Music at Mars Hill is a weekly column by Luke Larsen that seeks to find God amidst the newest trends in both mainstream music and independent music.

I had planned a different topic for my column this week, but when I stumbled upon an Elsewhere post here on CaPC from Professor James Smith of Calvin College, I felt it was necessary to respond in some fashion. The post is titled “An Open Letter To Praise Bands” and was featured on Gospel Coalition. It lays out three criticisms about modern worship music. You see a lot of this online, but this one in particular caught my attention.

First of all, it was incredibly kind and sincere about its criticisms — even taking some of the blame upon the congregation itself for “encouraging” worship leading practices that are unhealthy for the Church. This is the kind of discussion I love to see online. Second, it pays special attention to the actual music going on in our churches on Sunday mornings and takes it seriously — hopefully realizing that the style and music itself is just as important as the words in worship songs.

However, I also found myself disagreeing with Smith on just about every point he makes. Here are the three arguments he makes in the article and my responses to each:

1. If we, the congregation, can’t hear ourselves, it’s not worship.

I don’t know where Professor Smith is going with this one. Trying to define what makes something “worship” in terms of anything but the posture of your heart toward God is stepping on some dangerous ground as far as I’m concerned. In college, I got the opportunity to lead a very passionate college group in worship each week. We played big and we played loud and let me tell you: Our congregation sang even louder. As a worship leader, there was nothing more humbling and special than being able to hear your congregation singing at the top of their lungs to God — there is indeed something very powerful about hearing people sing together in unison. However, to say that playing music loudly is somehow keeping congregations everywhere from worshipping God is going too far. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to people my age about how difficult it is to freely worship in a setting where everyone around them can hear and see them singing and expressing themselves to God.

2. If we, the congregation, can’t sing along, it’s not worship.

Again, Professor Smith is attempting to categorize what is and isn’t worship rather than trying to work through what is useful and helpful in worship services. I understand what he means by this: Songs should be easy to pick up and accessible to the people in your church. I wholeheartedly agree. However, is it not possible to worship without singing at all? Is it not possible to worship in utter silence?

3. If you, the praise band, are the center of attention, it’s not worship.

I really understand the argument the writer is trying to make here. He’s right in that it isn’t at all about the people on stage. It’s about the Spirit of the Lord speaking through them. In fact, following this line of logic is what made the Church of Christ denomination remove instruments from their worship services. However, his comments about putting worship bands in the back of rooms comes off slightly offensive to me. Not because I like being the center of attention, but because if we are not mature enough to be able to be led by another human being to Jesus and not worship that human being, perhaps we shouldn’t have pastors speaking at churches either. Why not just play a recording and have everyone worship to that?

My point here is that God uses different human beings with all their different skills, brains, and character traits to lead His Church in different ways and to move in His Spirit through. In our local churches we, as the congregation, should be thinking deeply about the music we play in worship to God because it really does matter. It really does influence how we think about God and how we interact with Him. The important thing to remember is that this will end up looking different in every congregation and every culture.

Editor: Here’s a related column on contemporary worship music: “Citizenship Confusion: Auto-Tuned Elevation Church.”


  1. I agree that I don’t like Dr. Smith’s “it’s not worship” phrasing. I’d rather have read something like, “it’s more performance than worship.”

    On his first point, I’d relate an time when I attended a service where everything was so loud I could not hear myself sing, and I was in the back of the room. It gave me a feeling that my voice didn’t matter. Perhaps that kind of experience is what Dr. Smith is referring to.

  2. Having done a stint as a church music leader myself, I have a lot of sympathy with what Smith says. Personally, I wish he would drop the word “worship” and substitute the word “praise” or maybe just “music,” as I think the term “worship” is unnecessarily broad in this context. What I take him to mean is that, if the form of church music (a) isolates individuals from others in the congregation or (b) encourages the congregation to admire the musicians more than God, then the music is not doing its job. That job, as I see it, is primarily to instruct the faithful and to enable their contemplation of God, and secondarily to prepare the congregation emotionally to listen to the Scripture and to partake in the sacrament. The “wall of sound” form of church music may fulfill the second purpose while neglecting the first. It’s only a short step from “forget about everyone else around you and focus on God” to “forget about everyone else around you and focus on yourself.”

