At last, I made it home. I changed into my comfortable clothes and finally had a moment to sit down and rest from a long, busy, Sabbath day. Once Sabbath ended, I plopped down on my family room couch and began flipping aimlessly through the television channels. But before too long, and to my dismay, I received a text message from one of my former students that began like this, “Pastor Bridges, I have a question regarding church music. I have been having a discussion with my roommate and his stance on drums is . . . ” All I could do was turn off the TV and sigh. I knew this was going to be a long conversation. While I began to text my response, I could not help but wonder to myself, will these heated debates on worship and music ever end?
Over the years, I have been frequently asked to referee debates on worship. I imagine you have heard of similar debates in your own circles, too. I receive numerous texts, phone calls, emails, and Skype calls and engage in frequent hallway conversations with people who regularly bicker about the virtues or vices of praise music. I am often asked questions along the line of, “How do you think we will resolve this raging debate on music and worship?” Today, it seems like all around us worship wars are rampant.
Often, we leave these discussions with more questions than answers. Instead of prayerfully looking to Jesus Christ for a solution we choose sides. We separate in our sanctuaries and refuse to compromise our positions.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church is a worldwide denomination. Therefore we surmise that our praise music must reflect our cultural diversity. Because of our global reach, we may even believe no clear, singular solution to our church music mayhem exists. So we stay on separate sides of the praise music aisle (for example, classical versus gospel; hymns versus contemporary) and sadly blame each other for the deepening problems in our pews.
But what is the struggle really about? What is praise and worship? The Bible clearly says that the words praise and worship are not synonymous. The most frequently used Hebrew word for worship, Šhāhāh, implies bowing down in service before a superior. This word means “to come before God and enter into His presence” (Exod. 34:8; 1 Sam. 15:25; Jer. 7:2). According to the Holman Bible Dictionary, “Biblical praise has a specific approach. Praise is one of our many responses to God’s revelation of Himself. To give praise to God is to proclaim his merit or worth.”2 Our heartfelt praise is offered in complete devotion to Jesus Christ (Luke 19:38–40).
Therefore the burning question we should ask ourselves is not “Should our praise music reflect our culture?” It should, instead, be, “Should our praise music culture reflect Christ?” Our music needs pastoral power. Our music must be able to focus on the gospel of Jesus Christ in order to convict and convert souls. As Christians, our dominant culture must be the culture of the Cross. We do not need more discussions on musicology; instead, we need a Christ-centered theology of worship. In his book Music and Ministry: A Biblical Counterpoint, Calvin M. Johansson writes, “The church needs musicians who know what church music should express and who also understand the musical methodology for expressing it.”3
This means that for us to use music with pastoral power, the theology (words) and the melody (music) must be Christ-centered to enable the infilling of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, praise is a unique art form that requires spiritual knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. In today’s music culture, most of us wonder how to maintain variety in our worship services. In our search for answers, we tend to ask for each other’s personal opinions and freely share our preferences on the topic. The time has come for us as pastors to resist creating praise standards based on personal preference. We must let God’s presence, found in the pages of His Holy Word, guide our music models.
Our God is an awesome Wonder. We can only marvel at the works of His hands. One of His greatest wonders is the gospel of Jesus Christ. God rescued His people—the Israelites—from the bonds of slavery and made them priests and kings. Through the line of King David, Jesus Christ was born of a virgin. Jesus came to die in order to free us from sin. Christ died on the cross like a criminal; yet from His humiliation came our liberation. He resurrected from the tomb so that we could live eternally. What a wonder! All we can do is praise Him! Praise is beautiful, and God our divine Creator loves variety. God’s love for variety can be seen throughout the beauty of nature in all of creation. God’s passion for variety extends to praise as well. God infuses His sovereign character and affection for variety into the way He desires us to praise Him. How can we reflect Jesus Christ in our praise?
The Holman Bible Dictionary states that the modes of praise are many. However, it includes seven modes of praise to God.4
Seven modes of praise
1.Offering a sacrifice. In ancient worship, the priests would sacrifice a lamb as the daily offering. Today, we no longer need a lamb to slaughter for our sins since Jesus Christ became the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29). So in our deepest praise we offer ourselves, our lives to God. David understood this principle and noted in Psalm 40:6, 8, 9 that his sacrifice of praise was not burnt or sin offerings but the law within his heart that he expressed with his lips. Everyday we must live a surrendered life. Before we can offer praise, we must repent of our sins and give our hearts in service to Jesus Christ. This is how we become a living sacrifice.
2.Physical movement. Bible history confirms that the Israelites were expres-sive in their praise to God. In Israelite worship the Israelites would engage in various movements. They would stand, bow, prostrate themselves, dance, clap, kneel, and lift their hands. In Nehemiah 8:5, 6, we see some examples of these praise movements (standing, bowing, prostration, lifting hands). David instructs us to lift our hands in the sanctuary and bless the Lord as the evening sacrifice (Pss. 134:2; 141:2). David danced before the Lord (2 Sam. 6:14) as an offering of praise. The psalm writer instructs us to clap our hands in praise (Ps. 47:1). Even though this praise act is mentioned in the Bible, some theologians view clapping as eschatological—acceptable only for King Jesus’ second coming—and not church worship. I assert there is a present-day praise application because in each praise and worship experience we make Jesus King over our lives and ask Him to come into our hearts.
Nevertheless, the application of these praise movements depends on the congregation that you serve. Whether you use one or all of these movements in worship, your act of praise pleases God. Not everyone has to respond in the same exact way for our praise movements to be acceptable. Some congregations may just stand, kneel, and bow their heads; others may clap, dance, and lift their hands. We must be wise and understanding with our praise. God loves variety. Therefore the movements that elicit praise for your congregation may differ from movements that elicit praise for mine. That does not make my praise movements wrong and yours right or vice versa. This just underscores the variety ingrained in God’s kingdom. Any physical movement within these prescribed parameters is all God requires from us for proper praise.
