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[music and mediation in corporate worship] | Ryan Johnson

In the present day a new generation of believers is coming into the leadership of the local church with many untested and radical theories and ideologies.  Some of them think that we need to do away with all current models and practices of the local church, while others think that we need to work with the structure for change.  There is some merit to both of these positions, but, in my opinion, the greatest potential lies within evaluated and addressing what we already have in the church and making changes and adjustments where it is necessary.  In doing so, we will return our focus to the essentials of what the church should be and experience the liberation to explore new opportunities (within reason) that present themselves.  The one thing that should never change is the centrality of God’s Word in the weekly experience of corporate worship by the church (cf. Nehemiah 8).  It is in this vein that I want to express what I feel is the proper place of music in corporate worship.

Working within the principle of the centrality of God’s Word, here are some suggestions for how music should be incorporated:

  • Before the service begins, the people should be encouraged to enter quietly while music plays in the background.  Whether it is live instrumental music or full audio tracks playing on an Ipod, the songs should be in accordance with the theme of the service (as determined by the sermon).  Additionally, the equipping staff of the church should think of ways that they can creatively broadcast the Word of God to the congregation before the service begins.  For example, the pastor or another staff member could have some meditation on a scripture passage or verse in written form that is distributed to each person to meditate on.   Or, another suggestion would be for 10-20 verses (once again, in accordance with the sermon) to be read aloud by two or three people on microphones that would lead into the the service itself.  A third idea would be for verses to be put on a PowerPoint slideshow that would play and revolve several times before the service begins.
  • There are a number of devices that can help make Scripture the center point of worship before the sermon.  Aside from singing songs, the worship leader can talk various psalms and divide them up into responsive readings, read meditations that have been written by historical writers (make sure to center this around the Scripture at its source), having someone testify as to how a specific verse was applied to their life by the Holy Spirit, writing poetry or using some other artistic form to represent a specific passage or a theological concept, etc.  However, there are two guidelines that I would recommend concerning the previous suggestion.  First, any departure from the original text itself can turn into a distraction very quickly.  If a person is giving a testimony about how a certain verse has impacted their life at a specific time, there is always risk involved that Scripture will not be exalted.  Adequate preparation will remedy this though, so do your footwork in preparing a responsive reading or recruiting someone to share.  Secondly, any artwork or poetry should be explained by someone other than the artist.  People in the church tend to exalt musicians and artists that they admire, and this should not be so.  Therefore, appoint a person to interview the artist or poet so that they can get extremely acquainted with the person’s heart in what they have created.  These two suggestions will help the congregation focus on the Scripture itself.
  • Charles Spurgeon essentially used to preached twice during a regular weekly service.  If he were preaching on the New Testament, he would take an Old Testament passage and give a “homily” (short sermon or devotion) on it somewhere before the sermon itself.  And vice versa, he would take a New Testament passage if his sermon was on the Old Testament.  This is a great way to incorporate the entire counsel of God into a service.  However, this, like many other things, should be done once a culture of attention has been cultivated.  More on this later.
  • It is important to remember that the service is supposed to be corporate, so things should be done in a coporately.  Therefore, when it comes to singing, the more coporate worship the better.  It is okay for a solo to be sung at some point, but corporate singing, when done well, is an essential element in a service.  There are two points to make about songs sung during a worship service.  First, corporate worship songs can vary in many ways, but there are two non-negotiables.  They must be orthodox and they must be singable.  Obviously, any song that is theologically aberrant should not be sung.  The worship leader must evaluate songs before presenting them to the congregation.  The people must be taught to do this as well.  When songs are being sung we are not singing for the music, we are singing truth.  Additionally, if a song is too wordy or cannot be taught easily after singing it one or two times, it should not be sung.  Secondly, the worship leader should have a bank of about 20-25 songs that he is teaching to the congregation.  These songs should be filtered through over a period of 2-3 months.  Then, after that period of time, about 5-10 new songs should be added to the bank of songs.  It is very good for the stories behind the songs to be spoken and provided for the people.  Many times, the congregation will find themselves and identify with the writers themselves.  For the people in the congregation, these songs will become weapons in the arsenal of their minds with which they will daily fight spiritual battles.  Right after I received Christ, as God was cleansing me of my addiction to pornography and in the battle for my mind, the hymn “Majesty” was a very important weapon that would help me focus on Christ.  Recently during a hard time, the loud, ringing theology of God’s sovereignty as exemplified in the song “It is Well with My Soul” helped me focus on the Lord numerous times during the day.
  • Finally, when invitations are given, corporate singing is not necessary.  Many times, corporate singing during the invitation is a distraction.  During that time, people need to be responding to God out of what He has said to them during the sermon.  To facilitate this, some young church leaders are even placing the sermon at the beginning of the worship service and then the corporate singing is done in response to the Scripture that has been preached.  During this time, people are responding to the Gospel, worshipping through giving their tithe, and praying together in small groups.

 As you can see from these few guidelines, there are many ways that the “normal” worship service can be tweaked and changed.  This is not necessarily an accomodation to a new generation, but instead a refocusing the biblical mandates for corporate worship and the centrality of God’s Word.

Concerning the culture surrounding these changes, there are two groups that must be addressed.  Firstly, and most simply, the contemporary church should not change everything to accomodate the unbelieving community around them.  There should be a noticeable difference between a corporate worship service in a church and a rock concert (and it shoud start with the presence of the Holy Spirit and the exaltation of the Jesus Christ in everything that is done).  Secondly, and most difficultly, at some point early on, the foundation for these changes needs to be made.  The people need to be taught to be reflective and meditative during a corporate worship setting.  A culture of awareness and attention must be undergirded by a theology of these things for it all to be done effectively.  A person’s heart for worshipping the Living God will be seen very clearly when you try and change the corporate worship for the church.  Age should not matter.  The essential elements stay the same and the church does have freedom to move as long the those elements, namely the Living Word of God and the centrality of grace, stay in focus.

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