Worship: A Personal View
"I believe the format of the 'Praise' Service is much closer to the service of our early Advent pioneers than are traditional services."
In the late 60's, as a curly headed academy student, I used to head to the college student center on Friday nights and Sabbath afternoons to play along with other guitarists and sing folk songs and newly-written gospel songs to the accompaniment of guitars and banjos. Sometimes we added a piano if the player could play by ear and follow along with everyone else. There was a revival on campus and this revival and accompanying music programs helped steady my spiritual course for the future. It was an informal atmosphere that encouraged camaraderie promoting praise and fellowship.
After two decades of performing, writing and conducting various styles of music in the church and church schools, mainly in the traditional scheme of things, I never forgot my basic love of folk and popular styles that I developed in academy and college. My tastes were greatly refined but I still had a hunger for a "hit the pavement" relevant style that fed my basic spiritual and emotional needs.
It seems that many baby boomers had a similar experience to mine and by the late 80's a more informal vehicle of worship found its way into the church service itself. This type of worship was welcomed by the thirty and forty-somethings that used a similar form of expression in the sixties and seventies to say what they felt about life, love, and politics.
This service, sometimes called a "Praise" or "Celebration" service, usually consists of a time of singing with a variety of instruments from a single guitar to a full orchestra. This is followed by testimony, prayers, church business, a sermon, and possibly more music. The music is generally congregational and participatory in nature. The congregation is given more time to direct their worship upward. As Ellen White said, "Singing, as a part of religious service, is as much an act of worship as is prayer" (Patriarchs and Prophets, 594). As the saying goes, "He who sings prays twice."
Worship is our gift to God, our adoration of Him and His character. Each one of us develops our own unique form of worship either by carefully thinking through what type of action would best show our love and devotion to God, or by choosing what type of service to join and be a part of. Very few of us, even ministers of music, have the luxury of planning a worship service custom-made for us. Even choosing a church that suits us is not possible for many.
There are many social and cultural pressures that influence our worship style. It is important to try to separate those pressures from the guidelines and principles for the spirit of worship found in the Bible and Spirit of Prophesy writings. consider this quotation from Ellen White:
In our camp meeting services there should be singing and instrumental music. Music instruments were used in religious services in ancient times. The worshipers praised God upon the harp and cymbal and music should have its place m our services. It will add to the interest. And every day a praise meeting should be held, a simple service of thanksgiving to God. There would be much more power in our camp meetings if we had a true sense of the goodness, mercy, and long-suffering of God, and if more praise flowed forth from our lips to the honor and glory of His name. We need to cultivate more fervor of soul. The Lord Says: 'Whoso offereth praise glorifieth Me.' Psalm 50:23(Testimonies, Vol 6, page 62).
"We need to cultivate more fervor of soul." If we look in the Bible that fervor is there. The ancient Israelites worshiped God in song and word. Long before David contributed his Psalms to the Jewish praise tradition, Moses, Miriam and others sang their songs to God, often spontaneous hymns of joy and deliverance written to celebrate a particular event. One of the most moving in the Biblical record is the song of Miriam after the crossing of the Red Sea. There, on the other side of the water in safety, the daughters of Jacob praised God to the rhythm of hand drums. What a powerful praise service that must have been.
The scope of the Psalms is ever amazing and broadening to me. Almost every mood of mankind is covered in this collection of only 150 songs, from anger to thanksgiving and from depression to praise. And yet, as we read them in English, we see only a part of the magnitude of expression. For example, the word translated "sing" in English comes from four different Hebrew words - each depicting a completely different style of singing and none of them, from what I've been able to gather, includes the western canto style.
Others in history have taken music of the people during their time and made it a part of the worship experience. These include J.S. Bach, Martin Luther, and the Wesley brothers, to name a few. All of these trendsetters radically changed the worship style typical of their time to make worship more meaningful to those around them. Each of these pioneers, now all well respected in the field of church music, took well known music of his time and created a vehicle for worshipers to praise God in an idiom they understood. The early Adventist founders did very much the same thing:
In the meetings held, let a number be chosen to take part in the song service. And let the singing be accompanied with musical instruments skillfully handled. We are not to oppose the use of instrumental music in our work. This part of the service is to be carefully conducted; for it is the praise of God in song.(White, Evangelism, page 507)
Music can be a great power for good; yet we do not make the most of this branch of worship. The singing is generally done from impulse or to meet special cases, and at other times those who sing are left to blunder along, and the music loses its proper effect upon the minds of those present. Music should have beauty, pathos, and power. Let the voices be lifted in songs of praise and devotion. Call to your aid, if practicable, instrumental music, and let the glorious harmony ascend to God, an acceptable offering. (White, Evangelism, page 505).
