How Shall We Worship?: Biblical Questions for the Worship Wars

How Shall We Worship?: Biblical Questions for the Worship Wars

by Marva Dawn

The Vital Questions series presents the thinking of knowledgeable, qualified authors on “vital questions” that Christians should be able to discuss intelligently. These concise books provide to-the-point answers and present the author's viewpoint, while allowing room for reader thought and disagreement.

How Shall We Worship? One source of debate

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The Vital Questions series presents the thinking of knowledgeable, qualified authors on “vital questions” that Christians should be able to discuss intelligently. These concise books provide to-the-point answers and present the author's viewpoint, while allowing room for reader thought and disagreement.

How Shall We Worship? One source of debate today is the wide variety of worship styles. In How Shall We Worship? Marva Dawn turns to Psalm 96 to investigate key elements of worship, from music to liturgy. She reminds us about the importance of recognizing that worship is for God and not for us.

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Tyndale House Publishers
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Vital Questions Series
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4.38(w) x 6.36(h) x 0.68(d)

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How Shall We Worship?

Biblical Guidelines for the Worship Wars
By Marva J. Dawn

Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2003 Marva J. Dawn
All right reserved.

Chapter One

What Kinds of Music Should We Use?

Sing to the Lord a new song; Psalm 96:1a

Since my father was an organist, choir director, and composer, I grew up loving both new music which he created and old music which he treasured and sometimes rearranged. As a child, I observed his great love for worship and for music of all sorts-which inevitably rubbed off and kindled in me the same desire to praise God with the best texts and tunes we can invent or pass on from our forebears in the faith. Consequently, it still seems strange to me that churches fight over styles and hastily reject the Church's heritage without investigating its riches or refuse to use global music and new songs without exploring their possibilities.

Some churches are founded upon the principle that only "contemporary" music-particularly that which matches the styles of the culture around us-should be used for worship. Verses such as Psalm 96:1a seem to justify that decision. However, this first verse doesn't suggest using only new songs, for later in the same psalm its poet employs an older song from Israel's heritage. Verses 7-8a of Psalm 96 quote the more ancient beginning of Psalm 29 (and 1 Chronicles 16 repeats Psalm 96 or perhaps antedates it). Those who advocate only "contemporary" worship miss the fact that worship throughout the Scriptures makes use of both new and old materials. To sing new songs doesn't negate singing old songs, too. In fact, we must consider what is lost if our worship has no connection to the "cloud of witnesses" who have preceded us in faith.

In many church situations I have found worshipers fighting for "contemporary" worship without really knowing what they mean by that vocabulary. The term contemporary is usually not defined. Do we mean by that word something that sounds like a pop radio station, or a brand-new organ improvisation, or a new text set to an old melody, or a new melody put to an old text, or an ancient song newly arranged and freshly contemplated? All those possibilities are "contemporary." Are we arguing for a certain instrumentation or a certain adaptation to culture? Ironically, some of the churches that boast of always singing "new songs" sing them over and over week after week and repetitively in each service, so that their newness is hastily worn off.

On the other side of many worship conflicts, some people advocate using only "traditional" music. That term isn't very helpful either because it doesn't clarify to which traditions we are referring. Do we mean Swedish or Swahili traditions, hymns or chants, the ancient liturgy of the Church or revised liturgies from the Calvinist or Lutheran or Anglican reformers? Do we mean the traditions from the first centuries of the pre-Constantinian Church or those from more recent American reformation movements?

It is essential that we ask what people mean by the words traditional and contemporary because failure to define them clearly usually leads to unnecessary arguments. Moreover, often the terms are used in response to wrong questions or as wrong answers to good questions, as we will see more thoroughly below. At this point it is important simply to recognize the importance of both new and old.

Throughout the history of the people of God, worship has made use of a mixture of elements old and new. Many songs in the Old Testament (or First Testament) make use of older elements from Israel's history. Songs in the book of Revelation use phrases from the Psalms and Isaiah. Both Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 urge us to teach and admonish with "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs." These texts free us from debating about musical styles and suggest instead a wide range of music for our faithfulness.

