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Worship should characterise all that we are and do as Christians. Our whole lives are meant to be acts of worship (Romans 12:1), that is, lives given over to the service of God and one another.
In this sense, we should be constantly worshipping God. But there are specific times and places when we gather as the people of God to praise, thank and adore him; to listen to him; to meet him in Word and sacrament; to confess our sin before him and receive his forgiveness; to encourage one another, and pray for our own needs and the needs of others. As such, worship is the opening of our hearts to his love, the surrender of our wills to his purpose, the nourishment of our minds with his truth.
In what follows, it is these particular corporate occasions with which we are chiefly concerned.
Christian worship is first and foremost a gift - something that God has made possible, which he invites us to enjoy, sets in motion and sustains. Worship, as with the whole Gospel, depends from beginning to end on God's boundless grace. Speaking of prayer, Paul reminds us that even when we don't know how to approach God, the Holy Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness (Romans 8:26). It is not that we must get our worship right so that God's Spirit can work in us; the Spirit is already trying to work in us, and only when we realise this can we begin to respond to God aright, honour him and give him pleasure in our worship.
Music in worship should be caught up in this movement of the Spirit if it is to honour God. The key question is not "what are we going to do with our music?" but "what can God do in and through our music?"
This means that for the church musician (whether composer, arranger, singer or instrumentalist), receiving from God comes before giving. Church musicians must be people of prayer, rooted in the Bible, open to God's will.
It also means that music in worship must never be an end in itself. The ultimate purpose of music in worship is to glorify God, not to highlight the virtuosity of the musicians, the stunning arrangements, the subtlety of the improvisations. Further, it means that while we should always pursue the highest possible musical standards, in the last resort, it is more important that our music is transparent to God, a vehicle of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is given to us in order that we might be transformed into the likeness of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18), and through him, might come to know the love and forgiveness of the Father. The good news is that, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, we have access in one Spirit to the Father (Ephesians 2:18). Our worship flows out of this good news. Worship is not about trying to break through to a distant God "out there"; it is about God sending the Spirit of his Son into our hearts so that we can cry "Abba, Father"; so that we can enjoy the relationship Jesus enjoys with his Father (Galations 4:6, Romans 8:15-16).
Music in worship needs to be caught up in this Trinitarian movement. (See Ephesians 5:18-20; Colossians 3:16-17.) Music is one of the many ways in which the Spirit binds us ever closer to Jesus so that through him we can be led into a deeper obedience and trust of the Father.
Moreover, it is the risen Jesus who leads us in our worship, a High Priest who is able to sympathise with our weaknesses (Hebrews 2:18, 4:15-16). In worship there needs to be a sense, as Martin Luther put it, that "we have a brother in heaven". Jesus has stood where we stand, been tempted, suffered, cried out to his Father in agony. Today, Jesus doesn't simply stand over against us. He comes alongside us and prays for us. He takes us on as we are. The Gospel is for real wounded human beings, not plaster saints. Worship cannot afford to be constantly cheerful and victorious if it is to include this dimension of the Christian faith.
This facet of worship - which takes our fallen humanity seriously - cannot be ignored in our music. There should be music available which is competent to deal with, among other things, the common human experiences of pain, protest, frustration, disappointment, and so on.
In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is closely bound to Jesus Christ. The Spirit will never do anything that contradicts the Gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture. In worship, there must be faithfulness to this Gospel.
Music in worship must be similarly faithful to the good news of Christ set forth in the Bible. It must be prepared to reflect its entire range - the wonder of
The Gospel is primarily good news, proclaimed and made known. Thus in general, music should undergird and carry the words of the Gospel (whether read or preached). This does not preclude purely instrumental music, but sees such music in a wider context where the Word of the Gospel is the main concern.
On the other hand, the Spirit is the Spirit of creativity, who will make worship relevant to our age. Certainly, Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8), but the Spirit enables us to respond to Jesus in a way that is authentic and appropriate to the times in which we live.
mwf believes that music in worship, though it cannot afford simply to copy or depend on each day's musical fashions, must at least engage with the culture in which the Church finds itself. New musical vocabularies may need to be found; new instruments used; new styles explored. There is no point in using a fossilised form simply because it was once enjoyed and valued. Some music will last for centuries and constantly enrich worship. But some will be transitory, serving a more limited purpose. It is important that we learn to recognise which is which.
Finding the right balance between faithfulness and relevance is a very hard and demanding business, requiring enormous pastoral sensitivity and spiritual discernment. But it is a task we simply cannot avoid.
The Holy Spirit is the giver of fellowship, who makes it possible for us to be bound together with the same love which binds Father and Son (John 17:21, 1 John 1:3). The Spirit is sent not simply for our own individual pleasure, and not simply in order to open us up to Jesus and his Father, but also so that we can be opened up to each other and find that barriers that hold us apart are broken down. All worship in the Spirit should build up the Body of Christ and encourage unity (1 Corinthians 14:5, 12, 26).
mwf believes that music in worship can be a means of strengthening the corporate life of the Church.
This has implications for:
Worship and mission must not be torn apart. The Holy Spirit is given not only to draw us to the Father through the Son but also to send us out to bear witness to all Christ has done, is doing and will do. In worship, the Church faces the Father in the name of Christ. In mission, the Church faces the world in the name of Christ on behalf of the Father as the ambassador of the gospel of reconciliation. Worship without mission can easily become '"cosy"; mission without worship can easily lose its source of life and power.
mwf believes that music can play a key role in reflecting within worship the immensity of God's concern for all people and his desire to reach the world with his transforming love. It should never be used as a way of insulating us from the real world God came to save in Christ.
© Jeremy Begbie,
for music & worship foundation