As a boy in the late 1970s, I attended a large church near Akron, Ohio with my dad and brothers called the Cathedral of Tomorrow. Each Sunday we sat in the audience and watched a church service that was televised around the world. As the lights in the domed auditorium dimmed, a drum roll would announce that the Rex Humbard Family Singers would soon rise on a hydraulic platform from beneath the stage—literally, from beneath the stage! A full orchestra and choir would join in and the “family” would begin singing the weekly theme song, Bless His Holy Name. Production value was important and met the needs of the television audience.
My experience as an adult, worshiping in a much more traditional setting, has not been quite as showy. We mostly sing from the old Standard Publishing hymnal, Favorite Hymns of Praise. A pianist accompanies the song leader who announces which hymn number is next, during which verses we are to stand, and when the “men will come forward to serve.” In our setting, tradition has been important and has met the needs of our congregation.
Music and Worship
Whether for television or for a local congregation, worship expressed musically is a vital part of the church. There has been a great deal of time, talent, and treasure invested in church music over the centuries. Unfortunately, there has also been much division during the same period. Musical worship was something God gave to unify us, yet Satan has used it to divide us.
“Worship Wars” often begin when each side thinks they know what kind of music God prefers. For the record, according to the Bible, God likes new songs, played skillfully on a multitude of instruments, sung joyfully, and with an occasional shout. The psalmist writes, “Praise the Lord. . . . Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with timbrel and dancing, praise him with the strings and pipe, praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord” (Psalm 150:1, 3-6). That definitely sounds a lot more like the Cathedral of Tomorrow in 1979 than it does the church where I worship in 2019!
For too many years, Christians have asked the wrong question about corporate worship. Instead of asking, “Which style of music does God prefer?” we should be asking, “What does God think of our worship?”
As the book of Isaiah begins, Israel is ripe for judgment. God refers to them as “Sodom and Gomorrah.” One key reason is that their worship rituals had become meaningless. Isaiah wrote,
“The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood!” (Isaiah 1:11-15).
Obviously, in and of themselves, religious rituals are not wrong. In the Law, God ordained that the people should practice animal sacrifice, burn incense, and keep special convocations. What God had grown weary of was Israel’s hypocrisy. In Isaiah 29:13, God said, “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Their outward rituals were not reflective of an inward righteousness and so God hid his eyes and stopped listening to them.
Obedience and Worship
I wonder what God thinks of me when our congregation sings the words of the old hymn, A Passion for Souls (hymn number 195, by the way)? “Jesus, I long, I long to be winning men who are lost and constantly sinning; O may this hour be one of beginning the story of pardon to tell.” It sounds good and hopeful, until I see my next-door neighbor later in the week and realize I have never shared the gospel with him or even invited him to church. I want to be inspired to do evangelism; I just don’t want to do it.
John Piper wrote, “Hymns can be sung with just as much inauthenticity as (modern) worship songs. Organs can be played with just as much hypocrisy as guitars.” As one young woman I know said, worship is “not about what I get, but what I bring.”
Whatever style of worship music we sing, God desires that we honor him with our lips and our hearts.
Thankfully, our God is a God of second chances. Calling Israel to repentance, he said, “Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:16, 17).
Most people attending our churches desire to know God and please him. However, if they are involved in immorality, mistreating others, or any other violation of God’s will, repentance is required before true worship can begin. Stop the sin, begin doing what is right, and then come and worship.
We love the trappings of modern religion: the beauty of the buildings, the atmosphere around the Lord’s Table, the emotion of the music, and so on. James wrote in the New Testament what could have easily been recorded in Isaiah eight centuries earlier. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). Right religious practice involves living righteously and serving those in need. True worship is not merely what we do on Sunday morning, but every day of the week (see Romans 12:1, 2). God desires that we honor him with our lips, our hearts, and our obedience.
Inward righteousness does not result from correct outward religious practice. Rather, outward religion that pleases God results from inward righteousness. Like the Rex Humbard Family Singers rising from beneath the stage, outward worship must rise from a heart seeking to do what is right.
The God of second chances is also the God of grace. “‘Come now, let us settle the matter,’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.’” (Isaiah 1:18) Through Christ, he gives to us freely what our own righteousness could never merit.
For too long, the quality of our worship has been determined by what we think about the music. From now on, may the quality of our worship be determined by what God thinks of us. Bless his holy name!
Dave Jones and his wife, Andrea, have five children. He worked in various business roles until 2006, when he became the preacher at the Millwood Church of Christ in central Ohio. Dave has studied at Northeast Ohio Bible College and Summit Theological Seminary. He is a trustee with the Christian Restoration Association, serves on the board of the Hippo Valley Christian Mission overseeing ministry work in Zimbabwe, and is active in the Wakatomika Christian Service Camp.