The word psalms invites us to participate with our Jewish and Christian forebears in singing the Old Testament poems, written for synagogue and Temple (as indicated by the frequent title, "To the Chief Musician" or "For the choir director") and collected primarily in the book of Psalms (and also in other poetic portions, most notably Isaiah).

The biblical term hymns points to the development of specifically Christian songs in the traditions of faith. The New Testament contains many of the earliest hymns, such as Philippians 2:5-11, 1 Timothy 3:16, 2 Timothy 2:11-13, John 1:1-14, and all the hymns in the book of Revelation, such as 5:9-10, 12, and 13. Similarly, today there are many hymns held in common by diverse denominations and eras-and written by great saints from Ambrose of Milan (339-397) and Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) to Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Wesley (1703-1791).

The phrase spiritual songs cannot be specifically defined. Perhaps it refers to new expressions of praise composed at the moment, or ecstatic utterances, or perhaps local music. Though we don't know exactly what the phrase originally signified, we can be reminded by it now that God is never contained by the music we already know. There will always be a need for new melodies, new harmonies, new texts, new arrangements, new instrumentations, new expressions of, and to, the infinitely incomprehensible God-even as we will always build on the faith expressions of our forebears and need some of the old, old songs to tell "the old, old story."

As we look at various stages in the history of Christianity, we discover that the sixteenth-century Reformers usually valued the past, even as they discovered the new. The earliest Christians patterned their worship after Jewish synagogue services, but added to them the celebration of the Lord's Supper. Martin Luther kept the Mass from the Catholic church, but put it into the people's native tongue. John Wesley continued to worship in the Anglican church, even as he and his brother Charles wrote many new hymns.

The Antithesis: Separation

Because the Church has generally used its treasures old and new, it was odd that in the last decades of the twentieth century churches started advertising a specific kind of music (usually "contemporary" or "traditional") for their worship services or that they split their worshiping Body into two or more different styles of services offered at different times. This leads to all sorts of divisions-by age, musical taste, head and heart, doctrine and feelings.

Are such divisions good for churches? We have seen, from Ephesians and Colossians, that such sundering might not be biblically appropriate. But do the advantages of such partitioning outweigh the disadvantages? Does it solve some problems? Is it really spiritually helpful? Before answering those questions, we must understand a little more history-both long range and from the past half century.

If we look over twenty centuries of church history, we glimpse many periods when movements of renewal broke away from the mainstream churches. Monastic currents shed some of the unbiblical accretions (especially wealth) that had invaded Christianity. Pietistic streams stressing Bible study and personal religious experience protested secular power structures or excessively intellectualized instruction in state churches.

The latter highlights a particular pair that has caused conflicts noticeable in many eras: the opposition of objective and subjective, expressions of truth about God and feelings in response to God. The dominant fight between "traditional" and "contemporary" sometimes circles around this opposition, for the older traditional hymns (with such exceptions as nineteenth-century romantic pieces) are typically more doctrinally focused, whereas a greater proportion of contemporary music stresses feelings primarily. It seems to be an opposition of truth and spirit, though Jesus underscored that "true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth" (John 4:23, emphasis mine).

Can our churches ask better questions so that the music we use in worship enables us to be both filled and free with the Spirit and also grounded in biblical and doctrinal truth? Without the emotion and willingness of Spirit, our music becomes dry and dusty-without life. Without doctrinal bones as a skeleton, the Body is not enfleshed in a healthy way.

It is essential that our worship music-as well as all the other formative elements of our congregation's life-continuously holds in tension the opposite necessities of both Spirit and truth. These two form a dialectical pair, for they are both important but seem to be pulling in different directions. How can we keep them both prominent and balanced? Since the truth side of this dialectic is less likely to be accentuated these days, let me elaborate that dimension.

I have a crooked leg that offers an excellent visual aid for the importance of straight doctrinal bones as the foundation for worship. I wear a toe-to-knee plastic brace to hold my leg firm because otherwise, if I put full weight on the leg, the bone would probably snap at the place where it is bent. Similarly, churches who have crooked doctrine-for example, an inadequate trinitarianism-will snap when that which is awry comes under pressure. Moreover, holding my crooked leg stable by means of plastic isn't a good solution either, for often the meeting of bones and plastic on two sides of fragile skin rubs ulcerated wounds. (I have just begun walking again after 15 months on crutches.) Similarly, churches who try to prop up their crooked doctrinal structure with supports from the outside might chafe incurable wounds.