    You ask, “if we are not mature enough to be able to be led by another human being to Jesus and not worship that human being, perhaps we shouldn’t have pastors speaking at churches either. Why not just play a recording and have everyone worship to that?” Isn’t the answer obvious? We are required to meet together physically. Smith seems to assume that church music should be an embodied presence, not a disincarnate sound. I don’t know exactly why, but music is always more meaningful when played live, whether in a concert or in church.

    In final defense of Smith, I think his distinction between “form” and “style” is important, if by “style” he means the individual, particular manifestation of a form. Right now it happens to be guitar bands, but a pipe organ cantata could just as easily discourage congregational participation and isolate congregants in their own private, aesthetic appreciation of the music. Ideally, church music should draw believers into common love of God, but shouldn’t try to do that to the detriment of enriching our relationships with each other. There is a certain kind of community that is formed by making music together, either with instruments or with voices, and it is unlike any other community I have ever experienced. Part of that community, as Smith points out, depends on our ability and willingness to listen to each other.

  3. Taking a cue from Steven here, it’d be nice if we could just drop “worship” from in from of leaders and replace it with something more apropos. Maybe song leaders. I actually prefer just calling them musicians. It’s not as if, in most cases, they’re actually even elders or have the authority to lead/guide/pastor the church.

    It’d also be nice if we stopped calling congregational singing “worship.” I mean, who’s bright idea was that, anyway?

  4. I think that Jamie Smith is making a distinction between private and communal worship, and that his points address the effects of certain musical decisons on communal worship.

    It seems to me that Luke Larsen fails to recognize this distinction. Playing so loudly that I can’t hear myself or anyone else may still allow for, or even facilitate, private worship. But I fail to see how I am worshipping with others in that setting. Couple this with the tendency of many churches to darken the sanctuary with the only lights shining in stage, and it seems clear that there really isn’t any communal worship going on. If I can’t see or hear the rest of the congregation, then in what sense am I worshipping with them?

  5. I’m not quite sure how to phrase this in a way that won’t start an argument, but… where’s the charity in having the music so loud you not only can’t hear yourself but also end up with a headache that drives you out of the building? That’s happened to me more than once, and I also have friends with Asperger’s who are sent into sensory spikes (which are physically painful and emotionally distressing) by music that’s too loud. I’m not opposed to loud music per se, but if the music physically hurts people, that seems like a problem to me. Ditto lighting effects that could trigger migraines or seizures.

  6. All valid points. To me, my main point is that accurately expressing the worship of your particular community in music is what is important (not being cool or trendy). However, that also means that we shouldn’t be able to go around telling other churches or communities what is and isn’t worship. The distinction between performance and worship is something that is important, but usually has a lot more to do with the hearts of the congregation and less to do with how loud the music is.

    @James: As far as the difference between communal and private worship goes… I totally understand. I understand that some people find it incredibly important to hear their own voice or the voices of the people around them. But I’m not making up the fact that some people (especially of the younger generation) have come to be comfortable worshipping in a setting with loud music. Since when do we get to go around frowning upon those that value different things spiritually — much less actually trying to define what communal Christian worship is and isn’t.

  7. But Luke, how can people with sensitive ears, migraine triggers, Asperger’s, etc., participate in corporate worship if the music renders them physically incapable of being in the church? That’s not a matter of attitude or stylistic preference; it’s a matter of medical need. Isn’t there some way to minister to both the kids who like loud music and the people who literally cannot bear it?

  8. @Rose: I totally understand that and that’s something that should be worked out in local churches. Don’t get me wrong — I am not against churches that play quiet music. I’m only argue against the idea that people think there is only one kind of music that can conduct Christian communal worship. In my mind, there are drawbacks and strengths of every stylistic choice for a worship leader, but that’s something we all must except. Our worship is imperfect.

