Music in Worship by Mark Gungor
Allow me to begin by saying that I am a musician. I have played music since I was 13 years old. I have played around the world in Christian bands and worship services for over 30 years. I was part of one of the first Christian rock bands in the 70’s. I know what it means to play in church services, both traditional and contemporary. I have written and produced music for radio and television for almost 20 years. I was even the producer of a recording used in the sound track of the hit movie The Bucket List.
So let it be clear: I am not against music or musicians when it comes to the Christian experience. Quite the contrary; music can be a powerful part of the worship experience. But, I believe we have some big problems when it comes to music in many churches today.
PROBLEM #1: We have defined singing as worship.
Look up the word worship and you will find definitions like this:
to show devotion or reverence; adore or venerate; to have intense love or admiration for; to offer prayers; etc…
Interesting that there is no mention of music. Oh, don’t get me wrong. One can surely use music to adore or show reverence, but one does not need music to do that. In other words: Singing is not, in and of itself, worship.
Many churches today have wonderful music, great bands, singers, lights and effects, video screens and the like. Many consider THAT to be worship. Well, it may be a part of worship, but one does not need a Christian version of American Idol on a stage to engage in worship. I’ll go even further: Just because one engages in a Christian version of a rock-star stage show, clapping and waving, it does not mean they are worshiping. Lots of fans of rock, blues, punk, rap, etc., listen to their favorite bands, sing along, wave, jump and scream, but are not “worshiping”; they are just having a good time. (I dare say there is little difference, sadly, between many church “worship” services and a standard rock or country concert.)
Not only have many churches re-defined worship to be a full band on stage with lights and effects, they assume that only such an expression is true worship. Remove the band and singers from many of these church services and people would scream bloody murder that the church is no longer worshiping. Sadly, remove the prayer, offering, sermon or communion and only have singing, people would shout to high heaven about what a great worship service it was! Schedule an evening of just singing and we call it a “Worship Night”. Many have defined singing as “worship”, when it should only be considered a part of the overall worship experience.
Has anyone ever noticed that no place in the Gospels does it ever record that Jesus and his disciples rocked back and forth, raised their hands and sang at the top of their lungs for 30, 40, 60 minutes or more? In fact, there is only one record of them singing at all. They sang ONE hymn and moved on. I think that lots of Christians today would not have liked going to a church where Jesus and his disciples gathered. They would have bitterly complained saying, “They do not worship!” Really??
And while the New Testament does refer to psalms, hymns and spiritual songs as part of the worship expression and we read in Acts how Paul and Silas sang out at midnight from their prison cells, does anybody really believe they “worshiped” like we do today—band playing, pretty girls jumping around, lights flashing as bass and drums rocked the house? Seriously??
Look, I’m not against modern expressions of praise. Just don’t make it the definition of worship. Historically, churches referred to the musical part of the service as “singing hymns” or “song services”. They did not, however, define “worship” solely as singing. That is a relatively new phenomenon.
Problem #2: We have elevated the status of the “Worship Leader”.
Not only have churches re-defined singing as “worship”, many have raised the participants of music to a level equal to the level of the elders of the church or the pastorate. Our worship leaders have become the de facto “priests of worship” in our gatherings. And while I appreciate a great singer or musician, there is no mention in the New Testament of “worship leader” along with the five-fold ministry gifts that God gave the church.
Worship “leaders”, singers and musicians are told that they are something special, anointed servants, true vessels of the presence of God, leading others before the throne of God, and as the high priests of worship, must conduct themselves in just the right way so that God can “move” through the congregation. But this is utter nonsense. They have created an Old Testament model akin to the priests of the temple or of Moses raising his hands to bring victory (remember, if Moses’ hands fell down, the army was defeated) or a model of Sampson who, if his hair was not just right, could not experience the power of God.
The truth is, however, that people can worship God, I don’t care WHO the worship “leader” is or how spiritual or unspiritual the band is. My ability to adore Jesus has little to no connection to how “holy” or “un-holy” the musicians are. We don’t live in the Old Testament where the “vessel” was everything—the connecting point for people to experience God. We live in the NEW Testament where every believer has direct access to God and does not need a “priest of worship” to make that possible.
And the stories I could tell of the so-called “powerful”, “anointed”, “spirit lead” worship leaders who wowed and amazed thousands, only to discover later that these “priests of worship” were: fornicating (gay or heterosexual versions – let’s “include” everyone), committing adultery, faking cancer, gambling, getting divorced, or hooked on porn—the WHOLE time they were wowing the masses! How is that possible? Because God connects with his people and his people connect with him, no matter who the so-called worship “leader” is. But upon seeing this empirical evidence, do the spiritual leaders of these churches come to the logical conclusion that there is nothing uniquely holy about singers, musicians and worship “leaders”? Sadly, no.
In my church, musicians are on the stage for one reason: They can sing or they can play—period. They are not pastors, apostles, prophets, evangelists or teachers—they are musicians. They hold no special status like that of an elder or deacon. Quite frankly, their spiritual status is of little matter and in some cases, not required at all. We don’t put the musicians on our platform through a spiritual filter anymore than we would ask that of the construction workers who built the building. We do not hire a construction worker based on the condition of his heart, but on the status of his skill. So it is with our musicians.
Now granted, if you get some highly skilled singer off the street to lead your song service, it may be rather awkward since he/she would not know the culture, the songs, the temperament of the church, or even how to begin to honor God in a church service. It is always ideal and preferable to have a committed believer lead the music; one who understands who God is and what it is we are trying to do. But at the end of the day they are up there for one overwhelming reason: They have musical skill.
