I have written extensively on singing as a scriptural mandate, as essential evidence and enforcement of the Holy Spirit’s ministry. For reference, please see my previous posts, “Four Reasons Your Church Should have a Choir” and “Preaching as the Choir”. Worshipful music (note that not all “worship music” is necessarily worshipful) must be practiced and produced by life in the Spirit.
St. Paul urges divided churches to sing, to let unified hymns draw believers together not only in tune, but in action, emotion, and proclamation. Through faithful singing, churches at once engage and manifest the Spirit, who works for the mutual upbuilding of the saints. If faithful singing emanates from the Spirit, then, it is fitting that it would also foster the fruits of the Spirit.
My husband recently remarked that “intensity is not a fruit of the Spirit.” I’ve been thinking about this for weeks, often to my own chagrin. I tend to be more intense than loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, and so on. As a result, I am striving to stop evaluating my pursuits according to my own criteria of intensity, ambition, and pride—the fruits of the flesh and the idols of culture—and, instead, to consider my passions according to the fruit of the Spirit. Because my primary area of interest (and intensity) is worship music, I wonder: How would our worship differ if we evaluated the elements of worship according first and foremost to the fruits of the Spirit? What if we stopped defining “worship music” as an aesthetic genre and, instead, sought to discern worshipful music according to the criteria given in scripture and generated by the Spirit?
If all that we do is to be done in love, it is sensible that the first requirement for worshipful music be that it is loving. In fact, Paul describes the lack of love (charity) as the moral equivalent of bad music!
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.1 Corinthians 13:1, ESV
Pragmatically, how do we guarantee that worship is loving? Loving worship may manifest in turning down amps and dimming lights so that those with sensory disorders can participate. It may mean adding more hymns so that older generations feel welcome. Counterintuitively, it may mean singing about sin so that congregants are drawn to repentance. It may require abstaining from certain songs that remind listeners of trauma. The driving rhythm of our worship must be the pulse of Christ’s heart.
Joy is perhaps the most evident fruit in contemporary worship. Praise tends to be the dominant goal of the genre. However, joyful worship is not contingent merely upon major keys and upbeat tempos but upon the firmly-rooted hope and understanding of the singers.
Practically, it is worth considering a balance of songs that deal honestly with brokenness, as well as songs that rejoice in our salvation. Because joy is deeper than some fleeting happiness, it is dependent upon a keen awareness of the costliness of grace. Without an understanding of the seriousness of sin, we will sing shallow songs of vague victory. Without a celebration of victory in Christ, however, we sink into a funeral dirge. Both lament and jubilation are needed for our worship to be truly reflective of the Gospel and, thus, truly joyful.
Have you noticed the tendency for contemporary churches to prioritize sound over silence? There always seems to be noise—transition music, entry music, and, of course, continually crescendoing choruses. Instead of a pause between verses of hymns, there is generally a bridge or instrumental added to eliminate silences.
When I was studying organ Scotland, I was advised not to improvise in between the choral anthem and subsequent hymn. Instead, I found that purposefully allowing silence was spiritually beneficial. Not only did it allow me to catch my breath, but it fostered peace. Once congregants were used to liturgical worship and, as such, were used to moments of stillness. When our worship music is characterized by continual movement and noise, we might fail to image the peace of Christ and forget that it is in stillness that we better know God.
It makes sense that patience follows peace in the list of Spiritual fruit. If we allow silences between songs, we must learn to be patient; we must learn to be okay without immediate gratification. If our worship is characterized by the production value of worldly concerts, how can we as believers develop the countercultural fruit of patience? Musically, patience may manifest in slower, softer songs that foster contemplation over gratification. Lyrically, it may mean using songs with rich theology. Lately, for example, I’ve been dismayed over how contemporary musicians have removed the biblical imagery of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” They robbed it of the rich, scriptural lines such as “Rod of Jesse” and “Key of David” because, presumably, these are beyond the immediate grasp of many believers and seekers. What if, instead, we allowed worship to convey the mysteries and metaphors presented in scripture? What if we developed the patience to pursue understanding instead of making milk out of meat, spoon-feeding congregations watered-down hymns? I suspect that, along with patience, we would develop deeper theological roots.
Patience in worship may also be practiced by involving more than just an elite band. It may be seen in coming alongside young or amateur musicians, in valuing their humble contributions to worship as much as the precision of professionals. I wrote more on this in my post “Inverted Worship,” which I think captures the idea that worship leaders (particularly in large churches) oftentimes prioritize immediate excellence over gradual growth and mentorship.
