ArticlesThree Obstacles to Corporate Worship

Three Obstacles to Corporate Worship

By Samuel Brown, Worship Leader at FBC Brownwood

 

The content of this article was inspired and influenced by pastor Doug Wilson’s Church Music
and the Other Kinds: A Musical Manifesto of Sorts.

For the purposes of this article, when I use the word worship I am referring to the joyful
participation of the unified Church body in the singing of holy songs on Sunday morning. I will
begin by explaining some assumptions I have about my readers and about worship. After that I
will address some of the obstacles that we will encounter as we work to lead our people in
worship. These obstacles are related and have some overlap, so I will do my best to distinguish
them from one another while showing how they are connected. I will then close with some
suggestions on how we can begin to overcome these obstacles.
My first assumption is that the body of believers in question is not compromised by
blatant, corporate sin. In Matthew 15:8-9 Jesus famously quotes Isaiah 29:13, saying “These
people honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. They worship Me in vain, teaching
as doctrines the commands of men.” (HCSB) Amos 5:23-24 says “Take away from Me the noise
of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice flow like water, and
righteousness, like an unfailing stream.” We endanger ourselves if we presume to come before
God with songs of worship, yet ignore His instruction elsewhere. If we are not repentant of sin,
we cannot offer up worship, but only idle words put to song, for which we will be called to
account. (Matt. 12:36) My second assumption is that every believer, from the least to the
greatest, from the oldest to the youngest, man, woman, and child, is called to participate in
musical worship. Short of physical inability, we do not have the option to exclude ourselves from
singing or playing in worshipful participation. Paul is speaking to every believer when he tells
them to be filled with the Spirit, “speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,
singing and making music to the Lord in your heart.” (Eph. 5:18-19) The Psalmist excludes no
one when he writes “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!” (Ps. 150:6, emphasis added)
And lest anyone try to excuse themselves on the grounds that they cannot sing, the Psalmist
gives them other options. (Ps. 150:3-5)

I Don’t Have to Sing
Which brings us to our first obstacle: having a consumer mindset. This is the argument
that says “I don’t have to sing.” Yet worship is not something we consume; it is something we
do. If every believer, without exception, is called to worship God through song to the extent that
they are able, then worship cannot be outsourced. Unfortunately, many modern worship songs
are written in ways that exclude full congregational singing. While modern worship music can be
powerful and fun to listen to, your typical church goer doesn’t have the range that your typical
worship leader has, which means there will be at least a few people who will not be able to
participate. This is one advantage to the four part harmonies usually found in hymns; they are
written to let all worshippers participate within their own vocal range. On the other hand, if we
reject the consumer mindset and seek to help our people engage in worship, it does not mean
there is no room for special performances. When we have ensembles like choirs and orchestras
who sing or play music apart from the congregation, they should be functioning as
representatives of the unified body. Their function is similar to that of a person who offers up prayer on behalf of a congregation, in which the congregation participates not as a hearer of the
prayer, but as a witness to the prayer, and by affirming its presentation to the Lord with a unified
amen. As a prayer of one person is not offered to the congregation, but to the Lord, so worship
music performed by an individual or group is not offered to the congregation, but to the Lord.
However, special musical performances should not be the norm; the typical pattern for musical
worship given in Scripture involves every believer.

I Don’t Like This Song
Because the consumer mindset encourages relativism and individualism, another
obstacle we must deal with is the elevation of personal taste as the deciding factor when it
comes to choosing worship music. This is the argument that says, “I don’t like this song,” or “I
like that song.” As pastor Doug Wilson puts it, “Of course we should like the music we sing, but
we should like it for reasons, and, if I may push it this far, we should like it for good reasons…
Those good reasons include the teaching and requirements from scripture.” [1] If we are taking our
cues from the Bible, congregational worship should inspire awe and reverence. It should not
inspire sentimentality toward Him. By sentimentality, I mean an emotional response that
obscures the purpose and meaning of worship. For example, Away in a Manger is an
immensely popular Christmas song that gets used in countless worship services every year. Yet
it invokes an emotional response similar to that of a lullaby. Yes, the melody and chords are
pleasant to the ear, but they are sleepy, listless, and nostalgic.[2] These feelings might have their
place in the nursery; they do not have a place in the corporate worship of God. At best the
music falls utterly short of the awesome reality of the incarnation; at the worst, it obscures it by
presenting it as something like a bedtime story. Other musical characteristics in worship that
should be avoided are flippancy or irreverence, and inconsistency (eg, solemn words put to a
bouncy tune, or vice versa).
As hard as it may be to cut certain songs out of worship, It is even harder to refine our
taste for worship-appropriate music. How many of our people get excited about singing psalms?
How many are enthusiastic (not just nostalgic) in their singing of hymns? Just because we like a
song doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for worship, and just because we don’t like a song doesn’t
mean we should exclude it from worship. Nor does it mean that songs that aren’t appropriate for
worship cannot be used elsewhere. But in all our musical choices, and especially in worship, we
should be praying for God to align our taste with His. If God likes it, we should like it, and we
should sing it with all the enthusiasm we can muster.