    @Seth: To me, the idea of demoting worship leaders to “song leaders” would really be moving in the wrong direction. If we want the music we play and sing on Sunday mornings to just be “songs”, that’s easy enough to do. I remember each week me and my team lead worship back in college we would start off by praying as a leadership for God to transform our simple songs into meaningful moments of worship and experience with Him for our congregation. Instead, we need to be training our worship leaders in ministry, discipleship, and leadership the same way we do other forms of leadership in the Church.

  9. @Luke

    Thanks for the response, Luke. What might be off-putting about Jamie’s article is that he makes blanket statements regarding certain ways of doing worship music. Of course there are exceptions to these rules, so taken at face value, what he says is false, as you point out.

    Perhaps it may be more useful to re-frame the discussion by moving away from hard and fast rules. Instead, let’s ask the following question. Do these things, i.e. loud music, extended instrumental interludes, and the positioning of the worship band at front and center stage, have a tendency to encourage congregants to move away from communal worship to a more privatized, individualized mode of worship? If so, then we should consider very carefully whether these things are worth doing regularly.

    Of course, this needn’t require an outright prohibition of the aforementioned ways of doing worship. However, and I may be mistaken, this form of worship seems to be the status quo among evangelical churches whose congregation averages between 20-30 years of age. I think that one of Jamie’s central points is that such churches have unreflectively patterned their musical worship after concerts. Does this form facilitate communal worship as effectively as any other form? Jamie doesn’t think so. Perhaps you would disagree. Recall that the form under discussion is any worship that the includes the above-mentioned elements: high volume, long instrumentals, and band at center stage. This is of course independent of any particular musical style.

    I tend to agree with Jamie, and here’s why. I think that a necessary condition of communal worship is that my participation as a congregant has to count. If I can’t hear myself or anyone else, if I don’t have an opportunity, if the band takes up most of my visual field, then it doesn’t seem like my voice matters. It doesn’t seem like I’m contributing to the worship in any meaningful way.

    Here’s an analogy. Suppose that a group of people gather for a discussion. Suppose that a minority of the group talk the loudest and do all of the talking. Suppose also that the seating arrangements are such that the majority face this minority and no one else. Do we really have a group discussion here? Sure people in the majority may be listening, and perhaps they get a lot of out listening, but it seems clear that there is no discussion here.

    I think that this is analogous to what we experience in many contemporary worship services, and I think it’s ultimately problematic. Of course, this depends on whether you agree with my understanding of communal worship. I think that the best way to move this discussion forward is to consider what communal worship is, and whether there is a better or worse way to conduct it. I’m looking forward to reading what your thoughts might be.

  10. Thanks for the response, Luke, but I think we’re still talking past each other. I’m Pentecostal. I’m not arguing for quiet music. I’m questioning whether the music minister needs to be Nigel Tufnel.

  11. One thing often missing in this discussion is a piercing question: how does God desire to be worshiped, and has he expressed such standards for gathered worship? Obviously, Scripture emphasizes the heart, as does Luke Larson in this piece. It seems, though, that Colossians 3:14-17 should enter the discussion in a major way. Here, we find that one way the word of Christ dwells among among us–one way we admonish and teach one another–is through “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” So, we indeed sing to God (with gratitude in our hearts), but we also sing FOR one another. Sometimes, when worship takes the format of a concert, we remain able to sing TO God, but our ability to sing FOR one another is diminished. Perhaps God desire/requires both? Perhaps we need to revisit the regulative principle?

  12. If you take Smith’s original points (and those that agree with the mindset that the musicians are only up there to show off and please themselves) a little further…aren’t you basically judging the heart and intent of those leading worship? Aren’t you basically saying, “they’re only up there to perform, not to lead me in worship.”

    Most (if not all) of these types of criticisms come from people who have little or no understanding of what it takes to lead worship every service. They offer no grace or benefit of the doubt to those leading. Instead of getting to know the worship leader, talking to them after service, sitting in on a practice, etc…they get on the internet and issue backhanded compliments and misguided rebukes.

    I’m not saying you have to be able to sing or play an instrument to criticize. It’s just not as simple as the rebukers would have you believe.

  13. I don’t know that we should feel it necessarily a demotion to say that people who call themselves worship leaders should better be termed musicians. Especially if musician is more accurate to what they are doing. Properly speaking, they are not leading worship. Instead, they are keeping the congregation unified by directing them in songs of praise, which is but a small part of the worship event (since corporate worship includes a host of liturgical moments: prayer, confession, offerings, the preaching of the word, songs of praise, the sacrament, benediction, etc).

