Darren L. Slider

On Worship

Darren’s Writings


On Worship

“Give Greatness a Chance” © 1995



Worship Leader magazine visited with Lyle Schaller in order to gain a perspective for its readers on the Contemporary Worship Movement. The following is a transcript of that interview.

WL: Let’s begin with a foundational question. How would you define the “Contemporary Worship Movement”?

LS: The Contemporary Worship Movement consists of several strands. The first is a change from a European heritage, in terms of the form of worship, to a much more American form – less formal, less predictable, more spontaneity, and a greater emphasis on visual communication. The second is music and the two or three new waves of music over the past 25 years. The third is the introduction of drama and the use of drama to lift up and impress on the minds of the people the central theme of their worship experience. The fourth is the freeing of the preacher from the pulpit. Thanks to the cordless microphone, preachers are no longer “tied” to the pulpit; they are free to walk around. The fifth element is probably the one that arouses a great deal of hostility. It is a gradual replacement of the traditional chancel choir, choir director, and organist with a worship team who together share responsibility for the designing of the worship experience.

WL: What percentage of churches in America were started after 1970?

LS: Approximately 20 percent of the churches in American Protestantism were organized in 1970 or later. In the mainline denominations, that number would be closer to 3 to 5 percent.

WL: Has there been a difference in the kinds of music used in churches before 1970 and those churches started after 1970, which is roughly the period of the Jesus Movement?

LS: That’s the second biggest line of demarcation in terms of worship. The biggest line of demarcation is race and ethnic background. The simple illustration is that of black churches/white churches. The second biggest line of demarcation that separate churches into two different camps, in terms of worship music, is date of origin. That is, when was the church born? Churches born in the last 25 years are far more likely to have a more informal approach to worship, less liturgical, a greater emphasis on contemporary Christian music, spontaneity, informality, and team leadership in worship rather than individuals in worship. We also see less of an emphasis on the traditional choir, classical hymns, and cloth-bound hymnals.

One place we see this is in the small church where previously the pastor was the minister, preacher, and worship leader. Today, in an increasing number of smaller churches, the minister is one of three, four, or five people leading worship. Typically lay volunteers have the other two or three spots. So, we see a move toward a team concept, which is a combination of lay volunteers and the pastor in smaller churches. Big churches are more likely to use either part-time or full-time staff as well as volunteers in their worship teams.

WL: Approximately, how many Christians go to worship each Sunday, including men, women, and children?

LS: There is some dispute on these numbers, but on a typical Sunday, somewhere between 20 percent to 25 percent (closer to 25 percent) of the total American population will be gathered in worship. So, if we’re talking about 260 million people, about 65 million are in church. A sizable chunk of that, somewhere around 30 percent, will be in Roman Catholic congregations.

WL: Of those 25 percent who attend worship, how many do you feel are currently worshiping with contemporary music, and how many with traditional music?

LS: The answer to that question involves four variables: the age of the people, the age of the pastor, the number of children in the congregation, and how long the congregation’s been in existence are very significant variables. The younger the people, the larger the number of children in worship, the newer the congregation, and the younger the pastor, the more likely it will be a contemporary worship.

A fifth variable, which is even more pronounced but less common, is that if the worship service is held at a time other than Sunday morning – for example, Saturday, Monday, or late Sunday afternoon – it’s much more likely to be contemporary. But, at present, we don’t have enough churches with multiple services to make that a big factor.

WL: Are you aware of any rapidly growing churches that use only traditional tools of worship?

LS: Yes, there are several across the country, but not a lot. These are organized around classical hymns, a pipe organ, and a new pastor after a very long period of a serious mismatch between the previous pastor and the congregation. So, what do we point to as the key variable for the success of these churches? I would point not to the fact that they are using traditional music, but rather that they have a good match with an extraordinarily competent pastor. And that’s the reason for the rapid growth, not because of the traditional music they are using. Almost all these growing, traditional churches are old, long-established congregations attending meetings in traditional, old buildings.

WL: Do you believe that the worship practices of churches need renewal, that is, a dose of contemporary worship?

LS: Yes. We can see three very significant kinds of changes here. Number one is to go from dull and boring to attractive. Number two is to go from a presentation style – shut up and listen! – to more of a participation, including inaudible participation on the feeling level by people in the room. That is, folks don’t have to be standing up, waving their arms, or speaking. But you can feel the sense of participation – “Yes, that’s speaking to me!” – whatever the music or sermon might be. In some places, that is enhanced by the design of the meeting. The third change is a greater emphasis on visual communication, which is partly a product of television. Drama is an illustration of visual communication.

Another is the word pictures a preacher draws. An increasing number of pastors are using overhead projectors; either with overlays or by sketching they illustrate their sermon on the screen. It’s a small number, but it’s gone from zero to scores.

WL: Do you see the Christian Worship Movement as a North American phenomenon or a global phenomenon?

LS: It’s global to a substantial degree, and particularly pronounced in Central and South America. But the movement has a few dimensions that I beileve are more distinctly North American. One of these is the increasing number of churches replacing the word “worship” with the word “celebration.”

The best illustration of this is that we used to have “funerals.” Then we went to “memorial services.” Now we have a “celebration” of the life and ministry of the departed person. That’s a shift in the whole atmosphere of what happens during that period of time. It’s gone from pain, sorrow, grief, and crying to celebration. For example, a church in Michigan, at the death celebration of its members, always has a brass group play “When the Saints Go Marching In.” They never have funerals or mourning services – only celebration services. The pastor’s response when asked to take funeral services for non-members is, “I don’t know how to do that.”

