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  • Randy Nabors

While the Music Is Playing

As I write this a Cross Cultural Music and Worship Conference is being held in St. Louis, Mo at New City Fellowship. I don’t yet know what wonderful music, sermons, discussions and connections were made at the conference. I am jealous I can tell you that. I wish I were there, and one reason is that I have come to love the musicians the Lord has sent us in this network. I love to hear Gospel music, and I love to sing it. I am not there by choice and necessity, but my wife Joan is there, and I expect to hear some good stories once she returns. Being married to Joan has given me the great opportunity to have a Gospel instrument right next to me (she can sing), a storehouse of Gospel tunes and lyrics, and an incisive critic and analyst as to songs, singers, musicians, and performances. It is nice to have all of that in one very pretty package so convenient for enjoyment, education, and edification. The occasion of the conference prompts me to make some comments about worship, especially in a cross cultural context such as New City. I write from the perspective of a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. There is little doubt that Reformed folks take the thinking about worship very seriously. We like to be right about most things, or at least it seems we want to be right about most (every)things. In our circles being Biblical, and by that I mean being accurate as to what the Bible teaches and then wanting to be in conformity to what the Bible teaches, is one of our highest values. We are those kind of folk that believe we can accurately discern what the Bible is saying and know how to correctly apply it to most situations. One of our great problems of course is our inability to discern ourselves as creatures of culture. We are probably better at exigeting Scripture than we are at exigeting life or ourselves. We are also great lovers of history, especially the history of the Reformation and of Reformers, and take the Reformers and theologians (of the past) comments about Scripture and their own cultural and generational encounters and practices as normative for ourselves. Our ecclesiastical history is one in which theological definition takes place in conflict and in the choices that were made in those conflicts. Some of us still live as if those conflicts were current and we even divide people into camps based on our assessment on where they stand as to those previous conflicts. Unfortunately sometimes our division is divisive, and we choose to judge or condemn others on our perception of where they stand on a previous debate. I am sorry if that was confusing, but much of our estimation of orthodoxy is based on whether someone or not thinks, and acts, in conformity with our heroes of the past. Such is the case with worship. Some among us have felt there was such a thing as “Reformed” worship. We look back to Calvin’s Geneva, or to the Puritans, and yearn for Psalm singing, simple worship forms, and pronounce certain things acceptable as to the Regulative Principal of worship. That principal is absolutely an important one. This is of course where I stand with my Reformed brethren, that all worship needs to be in conformity with the Word of God. We dare not bring strange fire or incense to the altar of God. We dare not create our own images of God so that we would worship him according to our own creativity and not treat him as if he is holy and therefore alone has authority to declare what worship he accepts. Were the early Reformed Europeans correct in their understanding of Biblical worship? Is the Bible the real foundation of their view of worship, or is being European the real foundation, or is it mixed? Are we really concerned for Biblical worship, or for what we are used to, what we have grown up with, what has been our tradition of heart music, and what is our sense of order? It is difficult for a fish to be taken out of the water and asked to analyze the water, which is in a sense what we must ask of ourselves to examine how culture affects us. Fish swim in water that gets dirty, but they keep swimming. Fish swim in water that produces less and less of what they need to live, but they keep swimming. We don’t usually know the water is that stifling until the fish die. We don’t know how stifled we are until we swim in fresh water. So too with experiencing new wine skins, new ethnic cultural forms of worship, that are yet Biblical. Our present PCA denomination has chosen to follow in the tradition that celebrates some of the kinds of worship described in the Psalms, and not just by the singing of Psalms. In other words we use musical instruments. Whether or not we use exclusive Psalmody, we still have someone leading us in singing. To sing is to perform, and in fact to do anything in public worship that has one or more persons reading the Scripture, praying, singing, playing an instrument or preaching means we have a performer. It is interesting how many cultural rules creep into our public understanding of worship usually through some pastor or preacher’s view of what is distracting or conversely what maintains a sense of order in the worship service. When Paul instructs Timothy to give himself to the public reading of Scripture we realize it is important that God’s people hear the Scripture read, continually. It is not hard to see the implication that if it is read it should be done in an understandable way, that it should be done well. We are rightly concerned about the performance of the reader of Scripture. We want good performance, but we are not interested in a show off, we are not