A Worship Style Primer, Part 3

This is the third and final installment in a brief series outlining a few basic guidelines for worship style. In this series, I am countering the idea that worship style is mere preference, as promoted by Josh Teis and Robert Bakss.  If you have not yet read the first two articles on this subject, you really ought to before reading this article.  The two previous articles are available here and here.  In this article, I will lay out some practical considerations.  Please note, this article does not give a detailed list of Scriptural standards for worship.  The goal here is to give general principles.  In the future, I hope to address more specific answers to the contemporary style of worship now embraced by a growing number of Independent Baptists who hope to move others away from reverence in worship.

A “cowboy church” has a bull-riding arena in the middle of the “sanctuary.”  Another church hosts a “fight club” to reach people for Jesus.

Based on what Josh Teis argues, I wonder if he would disagree with doing these things as part of worship.  Would they cross a line, or would he say that this is simply a matter of one preference against another.  Based on his standards regarding music, I suspect that he would say that none of these things are unscriptural.  In his words…

“Draw a Line.  Tell us where you stand.  Is Christian Rap acceptable?  How about Christian Death Metal, Christian Reggae or Christian Dubstep?”

I cannot draw a line for you.  It would be against my Biblical position to do so.

According to Teis and Bakss, churches choose their style based on personal preference.  Dr. Ed Stetzer, meanwhile, argues (here) that style choices should not be made based on the pastor’s preference, but based on the church’s preference.  You can watch the video here.

What I don’t see from these men is any real concern about what God wants.  They believe that God has no preference, that God has not made His preference known.

But has He?

Style choices have objective meaning.  The style we utilize in our worship is every bit as much a part of the worship itself as the songs we sing, the clothing we wear, the lighting we use, and the arrangement of the platform.  From the time a person walks into the church to the time he leaves, the church is making a statement about the way it views worship and the way it views God.  The style choices a church makes will shape the church’s view of God and of the worship we offer to Him.  This is inescapable.  And this is the case because style has objective meaning.

Recently, an Evangelist friend of mine pointed out that most Christians learn their theology, not from the preaching or teaching or the church’s doctrinal statement, but from the songs the church sings.  I couldn’t agree more.  In many ways, poets rule the world.

But let me add to that.  People also develop their view of God from the style of worship they participate in.  For instance, if a person has regularly attended church at a formalistic, “high church” kind of church, he will probably view God as being cold and distant, austere and a bit unfriendly.  On the other hand, a person who has worshipped in a charismatic type of church is likely to see God as a power supply and spend much of his life attempting to plug into the source.  Our view of God is dramatically shaped by the style of worship where we gather.

God requires that we worship Him with reverence and godly fear, that we worship Him in the beauty of holiness.  These are the Scriptural requirements God gives for style in worship.  They are not subjective, and they are not fulfilled by our personal preferences.  They require submission to God’s Word in the way we approach Him.

The second of the ten commandments speaks to this issue.  God forbids us to worship Him by means of graven images. In part, this prohibition tells us that God knows our hearts.  He knows how prone we are to making idols. Worshipping Him by means of any visible token or manifestation would tend to turn our hearts away from Him and to the image.

Neither Is Worshipped with Men’s Hands

The Apostle Paul on Mars Hill informed the people of Athens that God is not worshipped with men’s hands (Acts 17:25), “as though he needed anything.”  Those religious traditions that do not use hymns or musical instruments (for instance, Reformed Presbyterians and some of the “plain” people like Amish and Mennonites) will refer to this verse as the Scriptural reason to reject musical instruments.  They see hymns and musical instruments as a violation of this “New Testament” principle of worship.

I think they take this both too far and at the same time not far enough.  If Paul’s statement is meant to prohibit our use of hymns or musical instruments, then what about sermons (composed by men)?  If we must only sing Psalms, why would we do anything other than read the Bible in church?  If we must not use musical instruments, why is okay to use our voices?

I don’t believe Paul meant to ban the use of anything composed by man.  The Psalms sung in Reformed Presbyterian churches are set to tunes composed by men.  So if Paul meant to ban these things, then those Psalm-only, no instrument traditions do not go far enough.  But I think they go too far in their application of Paul’s statement.  The statement Paul made shows us that God is not helped by what we do in worship.  Worship is not man’s assist to God or His truth.  We add nothing to God’s glory, and certainly not by the way we worship.

Paul applies the 2nd commandment to the way we worship and demonstrates that the way the world approaches God is wrong and dangerous.  The way we worship matters. That is Paul’s point.  We don’t worship God our way; we worship God His way.  We don’t invent ways to approach God; we approach God the way He has called us to approach Him.  We don’t invent ways to reach the lost; we reach the lost through gospel preaching.

When we use the things we make to worship God – the works of men’s hands – we wind up worshipping something that is not God.  That was the problem in Athens.  That is our problem today.  Throughout the OT, we find that idolatry always turned to the works of men’s hands (Deuteronomy 4:28; Psalm 115:4; Psalm 135:15).  Whenever men have relied on themselves to find ways to worship God, we have always ended up distracted from God, and ultimately turned to something that is not God.