WL: Movements naturally oppose the existing order. How do you define the “existing order,” and why is there resistance by some to the new Christian Worship Movement?

LS: Let me differ with you on that question. Movements do not so much naturally oppose the existing order. They’re perceived to oppose it. They merge with the existing order because the existing order is not satisfactory. In other words, the existing order is not meeting the needs of the masses. For example, the labor movement years ago emerged not so much to oppose the existing system as it was to create a new system.

Contemporary Christian music is not so much an opposition to the existing order as it is a move to create anew. It is a response to new generations of people for a meaningful way to proclaim the faith and for faith to speak to them. It is not in opposition, in my judgment, to the traditional. The traditional simply isn’t working.

Now contemporary music is widely perceived by professionals and followers of professional music as a threat. It’s not perceived as creating new; it’s perceived by them as a threat to demolish the old. Those who have the biggest stake in the old normally will oppose the new. It is a response to new generations of people for a meaningful way to proclaim the faith and for faith to speak to them.

It’s important to understand why some folks feel threatened. Contemporary music is a new language for communicating the gospel, and these folks don’t speak it. They cannot understand what is being communicated. They feel left out and bypassed. Therefore, the new music is perceived by them as a very threatening development.

WL: What makes the Contemporary Worship Movement a movement and not simply an industry?

LS: There are two basics here that we are dealing with. First, a parallel that I think we can see very easily is the automobile industry. Producing automobiles is an industry. But I don’t buy an automobile to keep the automobile industry in business. I don’t even buy an automobile to own an automobile. I buy an automobile to have personal, convenient, private transportation. The industry provides it, and so I pay them for it.

There is a music industry out there providing a whole new era in Christian music. Churches really are not supporting the industry. The industry meets their need, and so churches pay for what the music industry produces: music that communicates the gospel to generations of people. And the support is compatible and reinforces a different style of worship. On one side you have the consumers – churches, pastors, worship leaders – who are asking, “Where can we get help? Where can we get resources?” The music industry has answered.

Now had denominational agencies produced the new wave of music, the Methodist churches would be turning to the Methodist headquarters, the Presbyterian to the Presbyterian headquarters, and the Lutheran to Lutheran headquarters to get the new music, and nobody would be talking about our music industry. We would be talking, instead, about the creativity and innovation of our denominations.

The second basic reflects the importance of music in the spiritual journey – the larger the crowd, the more important music is. Music is how to convert a collection of people into a community. It is the most powerful thing we do. That is one of the reasons the new wave of contemporary Christian music and new forms of worship have tended to be highly conspicuous.

If we hold a city-wide revival with 80,000 people, one of the first questions will be, “What are we going to do for music?” If 8 or 10 people are together for a Bible study or prayer gathering, we don’t ask about music; we don’t think about it. But as the size of the group grows, whether it be parades or military organizations, the more important music becomes.

When Iraq attacked Kuwait a few years ago, the US eventually responded by sending huge numbers of personnel and materials for fighting a war. Space was limited, and nothing was sent that was unimportant. If I remember correctly, the Navy sent 55 bands, and the Army sent about 90. The Marines and Air Force also sent bands. You can’t fight a war without music.

Go to any military academy where a crowd has gathered. A key element is music. Go to a university graduation, and music is a big part of that. A president is inaugurated every four years. The inauguration ceremony itself is brief. But the night before are the balls, which are nights about music.

The larger the crowd, the more imoprtant music is. What we are seeing is a very natural phenomenon resulting from the fact that music is the most influential factor in turning a collection of individuals into a sense of community.

WL: During the past few years, the big five entertainment companies have collectively made an investment in the acquisition of Christian music companies. Because these start-up companies are being capitalized by the entertainment industry, does this threaten the movement?

LS: No more than the fact that Macmillan or HarperCollins publish religious books. Or that Thoams Nelson, listed in the New York Stock Exchange, publishes all kinds of things for a religious audience, including Bibles and music. We have a long tradition of profit-making organizations and corporations servicing the churches to help them proclaim the gospel. The fact that a preacher drives a car made by a profit-making corporation to get to church or make hospital calls doesn’t compromise. No, I don’t see any problem.

WL: Looking at the horizon, over the next ten years, what can we expect to happen if the Contemporary Worship Movement is successful?

LS: I think there is a basic trend toward the Americanization of the European religious heritage, as far as the Christian theme is concerned. It reflects a natural development pattern where humans find music more natural than the spoken word. Therefore, it is easier and more natural for people to worship with strong music support than to purport a more traditional approach.

And along with that is the impact of television, which is involving at least two generations of people. Effective adult communication includes music and motion. Television has made this a much more supporting climate for contemporary worship than the pre-TV era. TV has changed how we do a lot of things.

An area affected by this is preaching. We no longer require preachers to stand in one place. They use wireless microphones. We no longer do church in black and white. TV has introduced color and drama, and we’ve incorporated these into our worship mentality.

The computer also changes many things. One of the most obvious is that it has reduced the number of church secretaries. It has made it easier to produce all kinds of data for decision-making processes. Congregational leaders have access to more information.

