I read an article by Helen Rose Pauls which was in a church paper. She talks about music in the church. She writes:
The “new song” has caused very real debate and ongoing division in our
churches. It is probably as divisive and controversial as the change from the German language to English was in the 1950s. I remember an elderly neighbour hearing us children say our nightly prayers in English and asking my mother whether she really thought that God would accept them.
Many churches are coping with “new songs” by having two services, one youth friendly and one more staid, but some mourn that the important intergenerational aspect of church is gone. Others have lost their youth to churches that sing only the new songs; this occurs quite easily where so many Mennonite churches exist in one geographical area. Almost four years ago, our two youngest teens, as soon as one of them had his driver’s license, began attending a church that sang only new songs. Their older brother was in another “with it” church which attracted a huge college and career group; this is where he met his life’s partner. Our eldest daughter moved to the city to work and found a lively church there, where she also met her husband. Our parents, when they were still alive, found peace and solace in the familiar songs and worship of a nearby church that was full of gray heads.
We have stayed in our home church, which was founded 25 years ago by people in our age group who speak our language and sing our songs, but which has also tried to adapt to modern worship teams. We thought our church was “cool” and very comfortable for people of all age groups. “Sure, Mom,” said our son, “It’s great if you’re 50.”
I’m glad that all of our children have found a place to worship with others who are like-minded. There are times when I wish we would all be together. Is compromise possible when we older ones still enjoy what were once our “new songs” and our youth want to sing theirs?”
What she writes about is a conversation that is common to all of us. We have heard these words as well. We have heard some who have lamented that we don’t sing enough hymns and we have also heard some who feel that we don’t sing nearly enough choruses. I know that the music committee takes these comments very seriously and I believe that they are working hard at dealing with them in a good way. I commend them for what they are doing. The thing that makes it so difficult is that these ideas and feelings are spoken with great emotion because they are felt deeply. How can we get along? What does the Bible have to say about this?
Last Sunday we talked about worship and affirmed that worship arises in response to God’s mercy and that worship is about offering our bodies to God. A part of that offering is the expression of our worship to God in word and song. This morning, I would like to talk about this aspect of our worship and offer some thoughts from Scripture on the controversial aspects of music and worship.
We read a number of Scriptures which will form the background for our thoughts. Psalm 149:1 is representative of these verses and I have used it as an outline for these thoughts.
Some of you have attended African/American worship services when on assignment with MDS. The other day, we talked to Lillie Bartel and she talked about how when she and George had been in Arkansas, they had attended such a service. She mentioned that the choir had sung until they were tired. Their singing was so enthusiastic that they even had to have nurses on duty because people were in danger of fainting. I have been at these services and I can believe that story. The enthusiasm and exuberance in worship is tremendous. It is a great contrast to even our most enthusiastic worship services. Our background is such that worship is very subdued. We stand still or sit when we sing. We sing heartily, but all the emotion is in our voices, which also do not sing overly loud.
What we have learned is that worship must be orderly. We have read in I Corinthians 14:33, 40 that “God is not a God of disorder but of peace” and that “Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.” We have taken these words seriously, as we should. We have also read Hebrews 12:28 which calls us to “worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.” This scripture coupled with our natural tendency as people from Northern Europe has made us quite comfortable with serious, sober, quiet worship.
However, when we read the Psalms, we learn that exuberance in worship also has a place. In the Psalms we read before, and in many others, we are invited to sing, to praise, to make music on the “ten-stringed lyre,” to praise and even to shout. Other Psalms encourage us to other enthusiastic expressions of praise. For example, Psalm 134:2 commands us to lift our hands. Psalm 150 encourages praise with the “sounding of the trumpet…with tambourine and dancing…with the clash of cymbals…”
How do we bring these things together? Is it possible to praise God with great enthusiasm and still maintain order and do so with reverence? Sometimes when enthusiasm rises high, reverence is forgotten. Sometimes when reverence is lifted high, worship dies to a boring mumble.
The mercies of God call us to a heartfelt expression of our love for God and our praise of God. I think we need to find ways of allowing exuberance in our worship. If someone would shout out of a heart of praise, we should give place to that. If people wish to raise their hands, we need to rejoice with them and perhaps even join them. As we show such passion, however, let us not forget to maintain a reverent attitude.
One day David was so excited about God that he danced about in an expression of his love for God. His wife, Michal, was not impressed and condemned him. As a consequence, she had no more children, which was God’s judgement on her. Let us be careful not to condemn those who show some enthusiasm and passion in their worship. They are on solid Biblical ground. In fact, I think we need to find ways of also expressing that emotion.
