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Spurgeon on music in worship

If you want to venture into contentious and acrimonious debates, bring up music in worship. The past three or four decades have witnessed much heat and, too often, little light when it comes to the “worship wars.” Contemporary versus traditional, choruses versus hymns, types of musical instruments allowed or none at all, praise bands or choirs—these are among the disagreements concerning music during corporate worship.

A good deal of the discussion centers upon the reason for having music during the church’s corporate worship. Those who favor contemporary music deem that it better connects with the culture. They see it as an evangelistic tool. And, frankly, I think a lot of churches have adopted praise teams with their contemporary music because of the “cool” factor.

If we allow Scripture to guide us, we will be hard pressed to justify music during worship as an evangelistic tool. Worship, by its very definition, is that which is done by Christians. The purpose of the church’s gathering is not to evangelize unbelievers. The purpose is to worship God. And being attractive to the world should be the least of our concerns.

Unbelievers do attend worship services of local churches, but Paul indicated that such attenders comprised a small minority (1 Corinthians 14:23). Some churches which are so enthralled with contemporary music would do well to understand that the idea is not new and has been opposed by godly leaders in the past. Charles Spurgeon, writing during the latter-half to the nineteenth century, commented: “I hardly like to hear the high praises of God sung to the tune of a comic song or of a dance. There is a certain congruity about things that must be observed, and some good music may have associated with it such queer ideas that we had better let it alone till those associations have died out, lest, while we are uttering holy words, some people may be reminded by the tune of unholy things.”

Because worship is a corporate exercise, the highest form of singing is congregational. Choirs can be edifying, and I appreciate the extraordinary time and effort which Claire and our choir give toward worship, but choirs are not essential. (Please don’t stone me!) Congregational singing, though, is essential. Charles Spurgeon put it this way: “I am afraid that where organs, choirs, and singing men and women are left to do the praise of the congregation, men’s minds are more occupied with the due performance of the music than with the Lord, who alone is to be praised. God’s house is meant to be sacred unto himself, but too often it is made an opera house, and Christians form an audience, not an adoring assembly. We come not together to amuse ourselves, to display our powers of melody, or our aptness in creating harmony. We come to pay our adoration at the footstool of the great King, to whom alone be glory forever and ever.”

I found it interesting, while listening to some sermons from a particularly large evangelical church in Cardiff, Wales, that the pastor or whoever may be preaching simply announced the hymn, the organ began playing, and the congregation sang. An American friend who was converted to Christ at that church told me the congregational singing was an incredible thing to behold. I wonder at times whether we have subconsciously relegated singing to a few talented folks. Singing is the church’s joy. Spurgeon put it this way: “Do we sing as much as the birds do? Yet what have birds to sing about, compared with us? Do we sing as much as the angels do? Yet they were never redeemed by the blood of Christ. Birds of the air, shall you excel me? Angels, shall you exceed me? You have done so, but I intend to emulate you, and day by day, and night by night, pour forth my soul in sacred song.”

“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).

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In our entertainment-driven “worship experiences,” the life of William Cowper (1731-1800) points us to a radically different, and dare I say, more biblical understanding of the gravity of our coming before God on the Lord’s Day. Suffering acutely from prolonged bouts of depression, Cowper understood his own unworthiness to enter God’s presence. In the conclusion to his The Hidden Smile of God: The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper, and David Brainerd, John Piper makes a timely observation:

The fruit of William Cowper’s affliction is a call to free ourselves from trite and chipper worship. If the Christian life has become the path of ease and fun in the modern West, then corporate worship is the place of increasing entertainment. The problem is not a battle between contemporary worship music and hymns; the problem is that there aren’t enough martyrs during the week. If no soldiers are perishing, what you want on Sunday is Bob Hope and some pretty girls, not the army chaplain and a surgeon.

Cowper was sick. But in his sickness he saw things that we so desperately need to see. He saw hell. And sometimes he saw heaven. He knew terror. And sometimes he knew ecstasy. When I stand to welcome the people to worship on Sunday morning, I know that there are William Cowpers in the congregation. There are spouses who can barely talk. There are sullen teenagers living double lives at home and school. There are widows who still feel the amputation of a fifty-year partner. There are single people who have not been hugged for twenty years. There are men in the prime of their lives with cancer.There are moms who have carried two tiny caskets. There are soldiers of the cross who have risked all for Jesus and bear the scars. There are tired and discouraged and lonely strugglers. Shall we come to them with a joke?

They can read the comics everyday. What they need from me is not more bouncy, frisky smiles and stories. What they need is a kind of joyful earnestness that makes the broken heart feel hopeful and helps the ones who are drunk with trifles sober up for greater joys (167).

We need to be pointed to the thrice-holy God who is reconciled to believing sinners through the sacrificial death of the Son of God. We need to remember that, left to ourselves, we deserve an eternal hell for having violated this Sovereign’s demands. We need to enter his presence reverently, worship soberly, and leave aware of his blessing because we are reminded that Christ suffered and died for rebels such as we are. And yes, perhaps we need a little suffering during the week for the cause of Christ. A touch of Cowper’s gravity would do us good.

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Fun? How about worship?

A news account and a church advertisement reminded me that many evangelicals see their gathering on Sunday morning primarily as a time for having fun and building relationships. Admittedly, it may seem like I’m just an old curmudgeon and will stand accused of fearing that somebody somewhere is having a good time, but I believe that churches which are built on fun and relationships are part of the reason Christianity is deemed irrelevant by all too many in our culture.

Frankly, if I want to have fun, I’d rather go play a round of golf. If I want to be entertained with music, I’ll listen to my iPod or go to a concert. If I want to build relationships, Kynette and I will invite someone for dinner. I do not go to church on Sunday mornings for fun or entertainment or to build relationships; I go to worship God with fellow believers.

Our problem is that we have made what are called “worship services” into man-centered events. It’s all about my blessing, my edification, my enjoyment, my fun. Such a view is merely secular humanism cloaked with some Bible and God-talk. In many services, congregations applaud a soloist or the choir for music well sung. And, yes, I’ve heard defenders of applauding in worship say, “We’re giving the Lord a hand.” Or, they’ll point to some Old Testament passage about clapping, providing more evidence of eisegesis run amuck. If you have to point out why you do a practice so that others won’t misunderstand, the practice itself is suspect.

I find such practices as customs to avoid, not imitate. When I gather with God’s people on Sunday morning, I want to be a part of singing that is doctrinally sound and reverent, praying that is God-focused, and preaching that faithfully exposits and applies the Scriptures. Worship, by the very word, is to be God-centered, not man-centered. It is for God’s glory, not for our blessing. “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!'” (Psalm 122:1, ESV), not because we’re looking for fun, but because we delight in the Lord.

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