    I suspect that the evangelical church’s affinity for calling praise singing “worship” and calling the musicians who direct us “worship leaders” has had an overall negative effect on the church’s understanding of worship. It would be like if the guy who passed out the elements of the Lord’s Table called himself the worship leader because he was taking principal part in that moment of the worship event.

    Also, at least “musician” has biblical precedent. The Psalms often leave notes to the chief musician rather than to a worship leader. There is great honour in the position and whether the role of choosing song and style belongs to the pastor, an elder, or a lead musician, it is a place of value and importance. We should stop calling these musicians, song leaders, and song pickers “worship leaders” not in order to demote them but because the term is semantically broken, theologically flawed, and potentially gravely harmful.

    I’m sure those who carry the title “worship leader” might feel like they’re being devoted if we re-term their part more accurately, so care should be taken to explain everything. Kinda like when Dwight finds out he’s not the Assistant Regional Manager but really just the Assistant to the Regional Manager. His position, role, and responsibility hasn’t changed at all, but his understanding of his role is more accurate. The trick is explaining these things in ways that will let these musicians down softly. We all have egos (a good thing) and anyone who puts themselves in positions before audiences have more personally invested than others, so they’re more prone to personal damage when they imagine they’re being demoted. Your own reaction shows how important it is to ease worship leaders into a better sense of their place and value within the congregation and as part of the worship event.

  14. Maybe those of us that have not been giving the gift of voice should be asked how they want to worship. Ask us what gives us joy and opportunity to participate. You know the kind of voice that characters in movies pretend to have that make everyone cringe? Don’t lie and say we should only be concerned with making a glad noise to the LORD and He knows our heart. The reality is that we are standing next to fallen humans that roll their eyes, snicker and shoot each other looks.
    Mid-week I attend a large bible study. Hymns at the beginning of the morning with a piano in the corner where I can’t really see it – no stage – meets that standard. When I first started I would just come in late because I didn’t like the hymns. Then as I grew I felt convicted because the music isn’t for me. So I go in and I follow along with the words. Often I don’t understand the language but that isn’t important right? Occasionally I will recognize a hymn and I feel sad. Sad that I can’t join in because I can hear every single lady around me and NONE of them sing like me. I suspect that the ones that do sing like me are the other ones standing there just reading the words to themselves.

    Weekends I go to an excellent church. The music is varied from just written to favorite hymns. We have young people and people in walkers. The music is loud and relevant to the message being taught that day. I don’t stare at the band. I look at the screen with the words on it. If I catch myself looking at anyone on the stage critically I’m convicted. I wonder what God thinks of a song being sung by someone that is thinking about all that instead of Him. I know that there are people that go to the leadership and complain about this singer or that one, this song or that one. Seriously? Talk about having your eyes looking the wrong directions.
    When I go to my church I stand in the front row. The music is the loudest there. I can sing to the Lord as loud as I want and the voice I’m hearing in my head blends perfectly. I can forget and just worship.
    I’m thinking if you want everyone else to be able to hear you, there is more going on then a heart for the Lord. It’s just as bad as me worrying that someone will hear me. Completely self-centered……

  15. for #1 – I’d reword what Smith says to: If members of the congregation cannot hear each other sing then we are not “speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and spritual songs” (Eph. 5:19). It doesn’t really matter if everyone sitting around you can hear you sing – that is actually the point; We’re told to address one another in song.

  16. The response to the Gospel Coalition article appeared to be a lame, self-defensive piece to justify someone’s center stage spot on the platform. After reading through your responses to a thoughtful piece, you would have been better off to say, “Yeah, he is right.” Too many time, praise teams walk away from the platform thinking that the show is over when the expounding on the Word of God is what the day is all about.

  17. @ Jeff Q

    You said:

    If you take Smith’s original points (and those that agree with the mindset that the musicians are only up there to show off and please themselves) a little further…aren’t you basically judging the heart and intent of those leading worship? Aren’t you basically saying, “they’re only up there to perform, not to lead me in worship.”