I have been at camp and participated in singing at camp. Every once in a while, a song is sung, which is a great song, has a fun tune, but whose words are on the edge of being irreverent. I get very uncomfortable at such times. We need to watch that in our enthusiasm, it is love for the Lord and respect for Him that moves us in our singing and our worship.
II. To The Lord
That will happen if we remember the second word about singing in this verse, and that is the word “To the Lord.” This is central and key to our worship. All the matters of worship - enthusiasm and reverence, order and joy, hymns and choruses will be brought into focus and balance when we remember that our worship is directed to the Lord.
Sometimes in our worship services, we praise people. It is OK to be thankful for what others have done, but the focus of our worship service must always remain God. We do not come together primarily to enjoy each other, we certainly do not come to praise each other. We come together to praise the Lord. He is the direction of our worship.
Sometimes I have been a part of a worship service in which I felt that the purpose was to stir emotions and to manipulate people so that they would feel good. It became obvious that it wasn’t about God anymore, it was about how people felt. I was uncomfortable in such a setting. Worship is not about trying to stir feelings. Sometimes we have the mistaken idea that we worship when we feel good. We can worship just as well when we feel horrible as when we feel great. Worship is not about the feelings that are stirred, worship is about the direction of our thoughts and emotions. There must be a God-ward direction to our whole being.
There are some things that people can do very well. They can sing, they can preach, they can serve. When people do things well, they ought to be thanked and even praised for the good things they have done. That is a good thing to do, but that is not worship. There are some things that only God can do. Only God can create. Only God can convict of sin. Only God can change hearts. Only God can make a new creation out of an old sinner. Only God can raise the dead. When we realize what God has done, things that only God can do and we reflect on that and thank Him for what He has done, that is worship. When we had the deeper life services with Mel Koop in March, he spoke about God sightings. When we open our eyes and have a God sighting and acknowledge it as a God sighting, with enthusiasm, that is worship.
The Heart Of Worship by Matt Redman
It is a confession, but one we all need to affirm and expresses well the idea of singing “to the Lord.”
When the music fades, all is stripped away and I simply come
longing just to bring something that’s of worth, that will bless your heart.
I’ll bring you more than a song,
for a song in itself is not what you have required.
You search much deeper within.
Through the way things appear,
your looking into my heart.
I’m coming back to the heart of worship and it’s all about Jesus,
I’m sorry Lord for the thing I’ve made it,
When it’s all about you, all about You Jesus.
King of endless worth, no one could express how much you deserve.
Though I’m weak and poor, all I have is yours, every single breath.
III. A New Song
So the Bible calls us to be passionate about the expression of our praise to God. Furthermore, it calls us to “sing a new song.” You will notice that the phrase “new song” appeared in each of the verses we read earlier. These are most of the verses in the Bible which talk about singing a new song. Why are we to sing a new song? What does this mean?
A. New Songs
Psalm 98:1 helps us understand the importance of a new song when it says, “Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.”
What we learn from this verse and from the others is that a song is important because it expresses an experience of God. A song is required in order to give praise to God for his work in salvation.
But why does it have to be a new song? The story becomes more focused and personal in Psalm 40. There David expresses his personal experience of God. He himself discovered that as he waited for the Lord, God heard his cry, lifted him out of the slimy pit and set his feet upon a rock. Because of this new experience of deliverance, David goes on to say in verse 3 “He put a new song in my mouth.”
In many of the Psalms we read, this connection is made. In Psalm 33:3 there is a call for a new song. In verses 4 and following the reason for this new song is given - it is because the word of the Lord is right and true; he is faithful; he loves righteousness, he has created the heavens by a word, he foils the plans of the nations and so on. God’s mighty acts, as they are experienced by his people need to be expressed and celebrated. A new song is required for each new act and each new experience of God’s mercy.
There are many stories in the Bible in which a new experience of God was celebrated with a new song. After Israel crossed the Red Sea and left the Egyptians stuck in the mud, they sang a new song. In Exodus 15:1-21, the people of Israel sang the song of Moses and then Miriam and the women took their tambourines and danced and sang a new song of God’s deliverance.
In Judges 5 after Israel defeated the Canaanites, Deborah & Barak sang a new song of celebration for God's deliverance.
When Jesus was born, the angels sang a new song in Luke 2:14. It was a new song of what God had done in sending Jesus to earth.
We also have the scene in heaven in Revelation 5:9 which is a picture of God’s victory through Jesus. In this scene in heaven, they also sing a new song of God’s glorious redemption.
A new song is required with each experience of God’s mercy and powerful work. One writer states, “fired with fresh enthusiasm, gratitude shall make a new channel.”
