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Did We Lose Holiness in the Worship Wars?

Updated: Mar 24, 2022

Much like Social Security is to US politics, so it seems the topic of music is to the church: a third rail. If you are unfamiliar with the metaphor, it comes from the high-voltage third rail used in some electric railway systems. Touching it will result in serious bodily injury or death. As a metaphor in politics, we use it in reference to any issue that has become immune from question or criticism or has become so controversial that it is “charged” and “untouchable.” Dare to question or have a different point of view than the prevailing thought and a politician risks political suicide.

For too long in our holiness churches, we have been unable to have significant two-way discussion regarding the music we use in our worship services because of its “third rail” status.

Anyone silly enough to challenge or question the prevailing thought regarding our worship music is met with a barrage of opposition until they quietly acquiesce. One only has to look to the so-called “worship wars” of the recent past. Some might suggest we have made it through the worship wars unscathed. Some churches have settled for multiple services catering to differing musical tastes. Others have adopted an approach that blends elements from differing musical styles in a single service. In the end, however, I would contend that holiness people have come through the worship wars spiritually poorer, particularly as it relates to proclaiming the message of holiness through song.

Holiness people are spiritually poorer because there is little or no proclamation of biblical holiness in our churches today. But it is not simply because we no longer preach holiness; we no longer sing holiness. As holiness people, we have lost an appreciation for the importance of the content of music in our spiritual lives. We have adapted our style, but we have lost focus on the content. We sing songs that suit our musical preferences, but no longer move us to holiness. We lament the lack of holiness preaching but ignore the lack of holiness singing. In some cases, we proclaim through song what we would never proclaim from the pulpit.

Preaching by its very nature is the proclamation of the Word of God. If it does not find its ground in God’s Word, it is not preaching. That relationship is no less important for the songs we sing during worship. They should be a proclamation of the Word of God. Grounded in anything else, the songs we sing are no longer “preaching” the Word in song.

How did we get to this place? In reality, the question of the style and content of our worship music is not new. Throughout church history, there have been many perspectives and opinions on these topics with little consensus. Without rehashing past arguments, we might all agree there is something missing in our worship music today in that it does not serve to point us to biblical holiness. Here are three issues that serve to neuter the message of holiness in the worship music used in our churches today.

We have allowed our worship services to become a place where the practice of the craft of music has become paramount. We should desire to offer our very best in the worship of our Lord. However, form seems to take precedence over content. Instrumentalists, vocalists, and even those operating the audio and video technology strive to perfect the production of increasingly complex music while sometimes giving little attention to the message. Coupled with the frequent introduction of unfamiliar songs, this results in congregations who turn into spectators of a show, rather than participants in the corporate worship of God. When we allow our congregations to become spectators rather than worshipers, we squander the opportunity to take advantage of music’s innate power to deeply and permanently impact people.

John Wesley, in his essay “Thoughts on the Power of Music,” compares the simple music of the ancients with the “complex” music of his day. The introduction of complexity into music changes its nature and can change the motivation for its design or purpose. “And as the nature of music is thus changed, so is likewise the design of it. Our composers do not aim at moving the passions but at quite another thing… it is applied to a quite different faculty of the mind; not to our joy, or hope, or fear; but merely to the ear, to the imagination, or internal sense.” Complex music is hard to play, hard to learn, and hard for congregations to sing. Complex music, says Wesley, “destroys the power of music.”

We have compromised our standards for those who lead worship, prioritizing the musical tastes of the masses. In an effort to attract and synthesize new people, we are quick to afford non-believers the opportunity to use their musical abilities in our worship services. We hope, at some point, they will grow deeper in their faith or come to know the Lord through their participation. Unfortunately, many lack spiritual maturity and fail to appreciate their role in leading the congregation in worship of the risen Savior with whom they have no relationship. We hire musicians who often do not hold to the basic tenets of the Christian faith, and the result is that performance is valued more than the presence of the Holy Spirit. We end up lacking a faithful proclamation of God’s Word and fail to encourage a life of holiness when that lifestyle is not demonstrated by those who lead our worship. This is detrimental for both the non-believer leading worship and the members of the congregation. In the end, worship of our Savior and growing deeper in biblical holiness both take a back seat to pleasing people’s ears.

We have allowed emotional experience to become the only standard by which we measure our worship: the greater the emotion, the better the worship. Although an emotional response during worship through song can be transformative and Spirit-filled,...

Emotional worship without the context of biblical truth can lead to the formation of false theological beliefs and, consequently, an unfruitful life.

We may begin to desire the innocuous content our itching ears want to hear for a short-term emotional response, rather than desiring God’s convicting truth that spurs us on to long-term spiritual growth. John Calvin wrote: “We must, however, carefully beware, lest our ears be more intent on the music than our minds on the spiritual meaning of the words… songs composed merely to tickle and delight the ear are unbecoming the majesty of the Church, and cannot but be most displeasing to God” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 3, chapter 20, paragraph 32).

Are we serious about reclaiming the biblical message for believers to be entirely sanctified through the power of the Holy Spirit? One area we need to reconsider is the worship music we use in the church. The words we sing are more deeply impressed upon our hearts because of singing. They become a part of our experience. What words do we want our congregations to sing? We need to sing music that is faithful to the biblical message of holiness. Our obligation, then, is to research and seek out music with such content from sources we can test and know by their fruit (1 John 4:1, Matthew 7:15-20).

Yes, we need preachers to preach holiness. We also need worshippers to sing holiness!


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