    Actually I don’t think so. Smith’s article questions the use of the following practices, regardless of the motivation.

    1. Excessive volume
    2. Excessively long instrumentals
    3. Physical placement of the band

    Again, the motivation of the praise band or music minister is not at issue. The question is whether these practices either facilitate or impede (or neither) communal worship.

    You said:

    Most (if not all) of these types of criticisms come from people who have little or no understanding of what it takes to lead worship every service. They offer no grace or benefit of the doubt to those leading. Instead of getting to know the worship leader, talking to them after service, sitting in on a practice, etc…they get on the internet and issue backhanded compliments and misguided rebukes.


    I happen to be someone who’s served, either leading or playing, in praise bands for about 13 years of my adult life, so I have some experience to draw from.

    I repeat, the discussion is not about the intention or heart of the musicians that are serving. It is about the practices themselves.

  18. James,

    I appreciate the reasoned response. I see your point but would also add the fact that he mentions that those aspects “are not worship.” To me, that crosses the line from preference and encouragement to misguided rebuke.

    As to my overall point about judging the hearts….maybe as a long-time praise team member myself, I’m just frustrated with these types of criticisms. They seem to come from a lack of understanding about all of the moving parts that fit together in order to lead music at a church. And I’m not talking about a Hillsong-esque 20 piece band…your average midsize church really is doing their best. It’s definitely easy to criticize on a blog or complain on the way home, but that doesn’t help you (not you personally, the collective you) or your praise team. For every post that is written complaining about those conducting the music, 10 need to be written about the desire and willingness of those in attendance to focus on Christ and worship in Spirit and truth.

  19. @Jeff Q

    Understood. In ministry, one will always receive far more criticism than praise. It sucks, and it would be nice to get more encouragement. Goes with the territory, I guess. (cf. Moses)

    For the purposes of this discussion, let’s suppose that you have a church filled with congregants that are motivated to worship God. Their intentions are in the right place.

    Given this scenario, would the above-mentioned practices (volume, instrumentals, placement) affect their participation in communal worship?

    Here’s an analogy. It seems clear to me that bad sound will affect the congregants’ participation in worship. If the gain is too high on the mics, then it is likely that you’ll get lots of feedback during worship. Or, if the EQ mix is bass-heavy, then the vocals might be obscured. These issues have nothing to do with the heart of the worship leaders or the band members, and we would be foolish if we were to get defensive at requests for change.

    I think that what Smith is talking about in his article should be treated as more “technical” issues, like the sound issues mentioned above. As I mentioned in my response to Luke, we should move away from Smith’s blanket statements and discuss whether or not the practices that he talks about do have a general effect on communal worship.

    Y’know, now that I think about it, lots of praise leaders and sound guys have (rightly) have a problem with excessive stage volume. We tell guitarists to turn down their amps and drummers to ease up on riding crash or open hi-hat. Why? Because we think it’s important that all of the band members be able to hear themselves and each other. Why should this reasoning change when it comes to the congregation?

  20. @James:
    “I repeat, the discussion is not about the intention or heart of the musicians that are serving. It is about the practices themselves.” This is the real important point. This is the a hugely important thing to make clear — our practices in how we do worship is matters.

    When it comes to play music loud, it helps a lot of people worship (including myself). I’ve already talk about that and that should not be forgotten because that’s what the point of musical worship: inspire congregations to actively worship God together.

    I’m sorry if that’s the way it came off because that’s not at all what I’m talking about. I care deeply about how we worship and the way we worship influences things as important as theology and the way we understand God. Every worship style choice has positive and negative points. But the point is that it’s important to think and talk about the worship style choices that your church is taking, but it’s not okay to go around saying what is and isn’t communal worship for the Church at large.

  21. James,

    I agree with you 100%. All things being equal, there are definitely technical aspects that can distract and keep people from engaging.

    I do wonder what the average church has for it’s praise team…piano, acoustic, drums maybe? I think CCLI has some surveys on this sort of thing.

