A Little History
This is a question I get asked all the time. Let’s be real before we move on though. The question runs much deeper than this. The question behind the question is, “Don’t you know that the Holy Spirit only manifests Himself through the inspired hymn book and the immutable instruments of the piano and organ?” Since we are now clear on the real question, let me take some time to answer it. Here is my explanation as to why I left the “traditional” worship movement and why I did not join the “contemporary” worship movement. Do I have your attention now? What “movement” did I join then?
My background is from a very conservative, liturgical, independent baptist church. In fact many people that attended the church said that at times it actually reminded them of a Catholic Church service. Being from this background I thought the only way to worship God was singing the old hymns with the hymnal in your hands and using the piano and organ for the instruments. Anything else was clearly from the devil.
Two significant things happened to me though while I was attending that church that opened my mind up to the reality that there are multiple expressions of biblical worship and there have been all throughout the history of the Church. First, I was given a book by one of my mentors, ‘Worship Old and New’ by Robert Webber. This book explained the biblical and historical patterns of worship that are essential and the reality that they have been expressed differently in different cultures throughout different generations. There is not a cookie cutter approach as long as the biblical patterns are maintained.
Second, I met a young pastor from Brazil who preached at our church. Man could this guy “bring it home” in the pulpit. In several discussions with him we began conversing about worship. His church expresses worship very similar to how we do at ONElife Church. So I went back and began talking with one of my mentors about this. He said that he had actually attended some of their services in Brazil and said their services were done well and with reverence. He then proceeded to tell me that when I became a senior pastor I could begin to introduce those forms of expression but that he could not because he had spent so many years teaching against it and simply did not prefer it. Having his affirmation to engage in this form of worship began to open my mind even more to the reality that there might be more to worship than what I had known up to that point.
A Little More History
After reading Webber’s book and having some conversations with people that I respected, I began praying, thinking, and doing even more research on the subject of worship. My concern was to honor God in all that I did and if there was something more that I was missing I wanted to know! In my research there was some historical data that was very interesting.
In the “traditional” worship camp they say that you must almost exclusively sing from the hymnal and use only the piano and organ as instruments. The practice of hymn singing was a practice that was introduced around A.D.1700. This new “contemporary” way of worship actually led to splits in certain denominations. So what many refer to now as “traditional” and “biblical” was at one time referred to as “contemporary” and “heretical.” I mean Martin Luther used a bar tune for the music of one of his hymns. That did not go over very well!
Furthermore, the organ has its roots in early Roman pagan culture and was not introduced to be used in the church until A.D. 900. In fact, it actually didn’t become an official instrument of the Church until A.D. 1400. So in case you missed the point, the church actually adopted a “secular” instrument to be used for worship in the Church. Oh my what a radical group of sinners they must have been.
In addition, the piano was not invented until around A.D. 1700. Well, what instrument did they use for their evangelistic songs before that time? Let me be clear as I conclude this point; I am not against the piano and organ, they are beautiful instruments that can be used to honor and glorify God. What I am simply showing is that both were invented throughout the church age and then adopted for worship. Therefore, they were not given by God to the Church through a burning bush experience.
The Final Piece
What I have mentioned up to this point was still not enough to cause me to make the “leap” to adopt new expressions of worship. They certainly opened my mind, but God’s Word was the final authority. There are a few key verses that really struck me and caused me to cross the threshold.
Let me share two portions of Scripture that really spoke to me. The first is found in Psalm 96, “Oh sing to the Lord a new song: sing to the Lord, all the earth!” (Psalm 96:1 ESV). Let me bring some clarity here. The Psalmist says to sing a new song… in order to sing a new song someone must write a new song. The issue then is not when the song was written but the content contained within the song. Let’s be honest, many hymns in our hymnals are complete theological garbage, which is why the churches that still exclusively use hymnals only sing a small portion of the songs in there. To be fair, many of the contemporary worship songs are theological garbage as well. One of the many reasons I love our Pastor of Worship & Creative Arts, Dan Dameron, is that he takes time to study the lyrics of hymns and contemporary songs alike to ensure that they are theologically solid.
Now, let’s consider some more verses, “Praise Him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise Him with the harp and lyre, praise Him with the timbrel and dancing, praise Him with the strings and pipe, praise Him with the clash of cymbals, praise Him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord” (Psalm 150:3-6 ESV). However you read these verses it inevitably pulls the proverbial rug out from under the “traditional” worship movement. Either way you interpret these you must read them and conclude that 1) only these instruments are to be used in worship or that 2) we are to utilize the different instruments we have for the glory of God. Either way the “traditional” worship movement misses the mark. I do believe the latter interpretation is what the Psalmist had in mind. Let me just point out as well that the Psalmist states that even dancing can be an expression of worship. If any dancing, or even swaying for that matter, took place in most “traditional” worship churches, I think the elders would have been called in to lay hands on that person and cast the demons out, but here it is an expression of worship. Interesting...
So let me bring the final point home. The issue when it comes to worship is not the era that the songs were written in or the instruments that are used; this issue is one of transcendence. Transcendence is “the action or fact of transcending, surmounting or rising above...the attribute of being above and independent of the universe.” Many “traditional” and “contemporary” expressions of worship fail here and many “traditional” and “contemporary” forms succeed here. Here is what we all need to do. We all need to leave both the “traditional” and “contemporary” Christian worship movements and join the “Transcendence” movement and use our songs and instruments of choice for the glory and honor of God. In the words of James MacDonald, “we are to be facilitators of transcendence.”
Contributor / Eric Stewart
Eric Stewart is the Lead Pastor at ONElife Church in Flint, MI.