Christian worship

Christian worship: is this one of God's terrible springtimes?

Worship renewal must be based on Scripture, theology, and a sense of history and mission.

Don Hustad is senior professor of church music at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

One of God's terrible spring times." The phrase appeared in one of Billy Graham's sermons, but the context is now completely forgotten. The idea that lingers is that there are periods of history in which circumstances of life and culture seem to be ominously dark and foreboding, like the bitter cold and slush of the last winter storm in our so-called temperate climate zones. But late winter may be no more than a "terrible springtime," be cause underneath the snow and ice live shoots are beginning to emerge from long-dormant seeds. A new greening of the landscape will soon take place!

In the worship life of our generation, the prevailing winds are those of change, in some instances radical change. Old forms, especially of mu sic, are disappearing and new ones are taking their place. For some folk, who call the movement "contemporary and creative," full-blown, pleasant spring is already here, and the new music and worship expressions are its wonderful symbols. For others, what is happening is iconoclasm, liturgical housecleaning, a destructive pulling up of the life-giving roots of our evangelical tradition. For them this is the dead of the winter, and part of the bleakness is because of the conflict created between age groups or cultural preference groups in the church.


But could this be only a "terrible springtime" that precedes genuine renewal? For the first time in memory some evangelicals are beginning to understand the significance of full, corporate Christian worship, and are committed to practicing it within the life of the church.


Other terrible springtimes

The church has experienced terrible springtimes at other times in its history. During the sixteenth-century Reformation, in an effort to remove from worship the theological errors and the liturgical excesses of the Middle Ages, evangelical leaders threw out much that was both meaningful and orthodox. Zwingli, for instance, eliminated all music from his services, and Calvin tried to do the same. When the Genevan Reformer finally admitted music to worship, it was limited to metrical psalms, sung in unison by the congregation. All choir books had been burned and organs put to the ax! The English church was strongly influenced by Calvin, and especially during the rebel lion that established a commonwealth under Cromwell, Puritans eradicated choral and instrumental music, all writ ten liturgy, and all worship symbolism. Once the monarchy was restored, Anglican worship tended to move back toward better balance.

A more recent wave of iconoclasm has affected American church music negatively, for almost 200 years. In 1800 the camp meeting revival broke out in the rugged frontier culture of Kentucky. "Brush arbor" meetings were characterized by highly emotional verbal and physical expressions which resembled those of modern charismatic worship. Music also had much in common with that of today; it was simplistic, highly repetitive, often improvised in the fervor of a worship experience, and centering in a refrain that foreshadowed today's "praise chorus." Obsession with these new spirituals (so-called as a contraction of Paul's "spiritual songs") was so complete that many churches completely lost interest in the theologically rich hymns of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, which were just beginning to be known in this country.

The camp meeting movement was part of the long succession of revival phenomena that culminated in the Second Awakening under Charles Finney, and the missions of Dwight L. Moody later in the nineteenth century. Moreover, the camp meeting spiritual became the model for later gospel songs that dominated much of evangelical life for 150 years. As expressions of Christian experience, gospel songs were the logical and helpful adjuncts of evangelistic preaching. However, because of their popularity, many churches never really learned or used the heritage of evangelical worship hymns that belongs to them, historically and theologically.

Models of worship based on evangelistic purpose

Not all of today's winds of liturgical change are blowing in the same direction, and not all the resultant worship and music concepts are really new. Certain churches have been committed to "revivalist worship" throughout much of their history. For them the "worship service" has been an opportunity to evangelize the unsaved or to recruit church members. Their service structure and style resembles that of the evangelistic crusade, with emphasis on the sermon and its call to an initial commitment to Christ, or to service in the local church. The "preliminaries" in those services consist of an exciting and captivating period of music and witness, directed by attractive and gifted musicians and service leaders.

