Three Conclusions on Public Worship

by Matthew Raley

If I start with Ephesians 4-5 as the authoritative prescription for life in Christ’s churches, and for the musical worship churches offer to God (previous posts here and here), then I am driven to three conclusions.

1. Nurturing and expressing body unity is the top priority of worship in music.

When a congregation gathers to sing, the assumption must be that the people are all different, that they bring to the worship radical diversity of knowledge base, experience, ethnic inheritance, and cultural ways of thinking. This variety, even in a group of fifty people, is immeasurable.

Musical worship, therefore, must tap this intense energy and focus it on the work of praising Jesus Christ. The music must enable diverse individuals to sing as one voice about the same reality. For this to happen, the music must express the truth of the gospel and the impact of that truth on daily life.

I believe the inescapable reality is that musical style cannot unify believers. The effort to unite people through style has driven out diversity and created uniformity, the false fellowship of demographic sameness. What believers need in worship are perspectives that they have not considered before, and that give fresh insight into the truth of Christ.

2. Recovering true worship in music requires an emotional shift.

Most evangelicals now expect music to stimulate their individual passion for God. They want to receive musical expressions that they can join. But when a congregation is singing in the dynamic Paul shows in Ephesians 4-5, believers feel a different passion. Their emotional desires and expectations shift. Instead of waiting to receive expressions they can join, believers give expressions that others can join.

This is a shift from passive, entertainment-oriented expectations to active, body-oriented expectations. Passion in worship comes from giving edification.

3. Recovering true worship in music requires a cultural shift.

Pop music is the vocabulary of a passive audience. The music is sold not to be made, but consumed. I don’t see any way to escape the consumer mindset of contemporary worship by continuing to sing radio hits.

Technically, pop music is designed to be so stylistically strong that it attracts the consumer’s notice and then closes the sale. The style is visually expressed: the hair and make-up, the photography, the graphic design of posters and packaging. The style is also expressed in the production values of the recordings. Ultimately, the music and lyrics are saturated with a certain style.

The cultural shift we need is to recover the practices of folk music.

Folk music is as old as humanity. It is the music of participation, not performance. It grows out of a way of life. It is for people who make music throughout their daily routines, not for people who consume music. It is only in modern times that anyone considered writing this music down, much less recording it. Folk music is not designed to sell or to please, but to express. Indeed, it is difficult to speak of folk music being designed at all. It grows out of life.

The reason the hymns of the church are important now is that they are for the most part folk tunes. That is, the people just knew them, and knew them from infancy. They are an inheritance, not an artifice.

It is this kind of society that Paul is talking about in Ephesians 5.18-20. A Jewish child knew psalm chants before he knew words, just as a Greek child knew pagan hymns before he knew words. There was no marketplace for music as a consumable item.

What we have been developing in Orland for the last several years are ways to make these three principles a reality. We have found ways that our congregation can nurture and express musical unity. We have seen the beginnings of a shift in emotional expectations for worship. And we have made progress toward rebuilding the ways of folk singing.

More next week.


6 thoughts on “Three Conclusions on Public Worship

Add yours

  1. I have been wondering what your revelation of a long-forgotten form of worship music would be. Folk music? I’ll have to think about that… I have attended services where it was difficult to tell if the congregation was singing to the choir or the choir to the congregation, but the musical style was not folk music, and it was not the pablum of contemporary pop music.

    There is a great Christian bluegrass group, The Isaacs, that will set your heart on fire for the Lord. Just amazing.


  2. We’re not talking Joan Baez, here. The folk music I’m talking about is not a recording industry category, but an age-old form of interaction and community. I think the dynamic you witnessed is the kind of participation I am talking about, though the particular style of music there (Brooklyn Tabernacle?) will not work everywhere. Thanks for the recommendation of bluegrass band. It’s a style that I have to kind of prepare myself to hear, and can only take in limited doses. But I am intrigued. 🙂

  3. Amen.

    I’ve been enjoying the modern hymns of Stuart Townsend and Keith Getty (In Christ Alone). They’re still fairly marketable, but they actually have some depth to them.

  4. Hello Matthew!

    I enjoy reading your thoughts on this topic, as always. The call to abandon commercially-inspired “pop” music styles in worship is entirely correct. As you may know, I am also a folk music enthusiast, and so am very sympathetic to the idea of a revival of folk music among Christians.

    However, I hope you’ll allow me to point out what I think may be a conflict of sorts. You wrote:

    “When a congregation gathers to sing, the assumption must be that the people are all different, that they bring to the worship radical diversity of knowledge base, experience, ethnic inheritance, and cultural ways of thinking … The music must enable diverse individuals to sing as one voice about the same reality.”

    So far, so good. But then you also write:

    “The cultural shift we need is to recover the practices of folk music.”

    Folk music, by its very nature, is an expression of cultural *unity*, the result of a particular people living together in the same place for a long period of time – the product of a singular and unified cultural experience and history. That is why Irish folk music is very different from the Vietnamese, which is different from the Greek, which is different from the Mexican, which is different from the Austrian, which is different from the Appalachian, and so on. One does not move easily between these worlds. If people from each of these varied backgrounds met in Orland to sing folk music together, which would they choose? Folk music in this case divides rather than unifies.

    And yet – you are quite right that the music of Christian worship needs to *unify* believers of various cultural backgrounds. How is this possible? It is only possible if the Church possess a musical culture of her own, in which all peoples and cultures may participate, without detracting at all from their own unique folk music tradition.

    The earliest Christians were Jews, and they continued their ancient tradition of temple worship by means of chant – first in the Hebrew language, then in Latin, with only slight variations and developments from place to place. The origin of this chant is lost in the mists of antiquity. I believe that it comes not from the “people” or the “folk”, but from God Himself.

    The world was evangelized by a Church that worshiped in this way, in every land, until the 16th century. Gentiles, when they entered the sanctuary, entered into the worship of the Church as they found it. It is true that the Greeks developed a chant partially based upon their own native traditions, but this chant spread throughout the Christian East and was adopted by all of the non-Greek cultures they evangelized.

    In other words, the Church already has her own music, rooted in Christian antiquity, which is capable of uniting men of every nation and culture and tongue. The text of this music is taken predominantly from the Psalms, God’s own prayer book. The language of this music is predominantly Latin, a “dead” language which is the safeguard of orthodoxy. Far from being an impediment to evangelization, what came to be called the Gregorian Chant unified believers on every continent. And their folk music remained largely undisturbed.

    I’m out of time, dinner calls. Apologies for my long-winded comment!

  5. No apologies needed, Jeff. Great observations! I have to play my cards close to my vest on some of the issues because the problem of unifying diverse cultural backgrounds is where I’m headed. You’re absolutely right that folk culture hardens identities, rather than softening them. Part of my thesis is that believers desperately need their corporate identity hardened.

    But a pan-cultural set of specific rituals (no negative connotation intended) is not where I’m headed. I am focused on the vitality of specific churches, which have to contend with a diversity of backgrounds in their people.

    More to come on these points!

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