I was born in 1990. This means a lot of things: I have The Sandlot and The Princess Bride memorized. I had crushes on Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Sully from Dr. Quinn. I side-stepped most of the boy-band craze by being born into a country music household, but I could sing you Garth Brooks’ whole discography. It also means I use a night cream now.
What this meant for my upbringing in the church, though, was I came of age while the church in America was wrestling with “contemporary worship music.” This term has survived for my entire life and can still be found on most church websites when describing their service.
Musical worship and service style has probably been a controversial topic since the Reformation, so I don’t want to overplay the rise of Tommy Walker. However, it seems to have been a part of a wider debate in the late 1990s and early 2000s regarding church building architecture, atmosphere, and amenities. (Yep, amenities.) This Los Angeles Times article and New York Times article are archival glimpses into this transition. This debate continues today and I’m sure will do so until Jesus comes back and tells us whether a coffee cart was a good idea.
In the case of my church, in a small city in south central Minnesota, the differences that started with a change in musical worship resulted in a church split. There were many nuances and behind-the-scenes conversations to which a fourteen year-old me was not privy. The split, however, didn’t stop at the church: our family did a micro-split. My parents and little brother went to a new church (not the one eventually established by the splitting faction), and my sister and I stayed with our beloved youth pastor and friends.
This was my context for musical worship going into and coming out of college. Musical worship was a big way I felt connected to God, but that connection was layered over a lot of confusion and little theology.
After college, I started attending a church in Minneapolis whose worship was almost exclusively rearranged hymns. Having been raised on hymns by a mother with a strong alto, I was fascinated and enamored. I ended up interning at this church for ten months, and the more I learned about the reasoning behind their worship choices, the more I believed in it.
The music itself was beautiful and complicated, but everyone could sing their part because the integrity of the hymn was kept intact. This was to create an actual corporate experience, as opposed to complicated melodies layered over simple instrumentation. When we praise God together, we build up each other and the Church (1 Corinthians 14:26).
The richness of theology in hymn texts was another important part of this idea. Hymns texts are generally God-focused instead of man-centric. They praise Him for who He is: Creator, Savior, Sovereign. They also talk about sin. Someone coming to a service at this church could get a hefty dose of sound theology just from listening to the songs.
There were no separate “traditional,” and “contemporary,” services. This highlighted the idea that it shouldn’t be a deal breaker if Sunday worship isn’t my style. It wasn’t about me and my individual experience, preferences, and desires. It was to build up each other and the Church. Individual worship, musical or otherwise, should be happening throughout the week. Challenging the consumer mentality of corporate worship by comparing it to the abuse of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:20-22, our worship pastor asked, “Do you not have homes to worship in?
I was sold. I was in. I spoke eloquently about this new theology of worship and challenged others to consider their own.
Then I moved to California.
We found a church after several weeks of striking out – that’s a different blog post altogether. We found a wonderful, Bible-teaching, service-minded church who believed in loving God and loving His people.
I have a lot of unpopular opinions about the current state of worship music, most of which follow from the theology of worship I just talked about. I will not list them here, but suffice it to say I was physically uncomfortable every Sunday during worship. This is not a denigration of the worship team’s talent or intent – they are tremendously talented musicians and lovely people. My husband eventually served as a drummer on their team. I just couldn’t stand 95% of the songs they performed. I hadn’t had the unrealistic expectation that we’d find a church that would do what my previous church did, but I was unprepared to react well to the reality.
For the first month or so, I stuck to complaining. I would bring up something I disliked to my husband most Sundays on the way to lunch. “Every song sounded the same today. Every single one.” “The second song today was so repetitive.” “It’s impossible to sing the song they did for offering today.”
Each of those criticisms tie back to my church in Minneapolis, but it doesn’t take a Masters of Divinity to see the part I was selectively forgetting. “Do you not have homes to worship in?”
My theology of corporate worship hadn’t changed, but my circumstances had. It had been easy to judge other churches and believers while the church I attended happened to have exactly what I wanted. It was a different experience altogether living out this theology when I was the one whose preferences weren’t being met. Talk about finding the plank in your own eye (Matthew 7:1-5).
Not overnight, but with intent, I started worshiping during the week with Jesus music I love. I made sure I was worshiping in other ways: reading the Bible, talking to God, bringing love into my everyday interactions. With consistency and time, my heart changed. No longer was the hour on Sunday morning relied on for filling me up for the week. No longer would I put that burden on the worship team and church staff. Instead, it was what it should be: it was about building up my brothers and sisters and us building up the Church together (1 Corinthians 14:26).
In his brief Biblical Theology of Corporate Worship for 9Marks (a church leadership resource hub), which I would highly recommend, Bobby Jamieson writes, “Worship should suffuse our entire lives.” I love the word suffuse, meaning “to spread through or cover over,” because calls to worship don’t come in half measures.
The Psalms collectively, as Jamieson writes, “teach us to worship with reverence and awe, joy and wonder, gratitude and gladness.
Colossians 3:16 tells us to sing to God with gratitude in our hearts.
Hebrews 13:15 asks us to continually offer up the fruit of lips that acknowledge His name.
It may seem a strange time to write a blog about attending a certain kind of church service, but consider this with me: I don’t think church online is what any of us prefers week after week. As we keep ourselves and church families safe, we may find ourselves disillusioned with the services we “attend.” Sermons hit differently alone on the couch. Relationships with fellow believers feel the strain of physical distance. Singing in our living rooms isn’t the same. I pray one outcome of this time of waiting is we build ourselves homes to worship in.