Many of today's revivalist church es have decided to recast their traditional format according to television's example. Now the audience numbers several thousand people, with as many as 500 in the choir, a full orchestra, and several soloists who can sing the stirring arrangements written for today' s media and concert stars. To day's megachurch has other attractions for the uncommitted as well-- perhaps an Olympic-size swimming pool and adjoining saunas and a full schedule of athletic and social, as well as more overtly spiritual activities for all age groups.

Church growth experts have reminded pastors that today's Christians have grown up in a consumer culture in which folk are expecting to make choices. Evidently many churches are prepared to create a "Christian shopping center" where all those desires will be met, even though the costs may be considerable.

Other church leaders, perhaps those who lose members to the competition of the megachurch, may point out that "revivalist worship" is not a full, mature worship experience for all who attend. While, like a crusade, it may be successful evangelism, for the longtime believer it tends to be at best a reminder of their own initial step of faith and an opportunity for recommitment to Christ, and at worst an experience of pre-evangelism entertainment followed by an evangelistic sermon directed to somebody else.

Worship planners for the megachurch are convinced that they must plan pro grams to attract the unchurched, with performances that are as professionally executed and emotionally stimulating as those of secular show business. If one asked why all the solos and choral works in church had to have goose bump-raising climaxes, the answer would be that they are competing with the sense-bombarding decibels of contemporary, popular music. Kenneth A. Myers, former editor of Eternity magazine and author of All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes, 1 would not be impressed with the explanation. He contends that modern evangelicalism has identified itself rather completely with today's popular culture, a culture of diversion whose two symbols are rock music and television, a culture which is characterized by a quest for novelty, and a desire for instant gratification of its desires.

The seeker's model of worship

The widely publicized services "for seekers" at the Willow Creek Church in suburban Chicago may be both more honest and more successful as a means of genuine evangelism on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings. They are not announced as worship, only as "events" where seekers may hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. According to their sponsors, the weekend presentations are planned for people who are turned off by the traditional church "because it is constantly asking for money" or "be cause the worship forms are meaningless" or "because the "" preaching is not related to life." For these reasons, people are invited to come to Willow Creek to listen and enjoy; they are not expected to "dress like Sunday," to sing, or to give money at the time of the offering. The setting is an auditorium with a stage. The presermon performance is professional quality activity by a stage orchestra, excellent singers, and a dramatic presentation to "set up'' the sermon by showing its relationship to real-life situations. The central feature is a nonemotional, not highly biblical or theological, but carefully reasoned sermon that sets forth the supreme relevance of the Christian faith in con temporary life.

Willow Creek Church explains that the Saturday/Sunday services are not for mature believers. For them--"the New Community"-- significant activities are offered in Wednesday and Thursday evening services, and in the small cell groups organized for all those who are members of the church.

But certain questions remain unanswered. Some folk believe that too many of the 15,000 people who attend Willow Creek on weekends are not really unchurched, but rather longtime Christians who may be hiding from their discipleship responsibility in the anonymity of the large crowd.

Charismatic worship

The one group in contemporary church life that is sure that a spiritual springtime has already arrived are the charismatics. Without question, these glossolalic evangelicals have developed a full practice of worship within their own theology and scriptural exegesis. At the same time, they and their more historical counterparts, the Pentecostals, have an enviable track record in evangelism. Furthermore, charismatics have exerted extraordinary, and, I believe, unwarranted influence on noncharismatic worship and music, partly because they have produced most of the new, popular congregational music and partly because they have successfully communicated their worship rationale.

Charismatics understand that the transcendent God is truly present in worship, and they expect to experience a dramatic encounter with God that produces both miracles and great enjoyment. At the same time, many of them abhor performance "entertainment" in worship, so they eliminate most solos and especially choral music in favor of total congregational participation. Personal involvement and enjoyment in worship is enhanced by symbols and acts that involve the whole person; banners and especially bodily action-- raising the hands, clapping, embracing and dancing-- are very significant in services. However, the cognitive experience tends to be emphasized only in the sermon.