Does our traditional Adventist service incorporate the power of praise upheld in these words from the Spirit of Prophecy? I think there are times that it does. Does the new "Praise" service fulfill this mission? Again I believe there are times that it does. The more important aspect of worship is that we learn to praise God in our church services with all our hearts and that we are given the opportunity like Miriam of old to praise God for specific victories and miracles in our lives through both testimony and song.
I believe that it is time for a new bold format of worship in our churches corresponding to the gifts and talents of members in any given congregation. In light of the Old Testament and early church history, singing should not be relegated to two or three hymns in predictable places in the church service. Music and singing should have a place in every aspect of worship. Even the sermon, if carefully planned, could include music to emphasize the lessons to be learned.
The "Praise" service provides the opportunity to take us beyond a rote worship experience and move us toward a true congregational praise and worship experience. As we pray and plan for the future of Adventist worship, let us borrow from the Bach cantata, the Wesleyan hymn, the early Advent song of hope, the Lutheran service, and the best of the new praise songs, and create a new fresh genuine worship service that we all can sink our spiritual teeth into and "Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow."
Not all worship services achieve this goal, as Ellen White recognized:
Music forms a part of God's worship in the courts above. We should endeavor in our songs of praise to approach as nearly as possible to the harmony of the heavenly choirs. I have often been pained to hear untrained voices, pitched to the highest key, literally shrieking the sacred words of some hymn of praise. How inappropriate those sharp, rasping voices for the solemn, joyous worship of God. I long to stop my ears, or flee from the place, and I rejoice when the painful exercise is ended.(Evangelism, pages 507, 508).
I believe the harmony spoken of in the preceding quotation is not only musical harmony but a harmony of the whole worship service as well. Every aspect of the worship service should reflect a high degree of planning. Every response, song, and spoken word should reflect the chosen theme. God created us in His own image. The more we sing and pray with thought and understanding, the more we approach a higher level of communication with Him.
The following six questions should be asked by worship coordinators or program directors regardless of what format is used. They are designed to help focus the content and direction of the whole service. Pastors and musicians need to work closely together to provide a spiritually beneficial and highly focused service for their congregations.
1) Is there a theme to the service overall?
2) Does all the music complement the spoken part of the service so that the congregation leaves with a spiritual focus?
3) Is there a variety of keys, tempos, and moods in the music?
4) Is there an overall direction to the songs chosen? Do the songs, as a whole, flow together like one composition, building or ebbing toward a focus or goal?
5) Is there a time and place for worshipers to praise God for specific corporate and personal victories and blessings in their Christian walk?
6) Are the singers and musicians actively worshiping and communicating with understanding the spirit and purpose of the music?
In conclusion, I believe that the format of the "praise" service is much closer to the service of our early Advent pioneers than are traditional services. Music has a more direct role in the act of worshiping in this type of service. In the hands of a skilled leader it can approach the grandeur of the baroque cantata. Everything I read in Scripture and the Spirit of Prophecy encourages a format like this.
One thing we tend to lose, however, in some of the services is a sense of history. We sometimes leave out the best of the music from other generations. If we incorporate music from many times and places, include some of the new compositions as well, and we play and sing all these with skill and understanding, then the reason for worship and praise will not be forgotten. We will facilitate greater understanding of God and who He really is. The content of the entire worship service should promote intellect, emotion and understanding.
Dennis Hunt is a music teacher who also served as minister of music at Sligo Church in Takoma Park, Maryland from 1990 to 1994. He formed and directed a music group, Mantle, which recorded four albums and performed in the U.S. and the British Isles for seventeen years. Hunt has composed over 250 songs and instrumental works and was the music director and composer for the I Have the Power video series, a set of three Videos for children which is marketed worldwide. He has music degrees from Southem College and the University of Maryland.
This article was printed in the Spring/Summer 1995 issue of IAMA's magazine, Notes