I Can’t Sing
Once we have acknowledged that we must worship, and we should like worshiping for
the right reasons, we have yet another obstacle: musical illiteracy. This is the argument that
says, “I can’t sing.” In my experience, it is rare that a person actually has no musical ability.
Learning music is like learning a language; anyone can do it, but it comes easily to some, and
can seem almost impossible to others. And like a language, the sooner a person learns, the
easier it is and the longer it sticks. Unfortunately, musical training has been neglected, in large part because the church has abdicated the responsibility of musical training to other institutions,
especially the public school system. Yet, God’s people are called to be skilled in their musical
worship (Psalm 33:3).
Now I ask the worship leaders and music ministers reading, what are we to do?
Overcoming these obstacles will not be easy. It is a long-term mission that must be worked on
diligently and faithfully. The first thing we must do is honestly address sin in our own heart. Do I
approach worship with a desire to present an acceptable offering before God, or with a desire to
present a polished product for the consumer? Am I leading my people in glorifying God, or am I
catering to their particular emotional appetites? Have I elevated my own musical preferences
over God’s? When I sing or play, is it with a posture of self-satisfaction or ingratitude or
flippancy? We should strive to first foster joy and gratitude and awe toward God in our own
hearts through prayer and study, and then lead our people to do the same. Take time to look at
passages on worship together with your team and with your congregation. Show them that
everyone is called to worship God in song. As we choose songs for corporate worship, our
attitude should be that of Peter and the apostles in Acts 5:29 when they told the Sanhedrin “We
must obey God rather than men.” Be prayerfully picky. Know why you sing or don’t sing certain
songs, and be able to defend your choices based on Scripture and God’s wisdom revealed in
creation. Keep working to cultivate a church culture that rejoices in reverent worship of their
Creator and Savior.
Musical illiteracy is an issue that will need to be addressed over generations. Right now,
we must find or create resources for our people that will help them learn and love the songs
sung on Sunday morning. For my church, I have created playlists that our folks can listen to in
order to keep our songs fresh in their minds. I have also used notation software to help teach
the different voice parts in several hymns. There are other online resources, like Sing Your Part,
that can help worshipers learn four part hymns and psalms. Use these tools to build up your
people’s singing chops from where they are. Finally, start working with the kids in your
congregation. You will be surprised at how quickly they are able to learn, and you may even
have some fun while you’re at it. More importantly, you’ll be discipling and equipping the next
generation of worshipers. And, Lord willing, they will be able to bless the generation after them
to an even greater extent.

 

 

[1] Doug Wilson, Church Music and the Other Kinds: A Musical Manifesto of Sorts (Moscow, ID: Canon
Press, 2014), 9-10.

[2] I concede that not everyone will have the exact same emotional response to each piece, but I reject
musical relativism. There are compositional and lyrical choices that generally evoke particular emotional
responses. God designed music to work that way. For instance, minor keys generally sound more
ominous or sad than major keys. Given the compositional and lyrical choices of Away in a Manger, I
believe I am describing a response that is consistent with most listeners’ experiences and with the intent
of the author.

 

 

*The views expressed are those solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pastor’s Common

Post a comment:

Comment

Type at least 1 character to search
a
Instagram:
This error message is only visible to WordPress admins

Error: No feed found.

Please go to the Instagram Feed settings page to create a feed.

Elsewhere: