This is the third in a 4-part sermon series entitle “The What’s? How’s? and Why’s? of Worship.” This series is intended to address how United Methodist understand the meaning of worship, and how we organize the Sunday worship service. It will also be an opportunity for Pastor Drew to share is vision for our worship life, as well as talk about where things stand with the development of a second worship service.
Scripture: Colossians 2:6-12
On National Public Radio stations which play classical music, there’s a short daily segment which closes with a tag line that says something to the effect of: “…reminding you that all music was once new.” What we today call “old music” was, in fact, once new. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony once had its premiere performance. There was once a time when Christmas and Easter came and went without the playing of Handel’s Messiah–because it hadn’t yet been composed. And closer to home, what we moderns call “Classic Rock” –songs like “Smoke on the Water,” “Hey Jude,” “Walk this Way,”—were once new and at the top of the charts.
When it comes to church music, what was cutting edge 20 years ago is now considered passé and easy listening. The irony is that churches that are now attempting to be more contemporary by singing songs such as “Open the Eyes of my Heart” and “Come, Now Is the Time to Worship,” are already 15 years behind! Did you realize that our newest musical supplement, The Faith We Sing song booklet, which was supposed to help modernize our singing church, is nearing 20 years old!
One way to think about the idea that all music was once new it is to realize that there will always be new forms of music. And, as is the case from generation to generation, the newest musical genre’s often leave previous generation feeling a bit confused about why people would listen to it. For example, based on the average age of the members of our congregation, my guess is that very few of you here enjoy listening to hip hop. I’ll confess that it doesn’t do anything for me, personally. But just because many of us don’t enjoy hip hop doesn’t mean it isn’t a style of music that speaks to people at the gut level.
When I was a high school senior, a national music teacher’s conference was being held in Ann Arbor, and my high school band was being used to demonstrate how to interpret John Philip Souza marches. The guest conductor was none other than William Revelli, a living legend in the band world. A few days before the conference, he came to our class and rehearsed the marches he was going to talk about. Ever the teacher, Dr. Revelli talked about what makes music music, and tried to help us students stretch our musical appreciation. Although he was well intentioned, and didn’t intend to offend us high schoolers, at one point he said something that probably had the unfortunate result of many of us tuning him out from that point forward. He said, and I quote, “What you kids listen to today isn’t music.” In one short statement he pretty much dismissed anything as music that wasn’t of his own generation. He may have been a genius at interpreting Souza marches, but as a critic of popular music, he couldn’t have been more wrong.
When it comes to music in worship these days, I’d have to say that it’s easy for us all to be critical of anything that doesn’t float our own musical boat. Many people who grew up with and prefer singing traditional hymns accompanied with an organ or piano are unmoved by modern-sounding songs. And likewise, many who prefer singing modern-sounding songs are unmoved by the longstanding hymns of the faith.
Sometimes it’s the musical style we don’t connect with, and sometimes of the lyrics. Those who prefer hymns will sometimes say that contemporary lyrics are too simple, too repetitive. Those who prefer modern songs will say that the poetic nature of hymn lyrics can be confusing to the modern ear. For example, in our hymnal there’s a hymn with a line that contains the partial statement, “Unmindful of God’s favors prove.” Even I have to ask, What the heck does that mean? In that same song, another line reads, “For you the purple current flowed in pardon from his wounded side.” I can guarantee that a new Christian will have no idea what that means, and what it refers to. (It’s a poetic reference to the piercing of his side on the cross by the Roman Centurion.)
At West Side United Methodist Church, where I was on staff before coming here, we had a band that led us in a really jazzy, bluesy-sounding version of Amazing Grace one Sunday. It really was fun to sing. After worship, however, one church member came up to me in quite a funk, and let me know in no uncertain terms that that was not how the composer intended that hymn to be sung. Knowing how old the tune is, I wanted to ask her how she knew how the composer meant it to be sung? I also wanted to let her know that many tunes to our sacred hymns were in fact previously bar songs before having Christian lyrics put to them, and that we probably weren’t singing these songs with the same gusto and spirit they were originally sung with! But that would have been a bit snarky, so I just listened. And she went a way angry.
When it comes to worship music, the fact is there’s no one style that’s better than another. Or more appropriate. Or more sacred. Or more acceptable to God. To be sure, each of us does bring a personal preference for the kind of music we like. And that’s to be expected. But my personal preference is just that—my preference. It’s not better suited to worship than what someone else likes.
Now, it could be said that worshipping in a setting that utilizes a style of music that doesn’t do much for someone could have the effect of making worship less than inspiring for them. I supposed if I were to find myself worshipping in a church that utilized a lot of hip hop, my overall experience might not be as inspirational than if it were a mixture of classical and contemporary—which is my own preference. On the flip side, if I were worshipping in a “high church” setting, where the entire service was chanted, I’m not sure how much I’d get out of that, either. So it’s important that we recognize this is a reality. We do bring our personal preferences.
Having said that, let me repeat what I stressed two weeks ago: I strongly believe that worship isn’t about us, and what we get out of it. Worship is about God, and about what we bring to it. Certainly, we should get something out of it. It’s good to be moved and inspired. Even so, because worship about God, what matters more than what we get out of it is what we bring to it. And by that I mean, the attitudes we bring to worship. I think that what we bring has a greater impact on our overall experience than what we get.
