Enjoying Christian music is not worship

Sam NortonChurch of England rector Sam Norton writes:

it is possible to appreciate religious music (or art or whatever) in such a way as to gain some benefit from it, even spiritual benefit – but this is not the same as worship. I think I would want to describe the difference as being between a consumer of religiously flavoured produce and being engaged in a conversation with something other than our own desires and perspectives. It is the latter that counts as worship, not the former.

Indeed. Perhaps this is the real story behind the controversy last year when Sam “sacked” his choirmaster, which reached the Daily Mail.

It is easy for someone like me to say Amen! to sentiments like this when directed at traditional church music, which is probably what was called “a substitute” for religion by the non-Christian professor Sam quoted. This is surely the kind of music which Sam’s old choir loved to sing, so different from Sam’s preferred Leonard Cohen.

But the same point also needs to be made about modern Christian music. It is easy to attract young people with no church background to Christian concerts and even “worship” services if the style of music and the atmosphere are right – and if enough money has been spent on high-tech audio-visual equipment to give an apparently authentic rock concert or disco experience. But listening to or singing along with such music is in itself no more worship than is listening to or singing along with classical oratorios.

So what should the church do?

First, I would say, it needs to provide an appropriate style of music for its congregation, or for the one it wants to attract. That, I suspect, was the problem Sam had: the music that his 100-strong congregation liked was not appreciated by the rest of his parish’s population of 7000. I’m not sure if they preferred Leonard Cohen! My own current church, Oasis Warrington, is seeking to reach unchurched young people, and so it offers a service with a rock concert atmosphere, and music from Hillsong and Abundant Life. That works in getting a good number of the 200,000 people of Warrington through its doors, but would probably not go down well in Sam’s village.

However, the important part starts once the people are inside the building, and have stayed through the opening musical selection. This is when the message needs to be put across that religion or being a Christian is not just about enjoying the music. That can be done in many ways – even by firing a director of music who has lost the right perspective. But it is probably communicated most clearly in the preaching of the gospel message, without compromise on its content although its form needs to be adapted to the congregation.

Anyone who visits Oasis Warrington to enjoy the music, and perhaps hoping to be moved in a vaguely religious way, will before the end of the meeting be challenged to something quite different, to giving their whole life to Jesus Christ in true sacrificial worship. The same should be true, whatever the style of music, at every church.

0 thoughts on “Enjoying Christian music is not worship

  1. Peter, whilst I’m all for using contemporary music in church, I have major concerns about turning services into a rock concert, which is the approach of Hillsong and ALM, and from what you say, your church as well. A rock concert is a performance that people watch. A worship service is a gathering where everyone participates. And I really fail to see what role flashing lights and smoke machines have in worship. It’s not that I am a strict biblicist as you once suggested (categorically not), but that this whole approach goes against what the Bible tells us worship should be.

  2. I can relate to Sam’s position and agree that listening and even being somehow spiritually uplifted is not worship, which is about positive engagement with the Lord. And I feel you have sought to take the principles forward in a practical way which seeks to rise above any “older v newer style ” debate.

    The principles clearly apply whatever the music. I see a tension between being so concerned that you give or hear a fine performance that you forget to focus on real worship, and the proper desire to give our best to our Lord in honour of His Name. It is a tension between being relaxed and free in His presence, and being almost seemingly proud to be sloppy and care-less in presentation and delivery. Some 20+ years ago the church where we then worshipped had a pastoral assistant who was a top rate professional cellist in a chamber group. She had that gifting which enabled the singing group she formed to find that balance we seek. The music we sang ranged from the c17th to late 20th century, extracts of choral oratarios, anthems, trad hymns, and contemporary worship songs. Our backgrounds ranged from a few long standing amateur choral singers such as my wife and I (we had met in Harrrow Choral Society), to the majority who could sing in tune and were willing to try something more challenging. And in technical music terms, the results were good. And the mutual love support and unity in the group was amazing. A highlight in my own pilgimage.

  3. Sidefall, on this one I tend to agree with you. But I have equally major concerns about turning services into a classical concert, which is the approach in many more traditional liturgical churches. And I really fail to see what role stained glass windows and incense have in worship. But if things like these help some people and are don’t go against biblical principles, then I won’t condemn them.

    I agree that everyone should participate in a worship service. I would accept that Hillsong, ALM and Oasis Warrington are a bit light on this aspect, but at least the congregations are encouraged to sing along. Things are far worse at cathedrals etc where the congregation is actually told to keep silent while the choir sings.

  4. Thank you, Colin. Having professional musicians in a church can be a blessing or a curse. It is a curse if they claim a God-given right to control or dictate the church’s music without a real sensitivity to the situation. But it seems that your cellist had the right attitude of a servant and a worshipper:

    the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. (John 4:23, NIV 2011)

  5. Perhaps we’re not so far apart on this one, Peter. I agree, turning worship into a classical concert is just as bad as turning it into a rock concert. (I think the former is why Rev Norton sacked his choirmaster). I also share your views on incense, stained glass, and telling the congregation to be quiet.

    The only thing I would say is that I believe stained glass originated in an age when people were illiterate and it was used as method of teaching. So it did have a historic role (supposedly!). And there’s probably some theology for incense, but I probably wouldn’t agree with it, even if I knew what it was!

  6. And now to wind things up a bit.

    Seriously, incense plays no part in my spiritual life, and my encounters with it have been few. Neither do I specifically seek it out.

    In the early 90s we worshipped in a semi independent charismatic fellowship. The teaching suggested that our worship should be from our whole being. The underlying point was the expression of our spirits and emotions as well as intellectual assent. But our whole selves included the visual – in that fellowship there were a few who “danced” sometimes with streamers etc. now I freely admit I am left cold by that kind of dancing, it is just “not my thing”. In fact I am no fan of ballet either. But of course it was an expression for those who did it and for some who watched. And David danced for all he was worth when the Ark returned to Jerusalem

    Now turn to a solemn eucharist at an Anglo Catholic Parish. There is colour, and movement all providing drama; there is the sight of incense smoke and of course the smell – another sense engaged. And our local Anglo Catholic parish, where I preached on a training weekend some years ago, has no choir, so all the music is congregational. While more formal than many of us would normally prefer, it is an expression of worship which can engage our whole being not much different in concept than my former charismatic fellowship. Certainly not my normal expression but one which on rare occaisions I have valued .

    Now the aroma of incense itself is a picture of the aroma of worship (sacrifices in the OT) , pleasing and acceptable to God . It also reminds us of Rev 5 v8. So not at all essential; but not without some value just as dancing has a purpose. And I certainly see no explicit or even implicit Biblical prohibition, which would change my view.

    I don’t imagine Sidefall will “agree” with this lot, but there is how one evangelical sees it!

  7. Thank you, Colin. I didn’t mean to say that incense and stained glass windows are wrong. I entirely agree that worship should involve the whole being, as “the expression of our spirits and emotions as well as intellectual assent”. For some people incense and stained glass windows help with this; for others, probably more people in the UK today, smoke machines and flashing lights help. But all of these good things can become idols if used in the wrong way, or with the wrong people, and may need to be smashed in the way that Hezekiah smashed Nehushtan, 2 Kings 18:4.

  8. Peter
    I certainly did not imagine or mean to suggest you were “condemming” these things per se. And I fully agree that they can all become idols – I have sensed that on occaisions. In fact I sometimes wonder if a drive for “simplicity”, whatever that means, becomes an idol and basis for pride and inverse snobbery in itself! Your earlier response to me on the worship the Father seeks was spot on. That particular verse is always one close to my heart, especially when preparing for any up front activity.

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