The Music Doesn’t Help You Worship

We’ve all said it: “The music at this church is really worshipful.” Or, on the contrary, “I just can’t worship to that music.” Harold Best wants to point out the folly of such statements. Best is one of the foremost worship theologians alive and the former dean of the Wheaton Conservatory of Music. His book Unceasing Worship is always the first book we recommend for those seeking to build a coherent and gospel-driven philosophy of worship.

We make and offer art because we worship; we should not make it to lead us into worship. It is erroneous to assume that the arts, and especially music, are to be depended on to lead to worship or that they are aids to worship or tools for worship. If we think this way, we fuel two untruths at once. The first is that worship is something that can start and stop, and worse, that music or some other artistic or human device bears the responsibility for doing the starting or the facilitating. The second is related to the first: that music and the arts have a kind of power in themselves that can be falsely related to or equated with Spirit power, so much so that the presence of God seems all the more guaranteed and the worshiper sees this union of artistic power and Spirit power as normal, even anticipated. This thinking lies behind comments of this kind: “Your music really helped me worship.” And to the contrary: “I could not worship because of the music.” These comments, however innocently spoken, are dangerous, even pagan.

At the same time, I want to be among the first to celebrate the power that resides in the arts. They do contain enormous power of their own kind… [But] we have to remind ourselves continually that even though the arts have power, their power is of a lesser order. The arts are less than their makers and users who are, in turn, instructed to be sovereign over them. Only fallenness, in its inverted and confused behaviors, holds to the opposite. Idolatry is, at base, the act of shaping something and then falling under the assumption that it can shape us. If we are not careful, then, music and the arts will be acting on us instead of us acting on and with them. However, coming to Christ and being found in him provide us with the right view of these lesser powers. The Christian, as a continuous outpourer, acts toward God, not on the basis of the power of the art, but by faith… We worship in the power of the Lord while the power of the artifact finds its humble place among all lesser powers over which we have been granted sovereignty and from which we are completely free.

To repeat, we have the wonderful truth that art does have power, for we know it and we feel it, even if it is a lesser power. So what do we do with this power? We celebrate the power both in its inherency and in its subordination to God and to us… Instead of depending on the power of the arts to enhance their worship or to bring it about, faithful worshipers can actually enhance the power of the arts by their faith-driven worship.

In other words: when I sing or listen to my favorite song and a flood of feeling washes over me, instead of thinking that Jesus is nearer because I am filled with such a feeling, I come to understand that it is because the Lord and I love each other so much that I feel this way. This is right-side-up worship, and this is the way it must be. The power of the song is there, but the power of the Lord is all the more fully there and more fully real. The glory of the Lord, not the song, takes preeminence.

– from Best, Unceasing Worship, 119-123

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  1. What a great spotlight on an important issue in American Christianity. We are such experiential Christians, looking for the “magic” to be a feeling that overwhelms us. Unfortunately, this is the same feeling that teenage girls all over America are experiencing at a Justin Bieber concert. I would like to think that the worship of the Creator of the Universe and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is a little deeper than that emotional high found at a pop music concert.

    I become very frustrated watching Christianity devolve into a series of emotional highs and lows that we try to take as inner spiritual direction from God. God’s Word is the guideline for our lives, and provides the direction for our worship and behaviors — not the reactionary feelings we get when the worship music is especially catchy this morning.

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