10 Things You Should Know about Biblical Worship
Worship is a subject on which everyone has a personal opinion. We all know what we like and dislike. So it may appear silly for me to summarize in ten points what a biblical approach to worship should entail. Silly or not, here goes.
(1) From biblical texts such as 1 Samuel 16:14-23 we learn that music in the hands or from the mouth of someone who is filled with the Spirit and devoted to God’s glory can exert great power in the spiritual realm. We read in 1 Samuel 16:23 – “And whenever the harmful spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand. So Saul was refreshed and was well, and the harmful spirit departed from him.”
Why or how did David’s music have this effect? There’s no indication that David sang. He played instrumentally. Others might have also played and nothing would happen. Why? What was so special about David? Why did his music carry such power?
The answer is in v. 18b – “and the Lord is with him.” There may well have been other musicians in Saul’s court who were more skilled than David. But something about David empowered his music to pierce through the soul of Saul. The Holy Spirit evidently infused the melodies and harmonies of David’s music with supernatural power. In other words, when “the Lord is with” someone who sings or plays, their music irritates and agitates the enemy!
I’ve often been asked why we play background instrumental music when we pray for people. Are we just trying to create a mood and manipulate someone’s emotions? Yes, we are trying to create a mood or atmosphere conducive to engaging with God and hearing his voice, and I make no apology for that. But No, we are not trying to manipulate anyone. We are simply seeking to minister effectively to people by acknowledging that the Holy Spirit is pleased to make use of music to soothe the heart of a person, to put them at ease emotionally, and to open their souls to God.
(2) There is a reason why we sing lyrics and do not merely recite them as prose. Singing can often accomplish what mere speaking cannot. Music has a peculiar power. Music infuses words with a dynamic energy that merely speaking them could never achieve. Warren Wiersbe put it this way:
“I am convinced that congregations learn more theology (good and bad) from the songs they sing than from the sermons they hear. Many sermons are doctrinally sound and contain a fair amount of biblical information, but they lack that necessary emotional content that gets ahold of the listener's heart. Music, however, reaches the mind and the heart at the same time. It has power to touch and move the emotions, and for that reason can become a wonderful tool in the hands of the Spirit or a terrible weapon in the hands of the Adversary” (Real Worship, 137).
Listen to the words of Martin Luther:
“We want the beautiful art of music to be properly used to serve her dear Creator and his Christians. He is thereby praised and honored and we are made better and stronger in faith when his holy Word is impressed on our hearts by sweet music” (Martin Luther
There is no escaping the fact that the truth of God’s “holy Word is impressed on our hearts by sweet music.” Singing enables the soul to express deeply felt emotions that mere speaking cannot. Singing channels our spiritual energy in a way that nothing else can. Singing evokes an intensity of mind and spirit. It opens the door to ideas, feelings, and affections that otherwise might have remained forever imprisoned in the depths of one's heart.
Singing gives focus and clarity to what words alone often only make fuzzy. It lifts our hearts to new heights of contemplation. It stirs our hope to unprecedented levels of expectancy and delight. Singing sensitizes. It softens the soul to hear God's voice and quickens the will to obey. Nothing else can do for me what music does. It bathes otherwise arid ideas in refreshing waters. It empowers my wandering mind to concentrate with energetic intensity. It stirs my heart to tell the Lord just how much I love him, again and again and again, without the slightest tinge of repetitive boredom.
Singing in corporate praise of God is pervasive in Scripture. In more than 170x in the OT alone we either read of people singing praises to God or we are commanded to do so. Singing is also emphasized in the NT (see 1 Cor. 14:15; Eph. 5:18-19; Col. 3:16).
(3) In all of our worship, in both our instrumental and vocal praise, we should aim to do so “skillfully” (Ps. 33:3) and with undistracting excellence. Here is how John Piper defined it:
“We will try to sing and play and pray and preach in such a way that people's attention will not be diverted from the substance by shoddy ministry nor by excessive finesse, elegance, or refinement. Natural, undistracting excellence will let the truth and beauty of God shine through. We will invest in equipment good enough to be undistracting in transmitting heartfelt truth.”
