I was raised in a small, old-fashioned Pentecostal church in New York, USA.
Singing simple hymns every Sunday grew my appreciation for those century-old classics used to praise God. I enjoyed the straightforward and doctrinally sound lyrics, as well as the simplicity and clarity of the music.
I began to think that traditional hymns were the only way to praise God. Having been immensely blessed by them, I figured everyone else felt the same way too. And surely, I thought, God appreciated it since those songs were written by such holy men of old.
When I wasn’t engaged in traditional songs on Sundays, I listened to modern songs at home, at school, or while driving in the car. I listened to plenty of Hillsong, Bethel, Kari Jobe, and so on. But while I was fairly familiar with modern worship songs and enjoyed listening to them, I didn’t value them as much as the traditional stuff. I thought that the sometimes ambiguous lyrics and often atmospheric melodies made for a distracting worship experience, so that I would focus on the music itself, instead of on God. I thought that the modern songs weren’t as deep or meaningful as the hymns I was used to.
At college, my perspective on Christian musical worship broadened. I found myself at a very charismatic Christian university in which chapel service was mandatory, and singing took up a considerable portion of those services. During the singing portion, the lights grew dim, special beam lights turned on, and smoke machines began puffing out clouds of water vapor. Not only was the mood specially set for worship, but people were encouraged to move around and dance. Some even twirled flags along the aisles. The songs were upbeat and had a more interesting musical aura than traditional hymns.
At first, I disliked them because I thought the songs didn’t have the same depth found in hymns. It took me some time to realize it, but I found that if I tried hard and focused on God, I could have a meaningful worship experience in spite of the fact that it was in a style I did not appreciate by nature.
During this time, I began to talk with people who fell on both sides of the worship aisle. I had heard traditionalists criticize modern services by saying things like, “It’s more like a concert than praise to a holy God.” And I’ve likewise heard many modernists say that, “hymns are outdated and from an era of Christian legalism and rigidity.” Being able to converse with people who had such diverse views broadened my perspective on types of singing worship.
The Nature Of True Worship
The Scriptures give us several clues about the nature of true worship. When Christ spoke with the woman at the well, He revealed an interesting insight: “. . . the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24).
This verse shows us that we are not to worship God only externally, for others to see. We are called to worship in spirit and truth, which are firstly internal matters. In essence, we are to have a heart of worship—and God alone sees the heart of a person. I also want to note that this goes beyond the kinds of songs we sing at church. Worship is not limited to music. It encompasses one’s entire life—work, family, hobbies, and much more. Worship is much greater than mere singing.
Matthew Henry, a prominent English biblical commentator, once explained that true worship is deep, tucked within the heart of the worshiper and directed toward God. He said that Christ did not institute a way of worship that was clogged by the trappings of Old Testament ceremonies. In that sense, the way of worship that Christ brought to earth was distinct from what was typical. And typical worship back then was external and ceremonial in nature, not personal and internal.
When worshipping, one must hold God as the center, focusing solely on Him. If we worship either to impress others or to appear holier-than-thou, we commit a great mistake. “For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3, ESV). We must keep Christ as the object of our worship and ignore the temptations of the flesh to worship for any other reason. It was only when I placed Christ at the center of my focus, that I was able to experience a connection with God regardless of the type of setting I was in.
What Kind Of Worship?
These are revealing clues about the nature of worship, but how does that look? What kind or form of singing is acceptable before the Lord? From my own journey and involvement with various styles of worship services, I can say that I’ve come to a moderate stance. Though I love my hymns, I know God is pleased with a heart of worship, and that means that modern worship songs are just as pleasing to Him as hymns are.
God made everyone an individual—that means every person has his or her own individual perceptions, ideas, and tastes. When I recognized this, I saw worship in a new light. When people jokingly called me outdated for listening to hymns, it wasn’t a matter of whether their style of worship was right and mine was wrong, or that one was better than the other. It was a matter of personal individuality. So it was okay for me to have one preferred style of worship than my neighbor. Though two may eat diverse flavors of ice cream, they both are consuming ice cream, and that is what matters. The definition of ice cream is not dependent on flavor and worship was never defined by style in the Bible; it was more accurately defined by the heart of the worshiper. That is why two “flavors” or styles of musical worship may be equally enjoyed and equally as fruitful to two unique individuals with unique tastes.
In the end, I trust that as long as true worship is the focus, many common pitfalls of false worship will be avoided. God is patient and desires genuine hearts to worship Him. He will lead, guide, prod, and help any heart willing to praise Him.
As a side note, I currently attend services where most of the worship music is contemporary. And I greatly enjoy these services. However, as God made me with my own individual tastes, I often listen to hymns in my private time.
God grants me moving experiences regardless of the worship style, and I believe that anyone can be a true worshiper in most any circumstance. Paul and Silas worshipped in prison without so much as a single instrument (let alone lights, televisions, and an air-conditioned room!). We, too, can worship God if He is the center of our focus and desire.
God desires true worshipers, those who place Him at the center of their praise. When we come with willing hearts, we can trust His guidance and patience to carry us through into the depth and richness of the highest worship, worship that draws us and bonds us to His own loving heart.