Jeremy writes in with today’s question: “Dear Pastor John, I have served for the past seven years as a ‘worship leader.’ Something I’ve had trouble reconciling is how worshiping God turned into singing trendy praise songs in a community setting. Does it derive from the Levites and appointed leaders in the Old Testament? I have a hard time finding something relatable in the New Testament. In fact, one of the Scriptures that I find most denotes what worship is comes from Romans 12 where Paul tells the church in Rome that worship is giving of one’s self completely to God. Long question short, what brings us the corporate musical worship that inhabits almost every church today?”
Let’s just overlook the use of the word trendy, because I doubt that is really what he is asking. I don’t think he expects to find in the Bible a justification for trendy. I think his question really is: Why do we sing for a half an hour in worship services all over the world? Why do we do it that way?
“Look for prescribed patterns and emphases in the New Testament. Singing and preaching are central.”
So, let me try to go at that and see what I can do. I would define worship as anything we do which gives expression to the supreme, all-satisfying worth of God. That is worship, which would include both offering my body to be burned in martyrdom (1 Corinthians 13:3), because I am showing how precious Christ is to me, that I am willing to give up my life for him. And it would include my singing, my heartily offering up my voice and my heart in church as I sing, because I am giving expression to his worth as I sing a God-exalting song.
What makes them both worship is the experience of the heart which treasures God above all things. That is the essence of worship: the experience of the heart. Jesus says your heart is far from you. You worship me with your lips (Matthew 15:8–9). This is a zero worship. So, the essence of worship is a heart that treasures God above all things. The universe was created so that human beings would do everything we do and use everything we have to display the supreme worth of God. And in an ideal world all is, thus, worship.
Now, how does it come about that today most evangelical services around the world, at least the parts I have been to and that I look at online, have an extended time of singing at the front-end and preaching at the back-end? Here is my best effort to give an account for this. When you compare — this is the most important thing I am going to say; this is a little observation here — when you compare the Old Testament and the New Testament, something startling emerges with regard to worship. In the Old Testament, there is an extremely detailed set of guidelines for how everything should be done in relationship to the tabernacle and the sacrifices and the way people come to God. In the New Testament, those details are almost completely lacking. I am tempted to say completely lacking. There is no way anybody could construct a normative worship service from what we have in the New Testament. Lots of people think they can, but I don’t think so. There is more tradition going on there than they realize.
My opinion about why this is so is that the Old Testament was a “come see” religion with all of redemptive history focused on a culturally unified ethnic people called Israel, and the New Testament is a “go tell” religion with no ethnic center, no geographic center, no cultural center. And, therefore, the New Testament is written so as to be a manual of theology and life, useful in all cultures and all the peoples of the world, which is why it should be translated into all the languages of the world. If the New Testament had given detailed guidelines for what a worship service should be, it would have enshrined one first century culture to be imposed on all the cultures of the world. It would have been a colossal failure given what God designs for his church to look like all over the world as it becomes embedded in, incarnate in all the cultures of the world.
So, to explain why there is so much singing and why there is preaching, I don’t think you look for prescribed patterns in the New Testament. You look for emphases, trajectories, implications, the nature of God, the nature of man, the nature of his mind, the nature of his emotions, the nature of salvation, the nature of gifts. And what you find is that there is an extraordinary centrality and emphasis to the word of God in the Christian life, and there is at least one example of preaching mandated in the context of worship: 2 Timothy 4:1–2. And as we would expect from the Old Testament legacy of singing, there is a good bit of singing in the New Testament and pictures of it in the age to come.
“I expect we will always be singing new songs and old songs.”
There are a couple of texts, at least, that say it should be done corporately. Let me just give you a flavor of singing in the New Testament. Heaven in Revelation is full of song. “And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, ‘Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations!’” (Revelation 15:3). And James says, “Is any one [among you] cheerful? Let him sing” (James 5:13).
Then Paul says, “I will sing with my spirit, and I will sing with my mind” (1 Corinthians 14:15). And, again, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). And then he says the same thing, almost, in Ephesians 5:18–19, only here he makes it clear that it is corporate. He says, “Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.”
And you got this same Paul — bless his heart; I just love this guy — at midnight, feet in stocks, having been beaten with many blows, and he and Silas are singing (Acts 16:25). They are singing hymns to God, which means he knew some hymns by heart. Singing was so much a part of Paul’s life. You don’t usually think of Paul as a singer, but as a logician who pounds out Romans on an anvil of truth. You are like: No, no, no, no. He sang in tongues and he sang intelligible language and he sang in prison. He probably sang on the road and sang in the boats and sang while he was clinging to the shards of wood in the sea. This man was a singer big time. And where did he get that? Jesus sang. He sang. Mark 14:26, “When they had sung a hymn” — he and his apostles — “they went out to the Mount of Olives.” The last thing he does with his disciples, almost, is sing with them.
And, of course, the New Testament loves the Psalms, and the songs are full of commands to sing over and over. Five times I think it says: Sing a new song (Psalm 33:3; 40:3; 96:1; 98:1; 149:1). And Jesus says that his new covenant scribes, the writers, are going to be “like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). So, I expect we will always be singing new songs and old songs, and I don’t know if the word trendy is helpful. I think new is great. I hope we will, anyway.
So, it doesn’t seem at all surprising to me that over the centuries Christians would come together to corporately express the infinite value of God by lifting their voices and lifting their hearts in song about his worth, and that they would crave to hear the voice of God heralded from his word. Of course, lots more could be said about why we do what we do in worship. But that is pretty much why I feel so at home today in worship services like this, provided — this is a huge provision — provided the preaching and the singing are radically God-centered, Christ-exalting, gospel-rich, Bible-saturated, singable, and authentic through and through.