The church in Western culture today is embroiled in what some have called the “Worship Wars,” often referring to a battle over musical styles. There are many questions raised by these “Wars” and it usually becomes evident, early on in the discussion, that the deeper problem is not the music, but the whole idea of worship. As Ron Owens has pointed out, “The real issue in worship is not if we will worship or how we will worship, but whom we will worship.”
Sadly, many in our day practice a form of consumerism as if worship were about us, what we like or don’t like, what we get out of it; rather than being about the Eternal God who created us and redeemed us. Until we settle the Who of worship, the question of style is irrelevant.
A second distinction that must be made, in thinking of contemporary trends, is that between what is current in the music of the church and that field of the music business called Contemporary Christian Music, CCM. While there is some overlap of the two arenas, we must be careful not to allow our negative attitude toward one area to color our judgment in the other. Many would agree that there is something intrinsically amiss in “Christian music” that is driven by the forces of the market, rather than by Biblical principle. At the same time, we must acknowledge that God in His sovereign rule accomplishes Kingdom purpose even through the evil intent of disobedient men. His glory is, at times, wonderfully displayed even in the work of lost men, in whom there is yet that reflection of the divine image, suppressed and marred though it may be. We must also be careful never to judge the motive and heart of God’s little ones, though they be misguided in their expression of worship and adoration. We all are on a journey toward maturity, growing in grace and knowledge and our Lord is much more concerned with our love for each other than with proving who is “right.”
Having said this, I would suggest that there is much about which to be encouraged in the direction of church music today. It seems that the pendulum is swinging back toward substantive lyrics as evidenced by such contemporary texts as that of Stuart Townend’s “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.” This is contemporary Christian music, not what one would normally think of when CCM is mentioned; but a good example of what the beginning point must be in evaluating any music for the church. The text of Christian song must be Biblical, both in what it says and in the spirit in which it is said. There are many writers today who are taking seriously the theological content of their lyrics and are turning the focus God-ward in contrast to the man-centered trivia of much that has been written in recent years.
A second area of encouragement is the return to melodies and musical styles that are more “folk-oriented” than “pop.” One of the lessons we have learned from cross-cultural communication in missions is that good church music must be appropriate to the people. That does not mean that we leave people where we find them, but that we meet them where they are (Incarnational ministry). While there is among believers the sharing of a common body of song that transcends culture, there is also a need for the personal and corporate adoration that is best expressed in one’s own language and music, indigenous expressions of worship. This does not mean that every cultural expression is appropriate for worship, and even young Christians understand this.
This was dramatically illustrated in the late 1970s in the work of young Christian leaders in the Dominican Republic. The national dance of the Dominicans is the merengue. Yet in developing their own music for a National Church Music Festival, not one composer submitted a song in that style. They had not been taught that it would be inappropriate, but simply had been instructed in Biblical principles related to worship and song.
In summary, the spectrum of music which brings glory to God and which meaningfully grows His people in Christ-likeness is much broader than any individual’s personal comfort zone. At the same time, there are musical expressions which are intrinsically opposed to both the content and form of acceptable worship. Anything which is divisive, which panders to the flesh, which is less than our best or which denies the principle of self-giving is inappropriate in the worship of God. May all our praise be raised with far less concern about musical style than about the unfathomable worth of the One whom we worship.