A full understanding of charismatic services can best be gained from one of their own representatives, Graham Kendrick. Every student of liturgical practice could agree with much of what he says in his Learning to Worship. 2 However, certain concepts must be noted, since they depart from typical evangelical thought and affect the use of music in services.

Praise and worship music

For charismatics, praise and worship are different entities.3 For them, "worship" occurs only in a transcendent, often glossolalic experience in which a believer enters a spiritual "Holy of Holies" in God's very presence. The approach to this intimate, ecstatic experience is through the "Holy Place": here the would-be worshiper sings only songs of praise, "expressions of God's attributes or of God's biblical names." In this approach the worship leader is all-important. That person (backed up by other singers and a "stage band" with lots of percussion instruments) leads from chorus to chorus according to a well-planned but seemingly spontaneous progression, encouraging folk to "abandon themselves to the Spirit" in singing, clapping, and dancing. Finally, all the protracted, exciting songs of pure praise give way to the hush of awe, in silence or in quiet song, as believers enter the holy presence of God, where they are free to express their worship in any way they choose: speaking or singing in tongues ("in the Spirit"), in interpretation, in prophecy, or otherwise.

The loss of "performance music"

Noncharismatics should applaud and imitate their more emotional friends in their emphasis on congregational participation above that of soloists and choirs. At the same time, for many people there is a distinct sense of loss in which there is no opportunity for mu sic that has more substance, more melodic and harmonic identity, more development of text, more craftsman ship in design and more artistry in performance. They would remind charismatics that there is emotion expressed in more sophisticated musical expressions. They might even question if the exclusive use of Christian mantras caters to the modern preoccupation with instant gratification, and whether there is not an added, and possibly richer, experience in the imagination- stimulating, delayed response that comes from other music. For many evangelicals the training and use of youth, children, and adult singers in solo, small group, and choral or instrumental performance is a positive response to the command to be good stewards of God-given musical talents, and to the challenge to offer to God our best "sacrifice of praise" (Heb. 13:15). While congregational singing should be central in worship, listening to performed music provides an additional, different experience, which could be more cognitive (especially if the words are printed in the bulletin), since the worshipers are not faced with the challenge to understand the words while singing them. The Old Testament certainly endorses "performance music"; the most profoundly moving account of musical worship in the Old Testament is record ed in 2 Chronicles 5:11-14, where, coincident with the music of priestly choirs and instrumentalists, "the glory of the Lord filled the house of God."

The basis of charismatic praise

The Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements4 lists "praise" (evoking the praise of God and of His Son, Jesus Christ) as one of nine unique emphases of this transdenominational movement. Terry Law, one of the leading exponents of this idea, speaks of praise in almost sacramental terms: "Praise silences the devil. Praise is a garment of the Spirit. Praise leads the believer into the triumph of Christ.

Praise brings revelation. Praise prepares us for miracles. Praise is the way into God's presence. God inhabits our praises (Ps. 22:3)."5 As Law expresses it, preparation for praise in the holy place begins in the temple's outer court, where the congregation sings songs of thanksgiving for God's mighty deeds; once they are in the holy place, the songs must be pure praise, free of self-centered thanksgiving. The scriptural support for this is Psalm 100:4: "Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise." However, in practical experience, charismatics (and their imitators) rarely sing of God's acts; the choruses speak only of God's person.

In this type of worship there is no room for songs that are didactic, penitential, confessional, petitionary, or narrative of Christian experience. However, it should be noted that no complete Old Testament psalm is "pure praise"; each mentions God's deeds on behalf of His people, and together they voice all the above-mentioned modes of prayer.

The idea that the "worth" of God should be the basis for Christian worship has often been mentioned in explaining that our word "worship" is derived from the Anglo-Saxon "weorthscipe" (ascribing worth), and that God is worthy of our worship. It is true that Isaiah 6 speaks of God as holy (the angel's song), mighty (the posts of the door moved), and surrounded with mystery (the house was filled with smoke), but it also speaks of His love as expressed in actions of cleansing and redemption.

