by Mark Dever
Excerpts from the book, The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel
Corporate worship is too central to God’s purpose in redemption for Him to leave the specific of it to the likes of us.
Church leaders who have been committed to seeing the church reformed according to God’s Word down through the ages have had a common method: read the Word, preach the Word, pray the Word, sing the Word, see the Word (in the ordinances). Often referred to by theologians as the elements of corporate worship, these five basics are essential to the corporate life, health, and holiness of any local church.
Jesus uses His Word to build or edify the church. So it makes sense that we only sing songs that use His Word both accurately and generously. The more accurately applied scriptural theology, phrases, and allusion, the better – because the Word builds the church, and music helps us remember that Word, which we seem so quickly to forget
You as the pastor must be theologically discerning in what you encourage and lead your congregation to sing. It also means you must show courage in not allowing yourself to be guided by the musical preferences of the culture or the congregation, or even the passion of a music director, but rather by the theological content of the songs and their edification potential.
Use songs that fill our minds with God’s character, that form our worldview by God’s truth, and that teach us about the biblical meaning and personal implications of His Gospel.
The best of the hymns and the best of the more modern worship choruses are those that direct our focus away from ourselves and onto the character and Gospel of God. Practice discerning the difference, and be careful about what you’re teaching through the music you encourage people to sing.
Are multiple gatherings the best way to reflect the corporate unity or singularity of the church? Are they the best way to facilitate the singular gathering of the people of God in the same place at the same time? Might multiple gatherings actually constitute multiple churches?
Yet more broadly, worship is a total life orientation of engaging with God on the terms that He proposes and in the way that He provides. Our reasonable service of New Testament worship is to present our while selves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God ( Rom. 12:1-2; cf. also 1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17). So music is a subset of our corporate worship, and corporate worship is a subset of our total-life worship.
This reflection reminds us that our audience in corporate worship is not people. Corporate worship is not about pleasing people, whether ourselves, the congregation, or unbelieving seekers. Worship in the corporate gathering is about renewing our covenant with God by meeting with Him and relating to Him in the ways that He has prescribed. We do this specifically by hearing and heeding His Word, confessing our own sinfulness and our dependence on Him, thanking Him for His goodness to us, bringing our requests before Him, confessing His truth, and lifting our voices and instruments to Him in response to and in accord with the way that He has revealed Himself in His Word.
It is public, not privatized . Many musical worship leaders encourage member (by either word or deed) to close their eyes in pursuit of private emotional intimacy with God in the context of the corporate gathering. Now, no one in their right mind would argue that closing one’s eyes in corporate worship is categorically wrong. And many close their eyes in the corporate gathering simply to take in the sound of the singing more fully. But we would be wrong to encourage people to think of corporate worship in terms of shutting out the rest of the congregation to have a privatized emotional experience with God.
Congregational singing is an expression of the unity and harmony of the gathered congregation. Privatizing corporate worship, the, defeat the purpose of corporate worship and often confuses true worship with privatized emotion. The corporate worship gathering is a public meeting; we are intended to experience it aware of our togetherness. Much of the edifying power of congregational singing actually comes from emotion the presence of our fellow worshipers. Why else would we come together in song if these weren’t the case? It is best, then, not to privatize what God has decreed should be public.
It should be theologically rich. God has given us so much to be encouraged about in His Word! We should use the rich storehouse of Scripture to give us good things to say in our praise of Him, to remind us of the perfections of God’s character and the sufficiency of Christ’s work. We want to sing songs that raise our view of God, that present Him in all His glory and grace. We want to sing songs that put the details of Christ’s person and work front and center. We want to sing theologically textured songs that make us think about the depths of God’s character, the contours of His grace, had the implication of His Gospel; that teach us about the biblical doctrine that saves and transforms. Negatively, we want to avoid songs that encourage us to reflect on our own subjective emotional experience more than on the objective truths of God’s character and implication of the cross. We also want to avoid needless repetition of phrases in almost mantra-like fashion, as if seeking an emotional high were the purest form of worship.
These are the hallmarks of good worship songs, whether they’re hymns or choruses: biblical accuracy, God-centeredness, theological and/or historical progression, absence of first-person singular pronouns, and music that complements the tone of the lyrics.
It should be spiritually encouraging. The result of theological richness will always be increasing accuracy in worshiping God as He really is, which will in turn result in increasing spiritual encouragement for us. Our hope is in the character of God and the truth of His Gospel! In corporate musical worship, we are calling out to each other to praise God for His glorious character and works. We are giving audible expression to the unity and harmony of the church, and to the corporate nature of confessional Christian life. We are encouraging each other, by the strength of our voices, that we are not alone in our confession, but that everyone else who is singing is affirming the truth and significance of the words being sung.
Excerpts from the book, The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel by Mark Dever