It has allowed denominational headquarters to receive reports from churches and receive feedback. They can now analyze data much quicker, rather than waiting a year or two before learning the results of their findings.

The computer has significantly changed the publishing industry. And we are discovering that teaching reading, writing, and music can be done effectively with the aid of computers.

I see a continuation of these overall patterns. What we have been experiencing is simply a forerunner of tomorrow, rather than a temporary fad or temporary deviation from traditional ways.



Is it wrong to celebrate salvation?

Jesus didn’t think so. He said: “Rejoice because your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). And He illustrated this celebration of salvation in the parable of the prodigal son. When the young man repented of sin’s follies and came home from the far-off land, his father – representing God – announced: “ ‘Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate” (Luke 15:23,24/NIV).

So our Father in heaven rejoices in our salvation, and Jesus encouraged us to do the same.

But we’re living in the solemn judgment hour – this is “no time to celebrate.”

In this judgment hour we must ensure that we have repented of sin personally and then humbly yet courageously confront open sin in the church family. Then, day by day as we continue to confess and forsake sin, we can celebrate the fact that Christ at Calvary conquered the penalty and the power of sin and is coming soon to rescue us from this world of sin.

Jesus, facing His own judgment and time of trouble, led His disciples in singing a hymn (see Matt. 26:30) which was not mournful or solemn but joyous in praise (see DA 672). The fact that evil elements were betraying Him within the church did not deter Him from rejoicing in God.

And in our own day of judgment, sin and its trauma still flourish. “In the world you will have tribulation,” Jesus predicted. But then He added, “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Since Christ has won the victory on our behalf over the world, the flesh, and the devil, He wants us to rejoice in that salvation.

Perhaps I can celebrate salvation privately, but isn’t it inappropriate to celebrate in church?

The Bible says that after the resurrection of Jesus, the disciples “were continually in the temple praising and blessing God” (Luke 24:53). The Psalms are full of encouragement for praise in corporate worship: “Praise the Lord. Praise God in His sanctuary, . . . praise Him with tambourine . . . , praise Him with the clash of cymbals, praise Him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord” (Psalm 150:1,4-6/NIV).

Some would prefer to sing nothing but the songs of yesteryear. But the Bible says: “Sing to the Lord a new song, and His praise in the assembly of saints” (Psalm 149:1). Every revival in Christian history has inspired new music. Many Adventists who are experiencing spiritual rejuvenation sing adoration and praise psalms addressed to God, going beyond their old habits of mostly singing about God. Just as in prayer we talk directly to God, not content merely to talk about God.

But celebration is dangerous because it can get out of hand.

Any good thing can be perverted and abused, including food, sexual love, and praise to God. But does that mean we should starve ourselves or become celibates like nuns and priests? Nor should we make our worship celibate of praise just because the Pentecostals overdo it. The key to a balanced Christian life is to enjoy the proper use of God’s gifts.

Fire is a blessing in the fireplace because it heats the house, but if that fire gets outside the fireplace it will burn down the house. So with praise. Without it, a worship service is frozen in formality, but if emotion gets carried away into mindless excitement, it will harm the church.

Many Adventists, afraid of having too much excitement in church, forget that nothing is more deadly than religious boredom. Adventist youth have left the church. Why? Because they became too excited with celebration worship, or because they became bored to death with our old habits of worship? The ValueGenesis survey of North American youth indicates that most Adventist youth find worship services profoundly boring – only 36 percent of our youth look forward to going to church, whereas according to that same survey 76 percent of Baptist youth do. The good news is that Adventist congregations which offer young people opportunity to express their exuberance in praising the Lord have found their youth more involved both in the worship and the outreach of the church.

What is the test of whether or not worship has gotten out of hand?

Jesus said we should love God not just with all our hearts but also with all our souls and all our minds (see Matt. 22:37). To encourage this, a worship service must include not only praise and jubilation but quiet adoration, contemplation and commitment. Jesus also said we must worship God both “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Thus true worship is both spirited and doctrinally sound. It inspires the emotions while enlightening the intellect. Spirit-filled worship ministers “love, joy, and peace” (Gal. 5:22), since love for God leads to keeping His commandments and not minimizing or breaking them.

The counterfeit tongues heard in Pentecostal and Charismatic worship have no place in Adventist worship. Our religion is not based on subjective experience but on the objective truth of God’s law and grace. If worship is leading people to look away from themselves and rejoice in the cross while keeping the commandments, you can be sure that God is present and everything is fine.

Isn’t celebration something Catholic? They speak of “celebrating the mass.”

“Celebrating” the Roman Catholic mass has nothing to do with celebrating the assurance of God’s acceptance in Christ. A typical Catholic service features subdued and solemn organ music. This is in harmony with their concept of salvation being a continuing process, Sunday by Sunday, as the mass is solemnly “celebrated.” This is opposed to the New Testament teaching that Christ has completed a work in which we can rejoice.

Catholic worship has Latin “purgatory music,” written by those who anticipated spending time in purgatory for any sins repented of but not perfectly overcome. In contrast, the joyful assurance of going to heaven through the blood of Christ is reflected in a different style of music. It’s interesting to speculate why some traditional Adventist churches have imported solemn choir music with Latin words straight out of the Catholic church. I know this because my brother is the organist for the Franciscan monastery in Washington, D.C., and some of the same music he plays there is heard in reputable Adventist churches. Because of its Catholic origin it is solemn and subdued – anything but celebratory.