Paul Waitman Hoon has pointed out that the concept of God's worth should not be the primary "point of departure" in expressing motivation for worship, because "the category of value in biblical thought is secondary to the categories of being, decision and action."6 Besides, he says, it is not a distinctively Christian idea, since it is shared by other religions and philosophies. Finally, it denies the transcendence of God because it implies that the "initiative to worship lies with man...who 'recognizes' and 'ascribes worth.'"

A better New Testament standard for worship music

While charismatics use Old Testament images in developing a worship rationale, they apparently ignore the full implications in the New Testament report that the early church sang "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). Spiritual songs are claimed by charismatics to be their unique expression of glossalalic singing, and there is no reason to quarrel with that identification.

However, Paul also identified "psalms and hymns" as being sung by the early church. Psalms contain much more than praise. Every form of prayer is there, including thanksgiving, confession, petition, submission, even lament. Hymns, many believe, were created to meet the early church's need to express understanding of, and faith in, Christ. Many examples of early Christian hymns are found in the Epistles. For instance, 1 Timothy 3:16: "He [Christ] was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory" (RSV).

Note the comprehensive character of New Testament song. Psalms were scriptural, historic, and classic in nature. Hymns were poetic, theological expressions. Spiritual songs were spontaneous outbursts of song. There's even a Trinitarian outline here: psalms were prayers to YHWH; hymns ex pressed the truth that Jesus was God's Son, our Redeemer; and spiritual songs were a gift of the Creator Spirit.

Much has been made of the new custom of discarding the hymnal in favor of words projected on an over head screen. It is argued that the practice helps the service "to flow," since no one needs to thumb through a book to find the hymns. It centers everyone's attention at one place, thus uniting the congregation. It enables hands to be free, so they may clap or be raised to God.

There are also some negatives. The overhead screen does not contain any music notation, so the music must be very simple-- a tune that really doesn't need learning, but just "sings itself." Also, worshipers can't sing harmony parts from a screen, only melody.

Moreover, the use of a hymnal is a reminder that ours is a historic faith, because our God is God of history. We confirm the continuity of the church and the perpetuity of God's covenants, and we preserve the church's memory and its literature when we sing the hymns of Ambrose, Francis of Assisi, Bernard of Cluny, Martin Luther, Clement Marot, Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and Fanny Jane Crosby.

Quasirevivalist or quasicharismatic worship

Since the almost universal passion today is for change in worship and music style and structure, it seems reasonably safe to assume that change is needed. But what kinds of change are needed, and on what biblical, historical, theological bases should these changes be made? Since most evangelicals are not accustomed to approaching worship in those terms, the tendency is simply to copy those techniques that seem to be popular in other churches. One congregation may want to celebrate God's acts in redemption, but in a much fuller sense than the revivalist church understands. Nevertheless, they adopt the entertaining, personality-centered, performance style of the crusade or the megachurch that robs the congregation of its rights as believer/priests to express fully its worship of God.

Another church may become convinced that its traditional mode of worship is outworn and meaningless for this generation, and that a "celebration experience" is a must. To achieve this, they may adopt the "praise singing" diet of the charismatics, though they have no desire to follow them into their "Holy of Holies," and even though that single form falls short of the Pauline standard of worship song. The investigation of such a congregation does not include such questions as "Should we have more Scripture reading, more prayer in worship?" Rather the goal seems to be merely to add some emotional stimulation to their earlier worship out line--a format based on the use of controlled informality and sensory surprises that often results in "emotion for emotion's sake."