B. The Power Of A New Song
But, why is it so important? Why not simply continue to sing the old songs? One writer says, A new song "Comes from a new impluse of gratitude in the heart." Other statements from other writers express similar ideas. "He is ever new in his manifestations." "his mercies are new every morning." "his deliverances are new in every night of sorrow." "let your gratitude and thanksgivings also be new." "It is well to repeat the old; it is more useful to invent the new." "Novelty goes well with heartiness."
Here’s how I understand it. Songs are powerful ways of expressing the deepest things in our soul. They touch our mind and emotions, our will and our passions. When you experienced God, the songs that accompanied that experience of God went deep into your heart. Those songs continue to remind you of the specific way in which you experienced God’s mercy. That is why certain songs speak so deeply to you.
Just as this happens to an individual, it also happens to a generation. Long ago, the hymns you sang in your youth spoke powerfully to you and expressed your worship in a deep way. Their tunes, rhythms and words go deep into your heart. They were your new song, which expressed for you your new experience of God’s mercy. Another generation comes along and it has its own experience of God’s mercy. The songs, rhythms, words of their songs go deep into their heart. The songs of this new generation are the new song for them as they have what is for them a new experience of God.
That is why the new song is so important. Each individual & each generation experiences God in a fresh way and needs to express that experience in a way that is new to them.
Quoting again from the article I mentioned earlier, “An older friend recounts with misty eyes, “I’ll never forget the time in 1948 when 1200 people were standing in the Yarrow MB Church and singing, “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” in German, in four-part harmony. We’ll never see those days again,” he said wistfully, bitterly disappointed with the modern stuff the youth are performing in our church today.”
But she also writes, “A few weeks ago, my daughter came in, breathlessly excited. “DOXA is starting up again!” she said. Without formal advertising, the good news about this contemporary worship event was spread by e-mail, phone and word of mouth, and the church was full of hundreds of young people for opening night.”
By way of contrast, she talks about another experience, “Almost 100 years ago, my grandmother apparently got into serious trouble because she used to go to the next village to sing four-part harmony at youth rallies. “Songfests”, they were called, and they radically broke with the tradition of having a Vorsänger, a “singing leader” who would sing solo lines loudly and then have the congregation repeat the verses after him in unison. Grandmother must have been exonerated, and her music was accepted as the norm eventually; she even married a former Vorsänger from the next village.
For each of these generations, their song is their new song, connected deeply to their new experience of God.
Helen Rose Pauls also writes:
For my younger aunts and uncles, gospel quartets reigned. This summer, one can go to any number of nostalgic “old time” gospel quartet rallies and relive those years, but we don’t hear that music in church anymore.
For my generation, it was choruses that kept our youth nights fresh and new. Loudly, we sang, “Do, Lord!” and “Wonderful Grace of Jesus” (with the men going off on a marvellous tangent all by themselves). In Chilliwack, one church now sponsors the occasional Sunday night hymn sing for my age group.
Later we sang “Kumbaya” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” at hootenannies, with guitars, campfires and lots of feeling. We still try to capture this at our annual cornroast, but some of the idealism is gone.”
Understanding that, it is clear that the worst thing we can do is dismiss any new song. Each of us needs to respect the new song of each individual and each generation. It will also mean that we will have to be patient with each other. When someone else’s new song is being sung, we need to appreciate what it does for them.
But we can go even further with this. Where are the new songs that are expressing our new experiences of God? Have we stopped experiencing God or do we not take the time to write new songs for these new experiences of God? I believe it is important to write new songs and find new ways of expressing God’s mercies which are new every morning.
There are several other reasons for continuing to write and sing the new songs - whether your new songs, or songs that are new to everyone.
When you are experiencing a difficult time, it is often a song that helps you through that time. Singing your “new song” is a reminder of God’s past mercy to you and gives courage and grace to face a new crisis. This line of reasoning is followed in Psalm 40. The Psalm begins with a recollection of God’s past help. It speaks of the new song written and sung when God delivered. The later part of the psalm once again kneels in prayer as the writer says, “Be pleased, O Lord, to save me…” The new song of the past, becomes the encouragement to face the new difficulty. That is why we need to write and sing the new songs of God’s deliverance.
The other reason for singing the new songs is because as others hear us sing the song of what God has done for us, they too will be brought to praise God. Psalm 40:3 says, “He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD.”
"Infidels blaspheme, the ungrateful murmur, the thoughtless are silent, the mournful weep, all acting according to their old nature; but new men take up a new mode, which is the divinely inspired song of peace, charity and joy in the Lord."
Are you singing? Are you singing to the Lord? Are you singing a new song which expresses your experience of God's mercy?
Revelation 14:3 speaks about the new song that only the redeemed will one day sing when the Lamb of God appears in victory. Am I ever looking forward to singing that new song, but I am glad that today, I can sing a new song to the Lord.