Reflections on Style in Worship
"Within the realm of what is appropriate in Godís presence there is room for variety in expressive and cultural styles. . . No matter the variety or cultural setting, though, the praise and thanksgiving expressed by the redeemed should reflect the majesty of heaven and the breadth and depth of Godís loving nature."
When people gather in a sanctuary to worship their God, they bring with them varied personalities as well as individual concepts of the nature of God. This naturally leads to widely divergent views about what is appropriate behavior in His presence. There are those who are exuberant, overtly expressing their thanksgiving and praise and tending to see God in terms of their own emotions. Then there are those who are reserved, rarely showing public emotion. They would view God as more reserved and sober. And there are many other personality types in between.
Does God prefer one type of behavior over another? One personality type over another? Does that fit in with His love of variety so beautifully illustrated in His creative acts? Perhaps there is a way we can learn about His preference. In this presentation on worship form and style, we will turn to divine guidance as we seek insight into what constitutes appropriate behavior by sinful beings in the presence of a holy God.
Godís word is full of admonition to rejoice. The human family was born to praise. We are encouraged to respond to the joy of our redemption with songs of thanksgiving and praise. We know from Zephaniah 3:17 that our Creator rejoices over repentant sinners with singing. Born as we are in His image, it is natural that we turn to musical praise when we experience the joy of salvation. What greater motivation could be possible for singing His praise?
There are times when we will privately approach God in our own mood and way. When we corporately gather to worship Him, however, praise and thanksgiving should be the dominant mood in our acts of devotion. I am impressed with these words from Ellen White:
As our Redeemer leads us to the threshold of the infinite, flushed with the glory of God, we may catch the themes of praise and thanksgiving from the heavenly choir round about the throne; and as the echo of the angelsí song is awakened in our earthly homes, hearts will be drawn closer to the heavenly singers. Heavenís communion begins on earth. We learn here the keynote of its praise.1
What is needed is an accurate Biblical picture of God that will lead to an appropriate and compatible worship attitude and structure, regardless of personality factors. Another way to express this would be to find a balance between content and style in all aspects of a worship service.
Are there parameters within which all participants, all personalities should worship? Should there be a difference between the way a home team celebrates victory in a sports event and the way we celebrate Christís victory over Satan? If so, what would that difference be and why would or should it be different?
The following biblical examples may be helpful as we make decisions regarding the content, form, and style of our praise. They describe times and places when God and His children interacted, both in corporate worship and in personal divine-human encounters.
The first is that of Cain and Abel, found in Genesis 4. God had a reason for the symbolism present in animal sacrifice. He preferred a certain form with specific content. Cainís act of worship was not accepted because he disregarded Godís instructions. That disregard revealed a careless attitude and a lack of respect for Divinity.
Another example is found in the story of the burning bush in Exodus 3. The lesson in this experience is that God expects special behavior in His presence. You may also remember when Moses wanted to see God on the mountain and the Creator only showed him a bit of the back side of his presence.2 For sinful beings to be in the Divine Presence is a truly awesome event.
The concept of appropriate behavior in worship is even more strikingly taught in Leviticus 10 when Nadab and Abihu did not heed Godís instruction regarding their duties in the temple. Their thoughtless indifference to Godís design for worship cost them their lives. Here Israel was given a very graphic illustration of how important it is to God that His children demonstrate appropriate respect for holy things and an awareness of suitable behavior in worship. They discovered anew that God is a very particular God. He really cares about matters of symbolism, content, and attitude.
One of the most striking examples of human reaction to a true and complete revelation of Almighty God is offered in Isaiah 6 when God gave Isaiah his prophetic call. Isaiah was given a view of the majesty of the Creator on His throne, surrounded by the seraphs who were calling to one another, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty, the whole earth is full of His glory." He felt the trembling of the doorposts and thresholds while the temple was filled with smoke. He was overcome with his unworthiness to be in the presence of Deity and fell on his face, crying out, "Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty."
What a contrast to the way some worshippers would come into His presence today! While the very angels who live in His presence veil their faces when they speak His name, modern man presumes to do so in a familiar and casual way. This is a reversal of Godís plan. Too many of todayís Christians want to create God in manís image.
The New Testament also records occasions when the revelation of Divinity overpowered the senses of the human family. Typical of these is the report in John 18:5. When the officials from the chief priests and Pharisees approached Jesus to take Him captive, He asked, "Who is it you want?" "Jesus of Nazareth," they replied. When Jesus responded with three simple words, "I am He," they drew back and fell to the ground. That modest declaration revealed enough of His Divinity to cause that extreme reaction!
In the New Testament when God became incarnate, immanent as well as transcendent, we find examples which help us gain an accurate Biblical picture of Godís nature. The response becomes a blend of awe at His majesty and delight in His friendship.
If He is only a friend as members of our fellow human family can be friends, then that would not be so remarkable. But because of His divine attributes, the fact that the Creator Himself wants to be my friend, is totally beyond human understanding. No wonder that our urge to rejoice is blended with awe!
As I meditate on the mysterious wonder of the nature of God and the reality of His incarnation and death, a sense of appropriate behavior begins to emerge. The agony He endured in Gethsemane. Then on to Calvary! As I imagine myself there at the foot of the cross, trying to grasp the enormity of what is happening, beginning to realize that my sins have put Jesus there, my heart breaks. I can only respond by returning to Him a pale reflection of His love, surrendering all that I am to Him. My heart is filled with unspeakable gratitude. He did this for me! This whole scene would have been played out if I were the only one who needed redemption.
How can we celebrate this victory over sin and death? When we realize that Jesus is our risen Lord and that victory is truly a fact, we should be filled with joy and a need to express that joy! What form should that expression take? The Scriptures certainly encourage rejoicing! We are told that praise and thanksgiving are the themes of heavenís music and that we need to begin a life of joyful praise while on this earth.