  22. I wonder if part of this debate doesn’t have to do with a broader question of contemporary ecclesiology. Luke has pointed out that he and other prefer music at high volumes. Others have observed that—intentions aside—that can hinder their ability to enter God’s presence or even flat out cause physical pain. So here’s the question: Basically, who do we expect in our churches? In the earliest church, such debates were irrelevant. If you were a Christian, you went to church with every other Christian in your city, because that was all you had. Now, though, we can choose what church to go to. That will tend to create church environments in which individuals congregate with others who have similar tastes and preferences.

    Should we do that? I don’t know, and you can make the case either way. Jesus said that if you want to throw a party, you should basically invite all the people who are rejected and marginalized and who have the least in common with you. There is value in congregating with those who see differently. And yet, we simply can’t accommodate all Christians gathering into the same place, and even if we could, conflicts would inevitably arise, and not just because of the music style. So should every church musician be expected to accommodate possible churchgoers who might experience physical pain? But if they don’t, do they risk their church becoming entirely a clique of likeminded young men and women who have alienated those not like them?

    This post has no thesis. I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I think they might underlie some of the debates in this forum. I really appreciate everyone’s comments thus far; I think it shows the body of Christ constructively working to understand the application of spiritual principles. Thank you all, and thank you Luke for kicking it off.

  23. @Luke

    When it comes to play music loud, it helps a lot of people worship (including myself).

    I can see how such a setting would facilitate private worship, but I still don’t see how such a setting facilitates robust communal worship. It seems to me that in such a setting i.e. one with music so loud that congregants can’t hear themselves or each other, rather than the church as a whole (band+congregation) worshiping communally, you have a bunch of individuals worshiping privately.

    Do you have any reasons to think that such a setting facilitates vibrant communal worship?

    @Jeff Q

    I do wonder what the average church has for it’s praise team…piano, acoustic, drums maybe? I think CCLI has some surveys on this sort of thing.

    My guess is that the average church band is probably acoustic. I think that Smith’s article is probably directed towards the megachurches for the most part. I lived in Atlanta during the late 90’s and early 00’s, and had my fair share of megachurch style worships. I remember the first time I attended a praise night at one of these churches. I was around 19-20 at the time, and that was the first time I experienced what it was like to not be able to hear myself sing. I found the experience to be profoundly disengaging.

  24. So, Luke, if I may ask you directly, what do you think IS the purpose of church music? Since you’ve been involved in music leadership, surely you’ve given this some thought. When you go onstage, what are your goals? What do you hope to accomplish? How do you know if you have succeeded or failed?

    We have thrown around the word “worship” a lot here, but what precisely do YOU mean by “worship” in relation to church music? The word can be used to mean anything from “obedience” to “reverence” to “expressions of love” to “positive emotions” If worship is so central to church music, I hope that we can explain what we mean when we use the word.

    Back to the original point of Smith’s blog post, I have a recurring concern that a lot of praise bands decide what kind of music they are going to play based solely on what kind of music they like to listen to, and then try to rationalize their decisions later, if at all. It’s not just church musicians that do this. I’ve seen churches uncritically import business practices that, however sound in the business world, are foreign to the aims of a church. Advertising campaigns and customer-service models come to mind. It’s all too easy to adopt secular practices wholesale without ever stopping to think that, if the church is a unique entity, then perhaps these practices may not exactly fit the church’s unique identity and mission. The result is usually temporary success and long-term failure.

    I’m not saying that churches have to invent all their practices from the ground up, only that when a healthy, thoughtful church adopts practices developed elsewhere, they always end up modifying those practices to fit their own purposes. That is true of concert practices as well as business practices. A song service is not a concert any more than a church is a business. If we insist on running a church exactly like a business, then at some point it ceases to be a church. If we insist on making church music exactly like a concert, then at some point it ceases to be church music.

  25. @James:

    For me, it opens up the opportunity to not be distracted by anything. It’s an opportunity to focus on God and what he has done for us. When I’m fully engaged I stop looking around at the people around me and wondering why some people are singing or not singing and why some people are raising their hands and some people are crossing their arms. It allows me to get caught up in the glory of God — to see the big picture. But I don’t expect everyone to agree with that. I just know myself and the people around me.


