A few years ago, I had a great conversation with a musician friend of mine on our worship team. Among a number of topics, we discussed our thoughts on worship music, and how it touches our hearts. It was one of those conversations after which you felt more fueled, excited and ready to be a worship leader. Later that day, I was thinking about one statement my friend said during our conversation about worship music; he said, though he knew he was playing on a stage in front of hundreds of people, he loved knowing he was really only playing for an audience of One. I know exactly what he meant when he said this, and it’s truly a beautiful thought. However, that idea really got me thinking—so much so that I began asking myself this question: Who is worship music for?
Think about that question for a moment. I understand the answer seems obvious, but take a step back and really think about the question. If you’re like most Christians, you will immediately think of the obvious answer, which is that worship music is clearly for God. Since the purpose of worship music is to help Christians worship God, worship music must be for God. But, what if we take a different approach to our perspective of the music we sing on Sunday? The perspective I would like to submit is that worship music is actually for us. Now, before you grab your torches and pitchforks, hear me out.
When I say worship music is for us, I am in absolutely no way saying that worship is for us. Worship belongs to God and God alone. Only He is worthy of our praise, and our worship is reserved solely for Him. When I say worship music is for us, I am referring only to the music itself—the songs we sing. Now having said that, worship music is certainly still dedicated to and written about God; the intention of worship music is to assist our worship, not to be our worship.
God created music in such a way that it infiltrates our emotions and opens up our hearts so the Holy Spirit can transform us as we sing His praises. Sweet melodies and beautifully crafted rhymes touch our hearts and our minds, which bring deeper, more emotional meaning to what we are singing. Again I say, the music is for us—the worship is for God.
Music has the ability to tap into our emotions in two powerful ways. The first of these is nostalgia. Nostalgia is very powerful. For most people, there is a tendency to look back on the past while wearing rose-colored glasses. It is the reason why we (well, most of us) love hearing the same Christmas songs every December; those songs remind us of fond times with family and friends. Nostalgia is the reason why a grizzled, 90-year-old, World War II veteran can be reduced to tears when he hears Amazing Grace or The Old Rugged Cross. Those melodies and lyrics not only spark memories, but can also resurface many underlying emotions tied to those memories. Therefore, nostalgia can be an amazing tool to fuel and spark our worship as familiar and beloved songs remind us of how great God is and what He has done in our lives. However, if we’re not careful, nostalgia can also be a dangerous barrier to our worship. If we bend too far toward nostalgia in our preference for worship music, we can become very self-focused: only wanting to sing the oldies that once touched our hearts deeply. Our focus becomes about the songs rather than God.
The second powerful way music taps into our emotions is through new, fresh songs. This opens us up to hearing a message, that we may or may not already know, in a new and exciting way. For the most part, people crave this freshness just as much, if not more than the comfort of nostalgia (especially the younger generations). I believe this is the primary reason why Scripture tells us time and time again to sing a new song:
“Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy.” Psalm 33:3
“Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth.” Psalm 96:1
“Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise from the ends of the earth…” Isaiah 42:10
God understands that fresh melodies invigorate our hearts in new ways. Even if the message of a song has been sung in hundreds of songs before it, singing it in a new way, with new, modern instrumentation, captures our attention and helps us hear and appreciate the message in a new and exhilarating way. However, like the power of nostalgia, the constant desire for the next new song, or the next musical style, can become a hindrance to our worship as well. When we focus all of our attention on the new, we can neglect the wisdom of the past, and just like the bend toward nostalgia, our focus becomes about the songs rather than God.
What’s my point in all of this? Worship music is for us—worship is for God and God alone. Whether we are singing a nostalgic song from our past that reminds us of God’s amazing grace, or we are singing a new song about God’s enduring faithfulness, if our hearts and minds are not focused on praising our Heavenly Father, genuine worship will never happen. If it were possible for Beethoven, John Newton and Chris Tomlin to co-write the perfect worship song, but God’s people did not orient their hearts to worship Him, the song would be no more worshipful than Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Genuine worship is still dependent on our desire to give God the praise He deserves; worship music just helps us get there.
So, do a little self-reflection. Do you bend toward the nostalgic music of the past, or are you a person who is excited by the next new song and sound? Ideally, we would all be a perfect combination of both leanings. Nonetheless, whichever way you lean, whichever kind of song touches your heart and helps you focus on the Lord, just remember that the music isn’t the worship. Your worship should not be dependent upon the right song; it should be an expression of your love and appreciation for an amazing Savior. So, no matter worship song is playing, sing to the Lord with all you have in you:
“Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises. For God is the King of all the earth; sing to him a psalm of praise.” Psalm 47:6-7