Three Conclusions on Public Worship

by Matthew Raley If I start with Ephesians 4-5 as the authoritative prescription for life in Christ’s churches, and for the musical worship churches offer to God (previous posts here and here), then I am driven to three conclusions.

1. Nurturing and expressing body unity is the top priority of worship in music.

When a congregation gathers to sing, the assumption must be that the people are all different, that they bring to the worship radical diversity of knowledge base, experience, ethnic inheritance, and cultural ways of thinking. This variety, even in a group of fifty people, is immeasurable.

Musical worship, therefore, must tap this intense energy and focus it on the work of praising Jesus Christ. The music must enable diverse individuals to sing as one voice about the same reality. For this to happen, the music must express the truth of the gospel and the impact of that truth on daily life.

I believe the inescapable reality is that musical style cannot unify believers. The effort to unite people through style has driven out diversity and created uniformity, the false fellowship of demographic sameness. What believers need in worship are perspectives that they have not considered before, and that give fresh insight into the truth of Christ.

2. Recovering true worship in music requires an emotional shift.

Most evangelicals now expect music to stimulate their individual passion for God. They want to receive musical expressions that they can join. But when a congregation is singing in the dynamic Paul shows in Ephesians 4-5, believers feel a different passion. Their emotional desires and expectations shift. Instead of waiting to receive expressions they can join, believers give expressions that others can join.

This is a shift from passive, entertainment-oriented expectations to active, body-oriented expectations. Passion in worship comes from giving edification.

3. Recovering true worship in music requires a cultural shift.

Pop music is the vocabulary of a passive audience. The music is sold not to be made, but consumed. I don't see any way to escape the consumer mindset of contemporary worship by continuing to sing radio hits.

Technically, pop music is designed to be so stylistically strong that it attracts the consumer’s notice and then closes the sale. The style is visually expressed: the hair and make-up, the photography, the graphic design of posters and packaging. The style is also expressed in the production values of the recordings. Ultimately, the music and lyrics are saturated with a certain style.

The cultural shift we need is to recover the practices of folk music.

Folk music is as old as humanity. It is the music of participation, not performance. It grows out of a way of life. It is for people who make music throughout their daily routines, not for people who consume music. It is only in modern times that anyone considered writing this music down, much less recording it. Folk music is not designed to sell or to please, but to express. Indeed, it is difficult to speak of folk music being designed at all. It grows out of life.

The reason the hymns of the church are important now is that they are for the most part folk tunes. That is, the people just knew them, and knew them from infancy. They are an inheritance, not an artifice.

It is this kind of society that Paul is talking about in Ephesians 5.18-20. A Jewish child knew psalm chants before he knew words, just as a Greek child knew pagan hymns before he knew words. There was no marketplace for music as a consumable item.

What we have been developing in Orland for the last several years are ways to make these three principles a reality. We have found ways that our congregation can nurture and express musical unity. We have seen the beginnings of a shift in emotional expectations for worship. And we have made progress toward rebuilding the ways of folk singing.

More next week.