So it is with contemporary worship.  We can easily observe the way contemporary worship becomes all about contemporary worship, and not at all about God.  The question I would ask of Josh Teis and Robert Bakss is this: if someone moves away from your area, what kind of church will they look for?  Will it be their priority to find a faithful, Bible-preaching Independent Baptist Church, or will they look for a contemporary church to join?  I think I know the answer to that question, but I am curious what these men would say.

By the way, I am reasonably confident that these men have read what I am writing.  If they haven’t, it is not because of a lack of effort on my part, as I have reached out to Teis personally, and more than once.  They are welcome to answer in the comments here or to contact me privately.

The point is that the way we worship shapes our expectations and desires in worship.  The 2nd commandment relates to style in worship – how we worship – more than what we worship.  And Paul tells us that God is not worshipped by means of man’s devices.  The word “with” in Acts 17:25 (“Neither is worshipped with men’s hands…”) translates the Greek ablative hypo, which means “by” and is an ablative of source pointing out the agency or the means of worship.  Paul tells us that we do not worship God by means of our own devices.  Clearly then, Paul means to instruct us regarding the style of our worship.

Cultural relevance must not be a consideration in our approach to worship.  We must limit our considerations to what God wants, not to what speaks to our culture or appeals to them.  God is not helped by our devices.  He tells us how to approach the heathen, and it definitely isn’t through music.  Paul in I Corinthians 1 and 2 gives further instruction on this.  Paul refused to appeal to the Corinthians in terms they would appreciate.  The Corinthians were some of the best-educated people in the world.  Like much of the Greek world, they were enamored with oratory.  Paul refused to appeal to them on that level.  Instead, he subdued his own natural ability as an orator in order to place emphasis on the preaching of the Gospel (I Corinthians 2:4).  He did this so successfully that false teachers later used it as a slander against him, that his writings were powerful but his physical presence was weak and his preaching lacked style (2 Corinthians 10:10).  Paul tells us very clearly that he did all of this so that the power would not be in the wisdom of words, but in the gospel (1 Corinthians 2:5).

This is as it must be in our churches.  We must not attempt to craft a message – whether in our preaching or our music – that the world, as the world, will appreciate.  The reason for this is really quite simple.  The world is in rebellion against God.  If the rebellious world appreciates the message, then the message is not of God.  The message that brings genuine conversion will be an offense to the world until such time as they are regenerated.

The Cultural Application of These Scriptural Requirements

Acknowledging then that there is an objective standard of beauty, it is our duty as Christians to uphold that standard in everything.  While we acknowledge the necessity of pragmatic considerations, we must reject every form of pragmatism, which elevates the useful to the level of ultimate authority.  Certainly, when making style choices, we must consider what works – what clothing is available to us, what decorations are appropriate, and so forth.  We arrange our auditorium according to the purpose.  But we must reject the notion that pragmatic considerations are the ultimate consideration, that our style choices should place utility above beauty.

In particular, we must remember that our purpose is worship, and the way we decorate the auditorium and arrange the platform communicates what we believe worship is about.  We can certainly say that those styles that emphasize the ideal of “cultural relevance” – in other words, that fit more closely with modern, contemporary culture – are an insult to the holiness of God.  The world does not love God.  Pandering to the world of any kind – whether in our doctrine, our ethic, or our style – is rebellion against God.  When we imitate the culture in our style or attempt to be “trendy” in our worship, we have joined in that rebellion against the holiness of God.

Our style should be distinctly Christian, and thus distinct from the world.  We must make a difference between the holy and the profane.  Therefore, our rule for style should be “transcendence” above “trendy.”  We do not deny that we must necessarily make our style choices in light of our culture.  We deny that our culture should dictate those style choices.

Every culture has standards for the casual and standards for the formal.  As our purpose is to reverence the name of God and to show forth His glory and praise, we must then determine that our style will show reverence the way our culture shows reverence.  Our culture has particular styles – whether music, clothing, platform, or lighting – that indicate the seriousness of the occasion.

If we think of it that way, it is not hard to understand what kind of style should be adopted by the church.  Our music should be reverent, proclaiming the glory and majesty of the Lord.  Our clothing should be “Sunday best,” and we should wear clothing that fits with what our culture says belongs to an important occasion – a suit or shirt and tie and sport coat for men; a nice dress for ladies.  The platform should clearly proclaim that preaching is central, that when we gather for worship, we intend to hear from God’s Word. And we should light our auditorium in such a way as to project the solemn joy of the occasion.  Church is not a performance, so we should not light the auditorium as if it were.  Church is a participation together.  Therefore, the lights should be turned on bright.  Together, these provide the church with guidelines for reverence in worship.

And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it. (Psalm 90:17)