Of course an argument can be made that a church doesn’t want people on the platform who do not reflect the values of their church. I think that is fair and is certainly within the prerogative of the leadership of that church. I suppose I would not want someone who is coming in, after snorting cocaine, leading the congregation in a rather spirited version of “Amazing Grace”. But that still does not change the fact that the spiritual or “heart” status of the musician has anything to do with how people worship God. Again, our singers and musicians are up there because they can sing or play—period, not because they have some unique Old Testament version of an “anointing”.
I remember being back stage at a big Christian music event before our band went on. The lead singer of the next band, some 20-something-year-old chick, was back stage whining, complaining and being quite ugly. But as soon as she stepped on to the stage…WOW!! She was amazing! I’ll never forget it. Was she experiencing some version of a spiritual anointing? No. She was just really talented and knew how to sell a song. She was highly skilled.
Speaking of skill… A lot of musicians and singers would find their ministries to be far more effective if they worked more on their musical skills rather than their “anointing” or state of heart. Choirs would be more effective if they spent more time rehearsing and less time in their own mini “Singers Bible Study”. Not that state of heart or Bible study is not important, because it is important—for every believer, whether they sing on stage or change diapers in the nursery. Always strive for a pure heart, but good grief, if you’re going to play or sing on the platform: Work on your skills!!
I tell you that if Celine Dion showed up at any Evangelical church this Sunday and sang “Amazing Grace”, the place would glow with wonder and amazement and people would worship and touch God—and I’m not sure she is even a professing Christian. Her TALENT would lift people’s hearts and minds. True worship would happen because God’s people would connect with God—it has never been, nor will it ever be, about the spiritual status of the singer or the players.
And consider this: Many (if not most) of the musicians you hear on Christian recordings are not believers in Jesus at all. Some of them, frankly, are quite accomplished heathens and pagans (I know—I’ve met them). You think when you hear that big string section on your favorite worship CD that they are all committed followers of Christ? Hardly. Yet you worship and praise God when you hear these recordings. Why? Because its not about the musicians—it’s about you and God.
I also do not refer to what our singers and musicians do as “worship”. It is not. It is a part of the worship experience, but it is not, in and of itself, worship. It is we, who gather in Christ’s name, who worship—as we pray, as we hear God’s word, as we give, as we take communion, as we serve and as we sing.
Problem #3: Singing has become the new “penance”.
I am stunned at how many people consider themselves committed Christians primarily because they come to church and sing.
They don’t give any money.
They don’t serve in any meaningful way.
They don’t pray.
They don’t study the Bible. (Anyone noticed the rise of Biblical illiteracy among professing Christians today?)
They divorce their spouses for unbiblical reasons.
They are up to their eyeballs in sexual sin.
Yet they consider themselves committed Christians. Why? Because they sing in church. The emotional vetting they experience during singing has taken the place of sorrow, confession, repentance and restitution. I can’t help but think of the words of Jesus when he said, “Not everyone who says [or I’m sure: sings] Lord, Lord, will get into the kingdom of heaven”.
Problem #4: It turns away men.
We have a “man” problem in the church today. Christianity has become the only major religion that appeals more to women then to men.
Islam doesn’t have that problem.
Judaism doesn’t have that problem.
Buddhism doesn’t have that problem.
Even the most extreme versions of Islam have men lining up at the door—and they have to blow themselves to bits! We have a hard time getting a guy to sit down for an hour! Why? The great emphasis on “emotive expression”, particularly in singing, turns men off. And where in the New Testament do we see men singing for extended periods of time anyway?? Sorry, it’s not there.
This is a generality, but it is generally true: Men don’t like to sing. Get over it. Oh, they would happily belt out several rounds of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” with a bunch of other guys, but join in emotive, soul revealing ballads? Sorry. Oh, they would happily do what Jesus and his disciples did—sing ONE hymn and move on. But that is not what we ask of them today. We ask that they stand and sway and sing at the top of their voices like pre-pubescent girls at a Justin Bieber concert.
Have you noticed that a lot of guys come to church late intentionally? They want to limit their exposure to the thirty-minute (plus) songfest. Add the fact that the keys of the songs seem to be getting higher and higher, as though written for an Ethiopian eunuch, and you can begin to see why so many men just stand and stare during the song portion of the church service or attempt to avoid it altogether.
One of the reasons our church inGreen Bay, Wisconsin, can get 1,000 men to show up for a men’s conference (something churches many times our size don’t seem to be able to do) is because we clearly advertise: No hand holding. No crying. No SINGING.
“You don’t worship!?!”
Oh, we worship at our men’s conferences—we just don’t sing. Remember, singing is only a form of worship. It is not, in and of itself, worship. If we would begin to limit the “emotive” requirements imposed by so many churches, we would start to have greater success reaching men for the kingdom of God.
Moses lifted up a serpent in the wilderness. If anyone was bitten by a snake, they only had to look to the serpent of bronze that Moses lifted up and they would be healed. Cool miracle, right? You would think the people would have celebrated the miracle and worship God, wouldn’t you? But no, they took the serpent of bronze and started to worship it as a god instead.
Throughout the centuries, people of faith have been tempted to get their eyes off of God and focus on things that don’t really matter—like worshiping a bronze snake.
I fear we have made too much of the music part of our expression. Musicians are not spiritual just because they can sing or play. Singing can not take the place of true repentance and commitment to God, and men do not have to act like excited “Bieber fans” in order to worship God.
I love music. I always have and I always will. Singing is great. It is Biblical. It has its place. Just don’t make it into something that it is not.
Mark Gungor is the lead Pastor of Celebration Church, a multi-site church with 5 campuses, based in Green Bay, WI. He is also the author of the best-selling “Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage”.