Recently, several pastors reached out to me about a conference in the Northeast where both Southern Gospel and Contemporary Christian music were a major part of the program. As a result of their call, I began to look into the use of contemporary music among Independent Baptists. For quite a few years now, a segment of Independent Baptist pastors and churches have been “modifying” contemporary worship music, attempting to use the music without the characteristic soft rock beats and rhythms. Over the past few years, some have thrown off their inhibitions, so that we now have a group of men who do not conceal their whole-hearted embrace of contemporary worship music. They don’t water it down. They don’t deny it or downplay it. They have in fact launched a campaign to correct what they see as the “unscriptural” view of worship held by so many stodgy Independent Baptists.
Though I find their position appalling, it at least has the advantage of being honest, which cannot be said for those who have watered-down contemporary music and pretended that their standards have not shifted. These guys don’t hide their embrace of CCM. I won’t hide my absolute disagreement with them.
The most important link I could provide is this video, where two such contemporary Independent Baptists provide us with the rationale for their embrace of contemporary worship music:
Here are seven brief observations, followed by a longer response.
- These men represent a growing movement among Independent Baptists.
- They like to remind us that they are – actually that “we” are – Independent Baptists, with an emphasis on independent.
- They do not like the fact that some separate over music.
- They argue for the use of electric guitars, trap sets, and so forth on the basis that the instruments mentioned in the book of Psalms include Philistine guitars and various Egyptian instruments.
- Their main premise is that musical style is a preference, and thus a matter of indifference. They see no reason to study music theory. Since the Bible says nothing about a particular musical style, we are free to choose for ourselves.
- They take the same approach to style in clothing and platform style as they do to musical style.
- They think worship is about stirring up their own passion for God, rather than about giving God what He wants.
- The contemporary music push is the death rattle of a dying church. This style of worship is not becoming more popular because we are becoming more faithful. In our attempt to pander to the audience, we have forgotten that God is the audience. God now bores us. The more dependent we become on this kind of external approach to worship, the more we lose the very heart of worship. Eventually, Christians will find that they must have the contemporary kind of music or they cannot worship. Contemporary worship turns the audience into spectators and the music into a performance. It produces a low view of God, a delight in the experience of worship rather than the God we worship, a superficial sense of passion that loses the passion of true worship, a growing dependence on the experience produced by the music itself, and the false idea that worship is easy, that devotion can be whipped up in a couple of choruses. True worship is challenging – it requires focus and diligence and depth, all things that CCM discourages.
- It is true that they are independent. Our objections to contemporary worship styles are not an attempt to deny these churches their autonomy. They certainly can pursue whatever worship style they choose. So can snake-handlers. But autonomy as far as church government goes must not be confused with autonomy as far as God goes. I would not deny these churches the right to act as independents. Certainly, one church has no authority to dictate the way another church worships. But God does. His Word certainly does set standards for music and worship (Hebrews 12:28-29). Independence does not mean we can do what we want.
- We are independent as well. As such, we have a responsibility to follow Scripture when it comes to fellowship and cooperation. We have a duty, in particular, to separate from those who walk disorderly. Musical style indicates what a church thinks of God. Scripturally, we cannot pretend to be in good fellowship with churches who have chosen relevance over reverence. So, while we do not attempt to dictate the way another church should worship, we most certainly do have a God-given responsibility to determine the limits of our fellowship. In a video dialogue between Pastor Josh Teis and Pastor Robert Bakss, author of Worship Wars, the argument is made that to separate over musical style is to place musical style on the same level as doctrines such as the Virgin birth, salvation by grace alone, and so forth. This is a neat trick, a sleight of hand argument. Having assumed that the worship debate is about style in worship rather than the very substance of worship, they proceed to minimize the significance of the issue. But the debate is over the very nature of worship, and whether the contemporary style of music is appropriate for our approach to a holy God. Is it appropriate to make worship about our style preference, or must we worship God in the beauty of holiness? Worship is a major doctrine, and reducing God to the level of the common and profane is a serious slight against God. And that is as serious as the doctrine of the Virgin birth. We strongly urge faithful Independent Baptist Churches to use your liberty to honor God with dignity and reverence in worship, and to separate from those churches who turn what is holy into something profane.