interested in someone entertaining us so that they would get the applause. Reformed worship has historically been concerned with and critical of anyone drawing attention to themselves so that we might lose our concentration on God. We take our preachers moderate, without too many sudden or violent physical movements, and we want them to make us think. So what do we do with David dancing in front of the ark of God, despised by his wife for making a fool of himself at least in what she thought were the eyes of others? If someone raises their hands in worship, especially during a song that says, “lift up your hands,” do we feel they are distracting us? Or do they feel we are hardhearted and disobedient to a direct exhortation of Scripture when we refuse to lift up our hands? How many Reformed folk have bowed down, clapped, lifted their hands, and shouted with the voice of triumph “in their hearts?” I have heard of symbolic language in the book of Revelation, even in the poetry of the Psalms, but not thought that the descriptions of physical involvement of worship in that book were meant to be symbolic. We should all agree that God is the audience of worship, and neither the people out in the congregation who watch us on the platform, nor the worshipers who stand next to us in the pew, are the ones we should be most concerned about. It is my contention that the European quest for order, silence, control, contemplation, and intellectual “piling on” were much more cultural than Biblical. Making rules that people should not clap in worship might be more a violation of the Regulative Principal than conformity to it. We resist applause of people but have never taught our people how to express joyful adoration of God with clapping. Where do we get the idea that a pipe organ is more Biblical than a stringed instrument? How do we excuse a talented organist from running up and down the scales at an offertory and justify that he (or she) is not showing off? I love organ music, I love old hymns with six, eight or more verses. But as my wife points out, sometimes it is exhausting to try and catch all that theology passing by so quickly in a hymn. They might be good for memorization and contemplation when you have time, but it is difficult to believe that all of us singing are digesting at that moment every thought that those great hymn writers are throwing at us. Contrasted with Gospel music which seems to settle on one or a few themes, and sings them a lot. I wonder if anybody back in old Israel complained when they first heard Psalm 136 sung and performed? Maybe they said, “that ‘His Love Endures Forever’ part was so repetitive!” Maybe we need to hear one idea sung over and over again so we might “get it” while we are still at church? So much of our preaching is unmoving, unemotional, calling for no heart response. We desire intellectual stimulation, we are enamored of erudition. Please give us a great quote, one from an early church father, one from Calvin, or a real treat is a Westminster divine or early Princeton, get a contrast quote from a noted Atheist or current news magazine, and then something pithy from C.S.Lewis. The preacher knows if you are with him if you hold your chin in your hand, frown in deep concentration, and when he makes a salient point you grunt. Wouldn’t it be great one Sunday for people to start tearing their clothes and grabbing onto the pews, bursting into tears, crying out to God, shouting “amen?” If you are horrified by such a prospect I might suggest that you have never had “church.” Classical music, European music forms, are all wonderful and all that is used to help us worship God and that is in conformity with Scripture and points us to Christ is part of our heritage of worship. But Africa sometimes seems closer to Israel than Europe especially in the use of emotion and body when it comes to worship. We are deprived of joy not to have learned worship in other cultural forms, not to have experienced a fuller and richer encounter with God. Even my language at this point can cause someone a problem who is used to worship not as an experience but as thinking. He seeks worshipers, the Father does, in Spirit and in Truth. So much of our Presbyterian worship seems to be constructed that we make no mistakes, have no enthusiasm, no crowd participation. It seems so different from that described in Corinth, where it seems Paul assumed there might be error but trusted the saints to deal with it on the spot and did not seek to set up a system where such error could never take place. I must confess that I enjoy being the pastor of a church that has so many theologically astute people, along with so many various ethnic and cultural representatives, that though we might have great participation, enthusiasm, and joy we have no fear that error will go by unnoticed or failed to be confronted. I confess to being a praise and worship junky. I love to worship the living and true God, who is thrice holy, bathed in his love and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. I enjoy God, and even the bittersweet pain of confessing my sin and crying out for mercy is resolved in the absolute pleasure of the reassurance of the Cross, the Resurrection, and the rule of Jesus. I love being in the company of the saints when they are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, yet seek to express it with shouts of joy, amens, and hallelujahs. I wish all of us could expand to a full life worship (mind, soul, and body) while grounded on the Word. What a pleasure church would be to us, what an attraction to those in soulful need. Won’t heaven be something?

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