    Thank you for asking, because I really have thought and prayed so much about this.

    This might be better to be expressed in a full-fledged article, but times of musical worship are so incredibly important to the Church and most of the time we don’t realize quite how influential it really is on our faith and theology. Music is, by its very nature, an artistic medium based in human emotion. Our response to music is much less rational than it is to other art forms. Music is invisible to our eyes and therefore feels inherently spiritual — so when we lift our emotions to God and tell Him how me we love Him and praise Him for all He has done, it really does do something to us. Music makes us feel something — a worship leader’s job should be to help people direct those feelings toward God and what He has done.

    I take the meaning of “worship” from what it usually means in the Bible. When people fell at the feet of Jesus and worshipped Him they were overcome with emotion — overwhelmed by the power and love of Jesus. In my mind, that should be the ongoing occurrence of experiencing relationship with God as Christians and that, to me, is what worship is.

  26. @Luke

    For me, it opens up the opportunity to not be distracted by anything. It’s an opportunity to focus on God and what he has done for us. When I’m fully engaged I stop looking around at the people around me and wondering why some people are singing or not singing and why some people are raising their hands and some people are crossing their arms. It allows me to get caught up in the glory of God — to see the big picture. But I don’t expect everyone to agree with that. I just know myself and the people around me.

    Here’s a question for you. How is what you’re describing a form of genuine communal worship? Notice the proliferation of first-person singular pronouns (that I’ve bolded) in describing your worship experience. Your description seems to focus on the “vertical” aspect of worship while neglecting the “horizontal” aspect.

    In an earlier comment, Michael rightly directed us to the following verse:

    Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.
    Colossians 3:16

    How is it possible to teach and admonish your fellow congregants through song if you’ve deemed their participation in worship (or lack thereof) as “distractions?”

  27. Luke, as a preaching & worship minister, in this discussion I lean a bit more towards Smith’s place than yours, but I am sympathetic to the strong points on both sides. Well done. However, there IS one nit with which I would like to pick. (Dontcha just love high-handed attempts at proper grammar?)

    The non-instrumental Churches of Christ are, historically, close kin to me. Their reasons for not using instruments in worship gatherings go much, much deeper than this. In my decades of back-and-forth with them – – often pleasant, sometimes ugly – – none of their spokesmen have ever cited attention drawn by the people on the platform as anything more than a more recent side issue in their arguments for a cappella singing.

    Other than that, again, well done.


  28. Luke/Seth – I am a pastor and musician, and I tend to prefer the term “Worship Arts Pastor.” I agree that the singer is not automatically the worship “leader,” as this implies that others are not worshiping when they lead, like, say, the lead pastor. Worship Arts Pastor tends to allow for the other tasks the music guy tends to do, including production, tech, drama, and others.

  29. Seems to me Professor Smith falls into the same trap many do: equating music with worship. Roman 12:1 tells us that worship is the Christian life and that the Christian life is worship. Music is simply an aspect of worship, but worship itself arises in the attitude of the heart towards God. I’m 38, and I grew up on loud music. I play in a band now that plays loud music. When I’m driving in my car I listen to loud music. It doesn’t bother me. But, I also appreciate quiet, reflective music such as the Classics. Prof. Smith is letting his own personal preferences in music, AND the nature of worship, cause him to be close-minded and judgmental on this issue.

  30. “Trying to define what makes something “worship” in terms of anything but the posture of your heart toward God is stepping on some dangerous ground as far as I’m concerned.”

    As far as I’m concerned you’re wrong. Sincerity matters, but it isn’t everything. Just because we have good motivations doesn’t mean that we can’t sing things that are trite, empty, or false. As Christians, we confess what the Apostle Paul said about those Jews who do not believe that they have zeal, but not according to knowledge (Romans 10:2). This can also be true of some who call themselves Christians. They can have zeal but not be accurate about that for which they are zealous. Also, Jesus said that we are to worship in spirit AND IN TRUTH (John 4).

    So if there’s any dangerous ground here, it is with the statement that we shouldn’t define worship in terms of anything but the posture of our heart toward God.