In other words, we should strive to provide the highest quality sound equipment and lighting and the most aesthetically pleasing surroundings without anyone ever being distracted by them from their focus on God and the truth about who he is. I don’t want anyone walking out of our Sunday service saying: “Wow! The sound was just right today. Not too loud, not too low. And the lighting was so pleasant, neither too bright nor too dim. And that guy could really play the guitar and that gal is amazing on the violin.”
Of course, that is precisely what we strive to do in terms of sight and sound and musical instrumentation: we pursue excellence in all we do, but not so that you would be distracted from God in order to focus on it. That is the difference between excellence and performance. Performance is designed to draw your attention to the singer or the sound technician or the instrumentalist. Excellence is designed to direct your attention to God and the truth of him as revealed in Scripture. Performance is man-centered. Excellence is God-centered. To quote Piper: “We do not pursue the atmosphere of artistic or oratorical performance, but the atmosphere of a radically personal encounter with God and truth.”
(4) All of our worship should be rooted and grounded in Scripture. It must be Bible-based and Bible-saturated. Everything we do must be conformed to the truth of Scripture. Don’t ever sing anything that you do not believe is true. You wouldn’t tolerate your pastor preaching heresy or theological error, so why would you tolerate it in yourself or in anyone else when it comes to singing?
(5) All of our worship should be technically and aesthetically pleasing and conducive to exalted thoughts about God. There are certain rhythms and melodies that make it hard to think about God. They are by their very nature distracting. They make it difficult to focus our thoughts on the lyrics and often feel inappropriate to the message contained in them. I’m not going to get into the argument about whether or not there are certain rhythms and melodies that are either intrinsically demonic or intrinsically divine. But we must strive to make our music fitting and appropriately expressive to the majesty and glory of the God whom we love and adore.
(6) All of our worship should be joyful and free and expressive without being flippant or silly or beneath the dignity of both God and the people who are worshipping him. What this means is that some of our songs will be conducive to dancing in celebration of God’s grace and love and other songs will be conductive to kneeling and awestruck reverence of him. Said Piper: “We will try to avoid being trite, flippant, superficial, or frivolous, but instead will aim to set an example of reverence and passion and wonder and broken-hearted joy.”
(7) All of our worship should embrace both simplicity and complexity. Sometimes it is fitting to sing the simple chorus, “I Love you, Lord,” and at other times the richly complex and deeply theological, “Be Thou My Vision.” They both have their place in our praise of God.
(8) All of our worship should engage both head and heart. In other words, Christians should be intellectually engaged with the greatness of God at the same time their heart is warmly touched and their emotions and affections are awakened and stirred. Some are afraid that this might degenerate into manipulation. Should we avoid anything that tends to arouse and awaken our affections and feelings? No. Precisely the opposite is true. Intensified affections and heightened feelings and deepened emotions are to be celebrated as long as what awakens, intensifies, and arouses them is biblical truth! Sinful manipulation only occurs when music is employed to stir someone’s emotions simply for the sake of the emotion itself. But if one’s emotions are stirred by truth, by grace, by divine love, by the beauty of Christ, then praise God!
(9) All of our worship should be crafted, energized, and sustained by the Holy Spirit, whether that be through careful, strategic planning days in advance, or through Spirit-prompted, unprepared spontaneity in the very moment of our singing.
(10) Finally, all of our worship must be thoroughly and pervasively theocentric or God-centered. We would do well to keep in mind the exhortation of Psalm 66:1-3a - “Shout for joy to God, all the earth; sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise! Say to God, ‘How awesome are your deeds!’” (Psalm 66:1-3a).
Note well: we are to “shout” in worship, but always “to God” in praise. Shouting for shouting’s sake, to give vent to your emotions or as a way of seeking psychological relief, is not fitting in church. But shouting to God in gratitude and joy and celebration of who he is and what he has done is most appropriate. Again, note well: we are not merely to “sing” but to “sing the glory of his name,” not our own. Our focus is on the “deeds” of God: “your deeds”, Lord, are what fill our hearts and direct our praise.