I thought worship is supposed to be reverent.

Yes, but why must we adopt the Catholic belief that reverence in worship demands quietness? This medieval myth is not supported in Scripture.

Some misunderstand the example of Uzzah, the Old Testament man struck dead when he laid his hand on the ark while “celebrating before the Lord” (2 Sam. 6:5/NASB). “And the anger of the Lord burned against Uzzah, and God struck him down there for his irreverence; and he died” (verse 7/NASB). What was Uzzah’s irreverence – was it celebration worship, or was it presuming to approach the sacred ark when only the high priest could do that? The answer is obvious from David’s behavior when, after several months of heart-searching about proper reverence, he brought home the ark with more celebration than ever. (See 2 Samuel 6:12-14.)

Evidently reverence involves respect for God, His cross, and His commandments. Music can be reverent either in jubilant praise or in quiet adoration.

Here’s something else to consider about reverence. Perhaps some quiet music can be irreverent! Keep in mind that everything in Christian worship should specifically point to Christ or to the Father who gave Him as our Savior. Suppose you have a classical violin piece that has no connection whatever with Christianity. Yes, it makes you feel peaceful, but if you’re a Buddhist then all it does is make you a more peaceful Buddhist. If you’re an atheist, it makes you a blissful atheist. The music may be beautiful, but unless it is specifically Christ-centered or God-centered, then perhaps it has no place in Christian worship. It might be fine for the dinner hour at home, but without a God-centered theme it isn’t suitably reverent for church.

Aren’t some “celebration churches” irreverent?

Some of them seem to minimize the importance of Biblical doctrine, and that is unfortunate, unnecessary, and irreverent. True reverence fosters commitment to God and His commandments. The grace of God does not lead us to gloss over our sins but to confront them and overcome them. (See Titus 2:11-15.)

Appreciating God’s grace is inspiring revival and reformation in many Adventist churches that incorporate celebration and adoration in their worship. Consider the African-American Adventist churches, which have always enjoyed a style of celebration worship that bears fruit in personal piety and public evangelism.

Isn’t celebration worship the same as worldly rock music?

Jesus said: “By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:37). Apply this test to music and let a song be justified or condemned by its words. If its lyrics are not in harmony with the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus, it fails Christ’s test. Remember that some of the devil’s most suggestive and sensual music is slow and subdued, while some of it is fast with lots of rhythm. And some of God’s songs are slow and contemplative, while others are jubilant.

Tempo, rhythm, and decibels are not the test. Jesus said the words are what justifies or condemns.

It’s interesting to note that pipe organ music is the devil’s chosen vehicle to invoke the spooky spirits of Halloween. It would be wrong to reject pipe organs because the devil uses that form of music. Just the same, it is wrong to reject rhythm and percussion because the devil misuses them. He misuses everything. God wants us to restore their proper use.

Aren’t some rhythms inherently evil?

There is a lot of speculation about that. Steve Miller, in his book The Contemporary Christian Music Debate – perhaps the most comprehensive and authoritative analysis of contemporary music – analyzes the supposed documentation and debunks certain myths perpetuated by opponents of celebration music.

There is no doubt that rhythm is powerful in arousing the emotions. The question is: why is emotion being aroused? If it’s the result of appreciating who God is and what He offers us in Christ, then emotion is appropriate and beneficial. After all, Jesus wants us to love the Lord with all our hearts as well as all our minds. A religion that is merely cerebral and intellectual, barren of heartfelt emotion, is not true Christianity.

Wasn’t Ellen White opposed to celebration worship?

Ellen White warned against any form of worship that detracts from a spirit of obedience and faith. She denounced emotionalism, where the heart gets ahead of the head, but she also recognized that Calvary’s sacrifice will inspire the most intense emotions. And let’s not forget that she also warned against the sin of cold formalism in our worship.

Didn’t Ellen White condemn the use of drums?

No instrument is inherently evil, but any instrument can be abused by evil. The same piano can play “Sweet Hour of Prayer” in a nursing home or “Goodness, Gracious, Great Balls of Fire” in a nightclub. Just like that piano or the Halloween pipe organ, drums can be used or abused. Ellen White condemned their abuse in association with a “holy flesh” movement in Indiana. She denounced the fanaticism there and predicted that it would resurface in the church. It’s important to consider her warning in the context of the doctrinal heresy being promoted, with people proclaiming themselves sinless in the flesh.

Incidentally, one observer in Indiana reported that they were using a large drum – which would seem to resemble the universally accepted large drum used in an orchestra more than the smaller drums used in celebration worship. But before we waste time measuring drum diameters, let’s remember that it’s not the instrument itself but the way it is used that makes the difference between blessing or abomination. If the instrument is employed to glorify God, then it is a blessing.

Let’s recall that the psalms pulse with joyous rhythm and percussion in the true worship of God. As students of early Adventist history will attest, Ellen White herself attended and endorsed some lively worship services which some might even describe as Pentecostal in style. Along with that, she frequently warned against the dangers of formalism and traditionalism in worship.

What about the raising of hands – isn’t that Pentecostal?

The fact that Pentecostals believe they should raise their hands in worship should not worry us any more than the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses believe as we do about the state of the dead. Both beliefs are Biblical: “The dead do not praise the Lord” (Psalm 115:17). (Dead churches don’t either.)

