by Jim Byerly
What was once called music, and then called praise, is now called worship. “So, how was worship today?” usually means, “How was the band and music?”
We can arrange our worship into two categories: personal and corporate (or institutional)—the latter referring to occasions when the church comes together to worship.
From Scripture we see that corporate worship includes the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread (the Lord’s Supper), and prayer. We may add to these components acts of giving. Some aspects are common to both institutional and personal worship.
The part of worship people often get worked up about is the institutional part—primarily because this is where personal taste in music factors into the equation. It’s difficult to separate from this dilemma a person’s “church of origin,” meaning the church where you grew up, the church where you spent most of your time, or the church that was most influential in your conversion experience.
Imagine that you were 28 years old and had never been to church before, but you were invited by a friend and moved to accept the Lord during the service—and it is a church where all of the music is rock music. That’s your church of origin and you have no history of any kind of church that does any other kind of music. Hymn, what is a hymn?
Robert Webber observed,
One cannot simply pick up a guitar, assemble contemporary instruments, pick out the right songs, and expect it to go well. Worship leading requires certain skills, a good grasp of how to accomplish the transitions from one phase to another, an ability to make the right connecting comments between songs, a strong bond with the congregation, and a heart in tune with the Spirit.
I imagine many Christians who long to return to first-century ideals and practices would be so uncomfortable in a first-century worship service they would high-tail it out of there, whether it be a house church or a synagogue. Some of the barriers we would face include language, clothing, organization, and of course, music styles. We have twenty-first century ears, and that means we are conditioned to what we have been hearing since we were in the womb. For many music students, even their first taste of classical music is not always the sweetest, especially works by Leonin or Perotin. Switchfoot and Toby Mac are more familiar and therefore more trusted and enjoyed.
What can we glean from the Bible and early worship that can be of use to us today? How can we worship the King personally and corporately in the most effective way?
The early church used psalms in their worship. The Psalms were familiar to most Jews and were inherited from temple and synagogue worship. Dr. Mark D. Roberts says that “Psalms are the most popular worship resource in history . . . no other resource, besides the whole of Scripture has been used more consistently and profitably in public and private worship.”
The instrumental and vocal aspects of these psalms may best be understood by listening to contemporary Jewish worship. A cantor would sing the text, others might hum along, join in the singing, or echo the phrases. When Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with his followers (Passover), the Bible says “they sang a hymn and went out to the Mount of Olives.” That hymn (along with others) was an integral part of every Passover meal—and it was a psalm. They didn’t sing “Amazing Grace” or any hymns familiar to us today. Psalm singing was a part of their worship, as it is with us today too. Hawk Nelson’s “Today is the Day,” for example, is simply a reworking of Psalm 118:24.
This could be a stretch, but some of the canticles from the Bible (Mary’s song, Hannah’s song, Zechariah who prophesized and sang after seeing the Messiah) could be categorized as testimony-type songs. And testimonials, especially in music, can be powerful ingredients in a time of worship. It is thought that the early church used these canticles during their worship times, and when the Scriptures were written they were included because they were already a part of the early church’s materials of worship.
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place.
This familiar passage from Philippians 2 is also known as a canticle and could have been sung during early church worship. It is not testimonial; it is poetic (not didactic) in nature and is filled with rich theology, emotion, and victory.
Recently my family has gone through some rough times and I have found myself praying a lot. We have a beautiful Dalmatian that loves to go walking and hiking. I do a lot of praying during our walks. Recently when walking and praying, I decided to sing my prayers to God. They had text, they had melody, and sometimes they had rhythm and rhyme, but it was more important to me that they had meaning. I wanted God to know that I was psalming him, that I was communicating with him. No one else heard my songs; they were meant for God alone. No one else was entertained. This was personal worship in music and prayer.
Sad to say, but prayer during worship (in many of the churches I have attended and visited) has become a token part of the service. We sometimes limit the prayers to pre-offering, pre-Communion, and closing. “There, we’ve officially prayed so we can check that off of the list.”
We seem to be in such a dilemma to figure out how to get more time for the music and the message that we shortchange our time of prayer. In some cases we have made it a cold medium in worship: people sit and listen while one person prays. Sadly we often approach the Lord’s Supper in a similar way. “Can we figure out a way to cut down the time on serving? We need more time for the message.” Don’t get me wrong; preaching is important, but so are prayer and the Lord’s Supper.
How can we tell where our priorities lie? By the space, time, and resources we devote to something.
Some people come to church for a “worship fix,” leave with a feeling that helps them realize they’ve been to church and worship, and feel motivated to return to church next week. But what should worship motivate us to do? Mark Labberton addresses this in his book The Dangerous Act of Worship (Read How You Want, 2009).
If we don’t lift our heads to see God in worship, we can’t see what God wants to show us, which includes our neighbor. Then our neighbor becomes those we choose to see, not those God wants us to see. Worship draws us into the heart of God, and as we live there, we see the neighbors God gives us: the forgotten, the marginalized, the poor, the oppressed.
Perhaps we should pray,
God, open our eyes to see you when we are alone and when we are with our brothers and sisters in church. Listen to our hearts and voices as we lift you up and praise you. May we love and pray more for those leading us than we do for ourselves, laying aside our personal preferences and dislikes. Help us to see worship for what it truly is, according to your Word and desires. May our whole lives be worship and when Sunday comes, may it simply be an extension of what we’ve been doing the other six days of the week. To you be the glory and honor and power forever. Amen
Jim Byerly is professor of music and worship at Boise (Idaho) Bible College.
The Original Song Book
As you evaluate your personal and corporate worship participation, delve deeper into the original song book: the book of Psalms.
You may want to study alone or get some friends, your Sunday school class, small group, or family to join you. This resource can help:
Crash Course on Psalms
by Christianity Today
It explores worship, prayer, artistry, and renewal through articles, biblical study, and engaging questions.
Find out more about this book and the others in the Crash Course Bible study series: