Worship for All God's People

By Ron Man
Pastor of Music and Worship, EXW Contributor
May 28, 2024

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Bridging the Generation Gap

Music is a sublime creation of God which is especially suited as a vehicle for believers to express praise to their Creator. How it must then grieve Him (and delight the Enemy) when this special gift all too often becomes a force for division (if not strife) rather than unity in our churches. The Church of Jesus Christ is to be a place where barriers come down - barriers separating Jew and Gentile, man and woman, laborer and executive, young and old. When this occurs it is a powerful testimony to the supernatural nature of the Body of Christ - because people just don't act that way towards one another, and get along so well together, under normal circumstances.

Like the tongue (James 3:9-10), music can be a force for great good and great evil. The latter can occur when battle lines are drawn between the generations in the local church. Typically, the older adults prefer more "traditional" church music (the standard hymns and gospel songs plus church anthems of a bygone era), while the younger set leans toward choruses, praise and worship songs, and a generally more upbeat style.

Churches take different approaches in dealing with this dichotomy:

1. The church goes almost exclusively in one direction (traditional or contemporary) based on factors such as the congregation's history, its constituency, or the personal preferences of the leadership. As a result the church keeps and attracts those whose personal tastes tend in that same direction, while those whose preferences lie in the other direction gravitate toward other churches where the music is more to their liking. At least this is what happens in larger towns where there are a multiplicity of evangelical church choices - the towns end up with a variety of "specialty" churches from among which one may select according to his or her liking; one goes to such a church if he or she is looking for a particular kind of music. In smaller communities where a single evangelical church may be the only real option, the results of musical specialization can be more problematic yet, even tragic: a group within the church can feel alienated and disenfranchised with no alternative solution. (This can also be the case when a well-established church makes a deliberate shift to a new musical style, and long-standing members find themselves suddenly feeling like outsiders.)

2. In an attempt to address the very real differences in musical style preferences, more and more churches are providing separate worship services, each with a very different flavor and musical style. Very often this means starting a "contemporary service" to supplement an existing "traditional service." Rather than forcing people to choose between different churches to find the approach to worship which is meaningful to them, this approach has the laudable goal of providing, within a single church body, worship experiences at both ends of the spectrum. But it must be asked whether the unity in the body which this approach seeks to preserve is truly served in this way. One may provide a way for these two constituent groups to meet inside the same set of walls; but when they gather at different times for the regular corporate meeting of the church, and under such diverse circumstances, are they not in reality more like two congregations than one? This approach seems to accentuate the differences between the groups, to concede that "ne'er the twain shall meet," and to miss out on the unifying potential of corporate worship.

3. It is possible to bring the generations into worship that is meaningful to all and truly expressive of the oneness of all persons in the Body of Christ. God has led our church to gradually develop a style of worship which manages to involve all ages and tastes in a way which is truly unifying.

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While each church must find a form of worship which fits its particular mixture of people, gifts, and resources, the following characteristics would seem to be important (if not essential) to the task:

Theocentric Worship

Acceptable worship is by definition theocentric worship. Only the Creator is worthy to be revered and praised by His creatures. It is corporate worship which calls men to women to throw off the engulfing self-absorption which is not only the father of sin, but also the fleshly tendency even of the redeemed; and it is corporate worship which calls believers to refocus on Him who is the Giver and Sustainer of life and of life eternal. Our worship must be relentlessly theocentric. God deserves and demands our reverent attention and our often frantic existence needs to be regularly and formally drawn back to its reason for being: to honor and bring glory to God. Hymns and choruses which emphasize our human pilgrimage and reactions can be perfectly appropriate responses, but only after God has been lifted up and magnified in our midst. Worship thus infused with the wonder of God is also uniquely appropriate to prepare people's heart to hear and receive the preaching of the Word of God.

Blended Worship

Tastes differ even in relatively homogenous congregations; therefore worship must incorporate a mixture of musical styles and types, increasingly being referred to as blended worship.

In our fairly traditional (though not liturgical) church, our musical offerings span somewhat widely over the middle range of the musical spectrum; this range would go from standard hymn - anthems to contemporary songs (from mellow to dramatic, though not "rocky"). Occasional brief forays are made into the "classical" or "upbeat contemporary" extremes of the spectrum, but then we quickly return to more familiar and less controversial turf. And yes, hymns and choruses share a peaceful coexistence in most of our worship services. In fact, the most personally satisfying reactions to what we're doing have been the comments from young people about how they have gained a new appreciation for the great hymns of the faith, which they had previously written off as irrelevant or inaccessible. And positive comments from the other end of the spectrum have often included affirmations of services which contained any number of choruses, which I know would not have been tolerated in isolation by these same elderly saints!