Many formerly powerful churches have fallen apart or have become seriously weakened either from snapping at the crooked places or from festering wounds that can't be healed. For example, churches that use essentially narcissistic music, focused on self rather than God, find it increasingly difficult to engage members in service and outreach. Churches whose music accentuates only the Holy Spirit, thus betraying deficient trinitarianism, often have an insufficient doctrine of confession and forgiveness and consequently find it difficult to deal with conflicts. The freedom of the Spirit must be matched with the discipline of the Truth-especially in contrast with, and resistance to, the world's untruths.

Recent Escalations of Separation

In all of history, both unifying and dividing forces have been at work, with one or the other prevailing. In the last half century, however, the powers of separation have been more intensely aggravated by a combination of factors. We have to understand the history of church music as it is intertwined with the rebellions of the '60s and the development of "niche marketing."

I do not intend to romanticize the past (every era has its flaws), but in general before the second half of the twentieth century in North America music unified diverse peoples. Families would cluster around the piano and sing all kinds of songs-hymns, folk songs, patriotic marches, show tunes, lullabies. Literature and art often portray families gathering in the parlor or communities assembling in the town hall and playing a great variety of music on a wide assortment of instruments, often homemade.

One strong element that contributed to present fractures was the cluster of changes, events, and attitudes of the '60s. The large postwar population bubble coming of age, the development of junior high schools in which teens were mentored by their peers rather than by a consistent teacher, escalating anger about the Vietnam War, violent governmental crackdowns like the Kent State killings of student protesters, an unprecedented rejection of elders' authority by teenagers, and new infusions of illegal drugs were some factors that intensified the separation of young and old. Music in the '60s became an identity marker, a sign of rebellion, a unifier of one segment in protest against all the rest of the culture, a means for flaunting independence.

At the same time, businesses-particularly the record industry-realized that they could make much more money if they divided people up into smaller and smaller niches. Instead of one radio station playing all kinds of music, we could have numerous stations, each with a specialty. Various newspapers in Canada and the U.S. have featured articles on the new "tween market" (ages 9-13), for which a special line of cosmetics, a new fashion magazine, new movies and games have been designed. "Tweens" have their own styles and models, trends and tunes because the producers and marketers have discovered that they have $1.4 billion to spend.

Bring the same sort of rebellion (against the institution of the Church and its practices) and of niche marketing ("We want our kind of music") into our congregations, and is it any wonder that the splitting of churches into various styles of worship should intensify dramatically with the boomer generation?

Both sides erred when the boomer generation rebelled against the music of the churches and demanded their own styles, like "Praise and Worship." The traditionalists blundered in not finding ways to incorporate new sounds and to ask better questions for sorting the new music. The contemporaryists misjudged in not learning from their elders better practices of teaching and leading new music, of filling songs with better theology, of matching sound to meaning.

by God's grace, more and more churches-across the denominational spectrum and around the globe-seem to be asking better questions. Some are inquiring how we can avoid these splits, how various styles can be brought together. Many of the younger-than-boomer generations are asking what might be learned from the past, from the roots of the Church, as they search for mystery, symbolism, heritage, and depth-all for the sake of worshiping God genuinely in "spirit and truth."

Not "Blended" or "Convergent," but a Sense of the Whole Church

My primary reason for wanting churches to use many musical styles and sounds in their worship is because we have such a big God. No single type of music can respond to all that God is. No instrument can sing all God's attributes. No era of the Church has displayed the fullness of God's glory.

Some persons seek these days to offer what is called "blended" worship, in which old and new music are featured. This is an excellent goal, though I have trouble with the name blended, since recovering from emergency jaw surgery once necessitated that for three months I eat food made soft in the blender. That illustration points out the danger: If we use music from different eras and styles, we dare not let the songs played in "blended" worship services all sound the same and become indistinguishably gray like various foods tossed together in the blender.


Excerpted from How Shall We Worship? by Marva J. Dawn Copyright © 2003 by Marva J. Dawn. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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