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A critique of contemporary worship by Ligon Duncan

From Matthew Pinson, J., Perspectives on Christian Worship: Five Views (B&H Academic, 2009) pp. 111-112.

Consequently, when evangelicals consider circumstances (such as having a “contemporary style” of music) as key to the effectiveness of public worship, or as the distinctive of a particular congregation’s approach to corporate worship, they manifest, and perhaps even foster in their congregants, two errors. The first error is thinking that circumstances are more important than the elements and content of our gathered worship. The second error is thinking that circumstances are neutral.
Regarding the first error, for instance, the minute a service is called “contemporary,” we have just conveyed, whether we like it or not, that the most important thing about it is the featured musical style. Yet what our worshipers ought to be most concerned about is that the service is biblical in its elements and substance. In fact, we often foster sin by encouraging the congregant to view himself as a consumer who has a right to expect the use of a particular musical style of his or her preference, while simultaneously diverting his or her eyes from the most important thing: God and the elements or means He has appointed for engagement with Himself.
Regarding the second error, when evangelicals decide that they are going to use one or more musical styles (which invariably means using various subgenres of contemporary, commercial, pop musical forms) to characterize their services or position themselves to reach a particular audience, they almost always assume that all musical genres are neutral, carry no baggage, and are equally serviceable for public praise. Such an assumption is, of course, naive and harmful for the fostering of congregational singing, as well as to the unity of the church. Additionally, it actually manages to undermine the service’s appeal to religious consumers with different tastes! So, when Pastor Jones decides to deploy a contemporary Celtic folk pop style in order to reach urban emergents, not only is he using a wholly contrived “style” (no Celtic in history would recognize the form musically, none ever used it in Christian worship, and contemporary Gaels would identify it as an imitation of the latest Clannad CD), he is alienating those who want their hip-hop subculture to provide the musical form. In fact, the more consistent this strategy of deploying the musical “style” of a commercial pop subculture in a given worship service, the more barriers are erected to divide the communio sanctorum.
111
The Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century, from whom traditional evangelicals have learned much about what Scripture teaches about worship, understood two things often lost on moderns. First, they understood that the liturgy (by which I simply mean here the set forms of corporate worship), media, instruments, and vehicles of worship are never neutral. So exceeding care must be given to the “law of unintended consequences.” Often the medium overwhelms and changes the message. For example, singing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “Gilligan’s Island” (the meter works, but the tune does not—a light, quasi-sea-shanty, with comedic associations, coupled with gravely serious words) changes the whole tone of what one is doing in singing that text and easily becomes a sacrilege. Second, the Reformers knew that the purpose of the elements and forms and circumstances of corporate worship is to assure that one is actually doing worship as it is defined by the God of Scripture, that one is worshiping the God of Scripture, and that one’s aim in worshiping Him is the aim set forth in Scripture.
So traditional evangelicals care about how we worship, not because we think that liturgy (again, simply meaning the order of service) is prescribed, mystical, or sacramental, but precisely so that the liturgy can get out of the way of the gathered church’s communion with the living God. The function of the order of service is not to draw attention to itself but to aid the soul’s communion with God in the gathered company of the saints by serving to convey the Word of God to and from God, from and to His people. C. S. Lewis puts it this way: ‘As long as you notice, and have to count the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t have to notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.’ This is why the great Baptist preacher Geoffrey Thomas can say that, in true worship, worshipers ‘have little thought of the means of worship; their thoughts are upon God. True worship is characterized by self-effacement and is lacking in any self-consciousness.’ That is, in biblical worship we so focus on God Himself and are so intent to acknowledge His inherent and unique worthiness that we
113
are transfixed by Him. Thus worship is not about what we want or life (nor do His appointed means divert our eyes from Him), but rather it is about meeting with God and delighting in Him. Praise decentralizes self.

Consequently, when evangelicals consider circumstances (such as having a “contemporary style” of music) as key to the effectiveness of public worship, or as the distinctive of a particular congregation’s approach to corporate worship, they manifest, and perhaps even foster in their congregants, two errors. The first error is thinking that circumstances are more important than the elements and content of our gathered worship. The second error is thinking that circumstances are neutral.

Regarding the first error, for instance, the minute a service is called “contemporary,” we have just conveyed, whether we like it or not, that the most important thing about it is the featured musical style. Yet what our worshipers ought to be most concerned about is that the service is biblical in its elements and substance. In fact, we often foster sin by encouraging the congregant to view himself as a consumer who has a right to expect the use of a particular musical style of his or her preference, while simultaneously diverting his or her eyes from the most important thing: God and the elements or means He has appointed for engagement with Himself.