Adventists are quite acquainted with 1 Timothy 2:9, which warms women against worldly adornment. But we tend to overlook the previous verse, which says: “I desire that the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands” (verse 8). Amazing! We take Paul’s counsel to women and make it the Magna Carta of church standards – but we totally ignore what the men are told to do. More incredible yet – some even condemn fellow members who follow God’s word by raising hands in prayer.

Maybe that would qualify as irreverence: ignoring Biblical counsel regarding praise and prayer while condemning those who seek to follow it.

So raising hands is Biblical – but what’s the purpose of it?

Raising hands is a universal expression of emotion, both positive emotion such as jubilation and adoration and also negative emotion such as frustration and despair. For Christians, raising hands is also a gesture of submission to God’s will and acknowledgment of our need of Him: “Hear the voice of my supplications when I cry to You, when I lift up my hands toward Your holy sanctuary” (Psalm 28:2).

What about clapping in worship?

Once again we go to the Bible, which says: “Oh, clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with the voice of triumph” (Psalm 47:1). This corporate clapping is not applause for man but praise to God.

A fascinating example of that was the 1990 General Conference session at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis. Some delegates erupted in appreciative applause whenever the Lord brought them an inspiring song or sermon point, while others sat in silence. A man next to me leaned over and complained, “It’s getting worse and worse, this clapping business. I wish the leaders up front would put a stop to it!”

Stop celebrating Jesus Christ? Impossible! If the Adventist Church won’t celebrate, the stones around us will cry out.

Suppose General Conference delegates returned to the Indianapolis Hoosier Dome some Sunday during the football season. They could clap their hands, raise them, and shout for joy whenever some man with a helmet kicked a 40-yard field goal. Nobody would condemn them. But if they ventured to show some emotion during worship there, clapping their hands at the thought of Jesus traveling more than 40 trillion miles to bring salvation, some members would criticize them.

Why? It is possible that heavenly things aren’t as exciting to some of us as earthly things? Maybe we celebrate with sports more than with salvation because we spend more time watching the Giants and the Dodgers than we invest in Bible study and prayer. We manage to maintain a form of godliness without the power. Perhaps like the Pharisees of old, some of us honor God with our lips while our hearts are far from Him (see Matt. 15:8).

But I don’t feel comfortable clapping my hands or raising them in church.

Then perhaps you might not have felt comfortable at Pentecost, when those who received the Holy Spirit were so joyful that their critics accused them of seeming drunk. But God understands your feelings and preferences. Whether through personality or cultural environment, if your preference is to fold your hands quietly rather than to raise them joyfully, that’s no problem. Even though folding hands in prayer has no Scriptural support – it’s just a Western tradition – there is no violation of God’s law. That makes it a matter of personal conscience or preference.

Romans 14 reveals that while some things are definitely right or wrong for everybody, other things such as worship style are matters of personal conscience or preference. Thus we must refrain from judging or demonizing each other regarding music or worship tastes. It’s also wrong – a form of idolatry, in fact – to try to turn one’s own convictions or comfort zone into holy ground for everybody or to impose one’s personal worship style upon the church body.

Celebration worship must be of the devil because it’s causing disunity in our church.

Jesus, the Prince of peace, prayed for unity – but not at the cost of advancing the kingdom of God. Recognizing the ever-present reality of opposition, He warned: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matt. 10:34).

Who is responsible for this disunity – those who promote advancement, or those who oppose it? Just because a church program in former years functioned without much controversy doesn’t mean that everything had been fine. Perhaps youth and visitors were quietly dropping out because their worship needs weren’t being met, but the rest of the church didn’t care enough to notice. And when finally that church becomes “seeker sensitive,” reaching out to the bored, the burned, and the by-passed, opposition arises.

Many people would rather have old problems than new solutions. Throughout Christian history, any new truth or any new development in worship style has been denounced and even demonized by those who cling to the traditional. Several centuries ago, even pipe organs were condemned as vile instruments of the devil that caused disunity (as documented in Miller’s book Contemporary Christian Music).

So how do we keep the church from splitting apart?

Some congregations attempt a compromise, blending traditional and contemporary elements in one service. They sing “How Great Thou Art!” for the traditional members and then “Our God Is an Awesome God” for those who want the contemporary. Recently I witnessed an attempt at such a blended service and noticed a lot of discontent. It seemed like mixing Chinese and Italian food on the same plate. Both types are nutritious and beneficial in themselves, but indigestion may result from blending them together.

Suppose a church forces itself to choose between the traditional and contemporary. In most cases, members with money and power will manage to have their way, leaving the youth, visitors, and new members shut out from consideration.

A better option might be to give everyone a choice between attending two Sabbath services, one traditional and one contemporary. But perhaps you think your church is too small to have two services. Then you might stop and think about why your church has not experienced much growth through your present worship format. Have your youth become bored to death?

But nobody wants to come to church earlier or later than usual for the extra service.

A possible solution is to start one service at 9:30 while the other group has Sabbath school, then have the other service at 10:45 while the first group has its own Sabbath school. Having different Sabbath schools ensures that those who prefer the traditional can maintain that format, while the contemporary group is free to experiment with new methods that might rejuvenate Sabbath school for them.