Every pastor has had the experience of greeting people after worship when someone says, “Great sermon, pastor!” Or, “That was a very inspiring worship service.” Then two or three people later someone will come through and say, “Who picked that last hymn? It was terrible! ” That’s happened to me more than once. One person is moved to tears by the worship while that same worship experience falls flat for another. They sang the same songs, heard the same sermon, prayed the same prayers, heard the same Scripture. But their experiences were altogether different. Why is this?
I think a lot of it is the attitudes and expectations us each of us bring to worship. If I approach worship with the belief that only a particular style of music or liturgy is acceptable or appropriate, then I’m pretty much guaranteed to be disappointed and unmoved by anything else. On the other hand, if I come with the idea that God can touch my heart no matter what we sing, or what kind of liturgy is utilized, it’s very possible that I’m going to leave their changed—even if it was different than what I personally prefer.
I’ll tell you what most encourages me as a worship leader. It’s when someone comes through the line and tells me that they found the music to be uplifting when I know for a fact that they prefer a different style of music. Or when, despite the fact that the service went quite a bit longer than usual, they let me know that they found worship to be very meaningful. What makes that possible?
Most certainly, the Holy Spirit is a huge part of one’s experience of worship. But one could argue that what we bring to worship gives the Holy Spirit something to work with. If the attitudes and spirit we bring to worship can be likened to clay, an open attitude is like wet, moldable clay; and a closed attitude is like hard, unmoistened clay. Any potter will tell you that the only way to mold clay into something beautiful and smooth requires it to be soft and pliable. What we bring to the table each Sunday is what the Holy Spirit has to work with. And trying to make something out of a dried claylike heart is difficult. The Good News is that God can do that, and sometimes he does. But it takes a lot of effort and work on the part of the potter. But more often than not, I think he allows us to remain hardened—or at least dry—if that’s the heart we bring to worship.
So, what’s the most useable attitude we can bring here each week? There’s lots of good attitudes, but I think the one that God can use the most, which will result in a positive experience, is humility. It’s a prideful heart that says, “My way!” It’s a prideful heart that says, “Worship should only look the way I think it should look, or be the way I think it should be.” It’s a prideful heart that says, “Praise songs only,” or “Hymns only!” But a humble heart says, “Whatever way.” A humble heart says, “I’m open to something different or something new.” A humble heart asks God to touch it no matter what style of worship it may be.
Our Scripture reading from Colossians 2 begins with this charge to the reader: Live in Christ Jesus the Lord in the same way as you received him” (v. 6). In what manner does anyone receive Jesus Christ? By humbly acknowledging their need for him. Coming to faith in Christ is truly an act of humility. I’m lost and separated from God. I don’t really have it all together, despite how it may look. I’ve done some pretty bad things. I’m unloveable. I need help. The list of needs could go on and on. The bottom line is that the only way we come to saving faith in Jesus Christ is on our knees. Lord Jesus, forgive me, a sinner. Make me right with the Father. I turn over my life to you. That’s a humble heart.
Paul tells us to apply that same attitude to the way we live day-to-day. Live in Christ Jesus the Lord in the same way as you received him. Live in humility. Live in a way that’s open to whatever God wants to do. On the flip side, don’t live for yourself. Don’t live according to your own standards.
And then v. 8 reads, See to it that nobody enslaves you with philosophy and foolish deception, which conform to human traditions and the way the world thinks and acts rather than Christ. Following the “ways of the world” would have us look out for self above all. It would have us advocate for what we want above all else. This isn’t to suggest that we shouldn’t take care of ourselves; but it is to suggest that there are lots of times when we’re called to put others’ considerations before our own. And worship could be one of those times. Would you and I be willing to adjust our own expectations of our Sunday worship for the sake of others?
I recently downloaded a fun app onto my phone that can be used in group settings just to get a conversation started. The app is called “What if…?” and throws out What if? questions that require a yes or no answer. The thing is, the first part of the question is typically favorable, but the second part isn’t. For example, What if you became twice as attractive…but half as smart? Or, What if what you say can never bring you negative consequences…but you must always speak with a rough Scottish accent?
Well, here are two What if? questions regarding worship. What if we could have lively, inspirational worship every week using the style and form that’s your personal preference…but we’ll never get another visitor ever again?
Or, What if our church significantly grew numerically and spiritually every year…but we worshipped in a way that was the opposite of your personal preference? What would you say?
As you think about your answer, keep this truth in mind. There was once a day when polyphonic music – multiple notes sung at the same time (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) – was new to the church, and was a controversial. There was a day when the organ was a new church instrument—and some churches wouldn’t allow it because they believed it to be inappropriate for worship. In the Roman Catholic Church, there was a day, even here in the U.S., when their worship was still in Latin. It wasn’t until the early 60’s that they started worshipping in English!
Changes in worship patterns and elements have taken place since the day the Church began. The question isn’t whether new ways of worshipping are OK. Rather, it’s are we willing and able to set aside our own preferences from time to time to allow the Holy Spirit to blow through us and do a great and wonderful thing? Are we willing to come her each week in humility, saying, “Not my will, but yours be done”? Are we willing to come as soft, pliable clay, so that God can easily mold us? That is the question.
What’s your answer?