Regarding the second error, when evangelicals decide that they are going to use one or more musical styles (which invariably means using various subgenres of contemporary, commercial, pop musical forms) to characterize their services or position themselves to reach a particular audience, they almost always assume that all musical genres are neutral, carry no baggage, and are equally serviceable for public praise. Such an assumption is, of course, naive and harmful for the fostering of congregational singing, as well as to the unity of the church. Additionally, it actually manages to undermine the service’s appeal to religious consumers with different tastes! So, when Pastor Jones decides to deploy a contemporary Celtic folk pop style in order to reach urban emergents, not only is he using a wholly contrived “style” (no Celtic in history would recognize the form musically, none ever used it in Christian worship, and contemporary Gaels would identify it as an imitation of the latest Clannad CD), he is alienating those who want their hip-hop subculture to provide the musical form. In fact, the more consistent this strategy of deploying the musical “style” of a commercial pop subculture in a given worship service, the more barriers are erected to divide the communio sanctorum.

The Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century, from whom traditional evangelicals have learned much about what Scripture teaches about worship, understood two things often lost on moderns. First, they understood that the liturgy (by which I simply mean here the set forms of corporate worship), media, instruments, and vehicles of worship are never neutral. So exceeding care must be given to the “law of unintended consequences.” Often the medium overwhelms and changes the message. For example, singing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “Gilligan’s Island” (the meter works, but the tune does not—a light, quasi-sea-shanty, with comedic associations, coupled with gravely serious words) changes the whole tone of what one is doing in singing that text and easily becomes a sacrilege. Second, the Reformers knew that the purpose of the elements and forms and circumstances of corporate worship is to assure that one is actually doing worship as it is defined by the God of Scripture, that one is worshiping the God of Scripture, and that one’s aim in worshiping Him is the aim set forth in Scripture.

So traditional evangelicals care about how we worship, not because we think that liturgy (again, simply meaning the order of service) is prescribed, mystical, or sacramental, but precisely so that the liturgy can get out of the way of the gathered church’s communion with the living God. The function of the order of service is not to draw attention to itself but to aid the soul’s communion with God in the gathered company of the saints by serving to convey the Word of God to and from God, from and to His people. C. S. Lewis puts it this way: ‘As long as you notice, and have to count the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t have to notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.’ This is why the great Baptist preacher Geoffrey Thomas can say that, in true worship, worshipers ‘have little thought of the means of worship; their thoughts are upon God. True worship is characterized by self-effacement and is lacking in any self-consciousness.’ That is, in biblical worship we so focus on God Himself and are so intent to acknowledge His inherent and unique worthiness that we are transfixed by Him. Thus worship is not about what we want or like (nor do His appointed means divert our eyes from Him), but rather it is about meeting with God and delighting in Him. Praise decentralizes self.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is on faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He has written two books, dozens of articles, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and two children.

3 Responses to A critique of contemporary worship by Ligon Duncan

  1. lay learner says:

    Regarding the second error, when evangelicals decide that they are going to use one or more musical styles (which invariably means using various subgenres of contemporary, commercial, pop musical forms) to characterize their services or position themselves to reach a particular audience, they almost always assume that all musical genres are neutral, carry no baggage, and are equally serviceable for public praise. Such an assumption is, of course, naive and harmful for the fostering of congregational singing, as well as to the unity of the church. Additionally, it actually manages to undermine the service’s appeal to religious consumers with different tastes! So, when Pastor Jones decides to deploy a contemporary Celtic folk pop style in order to reach urban emergents, not only is he using a wholly contrived “style” (no Celtic in history would recognize the form musically, none ever used it in Christian worship, and contemporary Gaels would identify it as an imitation of the latest Clannad CD), he is alienating those who want their hip-hop subculture to provide the musical form. In fact, the more consistent this strategy of deploying the musical “style” of a commercial pop subculture in a given worship service, the more barriers are erected to divide the communio sanctorum.

    This has been very helpful in articulating what I already believed but was unsure of how to "defend" as well as Mike Harding's "Music that Glorifies God"

    Thank you for more great articles

  2. Scott Aniol says:

    Thanks for your comments!

  3. John Anderson says:

    The arguments above have some earthly logic to them, but they are entirely devoid of Scripture. We can argue and debate all we want, and split our churches on this rather than substantive doctrinal differences, but in the end the Scriptures are the authority, not you or me, or the the Reformers, or church tradition.

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