  31. You might not expect total agreement from me–a member of an all-acapella Church of Christ–but I think you’re spot-on. You dispel the arguments I’ve heard all my life about why we don’t use instruments, none of which have ever been convincing to me in light of biblical truth.

    Worship occurs in as many different ways as there are people. If God wanted to lock us into one style, he would have said so. Instead, he said to do everything for his glory. That’s throwing out a wide net.

    Thanks for your kind tone as well. It’s easier to have these discussions when everyone is respectful.

  32. @John F.: Hm, that sounds similar to a point I made in these posts about listening to church music critically….

    Given Geoffrey’s very good point about ecclesiology and Luke’s note that his thoughts on the purpose of church music could stand to be a full-length article, might I propose a symposium? I have a feeling many of us are basing our opinions on experiences in very different kinds of churches, and it might not hurt to flesh out the differences in dynamics between, say, a megachurch and a small church with maybe 50 members.

  33. I’m getting into this conversation very late. I don’t have tons to add and have mixed emotions and convictions about all that has been discussed. Actually, I become very weary of the worship polarization within the church. I find it heartbreaking. I understand all of the points made. I have served the body of Christ through worship leadeship for years and value and appreciate wide expressions of worship, having been instrumentally involved in much of the worship transition that has transpired through the years. Though I am in my 50’s (no longer a part of the “younger generation”) loud music is not a new thing for the young. The heavy metal of the 70’s & 80’s was plenty loud. There are many my age with significantly diminished hearing directly related to the music they played or listened to. The fact that many musicians and bands play with ear plugs is a red flag to me. My point is simply this: one of God’s greatests gifts to those who bear His image is the gift of hearing. Why would anyone needlessly destroy this precious gift through bomarding it relentlessly with deafening sound. Because you are not readily aware of the effects of this exposure on your ears does not negate its reality. I wonder if you might rethink some of your current convictions if you find yourself in need of hearing aids or struggling to understand simple conversation because your gift of hearing has been compromised by your worship.

  34. I totally agree Luke, great article.

    I don’t understand why there is so much debate – worship is pretty simple, having two parts, as far as I understand. A heart motivation of love towards God, and an action. If I can mow my lawn as worship to God, then singing loud, or soft, or in between can be too. As long as the heart motivation is there, and the action isn’t sin (which would be hard or impossible to do) – God loves our action, and that’s the key. It’s for God, not us, so we don’t have to like it or even agree.

  35. This entire discussion is missing one critical point which is that the band actually has no control over the decibels. I am an audio engineer at a high profile church that some might refer to as a “mega church. ” I can tell you with confidence that the majority of problems in this issue lie with poorly trained audio volunteers. When someone who is highly skilled with the proper “ear” is blending together and packaging the sounds the band creates it can take the worship experience to a new level. Over the years I have heard every complaint from too loud to too soft. The congregations perception of the band relies almost entirely on the audio person so you better find someone who knows what they’re doing and not just throw Frank behind the console because he works in IT at motorola.

  36. No longer do I need to go to church to hear music. I can hear great music on my Ipod anytime I want it. I can hear great sermons on demand. Frankly the passive experience of listening is better accomplished with headphones anyway. Connecting to the body of Christ and expressing love to God is the essense of worship. The band and especially the worship leader should not see themselves as the center of the experience when they are only facilitators.
    Scripture says to not forsake the assembling of oursevles together. Who knew that this was the main thing, not the means.
    Worship leaders, by and large, need to get over themselves.

  37. Okay, I wasn’t going to post again here, but Eric makes a very good point about who controls the volume. In larger churches, I think the music pastor/leader does have the responsibility, if not always the skills, to maintain reasonable volume levels. In smaller churches, including those that run several hundred people each Sunday, audio techs are often poorly trained and are running equipment that is not well put together or well placed. I’m pretty picky about sound levels and mixing, largely because of the influence of my wife, who is the daughter of a professional audio engineer and one of the best amateur sound mixers I know.

    Blaming the front-man is a favorite strategy of churches, but the reality is that the leader is often responsible for things that he or she has only minimal control over. One more reason why the whole body of Christ needs to work together toward common goals in the worship service. The members also need to be honest with each other when one or more members severely detracts from communal worship.

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