On Christmas Day some years ago, a dear saint in her eighties sat at our fireplace and regaled us with stories of what it was like to be a Christian in twentieth-century America. The conversation took a melancholic turn as she described the problems in the Reformed communions of which she had been a part. Her lament culminated with words that made me uncomfortable, partly because I wasn’t sure what they meant and partly because I heard in them a note of belligerence I did not expect from one so sanctified. “The charismatics have won,” she said. “We are all charismatics now.” We are all charismatics? It reminded me of Shelley’s famous claim that “we are all Greeks.” Sociologists do report that the Pentecostal and charismatic segment of the church has been the fastest growing (globally speaking) for many decades, but surely its influence has not been so pervasive as to affect the identity of us all? I don’t think anyone in this woman’s congregation spoke in tongues or performed miraculous healings. What was she talking about?
Sometime later, a conversation with a young relative helped me to understand. After attending our service, she said she needed a more “emotional worship” than ours. I was surprised because I think of myself as an emotional person and am never more emotional than in the Lord’s Day services of my church. As I pressed her to explain, it became apparent she was referring to music. Now, it’s true: the emotions I feel in corporate worship are not usually a response to the music as music. Music is a tool we use to say certain things to God and to one another, and my emotions are a response to what’s being said. I’m unmoved by the songs our niece likes to sing because their substance isn’t of a kind to stimulate an emotional response in me. But clearly the music of these songs was itself an emotional stimulant for her.
Even more perplexing to me than her statements about music were her statements about emotion. She seemed to be saying that corporate worship is a matter of how we feel in the assembly—not just that God requires worship to be sincere, or that joy and peace often result from worship, but that worship is essentially a feeling. She knows that God is real and that he is present and blessing her when she feels a certain way. As a music historian, I know that the contemporary worship music in the Evangelical Free Church where she grew up originated not with the Swedish immigrants who founded it but with the charismatic movements of the late twentieth century. Now I was discovering that its theology of worship, too, was largely charismatic.
The Ways of Worship in the Twentieth Century
Through most of the last century, traditional evangelicals resisted Pentecostal theology. Some still do, while others have come to accept the idea that miraculous gifts can be practiced today. Even more dramatic, however, has been the musical influence. Late in the twentieth century, the two great wellsprings of praise-and-worship music, with its overhead projectors and worship teams, were the neo-charismatic Maranatha! Music of Calvary Chapel and the Association of Vineyard Churches. Their influence is hard to overstate. It’s my perception that most ordinary practitioners of contemporary worship music are charismatic in their theology of worship.
They believe the point of corporate worship is to affect human hearts with an experiential awareness of God, and they design it to that end. Writing in Christianity Today back in 1989, Charles H. Kraft said,
While I have always enjoyed singing in the church, it wasn’t until I freed myself from the exclusive use of the hymnal that I experienced what praise and worship can be. And it is the new music, sung with eyes closed for 10, 15, or 20 minutes at a time, that makes that experience possible. These short, repetitious songs with memorable choruses help me focus on God.1
The music gave Kraft a new experience of God—one that was direct, personal, and uncluttered by facts about God as normally found in hymnals. Twenty years later, Bob Kauflin’s Worship Matters made the point that worship leaders combine God’s word with music to motivate the gathered church.2 Listen to just about any Christian today—even yourself—and you may unearth this assumption: the purpose of music in corporate worship is to generate authenticity; to kindle love, sincerity, and a more immediate experience of God.
This is why songs in the church sound the way they do today. The most popular avoid saying much—there’s a biblical image here and a biblical title there, but these aren’t connected into a biblical train of thought. The verbal emptiness leaves room for a musical experience that touches the heart. Repetition, coercive rhythm, and a climactic use of loudness generate happiness (even ecstasy) like a rock concert. Contemporary Christians identify these musically driven emotions as worship, and they associate them with the presence and blessing of God.
All the (Biblical) Feels
In the Bible, intense emotions are often a product of motivation to corporate worship, but never are they its essence. When we study the Hebrew and Greek words translated in the English Bible as “worship,” and identify the contexts in which they occur, it’s clear that worship is the reverence and service due to God. We pay homage and kneel before him; we attend to his majesty; as priests, we “offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5).
According to Paul, the purpose of singing in the assembly is to communicate. We use songs to teach and admonish one another and to convey thankfulness to God, as the word of Christ dwells in us richly (Col. 3:16). This is confirmed by the parallel passage in Ephesians and by the rest of Scripture. The salient point in almost all biblical allusions to music in corporate worship is that someone is saying something to someone. We sing to communicate, not to feel a certain way. This isn’t to say that biblical worship is necessarily devoid of experiential depth or emotion—quite the contrary. When we follow the biblical model, our church music will in fact be the most beautiful and astonishingly emotional. The music will be beautiful precisely for the way it helps to convey the Bible’s message of who God is and what he has done, and the emotions will be all the more robust for being a response to the reality of that message.
Such was the belief and practice of the Reformers. They, too, were surrounded by Christians itching to experience God in extraordinary ways beyond what he revealed. “Let the man who would hear God speak, read Holy Scripture,” said Luther.3 The songs he wrote and promoted for congregational use were saturated with the substance, language, and aesthetic values of Scripture. They were also pedagogical, enabling his congregants to teach and admonish one another with spiritual songs. Early on, he echoed Colossians 3: “I intend to make vernacular psalms for the people, that is, spiritual songs so that the Word of God even by means of song may live among the people.”4 As for Calvin, behind his famous injunction against letting our ears be “more attentive to the melody than our minds to the spiritual meaning of the words” lies a recognition that the biblical purpose for church music competes with other purposes, which are legitimate in other contexts.5
A Reformed understanding of worship teaches us that we don’t have to produce an encounter with God. It’s right there in word and sacrament—in its own way as beautiful and effectual as when “the cloud covered the tent of meeting and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Exod. 40:34). All we have to do is respond by faith.
Paul Munson is a professor of music at Grove City College and a ruling elder at Rocky Springs Church (PCA) in Harrisville, Pennsylvania. He is the coauthor with Joshua Farris Drake of Art and Music: A Student’s Guide (Crossway) and www.CongSing.org.
- Charles H. Kraft, "The Hymnbook Is Not Enough," Christianity Today, 7 April 1989.
- Bob Kauflin, Worship Matters (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 55.
- Wider das Papsttum zu Rom, vom Teufel gestiftet (1545), Weimarer Ausgabe 54, 263.
- Luther to Georg Spalatin, 1523.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 3.20.32.