Churches that understood corporate worship to be covenant renewal used music that modestly supported a fitting embodiment of doctrinally rich hymn lyrics and avoided music that simply “enervates men’s souls.” Sacramental worship, on the other hand, with its understanding of worship as felt experience of God, saw pop music as the perfect vehicle for their goals.
In a previous article, I argued that music (all art) embodies interpretation of reality—it embodies ideas beyond mere words. Scripture itself does this, not only telling us what we should believe, qualities that should describe us, and how we should live, but also showing us through artistic embodiment those things. Therefore, we Christians ought to always evaluate the embodied ideas within a work of art to determine whether or not they accord with sound doctrine (Titus 2:1).
Two Worship Theologies
This brings us to music used in worship. As I’ve argued, what worship songs do is more than just neutrally carry theological ideas expressed through words. If this were the case, then as long as the words were theologically correct, it would not matter what musical forms or performance style carries those words.
Side note: I hope you recognize here that even lyrics that are “technically” correct may already present an interpretation of biblical ideas that do not “accord with sound doctrine.” This is beyond the scope what I want to get to in this article, but just consider whether “reckless” or “sloppy wet kiss” accords with how Scripture expresses God’s love. These are not just neutral expressions of a correct biblical truth (God’s love), they embody a particular interpretation of what God’s love is like.
Music is not simply a neutral container for lyrical ideas—music embodies an interpretation of those ideas. So with worship songs, the music embodies both an interpretation of the particular words of the song and an interpretation of what is actually happening in the worship service.
So before I give some attention to the music itself, we need to briefly review the fact that Christians hold to more than one theology of worship.
For simplicity’s sake, I’ll focus on what I would say are the two most dominant theologies of worship among Christians today.1
The first is what I’ll call Covenant-Renewal Worship. This is a theology of worship that considers the Lord’s Day corporate gathering to be one of covenant renewal in which God renews his covenant with his people through the gospel, and his people renew their covenant with him in responses of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and dedication. This kind of covenant renewal glorifies God because it highlights the work that he has done, and it forms his people to mature in how they live out the implications of that gospel covenant. Here’s how I describe it in Biblical Foundations of Corporate Worship:
Corporate worship is like renewing our gospel vows to Christ. Just like when we were first converted, God calls us to draw near to him. Just like at our conversion, we respond with confession of sin and acknowledgement that we have broken God’s laws. Just like when we were first saved, we hear words of pardon from God because of the sacrifice of Christ. Just like when we began our relationship with God, we eagerly listen to his instructions and commit to obey. We are not getting “re-saved” each week, but we are renewing our covenant vows to the Lord, and in so doing, we are rekindling our relationship with him and our commitment to him, and he with us.2
Worship services shaped by this theology follow the shape of the gospel:
- God reveals himself and calls his people to worship through his Word.
- God’s people acknowledge and confess their need for forgiveness.
- God provides atonement.
- God speaks his Word.
- God’s people respond with commitment.
- God hosts a celebratory feast.
Corporate worship that embodies this theology is dialogical, a conversation between God and his people. God always speaks first through his Word, and then his people respond appropriately to God’s revelation.
As Bryan Chapell has helpfully demonstrated in Christ-Centered Worship, and as I demonstrate in Changed from Glory into Glory: The Liturgical Story of the Christian Faith, covenant-renewal worship characterized believers in the early church and Protestants following the seventeenth-century Reformation. Though differences certainly exist between various groups stemming from the Reformation, their theology of covenant-renewal worship was fairly consistent. Another book that very helpfully explains this historic theology of worship is Jonathan Cruse’s What Happens When We Worship.
Songs within this covenant-renewal worship serve one of two functions: (1) Often psalms and hymns serve as God’s words to us, either directly quoting from or paraphrasing Scripture itself. (2) Psalms and hymns can also serve as our response to God’s revelation.
With both cases, choice of songs depends upon how the lyrical content fits within the dialogical, gospel-shaped covenant renewal service. Songs are not lumped together into a musical “set,” but rather interspersed with Scripture readings and prayers throughout the dialogical, gospel-shaped service.
The goal of covenant-renewal worship is discipleship—building up the body (1 Cor 14:26). Every aspect of the service is chosen, not for how it will give “authentic expression” to the worshipers or give them an experience of God’s presence (see below), but rather how it will build them up, maturing them by the Word of God.
The music itself is actually not very prominent in this theology of worship. Music is important—as I’ve discussed, it provides an interpretation of the theology of the lyrics and gives expression to that interpretation. But music is secondary. The music is selected and performed to modestly support the truth with sentiments that “accord to sound doctrine,” and an emphasis is given to reverence, self-control, sobriety, and dignity in how the songs are led, accompanied, and performed.
Contrary to caricatures, this kind of worship is deeply emotional, but the music is not intended to stimulate or arouse emotion; rather, deep affections of the soul are stirred by the Holy Spirit through his Word, and music simply gives language to appropriate responses to the Word. Emotion in covenant-renewal worship is not often immediate, visceral, or flashy—rather, it is felt deeply in the soul.3 In fact, particularly because of commands in Scripture (like Titus 2:1) that Christians are to be dignified and self-controlled, care is given to avoid music that would cause a worshiper to lose control. Christians with this theology recognized that although physical feelings are good, they must be controlled lest our “belly” (a Greek metaphor for bodily passions) be our god (Phil 3:19). Rather, since reverence, dignity, and self-control are qualities that accord with sound doctrine, music is chosen that will nurture and cultivate these qualities and the affections of the soul like compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience (Col 3:12) and love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:23). This theology takes note of the fact that qualities like intensity, passion, enthusiasm, exhilaration, or euphoria are never described in Scripture as qualities to pursue or stimulate, and they are never used to define the nature of spiritual maturity or the essence of worship.
Musical choices from this perspective are not about new vs. old or the canonization of one kind of music; rather, it is about choosing musical forms that best accord with a covenant-renewal theology of worship.