I have been blessed to have worked only with gracious worship directors who are not only outstanding leaders but selfless servants of their art, their team, and their Lord. I have seen the reverse, however, where leadership is valued above servanthood and directors are reckoned beyond ordinary kindnesses. These worship leaders may become stellar performers but scathing personalities. While God does call and equip specific people to leadership, he calls every believer to servanthood—to image the kindness Christ. We should not have to choose between effective leadership and kind servanthood but if forced between the two, it seems that we should choose servanthood.
Dr. Barrey Corey describes kindness in his book, Love Kindness as much more than flimsy niceness or politeness. Rather, kindness is characterized by “soft edges and a firm center.” In worshipful music, then, we must prioritize songs that communicate the Gospel without compromising, while always seeking to perform in such a way that we do not become bombastic, abrasive, elitist, or celebritized. In all aspects, our worship must hold to a firm foundation and allow for flexible execution.
Beyond mere moral goodness (which ought to be a given in church music), our worship should seek the goal of Christian creativity: to reflective God’s creation, which he deemed “good.” Ideally, our worship should be well-done, practiced and refined so that it is not disorderly or distracting. Further, it needs to move hearts toward what is good and right. I am perturbed by subversive songs and poems that border on worldiness in the name of “authenticity.” I am equally concerned, however, by praise songs that leap straight to victory without reckoning with its cost. To conform to and communicate Godly goodness, our music must be honest and hopeful, repentant and redemptive. It must direct our minds toward truth, our hearts toward proper affections, and our actions toward appropriate deeds.
Pragmatically, there are certain songwriters and bands that might be worth excluding from worship sets in an effort to distance ourselves from poor theology or damaging church cultures. At the same time, though, it may be possible to utilize certain songs that are good and true in their own right, regardless of the failures of their writer or producer. Goodness in worship music might best be thought of as discernment.
Is our worship faithful to its scriptural purposes of praising the Lord and building up the Body of Christ? Often, contemporary worship seems vertically focused, that is, focused on worshipping God. This is good and right. And yet, when Paul writes of the singing church, he presents singing as a mode of Christian unity, in which the saints sing not only to the Lord but to and with each other. There is a tendency toward individualism in contemporary worship, whereas hymns are sometimes more communal—singing “we” in place of “I” so as to exhort others to join in praise. If our worship does not ensure to both worship God and address as believers, it may not be fully faithful to the scriptural precedent.
Faithfulness also carries connotations of habit. In this, regular and real obedience in worship is more important than some abstract religious feeling. Although emotional engagement is impactful, our music and leadership should be focused first of all on promoting steady and enduring postures of worship. If our worship is haphazard, emotionally manipulative, and unpredictable, it will fail to cultivate faithful and formational participation.
Gentleness in worship most obviously applies to the attitudes and actions of leaders. Just as pastors are called to gentleness, to care for their flock without tempers or arrogance, worship leaders are called to lead congregants in song without anger or pride. In a culture that physically exalts worship leaders on a stage with lights, gentleness in worship leaders is increasingly valuable and increasingly difficult to maintain. Cultivating gentleness as a worship leader may mean letting other singers lead and even intentionally taking a background harmony or role.
In terms of production, gentle worship might look a great deal like loving worship. It may require softer acoustics and calmer lighting so as to include those with sensory issues or other sensitivities. It may mean teaching and reteaching songs to the congregation so that even newcomers can fully participate.
Scripture is clear that the gathering of Christians as the church is to be orderly. We are not to speak without sense or clamor for attention. Our worship ought to be the same. If the congregation worships discordantly, a single musician dominates, the volume is cranked without balance, and technics are employed solely for entertainment, can our worship really be said to show self-control? I often employ choral participation as an image of Christian communion. Choral singing may also provide an image of self-control; in choirs, singers must blend, seeking unity and humility as a (hopefully) well-tuned unit.
As an organist, I struggle with musical self-control; my tendency is to pull all the stops and blast the end of each hymn. While there is delight in producing powerful sound, musicianship (and discernment) consists of knowing when it is wise to do so. Sometimes it is fitting, as in the final verse of a triumphant hymn. Other times, it is more artistic (and faithful) to remain temperate, to pay careful heed to balance and humility.
This is one of my longer posts and it is by no means comprehensive. I hope, however, that I have offered a way of evaluating music in worship that is honoring to the Lord and considerate toward one another. I will continue to grow as I serve in both traditional and contemporary worship, but of this I am certain: If worshipful music testifies to the ministry of the Spirit, it must also manifest the fruit of the Spirit.