If there’s one thing evangelicals can agree on, it’s that we all seem to dislike the music at our churches. Depending on where you attend, the music is either too contemporary, too traditional, too loud, not loud enough, too complex, too simplistic, too high quality, too low quality, too man-centered, or too God-focused. (Okay, I’m kidding: no one has ever complained about that last one.)
I’ll admit it: I’ve been that guy. Call me shallow, but if the song seems better suited as a ballad about a girl than Jesus, I’m probably not singing it. If my internal organs are vibrating, I’m waiting outside till the band’s done.[1. I did too much damage to my hearing in my 20s listening to super-loud rock bands in tiny bars. I need to preserve the hearing I still have.] If the smoke machine is running and the lasers are firing, I’m running for the hills.[2. If I can find the doors through the mist, that is.]
Now, don’t get me wrong: In no way am I anti-contemporary praise songs—I love a good new song as much as a classic hymn. I also love a full band as much as a lone singer with guitar or piano accompaniment. But lasers and mist… There’s no redeeming that silliness. When I got to church, I don’t expect that all of my preferences are going to be met every single week, because I’m fully aware that our Sunday services do not exist to fulfill my musical desires. Hopefully you realize this, too.
But what is it that makes us all get a little crazy about praise music? Is it that we’re fixated on our preferences? Bob Kauflin argues in True Worshipers: Seeking What Matters to God that the problem is deeper than that. Our problem is that we have a truncated understanding of what worship really is—that we see it as a “musically driven emotional experience.” But this is not a view we can gain from the Bible, for, as we see in John 4:7-23, Jesus calls true worship, “worship[ing] the Father in spirit and truth.”
Worship is more than music
“For those of us who think of worship primarily in terms of musically driven emotional experiences, Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman should be eye-opening,” Kauflin writes. “Jesus is talking about ‘true worshipers’ and he doesn’t reference music once. Not a whisper of bands, organs, keyboards, choirs, drum sets, guitars, or even lutes, lyres, and timbrels” (26-27).
Some reading this will give a hearty amen to these words. But I can already feel some readers squirming in their seats a bit. After all, the primary way—perhaps even the only way—we’ve been taught to think of worship is as music. Sure, we’ve given lip service to Romans 12:1, which tells us that our spiritual worship is to offer all of ourselves as “a living sacrifice”, but really it’s about the music.
Except it’s really not.
Kauflin makes it abundantly clear that worship is principally a heart and character issue before it’s anything else. “Broadly speaking, worship in spirit in truth is worship that springs from a sincere heart and lines up with the truth of God’s Word” (27). To worship in this way is an ability we are receive from God, for we are unable to produce such a desire of our own accord. It is to exalt God as we know him through his Word, to humble ourselves as we recognize and celebrate his greatness in our words and actions. It is to come together and share the sacraments. It is to build up the body and encourage one another in love and good works.
This is the kind of corrective so many of us need, including me. I’ve long been on the “worship is more than music” train, but I’ll be honest, the arguments I’ve heard, read and occasionally used, haven’t always been the terribly well-developed. What Kauflin does in this book is provide a substantial defence of a comprehensive view of worship, one that goes beyond 26-35 minutes of music on Sunday morning and into how you work, read, and think. Because we are all, at every moment, worshiping something, worship is much more than singing. It has to be.
But it is also not less than that.
Worship is not less than singing
Although we should all strive to have a broader—and biblical—perspective of what worship is, we should not ignore the fact that a biblical understanding of worship does include singing. Quite prominently, in fact. Kauflin devotes two chapters to the subject of singing and music, not to give them greatest priority, but because there are so many questions around how to worship through music—and specifically, what do we do when we struggle to sing.
For some of us, this struggle comes from our concern over our ability—we’re just not very good. Others don’t feel like it, or would feel like hypocrites because the emotions expressed don’t reflect our own. And others still don’t sing because they can’t in good conscience, because there’s nothing really there to sing. Kauflin addresses all of these concerns thoughtfully, but doesn’t let us off the hook—the answer is not to stop singing, but to sing differently:
Shallow or vague lyrics need never prevent us from importing biblical truth into them. I’ve often sung additional words to myself when being led in songs. For example, if you’re repeatedly singing a line like, “You are worthy of praise,” tell the Lord the specific reasons why he’s so worthy: “you redeemed me . . . you know all things . . . your mercies never end . . . you rule over all.” (124)
This is good advice, but it’s not easy to follow. At first glance, it seems like something that would work really well for someone who is naturally musically inclined. But people like me who may make a joyful noise to the Lord, but it’s just noise to the rest of us… not so much. But when I really stop and consider it, while I don’t like when I can’t get the words I want to say to fit the rhythm of the song, that shouldn’t stop me from singing real truths. In fact, the only thing that would stop me is not knowing any truths of which to sing! I really appreciate Kauflin’s challenge to reconsider our objections to the songs we sing, and find ways to engage, rather than being passive.
But what if this is an ongoing problem? Simple: talk to your church leaders. But don’t send the standard “the music is man-centric and shallow, stop stinking it up,” email that gets deleted immediately. If you legitimately see a problem, you should ask your pastor’s perspective on it, using three powerful words: help me understand. “Who knows what God might do through your caring expression of concern for the theological weight of the songs you sing?” (124)
A book every worship leader (and every worshiper) should read
It’s become cliché to say that everyone needs to read a book, because there’s no such thing (aside from the Bible). But True Worshipers is one that comes close to deserving the such accolades, and not because it’s the literary equivalent of a mic drop on the worship wars. (Because it doesn’t set out to do that.) Instead, what makes this book valuable is that it plays the role of peacemaker: it encourages a broader perspective on worship than merely singing, while never once neglecting the importance of singing. Whether you struggle to sing shallow songs, or you measure the effectiveness of worship in how many hands are raised and tears are flowing, you’re going to be challenged by this book. I trust it will be the challenge you need.
Title: True Worshipers: Seeking What Matters to God
Author: Bob Kauflin
Publisher: Crossway (2015)