Having two different Sabbath school cycles for the children’s department would be difficult and probably is unnecessary. Children, youth, and their parents will overwhelmingly favor the contemporary praise format. It should be relatively easy to have a second adult Sabbath school for those who attend the traditional church service.

Maintaining two services may present difficulties in terms of timing and use of facilities, but the end result will probably justify the inconvenience. Everyone’s worship needs are met. And having regular fellowship dinners and other activities for both groups together will preserve the family unity of the church body.

What if some members still aren’t satisfied with having a worship service that suits their preference and insist upon condemning the other group?

Gently remind them that the God of the honorable retired workhorse is also the God of the energetic young colt. God plays no favorites, and neither should the church. The needs of all members must be met for the church to grow and prosper.

If they persist in judging their brothers and sisters, then it becomes a serious spiritual issue that merits remedial attention from the church body.

Make this practical. What order of service might work in a contemporary praise service?

Try this. Prelude the service with one or two people on guitars singing a couple of quiet adoration songs. Then comes a brief appearance of the pastor with a welcoming thought and opening prayer – and maybe one announcement or other item of church business, such as a membership transfer. (Definitely avoid the “pop goes the weasel” problem of having several people pop up to the pulpit for those endless announcements which disturb the flow of worship. Members and visitors can read; encourage them to notice their bulletin. Also, have a colorful, eye-popping bulletin board in the foyer waiting to catch their attention.)

After the pastor’s brief welcome and prayer, an enacted parable (optional) establishes the sermon theme. Then follows perhaps 20 minutes of praise singing; during one of the songs the tithes and offerings are collected. Close the season of praise with several contemplative adoration songs. Then comes the sermon, followed by an appeal/adoration song leading up to the altar of prayer. Invite anyone with a prayer need to come forward and kneel; those accepting Christ or wanting baptism can meet you at the cross. (You might want to have a large cross on the platform, maybe eight feet high built of four-by-four-inch wood. It will serve as a worship focus and a continuing reminder that Calvary will be our science and our song throughout eternity.)

Following a heartfelt prayer comes a final song to finish the service. Then the audience is dismissed with a welcome for anyone to stay for the afterglow praise and adoration. This can go on for another 15 minutes or more – as long as people are there who wish to keep singing.

Recently my wife and I attended a messianic Jewish service where the afterglow music lasted more than half an hour. Most people wanted to linger on and on, and so did we. But those who had to leave did.

The format of a Biblical praise service flows along smoothly like a river of life. It includes adoration, celebration, contemplation, and commitment. Give praise a chance, and it might rejuvenate your church.



Isn’t traditional worship “dull and boring”?

Name-calling and stereotyping accomplish precisely nothing. Adherents of traditional worship often find contemporary worship styles “dull and boring” (if not downright offensive). Let’s discuss specific elements of these styles of worship and delve more deeply into the reasons for such perceptions.

But thousands of Adventist youth have left the church “because they became bored to death with our old habits of worship.”

Aren’t we perhaps jumping to conclusions here? Adventist young people face more temptations today than ever before. Divorce, violence, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, illicit sex, moral relativism and cheap entertainment are at an all-time high in our society, and none of our young people is completely sheltered from all of these things. All of these factors contribute to the mass exodus of youth from the Adventist church (and from many others). So, to some extent, does boring worship. There are two main causes for the perception of traditional worship as boring:

(1) The people conducting it are not excited about it. Maybe the Word of God is read in a dead monotone, or the sermon rambles without edifying, or the call for the offering or intercessory prayer never seems to end, or the hymns have no life in them. Such “worship” is uncalled for, and in this sense, it most definitely is a sin to bore our young people. Nevertheless, it does not follow that Scripture readings, sermons, offerings, prayers and hymns are bad things and ought to be thrown out in favor of more “contemporary” methods. These are good things that can bring blessings to everyone around when the people who lead out in them are doing them for the glory of God and are excited about them.

(2) The people who are bored with it have been watching too much television and too many movies. This might sound ludicrous, but one cannot ignore the fact that the vast majority of entertainments in today’s popular culture excite our surface emotions while leaving our deep emotions, our brains and our souls in neutral. When one becomes accustomed to a steady diet of these entertainments, they will create the perception that anything (such as traditional worship or even reading the Bible at home) which does not excite the surface emotions most or all of the time is boring. Does this mean that we need to make our worship style more like the entertainments of popular culture to keep our worshipers from getting bored? Of course not. We need to educate our young people (and our adults) to spend less time entertaining themselves and more time getting to know Jesus Christ. “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2).

I’ve read that rapidly growing churches using traditional worship owe their growth largely “not to . . . traditional music, but to . . . a good match with an extraordinarily competent pastor.”

I read the same article. The author is not explaining here, but explaining away. He gives no argument explaining why an extraordinarily competent pastor and traditional music might not both be responsible for rapid church growth; he simply assumes that traditional music cannot contribute to rapid church growth (or at least not very much).

But what follows if traditional music, done with enthusiasm and understanding, can contribute to rapid church growth? It follows that there is no need to import questionable contemporary styles from popular culture into the church (more on this later). I am not accusing the author of intellectual dishonesty (only of unclear thinking), but this consequence would compromise much of the remainder of what he says in his article.

But isn’t it true that we import “Latin purgatory music” into reputable Adventist churches?