Thematic Worship

One may well ask, how does one join together both hymns and choruses in a coherent musical fabric? One way is through an emphasis on thematic worship. A single theme for the time of worship and singing (which may or may not be related to the theme of the sermon) directs the devotional thoughts of the participants. This theme may consist of an attribute of God (love, holiness, faithfulness, etc), a particular aspect of worship (prayer, praise, thanksgiving, etc.) a theological concept (access to a holy God through Christ, the Second Coming), or a special biblical component of redemptive truth (the Lamb of God, the Cross). It is the theme which governs the selection of all music and readings employed in the service. Hymns, choruses, responsive and choral readings, anthems and even portions of anthems can be drawn upon (with the aid of the various thematic and Scripture indices currently available). It should be noted that often only a single verse of a hymn may pertain to the chosen theme (for example, in many gospel hymns the last verse alone brings to bear the believer's future hope of heaven); there is no reason to use more of the hymn than is relevant to pursuing the theme - in fact, taking portions of hymns out of their familiar surroundings encourages worshippers to concentrate on and make more careful not of the text being sung. A refrain or other portion of a familiar anthem (other than the anthem of the morning) which conveys the same theme may be likewise brought in and sung by the choir. All of these elements can be effectively woven together into a seamless fabric which proceeds without pause and without instructions being given to the congregation. Other than occasional opening remarks which introduce the theme, our services flow in uninterrupted fashion for 15-20 minutes; the bulletin incudes all the texts and indicates who is to sing them.

This type of worship obviously takes a great deal of planning - but I believe that is a responsibility incumbent in the free church tradition. Liturgical churches need not put as much planning into their services because the story of redemption is beautifully and powerfully related in a standardized form; but there is incredible potential for dynamic worship in the nonliturgical church if we are willing to give it the forethought and planning it deserves.

Participatory Worship

Another crucial aspect is that of participatory worship. Kierkegaard's perceptive portrayal of worship as having God as the "audience," the congregation as the "performers," and the worship leaders (music minister, choir) as "prompters" deserves careful consideration. The flow of the service in our church incorporates a sort of dialogue between choir and congregation. Our trained musical force offers a musical invitation to the people to approach God in reverent worship, but the congregation is never left for long to sit and listen: they are regularly brought in to respond and participate by singing or reading.

The great biblical and reformation doctrine of the priesthood of all believers must be lived out in the full participation of all God's people in the act of corporate worship.

Reverent Worship

Another vital biblical and Reformation doctrine is that God is not aloof and distant, but rather has come close through His Son Jesus Christ. In our informal age this precious truth is sometimes translated into worship which seeks to be a little too "chummy" with Jesus. He is our Friend, to be sure, but not in a backslapping kind of way. He is our Lord as well, who has gone to incredible lengths to provide for our wellbeing. If we were in fact to visually behold Him, we would not see Him in blue jeans-- we would be overwhelmed by His unspeakable majesty and resplendent glory, and we would fall to our knees.

Worship befitting its divine Object will be reverent worship. This does not - I repeat, does not - mean dead or dull worship. But the primary goal will not be to produce giddy or even warm feelings in the participants. The goal will be to glorify God in all of His transcendence and majesty, so that His people are transfixed by the contemplation of the matchless beauty of His person and the unsurpassed wonder of His redeeming love. Some of our people regularly find themselves weeping as they join in worshipping their Lord in all His splendor.

There is plenty of room in dignified worship for joyful and exuberant expression - not as an end in itself, but rather as an appropriate response to the Giver of all good gifts.

* * * * *

To have the whole people of God (young and old) join together in meaningful corporate worship is an overwhelming testimony to the barrier-breaking truth of the gospel - and unbelievers cannot help but notice! And to invite the body of Christ to exalt the Person of Christ and of God the Father in a way in which no segment of the congregation feels alienated - that is a goal so unspeakably worthy that we should joyfully marshall all the creative forces at our disposal for this greatest of all human pursuits.

Ron Man
Pastor of Music and Worship, EXW Contributor
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