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Audio Transcript

What makes a good musical worship experience? That’s today’s question from a listener to the podcast by the name of Jeff. “Hello, Pastor John. I know many Christians speak of a good worship experience as one associated with an emotional response. And I have several relatives that will say, ‘A good worship experience is tied to the quality of the music, how well the musicians sing and performed on stage.’ And they will defend popular Christian worship bands who hold to a theology that’s a little bit weak, but defend the songs because of the personal emotional high that they cause. As a result, my relatives will say things like, ‘The worship experience was very powerful.’ We even know of a local church that doesn’t allow children in the singing portion because it distracts from the worship experience. So my question for you, Pastor John, is this: What makes for a good musical worship experience?” I put that question to Pastor John in Nashville. Here he is.

Well, not taking the kids out. Noël and I wrote an article in our first year or two at Bethlehem making the case that we will not have a children’s church, but the children will be in worship services after about age 3. And my argument was this: Where else will a 3-year-old, 4-year-old, 5-year-old, 6-year-old, 7-year-old boy, say, learn what the heart of a mature man toward God is if he doesn’t see his dad sing, if he doesn’t see his dad pray, if he doesn’t see his dad bow down in holy reverence? There’s so much more going on in a good experience of worship.

Worshiping with Head and Heart

The other thing that came to my mind when I heard that question was that the word experience is viewed negatively because it’s got connotations of empty emotionalism. “That was just an experience.” But the word experience in English is necessary. I mean, it’s a good word. Worship is an experience — it is. And it needs to be fleshed out as to what kind of experience it is. And what makes it good is that there is truth, and there is a response to that truth in understanding; and there is worth and beauty and greatness, and there is a response to that in affections.

Now, that little summary came from a sentence by Jonathan Edwards. Jonathan Edwards says, “God glorifies himself in the world in two ways. He glorifies himself by his glory being seen [meaning known, understood] and his glory being delighted in. He who sees God’s glory does not glorify him so much as he who also delights in that glory.” Now, when I read that sentence, I thought, He’s so absolutely right.

You heard me say yesterday, “God will not be half-glorified,” meaning that he doesn’t want a doctrinally straight church with zero experience of affections, and he doesn’t want a church with all over-the-top emotions and affections and almost no rich understanding of the nature of God and what he’s done in the world.

So, what I’m looking for in a good experience of worship is this: Is there richness of truth here — truth in the welcome, truth in the prayers, truth in the preaching, truth in the singing? Are the lyrics of the songs permeated with the biblical truth that is loved in this church? And do these people give some evidence that it makes the difference — like it touches anybody? Does anybody feel anything here? Because if this church is totally blank — I mean, if it is emotionless — I’m thinking, “God is not prized here. God is not valued here. God is not cherished here. God is not enjoyed here.” That’s just not worship. I don’t care how true the doctrine is or how straight the preaching is. So those are massively crucial things, I think, for worship to be a good experience.

“The congregation is the worshiping body, with the help of people who are musicians or leaders from the front.”

Now all of that, I think, presumes (or maybe I shouldn’t presume it) that the chief actors in worship are the congregation. This conference is all about how you lead in order to make that happen. But it’s the congregation singing or praying or confessing or reciting. The congregation is the worshiping body, with the help of people who are musicians or leaders from the front. That implies the question, What would that leadership be like? What would the good leadership be to make that happen, so that the people are singing, the people are praying, the people are reciting, the people are confessing authentically from the heart?

Undistracting Excellence

In answer to that question, I wrote down that undistracting excellence is needed from the leaders. Undistracting means you don’t get in the way. It can’t be shoddy, because that’s going to distract. If you make mistakes, people are going to be jarred and won’t be able to keep focusing. It’s not ostentatious. That means you’re too good and you’re showing off on the piano or whatever instrument you’re playing. It’s not entertaining. Leaders are not calling attention to themselves.

The tension in this conference is significant, isn’t it? This is a largely performance-oriented conference, even though you’re singing a lot. These are remarkable things going on up here on stage, and they could easily intimidate a lot of pastors that can’t do anything like that. And I know Keith and Kristyn don’t want that to happen to any pastor in the room. They want a thirty-person church with lay leadership and no education in music to be powerful in connecting with God on Sunday morning, which is very possible. So, leaders are not calling attention to themselves.

Singable, Truth-Filled Music

And then maybe lastly, I wrote down two things that I think you’d look for in the music for a good experience.

One, it’s singable. It’s singable by men. Men. I was just talking with a remarkable music theoretician back there over lunch, and he was talking about the changes of the last thirty years. And one of the changes, he said, is that the register has gone up. I think too often in our service at home, “Look at people — the men just dropped out. Did anybody notice no men are singing right now?” Or, “They shifted to a lower octave, and it sounds weird. What just happened?” The scope of singability matters, and I think it’s crucial that the men sing. It’s almost a given that women sing. Women seem to have an easier ability to get all over the range on these things. Men, we’re not so good at that. We need a lot of help to sing. And when the men are singing, oh my goodness, that really helps the women, helps the children, helps everybody view this God better.

“Lyrics that are God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated, gospel-rich are essential.”

Two, I think emotionally suitable, truth-carried lyrics — lyrics that are seriously joyful, lyrics that are God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated, gospel-rich — are essential.

And then I have to say one more thing, Tony, because this is what I write about. This is what I did for 33 years. Don’t ever say, “We worship for thirty minutes, and then we preach.” I’ll get my back up if you say that. I’m a preacher, and I worship. Preaching is worship. It ought to be.

I call it expository exultation because it’s not just music that should have truth components and affectional components. Preaching should have truth components and affectional components. So, expository: I really am explaining the Bible, drawing meaning out of the Bible that’s really there. And exultation: I’m really thrilled about it. Can anybody tell? That’s what I want. That’s what preaching is. It helps people see the truth and then be caught up with the preacher in his love affair with that God and that salvation. So, I think a good experience, a good worship experience, will have at least all of that.