscured. This is a problem in corporate worship. As a worship leader, I’ve grown to be uncomfortable leading songs  that don’t speak clearly enough for themselves, at face value, through their lyrics. The category lines are a little fuzzy here; but certain songs make me feel the need, if I’m the one leading the singing, to explain the meaning of the lyrics every time we include the song in a worship set. I think songs like this are potentially dangerous for Christians, in a corporate singing context, because the time will inevitably come when the worship leader decides not to, or forgets, to explain the lyrics. And I’ve learned that poetic metaphors are not, I repeat NOT always clear to everyone present. When the metaphors aren’t clear, our fallible human intellects and emotions are “prone to wander” and take our thoughts places the songwriter didn’t intend. Or, in a more worst-case scenario, we can erroneously fill a self-centered and/or heretical meaning into lyrics where the meaning is fuzzy or veiled to begin with.

Again, “Oceans” and “How He Loves” are two popular songs that aren’t wrong to sing and worship with. But I think there are definitely better songs to build into our churches’ regular rotations – songs that are clear, and where the Gospel truths are rock-solid and gloriously expressed. Like I said to a friend (who thankfully agreed with me!), I think “Oceans” is a song that might be best worshiped-with on an individual basis, at home or in your car, when you know exactly what you mean when you sing along – not in a corporate setting with a couple hundred people gathered and singing together. If you’re interested, Thabiti Anyabwile’s book The Life of God in the Soul of the Church has a super helpful chapter on evaluating the lyrical style and content of church music.

I don’t think that was too curmudgeonly. I hope not.

No ideal polity.

There is no ideal polity, or political system, in the world the way that it is now. Really good stuff from Jonathan Leeman. Read his whole article here.

“[T]here is no ideal polity apart from renewed and regenerate hearts. You can have God’s chosen king and a divinely revealed law, and still a nation will lurch toward idolatry, injustice, child sacrifice, oppressing the poor and foreigner, and ruling by bribery.

The truly ideal polity combines not only righteous laws, but hearts that actually want to obey those laws. And that ideal polity can in fact be found in the new covenant, regenerate church.

Really, this is the topic for another article. But for the record, it is the local church that should act as God’s ideal polity on planet earth. Churches are Christ’s kingdom embassies of God’s justice and righteousness, and they are to provoke the wonder and envy of the nations.

Where will swords first be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks as enemies learn to love one another? Where should we look for “the just and lasting peace” that Abraham Lincoln pined for in his second inaugural? Where should we expect to see little black boys and girls sitting down with little white boys and girls, as Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed? In your church and mine. There the end of history has broken into the present, and we find God’s version of the ideal polity.”