By Ed Vasicek
During my lifetime, many evangelical churches in American have moved from Bible-oriented gatherings to music-dominated meetings. Interestingly, both sets of religious gatherings typically bore the title, “Worship Service.”
When the evangelical church was Bible-oriented, this “worship” paradigm was in place:
(1) Not all elements of the service were considered equally important; the exposition of Scripture was clearly the first and foremost priority. All other competitors vied for a distant second place.
(2) When the term “worship” was used, it was the equivalent of our modern casual expression, “doing church.” It is important to note that the preaching of the Word was considered part of worship, as were announcements, testimonies, communion, prayer, singing, the offering, and special music. This was the typical structure of a “worship service” before 1980.
(3) Many evangelicals viewed music as a “warm up for the sermon.” In this regard, many leaders did not seem to often respect music ministry as actual ministry but many others did.
But the paradigm has changed in many churches. The most important change was what the word “worship” communicates. The word “worship” is now used by clergy and laity alike to refer to the religious feelings aroused by music.
(1) The change in paradigms began with the addition on an article: “the” worship. As trivial as this seems, this was the beginning of emphasizing music and separating preaching and announcements from worship. We now have “the worship” and “the sermon.”
Here is just one possible scenario resulting from this change in definition. John Member has schedule a meeting with Pastor Jones. Let’s eavesdrop.
“Pastor, I think we need to cut down the time you preach. Fifteen minutes is plenty, I think.”
“I don’t agree,” replies Pastor Jones, “studying the Bible is crucial for every Christian.”
“Oh, I agree that the Bible is important, Pastor,” responds John Member, “but our morning service is billed as the morning worship service, so it should be mainly about worship, not preaching.”
In the above hypothetical conversation, you can see how the two meanings of the word “worship” are colliding with one another. In the pastor’s mind, Bible study is an important part of worship, but not in the mind of John Member. He views only music as “worship.”
(2) Other terminology changed. Schools that offered a major in church music (or “sacred music” for the hoi polloi) changed the major to “Worship Arts” (about the same time shades and curtains became “window treatments”). The song leader became known as the “worship leader.”
(3) Music became more emotionally intense, and a confusion between the emotional and the spiritual helped set music on an untouchable pedestal. Worship had become something one felt, not something one did. Worship was judged as good or bad based upon how it made worshippers feel. The Scriptures no longer defined good worship; the individual had become the discerner of truth based upon how he felt.
(4) In mega-churches, elitism and an attitude oriented toward musicians performing to the standards of other musicians (rather than aiming to bless the congregation) seems to be the norm. In some cases, musicians have become a special religious caste (like a priest, they lead the sacrifice of praise into the holy place).
(5) Even though Colossians 3:16 implies we should aim our hymns and songs both vertically and horizontally (we sing to one another and in our hearts to the Lord), the entire concept of worshiping God in the third person is gone, despite the fact that many Psalms speak of God as “He” rather than “You.”
(6) The goal of worship is creating a religious atmosphere and its attendant feelings. Often times worship leaders are weak in biblical and theological matters, but because more Christians value “worship” above theology, some of these leaders are carving out a pattern for church with little regard for biblical teaching about what the church is supposed to do when gathered.
(7) Here is the pattern: eventually worship (music and that religious feeling) is considered almost on a par with Scripture, then equal to Scripture, and eventually superior to it.* The Scriptures become subservient to the music and are used more as transitions between songs than holy word to be expounded. Biblical sermons have given way to self-help lectures or emotionally charged sermons with lots of illustrations—replacing the previous Psalm 1 mentality. The idea of worshiping God through deep Bible study and meditation in the Word is unknown; worship now means music and feelings.
The consequences & dangers of the new “worship format”
Religion is back in vogue. We used to hear “I’m not religious, I just love the Lord,” or “Christianity is not a religion; it is a relationship.” Because of the new emphasis on religious feeling, it is fair to say that we have moved back into the domain of religion.
Worship has become a religious experience dependent upon something else than the gathering of Christians to study the Word, pray, celebrate communion, and sing a few hymns. Based upon modern viewpoints, the early church must have done a poor job of worshipping God.
If the church is about worship, and if worship is a religious feeling induced from a church gathering, then, if I get a stronger version of that feeling somewhere else, that is where I need to be. Rather than the Bible, a passionate feeling of worship becomes the canon by which I measure truth.
As a result, Christians not only move from evangelical church to evangelical church, but they also desert evangelicalism. Our heritage is based upon the centrality of Scripture; we are really novices at the religion game. But even if we competed well on a religious level, are we right to trash the primacy of Scripture? What about the convictions of the Reformation?
The problem is not contemporary music, seeking to have meaningful worship through songs of praise, etc. The problem is displacement. When we displace the knowledge of the Word and solid doctrine with music (whether we call music worship or not), we are no longer under the lordship of Christ. The Christian life includes public worship, but the highest form of worship is hearing and doing the Word of God. That is why the ultimate “worship book” in the Bible, the book of Psalms, begins with emphasizing constant meditation on the Word. The longest Psalm (119) makes the point even more emphatically. God seeks those who worship Him in Spirit and in truth. It is hard to worship God in truth if you don’t know the truth and if you do not make the truth a priority.