On the whole, no. Here is a sample of quotes from Latin works occasionally sung in Adventist churches, as translated into English: “Lord, have mercy on us. Christ, have mercy on us.” (We have all sinned, have we not?) “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (This sounds rather suspiciously like Luke 2:14.) “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages.” (There is definitely no problem here.) “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts . . . Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord!” (This is again Scriptural, and strikes me as neither particularly solemn nor particularly sober, to say nothing of purgatorial.) “We praise Thee, O God; we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord. All the earth doth worship Thee . . . Heaven and earth are full of the majesty of Thy glory . . . When Thou tookest it upon Thee to deliver man, Thou didst not abhor the virgin’s womb. When Thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death, Thou didst open the kingdom of heaven to all believers.” (What joy! What praise! And in Catholic liturgy, no less!)

I could go on, but I don’t think I need to. There is Latin liturgy that might not be appropriate for Adventist services (e.g., Ave Maria: “Hail Mary”), but most of what we very occasionally import is more along the lines of the above. Catholics do believe in purgatory, but that’s not what most of their liturgy is about.

Isn’t “subdued and solemn organ music” more appropriate for a Catholic service than for an Adventist service? Catholics think of salvation as “a continuing process.”

So do Seventh-day Adventists. We don’t believe that the broken body and shed blood of Christ are created mystically week by week, but we do believe that we ought to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). From day to day (and from week to week), the sacrifice of Christ, made once for all, becomes effective in us as we come to Him, repent of and confess our sins, accept His forgiveness, and go forth anew to live for Him. It is cause both for joyous celebration of God’s unchanging love and for subdued, solemn reflection on what our sins did to Him.

But what about organ music? Someone told me that it is “the devil’s chosen vehicle to invoke the spooky spirits of Halloween.”

If the person who told you this walked around his neighborhood on the night of October 31, he might be disappointed to learn that none of the local church pipe organs has been taken hostage by wild-eyed worshipers of Satan. He might find some of the organs in use, but there will, alas, be no spooky spirits in evidence. The Christians in these churches will be invoking (however misguidedly) the great Christian saints of the past.

The most obvious thing about this statement is that the person who made it has probably watched too many movies. At least as far back as Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera, movies and television have been using perfectly good organ music to create an (often superficial) atmosphere of horror, suspense, and gloom. The association is so thorough that almost any average person in our society thinks of organ music as “funeral music” and “Halloween music.” This is what the devil has worked hard to pull off, and it is not hard to imagine him convulsing with laughter every time he thinks about it. Johann Sebastian Bach, Dietrich Buxtehude, Max Reger, and many other great Christian composers have, over a period of centuries, composed great organ music for worship and meditation soli Deo gloria (“to God alone the glory,” which Bach actually inscribed on each of his compositions). Now, after only a few decades’ work, the devil has so arranged it that anyone whom we do not educate that most organ music has been written for the worship of God will automatically regard it as they regard a bad horror movie or, at best, as unrelievedly subdued or solemn.

One might, if one had a brother who played the organ for a Catholic monastery, think that most organ music used in worship is subdued or solemn. But if one pursues an acquaintance with organ music to any degree at all, one will soon learn that it spans the entire range of human emotions appropriate to a worship setting. The Divine majesty and holiness, the “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7), the anguish of suffering caused by sin, and the uproarious joy of salvation, to name only a few, are all there for those who would experience them. These emotions, as evoked by great organ music, range in intensity from the finest subtlety to the most overpowering emotional force and throw into sharp relief the shallow, insipid sentimentality and crass sensuality which characterize much of modern popular music.

So wordless instrumental music can be reverent enough for Divine worship, even if neither God nor Christ is mentioned in the title?

Yes! Everything created by God or man, to the extent that it has not been corrupted by sin or its effects, is true, noble, just, pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous, praiseworthy and worthy of thought (cf. Philippians 4:8). This includes instrumental music. A classical violin piece with a neutral title might make a Buddhist, an atheist, and a Christian all feel peaceful. To the Christian, however, the peace and beauty and adoration will be more than a feeling: they will be directed toward God and Christ in worship! When we are in the right frame of mind, all beautiful things are metaphors for the beauty of God’s love. If the performer is in the right frame of mind, visiting Buddhists, atheists, and secular humanists will get a glimpse of this as well.

Let’s discuss contemporary Christian music for a moment. Jesus said: “By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:37). Does this mean that the music doesn’t matter as long as the words are Christian?

Alas, no. Jesus wasn’t speaking about music in this passage. He said these words in response to some of the Pharisees who asserted that He cast out demons by the power of Beelzebub. The Pharisees knew perfectly well that they were speaking nonsense and being dishonest with Him, everyone around them, and themselves. Jesus called this blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, and warned them that these words of blasphemy would return to condemn them in the day of judgment if the Pharisees persisted in speaking them.

Obviously, the lyrics we present to God in worship should be the very best we have to offer. So should the music!

But music isn’t good or bad in itself; it’s a matter of personal taste.

It might in a sense be convenient if this were true, because it would save us a lot of thought, evaluation, and analysis, but this is not a Christian attitude. It’s a specific example of a tenet held by postmodernism. In its broader form, the idea asserts that no religion, culture, morality, idea, person, or taste is better or worse than any other. Christians believe that God really exists (it isn’t just a matter of whether or not He exists for you), that (to the extent of the difference) Christianity is true and other religions are false, and that right and wrong are real and absolute (not relative) to the extent that they are present in or absent from the character of God. What about good and bad taste?