3.Silence and meditation. We live in a world filled with the hustle and bustle of activity. As Christians we should learn to cherish and create meditative moments of silence. We must build times of silence into our lives and worship services. The word Selah is most frequently used in the book of Psalms and three times in the book of Habakkuk. Selah is a musical notation that means “to pause and think calmly on what has just been expressed.”5 Silence and meditation are an essential part of praise (Ps. 77:12). It is in the quiet times that we can hear the still, small voice of God (1 Kings 19:11, 12). We can create silent times of meditation during service transitions, within praise and worship, or as part of a prayer. This silence allows us to reflect on God’s goodness.
4.Testimony. How can others know how wondrous God has been in our lives if we neglect to share our life experiences through stories? Testimonies about God’s goodness are tools we can use to strengthen our faith and encourage others to trust and praise God no matter how difficult the situation (Ps. 105:1, 2). Brief stories about our triumphs or trials can be used in our services or small group ministries to encourage, express our faith, build community, and promote compassion for others.
5. Prayer. Prayer provides us with constant communication with God. Prayer is a conduit to the halls of heaven and a pathway into God’s presence. David knew that in God’s presence there is life, pleasure, and fullness of joy (Ps. 16:11). Isaiah 56:7 reads, “For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations” (NKJV). Prayer ministries, not just prayer meeting, should be established at every church. Our members need to view prayer as an integral part of our church life. Purposeful, persistent prayers exhibit our faith in Jesus Christ and His power to transform.
6. A holy life. God continues to admonish us to be holy. Why? Because He is holy (Lev. 19:2). Praise allows us to reflect the character of our Creator. Through constant praise, we become changed, for we cannot encounter God and remain the same. As we worship and praise God in private, the result is that we will have the mind of Christ so that Jesus will be seen in our daily lives.
Music. Music, both vocal and instrumental, pleases God. Music is audible, melodious adoration that God created for His perpetual praise (Rev. 5:8, 9). God instructs His people to sing and rejoice around Him (Zech. 2:10). It is widely recognized that most praise words can be linked with vocal and/ or instrumental music. Music has God-ordained, prophetic power. David made instruments for giving praise (1 Chron. 23:5). “David . . . separated for the service some of the sons of Asaph, of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who should prophesy with harps, stringed instruments, and cymbals” (1 Chron. 25:1, NKJV). The Lord Himself chooses to show His delight in us through music and will rejoice over us with singing (Zeph. 3:17). In heaven, the redeemed will sing with the harps of God (Rev. 15:2, 3). Praise music transforms behavior. Ronald Allen and Gordon Borror, authors of Worship: Rediscovering the Missing Jewel, say, “An idea (either good or bad) set to a good melody, given rhythmic intensity and harmonic consistency, can really work its way into our minds. . . . [M]usic is a powerful way to get . . . ideas implanted and affect the behavior of mankind. . . .
“What we sing we remember, because we have combined the power of intellect with emotion.”6
It does not matter how beautiful your melodies or wonderful your music. It makes no difference how talented you are or how much popularity you or your church may have. It does not matter whether you think your praise is genuine. Your music and worship could be of the highest and holiest genre. But if it is focused on personal preference and personal satisfaction, it is worthless. Your praise is pure mayhem. Instead of the tender touch of a love relationship with God, your praise becomes harsh and hollow like sounding brass and tinkling cymbals. Your praise is just chaos and displeasing noise to God if the blood of Jesus Christ does not cover it.
When we fight and complain about the music our offerings of praise are not covered by the blood of Jesus Christ; instead, they may be soiled by the sin of our self-serving pride. There is a way to give God glorious praise. No matter what we offer God it is sinful, because we are all sinners. But if we give Jesus Christ our hearts, He will cover our praise with His righteousness. Our praise will be a sweet melody to God. We must shift our praise paradigm, return to God’s Holy Word, and be revived by the revelation of His truth. Johansson agrees when he writes, “If theology is to be the foundation of our value system, then clearly the musician’s regard for musical art cannot be allowed to become idolatrous. By the same token, methods will not be worshiped; rather, they will be determined by theological presuppositions. Music directors will not bow at the shrine of success. There will be no conflict between artistry, spiritual-ity and methodology.”7
We no longer have to wonder about worship. The wonder of worship is found in our knowledge of Jesus Christ. Everything we need to know about praise and worship is outlined in the pages of God’s Holy Word. We just need to delve deeper. We must move beyond the comfort of our traditions, culture, and rituals to find God’s righteous pathway to true praise. If we follow God’s Word, our praise practices will be filled with doctrine and diversity that can stand the tests of time.
1. This article is an adaptation of an excerpt from Cheryl Wilson-Bridges, Deeper Praise: Music, Majesty, or Mayhem (Lake Mary, FL: Creation House, 2016). Used by permission.
2 Chad Brand, Charles Draper, and Archie England, eds., The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 1998), 1319, 1320.
3 Calvin M. Johansson, Music and Ministry: A Biblical Counterpoint, 2nd ed. (Peabody, MA; Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1998), 56.
4 Brand, Draper, and England, Bible Dictionary, 1319, 1320.
5 “Lexicon: Strong’s 5542 - celah,” Blue Letter Bible, www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon .cfm?Strongs=H5542&t=KJV.
6 Ronald B. Allen and Gordon Borror, Worship: Rediscovering the Missing Jewel (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1982), 148.
7 Johansson, Music and Ministry, 7.