Worship and the so-called “worship wars” were on the agenda during the Baptist International Conference on Theological Education, held in Prague July 27-29. The banner at right hangs in the chapel of the International Baptist Theological Seminary, where sessions were held.

Edna Grenz, minister of worship for First Baptist Church in Vancouver, Canada, focused on music in worship, asking why we sing, what we should sing, and for whom do we sing.

Most of Grenz’s presentation was very basic. “Why do we sing?”, she asked. We sing in part because “singing encourages worship and provides the emotional substance for it,” she said, with the result that “singing binds together a corporate gathering.” Singing is also a helpful memory aid, she said, noting that more people leave worship humming the hymns than reprising the sermon. Through the message imparted by hymns with a good theological base, “singing is a means of teaching God’s word,” and can even help us to prepare for and endure times of crisis.

What do we sing? We sing songs of varying styles, she said, and must avoid the temptation to let our personal taste always dictate what music we choose. Singing in a variety of musical styles reminds us “that God loves the whole world and is the master of creation and diversity,” she said. We should also sing songs that are theologically sound, Grenz said, noting that some songs are “heretical” and others put too much focus on the individual and not enough upon God. “We need more songs that proclaim the Gospel message and fewer songs that focus on our own yearnings and needs,” she said.

Grenz asked “How do we sing?” as a way of suggesting that worship leaders should choose singable tunes, appropriate keys, and accompaniment — whether a piano, organ or band — that supports the singing rather than overshadowing it. “Instruments should not overpower the congregation,” she said, “not to perform as if the congregation doesn’t matter. Accompaniment is meant to enhance the singing, not to distract from it.” Effective music leaders are those who demonstrate their own love for worship and for the congregation.

In answering the question “For whom do we sing?”, Grenz said congregational singing is directed primarily to God, but also plays a role in encouraging fellow believers. “We sing for God and we sing for each other,” she said, and “we sing for our own benefit as well … for by releasing the dimensions of our emotions in the worship of God we are allowing truths about God to be ingrained in our hearts and minds.”

I resonated particularly with Grenz’s caution against music in which instruments drown out the voices. When the congregation joins in a hymn or song of praise, I want to hear the people sing, and even to hear my own voice (poor as it is) joined in hopeful harmony with them. When the people’s voices are lost behind a wall of noise, whether it be from a big organ or a loud band, an important element of worship is missing. Perhaps that is why one of my favorite songs is from the musical play Les Miserables: “Can you hear the people sing?” I hope so.

Chris Ellis, former principal of Bristol Baptist College and presently pastor of West Bridgford Baptist Church in Nottingham, England, spoke more directly to the topic of “Deconstructing the Worship Impasse and Emerging Church Traditions.”

Ellis bemoaned the conflicts and tensions felt in many churches where disagreement over a favored worship style is problematic. “There is no easy, technical solution to broken relationships and naked power games,” he said: “The fundamental sickness is not a cultic one but a spiritual one,” as sinful humans try to impose their favored worship style. “Whatever the theological argument for a particular worship practice, whatever the missionary imperative or cultural clincher, we can never honor God while dishonoring the Body, we can never be right when we behave so badly,” Ellis said. Thus, “repentance and renewal are an essential part of recovery from worship conflict.”

People often mistake their own personal taste for spirituality, Ellis said. “But the closeness of a person to God, or the authenticity of a person’s discipleship, cannot be linked to their taste in music.” Worship conflicts may involve matters or substance, but more often are about style, which is influenced by culture. “There is no culture-neutral essence of worship,” he said, “only our encounter with God through the lens of our own culture or those cultures we adopt or have imposed.” The question, perhaps, should not be “Which cultural expression is best?”, but what best serves to build up the local expression of the Body of Christ and encourage its members.

Ellis offered five “guidelines for worthy worship” —

1. Worship expresses the faith of the Christian community, proclaiming the gospel of grace and praising the Triune God made known to us in Christ, he said: “Worship can be dysfunctional when it fails to proclaim the grace of God or honor the breadth and depth of God’s mercy and love.”

2. In worship we meet God and seek God’s kingdom. Worship that seeks to escape the world also runs away from God, but “the God who draws near to us is the biblical God who brings in his kingdom.”

3. Worship is not instrumental, yet in the providence of God when we truly worship we are edified. We should be clear in recognizing that worship is for God, but also know that “as we truly worship we are so changed into the likeness of the one we worship, our deepest needs are addressed and our lives transformed.”

4. Worship forms believers and shapes disciples. It is the place where “faith is formed, men and women come to faith, comitment is deepened and visions are shared,” he said.

5. Christian worship is ‘in the name of Jesus’ and so needs to be Christ-centered. “Asserting my own worship preferences over those of another, or manipulating the community to my ways of thinking cannot result in true worship, for these practices and attitudes take us away from the one who did not snatch at equality with God but took ‘the journey downwards,’ even to the point of death,” Ellis said.

In responding to the papers, Joel Sienna of Mexico affirmed the value of worship within an appropriate cultural context. Sienna suggested the addition of another guideline, that of justice. “We cannot separate worship from justice,” he said. Hymns should proclaim the justice of an awesome God who does mighty things to deliver little people, he said.

I found both papers to be a helpful reminder of important things to consider in designing worship for the people of God. Though neither struck me as particularly innovative, I was most appreciative of Ellis’ frank insistence that “worship wars” are often more reflective of personal preference and power struggles than about mission. When churches face a “worship war,” their greatest needs may have nothing to do with music and liturgy, and everything to do with repentance and reconciliation.

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