Good and bad taste are not (in and of themselves) equal to right and wrong. You might have good or bad taste in some area because you grew up with it and never knew anything else, not because you chose it. When you choose it, knowing it for what it is, it becomes a step along the path to virtue or vice. For example, suppose that you have bad taste in fashion, and I condemn you for it. I have now violated Jesus’ command not to judge others (see Matthew 7:1-3), because, whether or not you were guilty of moral evil, I had no right to assume that you were. But it’s still possible that you were. On the other hand, my good taste in fashion might lead me to dress my best as a representative of the kingdom of God, or it might lead to the sin of pride of appearance. But if the latter is true, I don’t need to change my taste. I need to change my attitude so that I realize that all good things, including good taste, are blessings from God to be received with thanksgiving and humility. Likewise, if I have been guilty of leading out in a traditional worship service that has become mere formalism, I don’t need to change the style of the worship service. I need to repent and change the intensity of my participation to reflect my renewed love for Jesus Christ.

In specific circumstances, good and bad taste are often difficult to define, especially in something as abstract as music. One can’t simply say that music is automatically good or bad because it contains rhythm A, or is predominantly at dynamic level B, or is in style C. Only mediocre music is equal merely to the sum of its parts (e.g., rhythm, harmony, melody, dynamics, counterpoint, meter, etc.). Good music is greater than the sum of its parts, and bad music is worse than the sum of its parts.

What follows from all this is that such adjectives as great, good, mediocre, bad and wretched really can be applied to music in all categories: classical and contemporary, hymn tunes and love songs, marches and waltzes, and so forth. It is also clear that putting good words to bad music does not change the character of the music. It only creates a pitiful contradiction of the same sort as putting a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment or putting new wine in old wineskins (cf. Matthew 9:16-17): the vessel must be appropriate to the content! If you try waltzing to a military march, you will probably sprain your ankle; if you set the words from Amazing Grace to the theme from Gilligan’s Island, you have not created a hymn, but have merely been guilty of frivolity; if you set words praising Jesus Christ to a bad rock or pop song not essentially different from one that inspires lewd barroom dancing from a non-Christian, you have not enhanced His praise but cheapened it.

Then you aren’t opposed to contemporary Christian music merely because it’s “a new language for communicating the gospel” that you “don’t speak” and therefore “feel threatened” by.

Thank you for realizing that. I am familiar with contemporary styles of music, having listened to little else until age fourteen, when the Lord led me to give them up for something better. To say that I oppose “the new order” because “I have the biggest stake in the old” is wrong for two reasons:

(1) It implies that my main (or only) motive for taking the position I take is self-interest, or that I do not really believe what I am saying. This is not only false but a clear violation of our Lord’s command not to judge the motives of others. It would be equally wrong for me to treat any of my opponents thus.

(2) It seems to give others an excuse not to take seriously any statement I make about the subject. In other words, it begs the question, it avoids the issue. If one of my arguments were “two plus two equals four,” it would be equally absurd to state in reply: “You say that because you are a mathematician” (cf. C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, p. 63).

What about words? Isn’t it better to sing hymns and songs of praise addressed directly to God and Christ rather than songs merely about Them?

The Word of God doesn’t give us any reason to believe so. Look at the Book of Psalms (the Hebrew hymnal, as it were). Right alongside one another you will find such great psalms as 90 (“Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations”) and 91 (“He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty”). In the Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal, you will find For the Beauty of the Earth and Live Out Thy Life Within Me (direct-address) and All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name and All Creatures of Our God and King (third-person praise), all great hymns. The direct-address style is reminiscent of prayer, the third-person praise style reminiscent of sharing the love of God with others. Both are appropriate Christian frames of mind and neither is, in and of itself, inferior to the other.

How can we rejuvenate our worship using traditional styles and traditional music?

It will not be easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is. Pastors, elders, musicians, and other worship leaders must lead out with passion and purpose, to the glory of God and for the nurture of the congregation and of themselves also. The elements of the service must be chosen well and executed well. All must be taught to understand, appreciate, and participate in the Word of God and in great music. The sermons must be inspiring, well thought out and clearly presented. Thus we can begin to learn to “worship the Father in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23).

Author’s Note: In July of 1995, I was a “minority” member of the Worship Committee of the Richardson Seventh-day Adventist Church – that is to say, I was one of a few on the committee largely opposed to the contemporary worship movement. The pastor, who favored “worship rejuvenation” but nevertheless did not remove all traditional elements from the service, occasionally distributed various articles about worship to the committee. Most (but not all) of these came from pro-contemporary sources. At one point, two of these galled me so thoroughly that I felt compelled to reply: an interview with “church growth expert” Lyle Schaller in the July/August 1995 Worship Leader, and a draft of a chapter for a forthcoming book circulated by its author, Martin Weber, on the internet. I responded to neither personally – I had no internet access at the time – but I circulated my response to the committee. The pastor, who despite being enamored of contemporary modes of thought in worship, came from a largely traditional background, replied to me that he agreed with much of what I had to say, but thought my solution as a whole too idealistic to implement. The apparent practicality of “worship evangelism” (category confusion!) appealed to him because he had the honorable soul of an evangelist – indeed, in 1998 he accepted a call to become a staff evangelist for Amazing Facts.