“The Church Should Aim High”

Almost never these days do I experience the human emotion of genuine excitement. There’s just not that much in life worth getting excited about, or maybe that’s my skewed perspective. But this is an exception.

Allow me a moment of boasting, 2 Corinthians 11 style.

I have more training in organ, choral music, poetry, church history, liturgy, hymnody, poetry and well-written word, music theory, public performance, bla-di-bla-di-bla, than the vast majority of individuals who serve in worship in the American evangelical church these days, professionally or on a volunteer basis. (I’ve done plenty of both.)

But on “the worship wars” and on issues of style in worship I rarely open my mouth, because I find most dialogues on the subject to be completely devoid of sound, Biblical, or persuasive argument. A lot of people have a lot of opinions and I’m pretty uninterested. I serve faithfully with what I’ve been given, and if you look through my past you’ll find me both at the organ and in front of a choir and as a member of a “praise team.” It only mattered to me that I was serving the gathered worshiping church. I could’ve sat and argued with them on style, but that was not what we were gathered for and so for the most part I’ve always kept my mouth shut.

And yet passionately have my husband and I devoted our lives and energy toward serving the worshiping church, and passionately do we love the “style” we consider best suited to the purpose; so don’t get me wrong: I have opinions on this stuff, and most of them are formed by conviction and education and not subjective preference. But I keep my mouth shut because this is an area fraught with arguments of subjective preference and I don’t want to add to the noise by any attempt to be more intelligent than the next guy trying. We all try.

Rarely in my life have I heard anything terribly convincing on the issue, and never have I heard something that so thoroughly devastates the whole discussion as the message I heard this morning by a pastor from my denomination. I will not attempt to summarize it here beyond the brief quip I’ve extracted as my title, but just point you to it and say that if you have any desire to make a difference, to gain ground in the debate on issues relating to how the church should be conducting its worship, you can’t afford not to listen to what this guy has to say. It’s available in audio and in transcript.

Or if you just want to know what I think on the matter, listen to this guy. It can’t be said better.

Worship In A Higher Register, by Rev. Robert Rayburn

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5 thoughts on ““The Church Should Aim High”

  1. I agree with the main point of his sermon, that we should offer our best (most musical, most beautiful) during worship, and that much of contemporary “praise music” does not do this. But does that mean that it can’t? What if there were theologically complex, musically intricate songs in a contemporary style, played by rock band instruments and led (not dominated) by a few singers? I think that if such a thing existed, it too would be beautiful and acceptable to God.

  2. A lot of good things to think about here, in both what Susan and Dr. Rayburn wrote. It is a difficult topic to talk about at times, often people just saying what they like without a lot of reasoning behind what they say.
    Reading this sermon made me long for such a worship service in a way I haven’t longed for it in a long time. And it will be a long time before I experience one again.
    One thing I noticed is that Dr. Rayburn often relied on Christian tradition as an argument, saying that things have been done a certain way for ages. I can think that some would reply saying that those traditions are unimportant. “Who is to say those people had it right?”
    Another thought: I’m glad he wrote that he wasn’t necessarily suggesting his “high culture” or any other high culture. Especially these days, I am considering what of the established church I know that may not be fitting to every part of the world, especially parts only developing their own churches. Should the Church’s “high culture” look different for different ethnicities, especially those outside of the West? One of Dr. Rayburn’s points is that accessibility is less important and a service “must be learned.” What does that mean for emerging churches in non-Western countries?
    And, continuing with Laura’s point, can we find a “high culture” in American culture, in the rock/pop/folk idioms?
    I’d love to hear Daniel’s ideas about how it could be changed.

  3. I don’t know why, but this sermon just hit me the wrong way. I have never been a fan of Contemporary worship. In my younger days I went as far as to call it sinful because I felt it focused more on the person worshiping than it did on God. However, years of getting over my own musical arrogance and meeting and learning about others in that culture have led me to change my mind on the subject. I firmly believe, using the very same text as a basis, that worship is about the heart more than the actual sound.
    I’ve been poking around in some commentaries, did a quick word study of the word translated as skillfully, and even consulted the church fathers. The word does not imply a degree of actual skill. (In fact, the use of the translation skillfully only accounts for about 1-2% of this words use in the OT.) It does say, literally, that one sound play well, however within the context of the rest of the verse, something this pastor leaves out, most commentaries I read agreed it meant more of a state of heart. One commentary summed it up this way: “The meaning is that the music should be such as would be expressive of the highest joy.”
    My other biggest problem is on that Mr. Lenz pointed out: he uses church history as his proof, not scripture. First, let’s start with the disciplina arcana. This was indeed a secret discipline which taught believers to only discuss the secret traditions of Christianity with other believers. This has nothing to do with not kowtowing to the culture, it has far more to do with self preservation in the face of enormous persecution. There appears to be more evidence to suggest that the best modern day application of this tool would be to exclude the general congregation, which in the modern day tends to be made up of people who have very little knowledge about their faith. Both contemporary and traditional services can boast these in large numbers. Shouldn’t they, the ones who are just along for the ride cause they know they are supposed to go to church, be the ones who are kicked out before the Lord’s Supper? Paul talks in 1 Corinthians 3:1-2 about only giving what they could handle, so why should we even bother with “high culture” if the vast majority of church goers won’t understand?
    I’d lastly like to present the Didache as my last piece of evidence. For those who don’t know, the DIdache is a book dated roughly around 100 AD which lays out rules for the church and way things should be done. Though it state most point in a very matter-of-fact manner, thus making it brief, in the section about how to conduct a Service there is no mention of worship. it speaks more about being in fellowship, confession, and breaking bread. This is not to say that worship wasn’t important, but it wasn’t a big enough part of their services to make it into the instruction book. now worship dominates our services, leaving little time for these other things.
    I still love traditional services. I love singing in a choir, I love a good pipe organ, and I love hearing music composed by true, musical geniuses. But more than any of this, i love that that music prepares me to hear God’s word exegeted, expounded, and applied to my life. I hope that that is what worship does, because I believe that learning God’s word is as much glorifying to him as anything else. And if other music can help people get into that mindset, then who are any of us to deny them that same experience.

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