In any worship change we want to make, it is proper to ask how such a change measures up to a full New Testament standard. Jesus' challenge to worship God in truth (John 4:24) affirms that worship should be sincere. Above all, worship must express the submission of the human heart to the will of God, as revealed in Jesus Christ and in the Written Word. It also means that worship should conform to the truth of God, especially His saving acts through Jesus Christ, as each congregation or confessional group understands that truth. The sermons, Scripture selections, hymns, and prayers should express fully who God is and what God has " said and done, and provide for a full human response to that revelation. Finally, it should do this in forms that speak to the whole contemporary per son, both intellectually and emotionally. Genuine emotional expression, for the clarifying and intensifying of truth, is a must. But emotional expression for emotion's sake leads to "praising praise" and "worshiping worship."

Is a spiritual springtime coming?

Is it possible that all the turmoil and conflict surrounding contemporary worship style signals a truly spiritual springtime in the church? Maybe so.

There is some evidence that what is going on is a fairly long-term, wide spread movement. The celebration idea began around 1960, perhaps with Geoffrey Beaumont's 20th Century Folk Mass in the Anglican church. The idea propounded at that time was that worship should be more than correct and proper; it should also be pastoral. At just about the same time in history, praise choruses appeared, a contribution of the Charismatic Renewal movement. I have little doubt that many individuals and congregations in this tradition have been truly renewed, especially those in liturgical churches, where the church's memory and literature have not been lost. But it is not evident that the whole church is experiencing genuine revival.

Historically, new worship forms, and the accompanying painful and regrettable loss of the old, have often been the result of the strong winds of revival from God's Spirit. By contrast, today's noncharismatic churches seem to be hoping to achieve renewal by borrowing new methods and forms that may not measure up to their own theology and their own understanding of Scripture.

Even if it is possible to develop bigger churches by following prescribed formulas, it will still be pointless to attempt to program a truly renewing work of the Holy Spirit. Spiritual renewal does not come according to human timetables and does not depend on human forms, traditional or contemporary. Graham Kendrick makes it clear that true spiritual worship is total obedience to God, becoming "living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God" (Rom. 12:1,NIV).

Springtime in an individual church

Nevertheless, it is possible that an individual church may be dissatisfied with all the more popular modern approaches to worship, and may experience the guidance of the Spirit in developing services that are fully biblical, pleasing to God, and edifying to human beings.

Few churches will want to ignore the "praise and worship" choruses, since they have become the symbol, if not the reality, of renewal; besides, the scriptural items are excellent worship material. But even charismatic songwriters, like Graham Kendrick and Jack Hayford, have proved that more complete, more theological musical expressions of Christian truth are still welcome in their services. If our church music leaders would give more attention to music education than to managing concert performances, congregations would again revel in the joy of singing God's praise in tunes as difficult as CORONATION ("All hail the power of Jesus' name") and S AGINA ("And it can be that I should gain").

This quality of local church worship renewal must be based on a study of the scriptural basis, the theology, and the historic practice of worship that is at least as thorough as that undertaken by both liturgical commissions and the charismatics. Once convictions are developed, they should be taught clearly and tirelessly to the whole congregation, both within and outside the actual experience of worship.

Condensed from an original article that
appeared in Crux 28, No. 4 (December 1992).
Used by permission.

1 Kenneth A. Myers, All God's Children
and Blue Suede Shoes (Westchester, 111.:
Crossway Books, 1989.

2 Graham Kendrick, Learning to Worship
(Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers,

3 See Paul Wohlgemuth, "Praise Singing,"
The Hymn, January 1987, pp. 18-23.

4 Stanley M. Burgess and Gary B. McGee,
eds., Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic
Movements (Grand Rapids: Zondervan
Publishing House, 1988), p. 156.

5 Terry Law, The Power of Praise and Worship
(Tulsa, Okla.: Victory House
Publishers), pp. 143-158.

6 Paul W. Hoon, The Integrity of Worship
(New York: Abingdon Press, 1971), pp. 91-

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Don Hustad is senior professor of church music at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

September 1995

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