The content, form and style of the celebration entered into by the redeemed sinner should be in response to a sensitivity to all that went into providing that redemption. The Father and the Son purchased our freedom from the guilt and power of sin at infinite cost. Each time we remember that fact, our hearts should fill with wonder and awe that such love was directed toward us by our God.
This thought must condition the nature of the thanksgiving, praise and rejoicing that follows, no matter what the personality of the worshiper. Within the realm of what is appropriate in Godís presence there is room for variety in expressive and cultural styles. Certainly Barnabas didnít preach exactly like Paul. No matter the variety or cultural setting, though, the praise and thanksgiving expressed by the redeemed should reflect the majesty of heaven and the breadth and depth of Godís loving nature.
Based on biblical examples, I believe our God is dishonored by a celebration of our joy in salvation with a vocabulary borrowed from decadent contemporary culture. A verbal example of this is the use of the word "party" as a verb. In todayís world, to "party" means something very different from a heavenly celebration of victory over sin. It means exactly the opposite. To party usually means alcohol, drugs, and sex, all accompanied by the most exciting music possible, a celebration of sin itself. What a contrast in meanings! To describe Godís victory celebration as "throwing a party" demeans the whole concept of Godís interaction with humanity. It is highly unlikely that such a term is suitable to describe Godís rejoicing over redeemed sinners as described in Zephaniah 3:17.
The musical styles which dominate contemporary pop culture have nothing true to say about our creator God. Perhaps there may be a need to creatively stir the thinking of the establishment from time to time, but there must be a better way than to carelessly import musical languages born of the need to aid and abet todayís hedonism. Can you imagine any member of Godís family strutting into the arena of celebration to the wild beat of a rock band, doing a Michael Jackson moon walk, followed by hip-swinging, finger-snapping, bumping and grinding in the latest gross sexual posturing, and crying out "Letís party! Come on, letís get down!"
Obviously, this is not what is intended. If not, then why use such language to describe Godís image? Yes, there will be some amusement in the congregation, some shock value, and, be assured, a very sizable group of very uncomfortable people. Christ was able to communicate His message without being "hip," "cool," or whatever word might be used to describe being with a particular group or culture.
Godís people need an enlarged vision of His loving, affirming, accepting, supportive nature. But sin still exists. We canít forget that sin is still repugnant to God. The path to forgiveness is still through conviction, repentance and confession. Sin is what killed the Son of God. The act of redemption should not be trivialized with flip terminology, either musically or verbally.
It is possible for joy and celebration to be paired with a solemn awareness of the price of salvation. White, speaking of music, counsels:
Those who make singing a part of divine worship should select hymns with music appropriate for the occasion, not funeral notes, but cheerful, yet solemn melodies.3
We should condition our praise with a sense of the holiness of the object of our worship. Within these guidelines the word "partying" suddenly sounds trite and inappropriate.
In the following, White sets forth another principle:
To handle sacred things as we would common matters is an offense to God; for that which God has set apart to do His service in giving light to the world is holy. Those who have any connection with the work of God are not to walk in the vanity of their own wisdom, but in the wisdom of God, or they will be in danger of placing sacred things and common things on the same level, and thus separate themselves from God.
Ezekiel also counsels:
They are to teach my people the difference between the holy and the common and show them how to distinguish between the unclean and the clean.5
Earlier he had observed:
Her priests do violence to my law and profane my holy things; they do not distinguish between the holy and the common; they teach that there is no difference between the unclean and the clean!6
It is clear God does make a distinction between the holy and the unholy.
Speaking directly to church leaders, White cautioned:
You have men of all classes of mind to meet, and as you deal with the Sacred Word, you should manifest an earnestness, respect, reverence. God is offended when His representatives descend to the use of cheap, trifling words.7
Let not ministers cherish the idea that they must bring forth something new and strange, or that cheap, common expressions will give them influence. Our message is a solemn one, and we must watch unto prayer. The words uttered must be of such a character that through them God can make an impression on heart and mind.8
Integrity is also important. Amos shares with us some very powerful words from the Lord. The Israelites were following all the instructions of God regarding content, form and style in their worship life. Yet it was all totally unacceptable to God. Why?
I hate, I despise your religious feasts, I cannot stand your assemblies. . . Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. . . But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream. 9
They had a form of Godliness but lacked the essence of righteous living which would provide the integrity called for in their worship.
Without that commitment and an honest submission to the will of God, no form, no content, no style is suitable or acceptable in worship life. Sincerity is essential but is not a guarantee of rightness. Combine it with integrity and we will be led to truth under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Harold Lickey began his teaching career at Enterprise Academy, where he taught for one year before accepting a position as a member of the Faith For Today male quartet. He subsequently directed choirs and taught voice at Union, Southwestern, Pacific Union and Walla Walla Colleges, serving also as chair of the music department at WWC from 1974-1979. In 1979 Lickey accepted a position at Andrews University, where, in addition to being professor of music in the university music department, he held the Oliver S. Beltz Chair at the Seminary until his retirement in 1986. He now serves as Minister of Music at the Sunnyside Church in Portland, Oregon. A graduate of Union College, he completed a masterís degree at Texas Christian University and a doctorate at Indiana University. Lickey was the first Adventist musician to articulate a stance against rock music when in 1971 he wrote a series of articles in the SDA Review and Herald.
1 Education, p. 168
2 Exodus 33:18-23
3 Foundations of Education, pp.97, 98
4 Evangelism, p. 639
5 Ezekiel 44:23
6 Ezekiel 22:26
7 Evangelism, p. 210
8 Ibid., p. 211
9 Amos 5:21-24
This article was printed in the 1999 Autumn issue of IAMA's magazine, Notes