- No doubt Israel brought a variety of musical instruments with them out of Egypt, and no doubt they collected some Philistine guitars along the way. It is one thing to play a Philistine guitar. It is quite another to play that guitar like a Philistine. Far too many contemporary performers play like Philistines.
- The claim that musical style is nothing more than a preference choice demonstrates just how relativistic these men have become. They have purposely ignored the study of music theory. They believe that we should only need to study the Bible to see what kind of style is required. They remind us, somewhat condescendingly, that the Bible says nothing about syncopation or “beat anticipation.” So saying, they purposely ignore the clear message musical style sends about the occasion of worship. Their determined know-nothingness aside, style still informs us about the meaning of the occasion. Movie producers understand this. Most people know what music is appropriate for weddings, funerals, classy restaurants, backyard barbecues, military parades and basketball games. These men believe we can drag any style into the worship service, slap some sacred lyrics onto it, and somehow “redeem it.”The Book of Psalms, one of the largest books of the Bible, gives us 150 examples of music for praising the Lord. The dignity, reverence, majesty, and solemn joy that permeate the Psalms show us clearly what God wants from us (see for instance Psalm 66:2; 92:1-3; 95:1; 96:3-10). In fact, a big part of our problem is that we stopped singing Psalms years ago, and therefore we don’t really understand the ways God wants to be praised and worshipped. We have to import a lot of emotion and sensory experience into our music because we stopped praising God with His own words.
- Style is the meaning. The music, dress, and trendy look of the contemporary Independent Baptists tell us less about their view of style and so much more about their view of God. The same can be said for most events. The way we dress and the music we play tells more about the way we view the event than it does about the way we view style. Sports teams don’t play classical music during breaks. If a person wears wingtips and a suit to a basketball game, he tells us clearly what he thinks of the occasion. When people show up at a wedding in shorts and sandals, they say what they think of the wedding itself, not just what they think of clothing style. The clothing and platform style of these contemporary Independent Baptists displays a casual view of God. When the pulpit is removed, the auditorium lights dimmed, stage lighting lights the platform, the pastor preaches in skinny jeans, and the electric guitar and trap set take center stage, these men clearly communicate what they believe worship to be about. The prominent display of this contemporary style on their church websites tell us what they think church is and what they want everyone to know about their church. This is what they advertise. With the contemporary Independent Baptists, worship is trendy. God is casual.
- Their view of worship is not all that unusual. In fact, they have taken the worship experience of most Independent Baptist Churches to its logical conclusion. For years now, we have designed our services around the worshipper rather than the one worshipped. We sing more about our own experiences and feelings for God than we do about God. We preach to stir the audience rather than to declare the whole counsel of God. We sing “In the Garden” like we are having a tryst with God, and we are too busy touching emotional chords to really sing to the Lord. Contrary to Teis and Bakss, worship is about God, not about feeding my passion for God. When we make our music about giving God the praise and honor that is due to His name, worshipping Him with solemn joy and delighting in Him personally, then we don’t need to import superficial excitement into the song service.
Some final thoughts
Style in worship reflects our view of God and shapes our view of God. The contemporary style of music pulls God down to our level and makes Him one of us. If our music presents a true picture of God, there will be a transcendent quality to it, a majesty and glory that proclaim to a watching world the glory of our God.
Some have attempted to boil the issue down to a conflict between the “traditional” and the “contemporary.” Some are conservative, others more progressive. But these labels misidentify the true conflict. The real conflict is for the heart of worship. That conflict will be settled when we stop playing for the audience in front of us. And we will stop playing for the audience in front of us when we remember Who the real audience is – because God Almighty is our true audience.
Links and Demos
For a sampling of Independent Baptist Churches watering down the CCM, watch the music at https://summit.northeastvision.org/summit-live.html
Also, view this cantata:
For examples of Independent Baptist Churches who have fully embraced contemporary worship, here are three such churches:
Also, these videos provide more examples: