Search this blog

John Piper, writing in 2008:

Thirteen years ago we asked: What should be the defining sound of corporate worship at Bethlehem, besides the voice of biblical preaching?

We meant: Should it be pipe organ, piano, guitar, drums, choir, worship team, orchestra, etc. The answer we gave was “The people of Bethlehem singing.”

Some thought: That’s not much help in deciding which instruments should be used. Perhaps not. But it is massively helpful in clarifying the meaning of those moments.

If Bethlehem is not “singing and making melody to the Lord with [our] heart,” (Ephesians 5:19), it’s all over. We close up shop. This is no small commitment.

James K. A. Smith, writing last year, made a similar point. While there may be a few exceptions to what he says here, I think he’s exactly right with regard to the main thrust of Christian congregational worship.

1. If we, the congregation, can’t hear ourselves, it’s not worship.

Christian worship is not a concert. In a concert (a particular “form of performance”), we often expect to be overwhelmed by sound, particularly in certain styles of music. In a concert, we come to expect that weird sort of sensory deprivation that happens from sensory overload, when the pounding of the bass on our chest and the wash of music over the crowd leaves us with the rush of a certain aural vertigo. And there’s nothing wrong with concerts! It’s just that Christian worship is not a concert. Christian worship is a collective, communal, congregational practice–and the gathered sound and harmony of a congregation singing as one is integral to the practice of worship. It is a way of “performing” the reality that, in Christ, we are one body. But that requires that we actually be able to hear ourselves, and hear our sisters and brothers singing alongside us. When the amped sound of the praise band overwhelms congregational voices, we can’t hear ourselves sing–so we lose that communal aspect of the congregation and are encouraged to effectively become “private,” passive worshipers.

2. If we, the congregation, can’t sing along, it’s not worship.

In other forms of musical performance, musicians and bands will want to improvise and “be creative,” offering new renditions and exhibiting their virtuosity with all sorts of different trills and pauses and improvisations on the received tune. Again, that can be a delightful aspect of a concert, but in Christian worship it just means that we, the congregation, can’t sing along. And so your virtuosity gives rise to our passivity; your creativity simply encourages our silence. And while you may be worshiping with your creativity, the same creativity actually shuts down congregational song.

3. If you, the praise band, are the center of attention, it’s not worship.

I know it’s generally not your fault that we’ve put you at the front of the church. And I know you want to model worship for us to imitate. But because we’ve encouraged you to basically import forms of performance from the concert venue into the sanctuary, we might not realize that we’ve also unwittingly encouraged a sense that you are the center of attention. And when your performance becomes a display of your virtuosity—even with the best of intentions—it’s difficult to counter the temptation to make the praise band the focus of our attention. When the praise band goes into long riffs that you might intend as “offerings to God,” we the congregation become utterly passive, and because we’ve adopted habits of relating to music from the Grammys and the concert venue, we unwittingly make you the center of attention. I wonder if there might be some intentional reflection on placement (to the side? leading from behind?) and performance that might help us counter these habits we bring with us to worship.

You can read the whole thing here.

View Comments


105 thoughts on “The Difference between Congregational Worship and a Concert”

  1. Zach Nielsen says:

    The challenging thing with this list that it is subjective in nature. But good questions to ask.

    In my experience this list usually creates sound guys who are a bit on the scared side for fear that a pastor or elder will rebuke them for the volume.

    1. Bruce Russell says:

      I’d love to hear this in concert from a good Johnny Cash impersonator….

      Volume Please!

      But this is thoughtful edifying entertainment, not music for public worship.

    2. Lou G. says:

      “creates sound guys who are a bit on the scared side for fear that a pastor or elder will rebuke them for the volume”

      As they should be.

    3. Gordon Harter says:

      As a sound engineer that trains other sound engineers, there is nothing that hurts the quality of the sound being created than a sound person running scared. They are managing to the lowest common denominator. This creates an environment where, indeed, ‘the squeaky wheel does get the grease.’ You can have sound people running so scared of being rebuked that they create a terrible sound mix, out of fear, that ruins the beautiful music being made…the sound of voices AND instruments creating a ‘joyful noise unto the Lord.’

      Don’t get me wrong: sound people do need to be accountable to the director of worship, whomever that might be. There needs to be a clear theology of worship, that leads to a common understanding among all those involved in leading worship (worship leader, vocalists, band, and sound engineer), as to the environment and experience they are trying to create, in order to facilitate effective corporate worship. This may look very different, depending on the church, and they should not be judged just because you don’t like the sound.

      If this understanding (above) exists, then any concern, over the volume or quality of the sound, should be expressed o the director of music, whether that be the lead pastor, worship pastor or leader, or whomever that church’s leadership has designated in this role.

      Nothing good, whether it be sound quality, worship experience, or worship personnel moral, by having random individuals coming up and expressing their displeasure, and having the sound person adjusting what they are trained to do, out of fear that they will be in trouble. Running sound under these conditions demoraluzes the sound people, because they don’t want to do a bad job, but everyone is their boss, effctively, and all they hear is displeasure. all you end up with is poor quality sound, and lousy sound people, because good ones won’t continue to work under thse conditions. They should be responsible to their worship leadership, and to following the guidelines established, based on that church’s theology of worship.

      A well planned, effectively led, beautifully executed worship time, regardless of style, instruments, or volume, will be a ‘joyful noise unto The Lord.’

      1. A good sound tech needs to be able to handle complaints by duly ignoring them. I’ve been in situations where I’ve been in the process of dialing in a new mix that was just asked for at the last minute without prior sound checks (like that never happens) while a line of people formed complaining about a variety of things about the sound. It usually helps in such circumstances to have someone serve as a buffer. If you sit back and listen to all the complaints, you never get the sound done and it sounds bad for the duration of the program.

        Hint: If you see different musicians on stage and it doesn’t sound right yet, don’t go find the sound tech and complain. It’s a safe bet he’s got his hands full trying to mix them on the fly.

        Hint: If you are a worship leader and want to add musicians, don’t do it at the last minute. Give the sound tech a chance to adjust the sound for each member alone and then together plenty of time prior to the program.

        1. Dotty Young says:

          Oh my gosh, an intelligent set of hints and guidelines about how to help the worship tech! The apocalypse is nigh! :)

          Sorry, my husband is the worship tech, and I couldn’t do what I do (write worship songs and lead worship) without him. I think techs are waaaaaaaay too under-appreciated.

  2. Worship, wherever that word is used in scripture, means to humble or prostrate yourself before God. Standing there singing a bunch of praise songs (or even hymns) is not what the Bible describes when it describes worship. Two of the best examples of real worship are Isaiah’s actions when he had his vision in Isaiah 6, and John’s actions in Revelation 1:17. We should be careful not to confuse worship (which, again, is humbling or prostrating yourself before God) and praise (which includes, among other things, the standing and singing that we so often do during church services).

    1. Christopher Heslep says:

      Chancellor, while you are correct in your use of one of the words for worship (to prostrate yourself is the Hebrew word “chavah” and the Greek word “proskuneo”) it is by no means the only way to worship. The following are some (not all) words used for “worship” in the OT.
      “sagad” – “to homage”, “nagash” – to approach, “barak” – to bless/praise, “kavod” – to glorify (publicly declare other’s significance), “eved” – to serve, “yada” – to thank (publicly), “hallal” – to glorify, “zakar” – to remember

      In the NT, the following are words used for worship.
      “proskuneo” – bow down, “sebomai” – “honoring God by reflecting a submissive attitude by the worshipper”, “doxazo” – to glorify, “latreuo” – act of service, “eucharisto” – to thank, “mimneskomai” – to remember, “threskeia” – to offer a sacrifice.

      I don’t say these things to be a jerk (sorry if it comes off that way), I just want to be fair to what we say when we use the work “worship.” It is a very broad word that has multiple meanings…which is great, because it gives us multiple ways to “worship” our King.

      1. David says:

        So, corporate worship is an individual act? Good luck finding a congregational Psalm that doesn’t use plural pronouns. You won’t find this idea of indiviudal experience in a corporate setting anywhere in the New Testament. In fact, it goes against the grain of the admonishment and instruction Paul gives to the churches. Our actions and our experiences are always determined and governed by our love for God’s people. This includes “singing hymns and spiritual songs one to another”

        1. Gordon Harter says:

          David, i don’t want to come across as confrontive, but for the sake of clarity, I don’t believe it was Christpher’s or Kathy’s intention to imply that worship was done alone. I interpret what they are saying to mean that there are many forms and styles of worship, and many ways we can be led there. What becomes important in worship, pleasing to God, is whether in individual has entered into an attitude of mind and heart that expresses to God their true, full heart worship, regardless of form or style.

          There is nothing more beautiful than a corporate experience of everyone, individually, finding their reason, form, and act of worship. It is glorious.

    2. KathyT says:

      I agree with you, Chancellor. A great example of praise is when David and all of the people returned with the ark of the covenant. They were leaping and dancing, singing and playing all sorts of musical instruments. Worship is truly an individual act. The mark of a great praise & worship leader or band is the ability to bring the congregation into true worship through song and prayer. I have been fortunate enough to see the difference. I can go to a Christian concert and praise along with the band and appreciate their creative abilities. Yet before the evening of praise is over, if the band is there for the correct reasons, you will be led into worship. Or I can just go and listen to a great band perform great Christian music. Both are wonderful experiences, but I prefer ending in true worship.

  3. There must be real intent in worship, even in the preaching and teaching.

    A former church was equipped with a medium-sized pipe organ that was capable of filling the space with considerable sound. As is common, the organist would occasionally modulate and play a bombastic alternate arrangement for the final verse. I like music and could appreciate the musicality. However, the congregation rarely sang loudly anyway and these kinds of final verses would be nothing but the organ drowning out any vestige of singing.

    In my current church, we have an orchestra with organ, rhythm section, winds, strings, choir and praise team. However, we have the sound down to a science. Total sound of the music ministry averages 70 decibels with spikes of about 75 decibels. That’s comfortable for the congregation at any of our services. We can hear each other sing.

    The other week, we mixed it up with a guest musician and let the rhythm section handle the music. The sound tech bumped it up to over 80 decibels at rehearsal and the choir had trouble hearing themselves. Amidst respectful complaints, the sound tech dropped it back to normal levels and worship went well that Sunday. If the congregation can’t sing effectively, any participation is not conducive to worship.

    That said, there are similar considerations for preaching and teaching. I’ve learned that targeting the 60-70 decibel range in an average auditorium for speech is an adequate balance for most hearing aid settings, untreated hearing problems, and sensitive hearing. With the goal of producing clarity and reducing focus on sound, I run compression such to get highs and lows within that range. A low-cut to eliminate unnecessary low-frequency resonance is always helpful. Experimenting with increasing a narrow band in the higher frequencies to improve consonant formatives for clarity is a nice touch. The rest of the bands should be adjusted to eliminate muddy acoustic resonances and make the voice of the speaker sound natural. These things will eliminate subconscious mental strain on the listeners as they work to pay attention and help keep subaudible resonant droning from putting people to sleep.

    Therefore, in the case of both singing and paying attention to the speaker active listening is important for worship. Deaf ministries are the obvious exception, but I leave that to those who minister through signing.

  4. Monte Harris says:

    Hi Justin. First time commenter. I enjoyed this piece on worship. On the first point, when we can’t hear ourselves, it can be hard to think. That makes it hard to love God with mind along with the other attributes Jesus calls for. On the second point, concerts aren’t bad things unless they’re scheduled every Sunday morning at 10:30 so as to exclude the vast majority of people who don’t own 2 octave vocal ranges. Petra, Guardian, Chris Tomlin, etc. are great to listen to, but not to follow. On the third point, I recall that some Catholic priests in church history used to offer the eucharist facing the same way as the congregation-toward the front. Maybe some still do. Though this may have been awkward, and it may have been lost on the illiterate and downtrodden, it’s still a powerful symbol. I read on another blog recently of one church turning off the spotlights so that the worship band made a silhouette against the wall. The focus was on the lyrics, and therefore, more probably on God than the music. Thanks again for sharing this!

    1. Gordon Harter says:

      My church does as you observed, turning the lights on the band and music leader down, so they are only seen in silhouette, leaving the projected words being what is focused on. The first couple of times you experience this, it is a little disorienting, (and it is hard for people who arrive to find seats,) but after entering into worship this way, a couple of times, most people love it! It may not be for everyone one, but t works for us.

  5. Shaun Groves says:

    I’m the volunteer leader of volunteer worship leaders at our little church on the outskirts of Nashville. Living in Nashville (Austin, Orlando, Vegas, NY) carries with it certain musical expectations – the bar is high. So when I began serving our church’s musicians three years ago I first clarified our priorities.

    #1 Truth

    #2 Participation

    So regardless of how much we like a song’s sound, or its author, or the chorus we don’t sing it unless we can say with confidence that every line of it is true.

    And then we cut musical intros, outros, solos of more than two bars – because, at our church, no one participates in those moments. (At some churches they sure would!) We watch the volume – too low and people won’t sing because they feel exposed – too loud and singing stops as well. We leaders make sure we sing the melody clearly without embellishment. We try to get the sound guy to mix the lead vocal just enough “out front” that the melody is clearly discernible. Lyrics are correctly displayed. The key chosen puts the song in hymn range (aka mortal human range).

    All this to say, I agree that clarifying “worship music” priorities is beneficial. And here are several practical ways that clarification has played itself out in our church family’s gatherings.

  6. James K A Smith’s ‘Desiring the Kingdom’ is a gift that keeps on giving.

    I long for someone (Smith himself?) to produce a popular level version of this book.

    Justin, you’re in publishing, right? How can that happen?

    I’m serious about that question. Smith’s book is great and his ideas need to find their way to worship leaders. But it’s not accessible enough for many pastors (me at least) to hand to their worship leaders. Baker Academic, are you listening?

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      Steve: Smith has said that Cosper’s “Rhythms of Grace” is essentially a popularization of his book and recommends it.

      1. Thanks so much! I hadn’t heard that. I’ll definitely check it out. So helpful.

  7. Bruce Russell says:

    Isn’t Charismatic Liturgy by definition a rock concert? Bethlehem Baptist Church definitely has a Charismatic Liturgy. So I guess it is over, John.

    1. Justin Taylor says:


      1. Bruce Russell says:


        Have you heard BBC Downtown Campus in the last 10 or 15 years?

        It is a rock and roll concert which is what evangelical/charismatic culture wants. The drums are so loud they surround it with 1 inch plexiglass.

        The “worship leaders” swaying around has if the Holy Spirit is connecting to them personally through the rock music. This is a gross misunderstanding of the Holy Spirit.

        Sure the lyrics are faithful at BBC. But the instruments chosen to lead worship, percussion and electric guitar, are inadequate to support the spectrum of feeling involved in true corporate worship.

        It is grievous. But few people under 50 years old have any clue about what is really happening.

        I know this is a discordant post. But think about it: big box evangelicalism relies more on contemporary music than faithful preaching. Is BBC really an exception here? Would the multicampus ministry at BBC exist if they had kept the organ 20 years ago?


        1. Hey Bruce,
          Thanks for sharing your musical preferences. Just FYI, the plexi-glass is there so the drums ARE NOT too loud.

          You said that “The “worship leaders’ swaying around has if the Holy Spirit is connecting to them personally”
          … Have any of them ever stated that during the singing? Or are you just putting words in their mouth?

          Also, your idea that “percussion and electric guitar, are inadequate to support the spectrum of feeling involved in true corporate worship.” … What on earth are you talking about?

          We all have our own differing taste in music, but the Bible is clear we should be other-centered when it comes to our preferences (Romans 14).


          1. Bruce Russell says:


            Take our popular music and go back 40 years. It sounds much the same. Now go back another 40 years to 1933…a vast difference. What does the popular musical score connote today that it didn’t in 1933?

            Passion…mostly about sex.

            The music of 1933 was modest in its passions

            2013 Christian music is not modest. Your drum set is not modest, swaying worship leaders are not modest. Our culture is immodest so very few people are uncomfortable with this. But our culture and our churches are in decline. Any connection?

            The issue is one of refinement, as well as preference. There is music to capture every mood and moment. Will most people choose the most suitable musical score for worship?

            In Christ,


            1. Keith says:

              Was David immodest for his “leaping and whirling before the Lord”?

              1. David says:

                Is John Doe immodest for his “leaping and whirling before the Lord” during Sunday morning service? Yes, and more than that he is not loving his brothers and sisters in Christ.

              2. Bruce says:


                With this question you touch the crucial issue of the humanity of music, dance and art. These things are creative expressions and accompaniments to human experience. There are as many kinds of music as there are human experiences. If you are striving for excellence in life you select music that is excellent for leisure, work, love, family, war, sports, celebration, mourning, death.

                Let’s seek to find the best music to accompany New Covenant Worship.

                If you like a certain genre of music, find the right venue and situation for it, and go enjoy it!


              3. Keith says:

                The best music for any worship is that which God endorses in His Word.
                How is the New Covenant less appropriate for what God previously encouraged? Give me Scripture, not your opinion.

              4. Keith says:

                David, then we should keep our opinions on what is appropriate to culture and covenant, and our judgment of attitudes, within our particular churches.
                Thank you for clarifying the scope of your disapproval.

              5. David says:

                Or another way of saying it is “do everything in love”.

            2. David says:

              David’s expression of worship was all about loving God’s people and was culturally appropriate just not fitting for a King. He disrobed his Kingly robes to wear common clothes and worship as a commoner with God’s people. It was completely a corporate and selfless expression of love. Using this as an excuse for individualistic, selfish worship is ironic.

              1. Keith says:

                What difference does it make whether it’s John Doe or David? Does David get a pass for something that’s wrong for someone else?
                Is there any place in Scripture that frowns upon physically expressive worship? Several places encourage it (Exodus 15:20, Psalm 149:3, Psalm 150:4, Jeremiah 31:4).
                The only difference would be the condition of their hearts. That’s what makes something selfish or unloving. Only those who can perceive hearts can make that call. Otherwise, it’s appallingly judgmental.
                And if a worship leader’s expression isn’t corporate enough, that just means more in the congregation should be swaying, too.

              2. David says:

                The difference is that you are using Old Testament examples that don’t apply to New Testament corporate contexts. The corporate expression is always about worshipping God while making sure to not offend our brother or sister in Christ. If their faith is weaker as to not approve of such expression than the avoidance of that expression is an expression of love, rather than having the individualistic attitude that seeks to display one’s personal piety to the world in a teachable moment of what “true” worship looks like. True worship in a New Testament corporate context is simultaneously horizontal and vertical. David’s expression was culturally appropriate and is culturally appropriate if that is the culture of your particular church (1 Corinthians). But such an expression, no matter how authentic, would be completely inappropriate and unloving in a Church that does not worship this expressively. (1 Cor. 13)

              3. Bruce says:


                New Covenant life is a multifaceted reality, one crucial aspect is corporate worship. The central focus is the Lord’s Supper which contains elements of memorial and hope with present communion with Christ and His people.

                It is a time for sober and confident reflection.

                Congregational singing should both memorialize the King and bring His coming redemption and judgement into focus as well as His present nurture and protection in our present war against Satan and ambassadorial function in the world.

                You need more than accomplished musicians to accomplish this kind of musical setting.

                You need musically and theologically astute people to lead, not follow the preferences of fallen cultures (like ours).


              4. Alex J. says:

                The worship of our Loving, Sovereign, Holy, and Triune God should never be “culturally appropriate”.

              5. Alex,
                There is no corporate gathering devoid of culture or that is culturally neutral. Even individuals are shaped by the culture they have experienced such that they worship personally in familiar cultural forms. Culture is necessary for communication and the fulfillment of expectations that trust is built on. To eliminate all culture means that we eliminate all communication and trust.

                Perhaps you’re saying that we cannot make the message of the Bible on which our worship is based subject to our local culture.

                An important principle of hermeneutics is that we must understand what is written in the Bible based on the culture in which it was written. In order for it to make sense to us in a different culture, it must be communicated between us using our cultural forms. But we must take care not to distort the message in the process.

                What some churches and ministers try to do is to attract unregenerate people using cultural elements they are familiar with. The problem they run into is that in the process they often water the message down so it’s hardly there or distort the message into something that was never communicated in the Bible. Maybe that’s what you are saying. If that’s the case, I agree wholeheartedly. Church is for believers, given that they will bring their unregenerate children with them. In that sense, the worship of mature believers is instructive to the unregenerate.

            3. Jess says:

              Depends what ‘popular’ music you were listening to. If you listened to Blues you had ‘Shave ‘em Dry’ by Lucille Brogan, ‘My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll)’ by Trixie Smith, both of which (along with many others) were quite clear what they were referring to. Even in Classical music ‘Carmina Burana’ by Orff contains sections that were clearly ‘sexual’ in nature. I think you comment betrays a certain preconception of what passed for ‘popular’ music in 1933.

              1. David says:

                Yes, but were the particulars of the genre of popular music in 1933 taken, adjusted and used in Churches for the sake of cultural relevance? A Christmas hymn to the tune of “Makin’ Whoopee”?

              2. David says:

                Then the question we have to ask is: “Is our taking cultural pop music in the Churches for relevance an unperceived moral digression or progress due to enlightenment?

        2. Bret says:

          A few similarly discordant thoughts:

          The instruments most commonly described in Psalms as part of worship music (e.g. Ps. 33, 81, 149) are more akin to acoustic guitar and hand drums than to an organ. At the least, this tells me you don’t need something like an organ to express a “spectrum of feeling involved in true corporate worship.”

          I don’t know anything about the music in the BBC worship service, but if there’s a “concert-like” non-encouragement of participation or limited range of expression, then that is a problem. However, it is one more to do with factors other than with the physical instruments themselves (song choices, musicianship of the leaders, and others come to mind).

          We don’t use electric guitar at our church, but it can be a highly expressive instrument when played skillfully. That doesn’t mean that everyone will like it stylistically, but then again, some don’t like organ much. Neither preference means that either instrument couldn’t support congregational worship well.

          Also, I really enjoy reading JKA Smith.

          1. Bruce Russell says:


            I really appreciate your appeal to Scripture. It’s a good point…but the New Covenant is described as pouring new wine into old wineskins. There has been a progressive advance in our knowledge of the scope of music and the technology for expressing that scope.

            That being said, I look forward to the New Song that will be sung in the New Creation.

            In the mean time I look for music that strikes the notes that Biblical Theology strikes. On that score, Charismatic Liturgy rejects vocal harmony and seeks to achieve a sense of personal exaltation through percussion and highly amplified instrumental and vocal melodies that leave congregational singing behind.



            1. Bret says:

              I look forward to praising God in the New Creation as well, Bruce, and I bet we’ll all be (wonderfully) surprised by the richness and variety of our perfected worship with the saints from all tribes, tongues, nations, and times.

              Blessings to you also.

            2. J. Clark says:

              I feel sorry for all those cultures around the world that have no idea of what you are talking about. Now that I am enlightened by you I will just have to put away my lyre and djembe. Keep us updated on how you will be teaching all the cultures of the world to understand all these “precise” things.

              1. Bruce says:

                J. Clarke:

                You don’t put something down that is useful on the journey. Everything must be measured in terms of its usefulness in bringing Jesus near to us, and bringing us to the coming Judgment with confidence. Some cultures are debauched, some are refined, all are fallen. The Gospel brings the Light of the world and brings growth and maturity to the Greeks and to the Barbarians. Music is a crucial component to culture building or destroying.

                None of us have ever heard perfect worship music (Rev 14:3). We should all seek it humbly and hopefully and not be content or stubborn with what we have.


              2. J. Clark says:

                That is very utilitarian of you. We have heard perfect worship music. It is Truth and Spirit. And it is irreverent of culture, instrument, and style.

              3. Bruce says:

                J. Clark,

                I’m curious how you came to hear this perfect music. I’m thinking you are either using different definitions or are proclaiming some unique gifting.

                All I’m saying is that all instruments make a necessary contribution, we should strive for perfection as we understand that it is perceived through a glass darkly and will be fully embraced at the Day of Redemption.

                The lyre and djembe do some jobs well, likewise the violin and flute. In Christian worship the human voice should predominate.



              4. Dotty Young says:

                Bwahahahahah! :) You just made my day.

              5. Dotty Young says:

                By the way, that was directed at J.Clark’s initial comment. I get so tired of the split-hairs and molehill-crafted-mountains that are littering our congregations.

  8. Richard says:

    You know, I can recall sitting in some “worship” settings with the praise band going and the church standing and swaying and clapping, and thinking to myself: “the only difference between this and a soft rock concert is people aren’t passing around funny smelling cigarettes here.”

    1. J. Clark says:

      Richard, I have been in similar circumstances. But I have been in far more worship settings where people were so reverent and religious, the worship leader had every meter on a metronome, with piano and organ playing at pious decibels and I thought this is what a dirge is like.

    2. Dotty Young says:

      Because people becoming more passionate and enthusiastic about God than they are about their favorite band is…..not a good thing?

  9. anaquaduck says:

    I really appreciate it when musicians play skilfully & small musical interludes can be good to catch your breath & also enable time to meditate on the heart felt theology. For this reason I prefer a slower paced song. I don’t see a problem with the music group being in view as it in a way demonstrates God’s people working together & is no more a distraction than a minister in full view delivering a message.

    God gives us music as much as songs, they both point to His goodness & love, but songs would be the more edifying but good music/minstrels can soothe the soul. At times in worship we have sung a song as a time of confession before God which worked well.

    Rousing songs of praise have their place too, it’s something you can’t manufacture but happens when it happens. Music & song in accordance with godly principles allows for much variation across many cultures

  10. mark mcculley says:

    to keep up to date, read David Gordon

  11. Josh Starkey says:

    Justin, thanks for posting this. Some I’d read before, some I hadn’t. As a church corporate worship leader, it often feels like a continual fight against the “pop-cultural” pressure to try to make it a concert, and this was a very encouraging post to get to read. Great reminders.

  12. JT says:

    I can’t get over how amazingly arbitrary this whole post is!!! Try going to a predominately African American church that plays gospel music, where the congregation is fully involved in singing and dancing as one, the musicians are incredibly skilful and many play professionally, and the music is flippin’ loud! Try telling those dudes what they’re doing isn’t praise/worship to God and isn’t communal. The parameters of this discussion aren’t Biblical, they’re based on a particular vision of church culture and are therefore of no divine authority. The true thesis of this article is “I’m comfortable with ‘worship’ being like this, but I don’t particularly like it being like this”.

    1. “The parameters of this discussion aren’t Biblical, they’re based on a particular vision of church culture and are therefore of no divine authority”
      Amen. Couldn’t agree more. When we will we Christians learn to distinguish between what the Scriptures teach, and our own tastes/preferences/feelings? I pray that it’s soon.


    2. John Botkin says:

      JT, I’ve had the privilege of worshiping at African-American churches over the years. And at their best, all of the above still applies. The point isn’t the volume per se. As you said, “the congregation was fully involved.” If the congregation can hear themselves sing, then the volume doesn’t matter; nor the level of “enthusiasm.” The point is that we aren’t to be so focused on those playing the music that we lose our focus on God himself. If *any* cultural form/context does this (and I could give examples from traditional Reformed church as well), then it’s less than biblical. Furthermore, it doesn’t mean that concerts can’t be a vehicle for worship. But the pattern of NT church worship is simple in it’s directives that the congregation is active and mutually edifying. Blessings!

      1. JT says:

        John, thank you very much for your reply, but my argument was really a lot simpler than that. issues of volume or whether something is a ‘concert’ aren’t actually that relevant. Mr. Smith has in this article, taken a series of hang-ups that he has about the way ‘worship’ is sometimes done in reformed evangelical churches in the western world in 2013, and has argued on no other basis than his own personal experience, that these musical scenarios are in all utterly excluded from the act of “worship”. The danger in this sentiment is that he assigns to himself some kind of authority by which he can determine what worship is, and this therefore has to be a divine authority. Smith is, at the end of the day, not writing with the authority of God to deem something worship or otherwise, but as a man who has seen worship done badly in the specific context of a reformed, evangelical church in America, and he’s overstated his case. He shouldn’t be saying it “isn’t worship”, he should be saying “in my opinion, it was uncomfortable worship, or poorly executed worship’.

        the fact is- Smith is absolutely right in many ways, a lot of these things are really irritating and can sometimes make worship an uncomfortable experience for some people. However to exclude the surrounding musical proceeding from worship on that basis is a dangerously proud call.

        1. Justin Taylor says:

          Note by preface to what Smith wrote, “While there may be a few exceptions to what he says here, I think he’s exactly right with regard to the *main thrust* of Christian congregational worship.”

          My point in posting it was that there can be great diversity in congregational worship, but at an irreducible minimum it should facilitate “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph 5:19).

      2. Lou G. says:

        JT, I’m not sure that your argument fits exactly, as Smith writes:
        “If we are intentional about worship as a communal, congregational practice that brings us into a dialogical encounter with the living God–that worship is not merely expressive but also formative–then we can do that with cellos or steel guitars, pipe organs or African drums.”

    3. Bruce says:


      Ultimately, the forms of Christian discipline work themselves out in lives lived, callings heeded, marriages formed and faithfully preserved, families raised, etc. Doing the music that is appropriate to the moment really helps.

      Loud music and fervent body movement is an excellent means to smother a guilty conscience. That is a human fact. No culture is immune from this.


      1. Stephen says:

        Hey Bruce,
        Thanks for sharing your personal preferences again. If you think “loud music” or “body movement” during a corporate gathering is “immodest” … Then you had better not do it (Romans 14).
        But the Bible says no such things.

        Also, I do personally prefer slower paced music and I don’t “move around” when singing… But that’s just me, my personality and preferences. So let’s not add non-Biblical preferences into someone else’s walk with God.


      2. JT says:

        Bruce, the sentiment of your comment is exactly what I’m arguing against. You are expressing a personal hang up based on your experience of church culture and not much else. It doesn’t actually matter to God that you don’t like loud music or “fervent body movement”, because in his word he encourages us to dance, and makes no mention of volume. That said, you aren’t excluded from worship if you aren’t dancing and you like slow, soft music and have no interest in christian Hip-Hop.

        And I don’t need loud music and dancing to cover my guilty conscience, Bruce. Jesus did that for me. As long as your church preaches the Gospel faithfully then you shouldn’t have to worry about people trying to dance their way to salvation.

        1. Bruce says:


          We live in an anti-intellectual age. If you reach people through non-intellectual means, you will leave them very close to where they began. If your gospel doesn’t require you to think, then by all means turn of the volume and dance the morning away. I think you are making a tragic mistake for yourself and those you entertain.

          Worship music should assist and guide us into sober reflection on who Christ is and upon the powers of the age to come. It should help us balance the Already aspects of salvation with the Not Yet.

          Of course we don’t immediately agree on what that means, and of course in a Big Box Church these decisions are made by committee and serve the tastes of the majority demographic.

          We can disagree about all these things and still be great friends. I prefer people who care deeply about their culture, and I always wonder what they see and if I could benefit from it.



  13. David Finch says:

    With my tongue firmly in my cheek, I disagree with one fundamental statement…”If you, the praise band, are the center of attention, it’s not worship.”.
    If should read “If you, the praise band, are the centre of attention, it’s band worship, not God worship”

  14. David says:

    Is it possible that we’ve brought an idol into the church, in the name of “relevance”? Modern worship is, inherently, not wrong but it could be unwise to reach the masses with the relevance of their idol. I know this isn’t what we all mean by “contextualization”.

    I’m a former Church Growth, performance-driven contemporary worship leader who now prefers no band and the voices of the people singing deep theology. My change is not reactionary, I’m still primarily leading contemporary music. My quandary is that everyone expects me to “modernize” their worship, but all I want to do is allow my ‘de-modernization’ to come to fruition. There is something to strophic forms sung to familiar melodies with minimal accompaniment. It is less fanatically emotional, but I feel that the emotion it provides is more authentic, more edifying and even more loving in the corporate context. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one.

    1. J. Clark says:

      David, I like your distinction. I’m curious, what do you do with the musicians in your congregation? Don’t use them? How do you teach people to worship with your instruments? I like your angle but it angles down so fast it leaves out musicians. Maybe I’m looking for more of an arch. Good discussion.

    2. David says:

      We actually use a full band and pipe organ with hymnals interspersed throughout the service. We don’t believe that separating the services based upon worship preferences is making the right statement and provides no opportunity for forbearance and humility. We understand that many people have differing preferences and we try to meet them while educating them, not on what style is best, but on what attitude and frame of heart is best when our preferred style is not being played,. We encourage them to lay down their preferences for God’s purpose. So, when it’s “their turn” to lay down their preferences (pipe organ playing, or band playing) then they don’t confuse the frame for the picture and are able to join in worship in spirit and truth rather than just in a context of personal preference and half-truths.

      1. J. Clark says:

        I like. Well articulated. Truth and Spirit is the best guide for worship. I have heard debates all day long on whether one should worship in Jerusalem or on Gerizim.

  15. Jeremy O says:

    To echo what Mark McCulley linked, T. David Gordon has an insightful article that resinates much with what James K.A. Smith wrote. The link:

  16. Pingback: A disciple's study
  17. Nick says:

    One quick way to know that a congregation doesn’t have a Biblical view of worship: if they clap after a worship song, they are acting as spectators rather than as worshippers.

    1. Sometimes applause is not conducive to worship, but not always.

      Sometimes we clap in my church. Music can be used a few different ways. Two prominent ways that are both participatory are in corporate singing and “special music”. For special music, the idea is that an individual or group has put together something that not everyone can do for the purpose of presenting scripture, praise, teaching, or testimony in the context of music. Applause may be appropriate to demonstrate corporate acceptance of the material and affirmation of the work God has done through the individuals toward our worship.

      In corporate worship, applause in my church is typically shared by the choir and orchestra. We’re not applauding our own efforts. We’re applauding God. Normally, this is after a song proclaiming who God is or thanking God for what he’s done.

  18. Brittney says:

    I would have to respectfully disagree that worship occurs when we as a congregation can hear ourselves. It is so much more worshipful when people can sing with abandon knowing the band is covering wrong words, wrong notes and Aunt Bertha’s flat harmony. The sound of the praise band is Grace so we can all worship loudly without self-consciousness. I love that!

  19. All this discussion about what is appropriate in corporate worship has two different tracks of consideration.

    The first track is that regardless of what style of music is or isn’t done in worship is irrelevant when what is important is whether individuals are genuinely directing their praise toward God. You can do everything right, vis the regulative principle or some such, and still fail to worship God. You can crank up the volume to some Christian metal or rap music and still worship God.

    The second track, however, is the considerations ministers of worship must take into consideration when leading a diverse gathering of people in worship. At this point, choice of style becomes a “meat sacrificed to idols” issue. The difficulty comes when, as we often see in western churches, you have some people whose consciences are offended by traditional music and other people who are offended by contemporary music. You can’t seem to worship without offending someone. At this point, you have to start teaching in such a way as to soften each up toward the other. Too much weak faith causing too many offended consciences is a destructive thing in a church. Part of the reason Paul wrote about meat offered to idols was to gently give people who were offended a lesson that they were being offended too easily.

    1. Jim,
      I like how you put that my brother, thanks!

  20. Evan says:

    You could just do as the church in the first century did and worship WITHOUT instruments. That would completely solve all of these issues. There is a reason the church sang A Capella for 600 years after its inception.

    1. Charles says:

      Augustine relates in his Confessions, that it was Bishop Ambrose that first brought singing itself into the church in c.400. So not only did the early church not have instruments, Christians (at least in the West) didn’t even sing!

      1. J. Clark says:

        Far from truth. There are plenty of historical records of early worship in the first 300 years in the east and west.

  21. M. says:

    So #1 if you’re deaf you’re not a worshiper because you can’t hear yourself? #2 if you’re mute you’re not a worshiper because you can’t sing along? #3 if the band is in the front of the auditorium it’s not worship? Isn’t all our worship directed toward God? Isn’t that melody in our heart as Ephesians 5:19 states? We (individually and corporately) are not the audience so the evidence of our participation is just that…evidence and not worship itself.

    Extreme examples of logical conclusions but just another helpful reminder that our musings about worship must be taken as opinions and attempts at contextualization when they are not specifically outlined in Scripture.

  22. Ed Smith says:

    It’s an interesting guess at what might occur with some people, but hardly accurate when generalizing for the masses. I agree that if the music is at such a volume that you can’t hear the message that follows, we need to tone it down a little. However to say that when any change in music expectation occurs, the body becomes inactive is simply not true. Music is like a universal language. It generates emotion on a level that words cannot create on their own. A song or tone played can express an emotion that is felt by anyone of any background from any country regardless of race or language barriers. It is a part of us. And how do you define expectation? By the person who has sat in church since the 1930’s? (what church? for that matter.) or the person who is visiting for the first time, or a new christian who has never heard a hymn of any type? It is not accurate to assume that a change in a song renders worshipers unable to worship and inactive. Those who come to worship, worship regardless of what happens during a song, or whether a microphone cuts out during a message or whether there is a baby crying so loud that it drowns out the speaker. Those who do not come to worship occupy thier time finding fault with those who are actively worshiping. Just to give an example, I agree with and find the lyrics of “Revelation Song”, by Phillips Craig & Dean, and the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” to be true, compelling and worshipful. That being said, Revelation Song can bring me to tears as a grown man and the other does not move me simply because of the tune. But I worship anyway and am greatful for music. A worship service becomes a performance the same way things that are by all other measure right, become wrong….by the condition of the hearts of those who participate. When people desire to please God and play music that He be glorified, then He will be glorified and worship happens. Therefore even a concert that is truely a concert can be a service of worship and vice versa.

    1. Ed. that was well said my brother.

  23. lanny says:

    there is a big difference between sunday worship and a worship concert. it is nice to see how many of us share the same concerns about this issue.

  24. Woody Bailey says:

    A number of years ago we attended a wedding and after the ceremony they had a young “worship leader” who led the congregation in worship. He is quite well known among Charismatic circles but wasn’t well known then. He went off somewhere by himself into some music he had written and began to worship in the spirit but the vast majority of people there weren’t “where he was spiritually” and didn’t understand his “level” of worship. I had to think of that experience when I read your second point.

  25. Aaron says:

    I don’t think the author meant to be dogmatic; rather, the points he brings up can function as a means by which we examine our attitudes towards worshipping God. At the end of the day, the heart of worship is about the heart and who knows the heart of the worshipper/congregation but God alone.

    Having said that, I think the fruit of the worship service can be seen and thus gives an indication to whether it’s accomplishing its purpose.

    Are God’s people encouraged and edified? Are God’s people convicted of sin and do they experience the grace of God’s forgiveness? Are God’s people growing in maturity, holiness, love? Are God’s people being sent out on His mission?

    These questions can indicate to us whether or not the worship encounter is where people are meeting the Holy Spirit, worshipping Jesus and glorifying the Father.

  26. Vinnie Dauer says:

    I apologize if this has already been addressed, but on the last
    point, wouldn’t the logical end of that reasoning be that preachers shouldn’t be up front either? Being visible to the congregation as a leader doesn’t seem to be inherently problematic.

  27. Jacob says:

    I think the type of song that is sung is very important as well. I believe there is a difference between worship songs and Christian music. Lyrics are a good place to look to figure out what kind of a song it is

  28. Dave Whitman says:

    In the Russian Orthodox Church the choir is usually on a balcony completely out of sight, it seems like the voices come from heaven! The only problem is the liturgy is in an archaic language, which severely limits participation.

  29. Jason Raven says:

    I have heard a lot of interesting views and comments here, so thank you. My view on the difference between concert and worship music is the focus. Congregational music used to written with very obvious metre and rhyme, meaning simply that the old hymns we’re easy to learn and remember, and much of the time they conveyed solid doctrine. This made it easy to learn truth and to sing it to yourself during the week, not just in Church. Some of the more modern songs now are more difficult to keep up with, due to having bridges in and sections where you cannot tell when the next part is going to come in. When I hear things like this I find myself thinking that it was made as a song for a group to play rather than a congregation to worship with primarily, and I see a confusion and compromise. I have no real problem listening to Christian artists singing, but there is a small possibility that people can get used to the limelight, and begin to like the attention of being important. I have noticed certain artists albums seem more genuine on their first one, and can then begin to sound a little less so as time goes by and they produce more. Perhaps they are getting used to being loved for what they do?
    I have also seen people who are involved in the worship group parading as though they wished they were in a rock band, which saddens me greatly. I can’t help but think their primary thoughts are not focussed on bringing glory to God. There are times when the songs that have been chosen just sound like emotionalism, and don’t feel like the heart of worship is in them. I find it difficult to participate then, but sometimes just speak the words quietly in a prayer, as it feels as though the way it is being sung and presented has taken the heart right out of it.
    As for the sound guys… I have been involved in sound previously, and my experience is a mixed bag. I kind of agree with the comment about being able to worship with abandon due to no one being able to hear me, but I am far too regularly in a service where volume seems to be the main concern, rather than clarity.

  30. Mary N. says:

    Sorry, but this article really made me sad. While I agree with point 3, I strongly disagree with both points 1 and 2. My understanding of communal worship is that it is the body of believers coming together into the presence of God, facilitated by the worship leaders/band. For the musically challenged (of which I am one of them – I usually need to hear a new worship song about five times before I can attempt to sing it), the last thing we want to do is actually hear ourselves sing. Nothing shuts me down quicker in worship than having a low sound level. I can worship far more freely when I’m not self-conscious about having to hear myself or *gasp* be heard by anyone other than God Himself. In the same way, a worship band that provides the occasional instrumental riffs and music that doesn’t have to be sung to brings my heart and mind into God’s presence with far less stress than having to learn another new song.

  31. I will simply say that the criticism of the modern/contemporary worship I fear comes from as much jealousy from traditional worship fans as it does from actual scriptural critique.
    Our church organ can and often (unintendedly I hope) drown out the congregation. The hymns with King James Style language are sung but completely misunderstood or sung with no meaning because of the arcane language. And as far as being “singable” most hymns in our Reformed hymnal are incredibly hard to sing, hard to follow and in typical 4 parts which a baritone like me must find a harmony as the melody is out of my range.

  32. Mark says:

    “If Bethlehem is not ‘singing and making melody to the Lord with [our] heart,’ (Ephesians 5:19), it’s all over.”

    Heart. Not mouth. The verse seems to indicate it’s about what we feel in our heart, not the volume that comes out of our mouth. Now the volume may get in the way of some individual’s worshipful heart and feelings of melody, but it might also encourage those feelings in others.

    I would also disagree with the second point that if you can’t sing or follow along you are incapable of worshiping. That would indicate that learning new songs renders us incapable of worship, at least temporarily. OR if the church uses a screen to show the congregation the words of song and we aren’t wearing our glasses that we cannot feel worshipful.

    Is worship the volume and the words and all the other physical aspects? Or is it more about the heart?

    The third point I mostly agree with. If the focus is the musicians and singers then it is likely difficult for others to keep their focus where it should be, though not necessarily impossible.

    Though, actually, “When the praise band goes into long riffs that [they] might intend as ‘offerings to God'” we the congregation do not ALL become “utterly passive”. The music is often the part that helps me, personally, feel most worshipful. Sadly that is also the part I have always found most lacking in traditional and modern music. It is often forced to the background, instead of being allowed to exist as a demonstration of the skills and talents God has blessed people with, as well as a demonstration of how blessed we are to have senses like hearing and a brain capable of deciphering complex and beautiful things. That is not what speaks to everyone, and that is fine. But it does speak to me immeasurably.

  33. Micheal Allen says:

    So at first glance I agree. I agree that worship should not be a show. I have been turned off when visiting a church that is showy in this fashion due to being in the military and having to relocate my family. But I think like many things in scripture when it talks about the heart, this is where the focus is vital and central. This is where I disagree. I can say that at a Mercy Me concert, which is very loud, I have been lead to the presence of my Savior. That is because at the heart of Mercy Me, their heart is to lead those in attendance to the throne of God. I think the heart of the person leading is key.

    1. Bruce says:


      You hit on precisely the crucial issue: Music is a gift of God created to adorn the pageant of life. Musical score should support and magnify the activity at hand. Those who are looking for the creator will glorify Him when music is composed, arranged and performed to support the setting and theme of a life event.

      There are musical scores suited to funerals, birthday parties, football games, war, courtship, weddings and sex. All have their place and situation.

      What the modern Charismatic Liturgy has done is import contemporary musical preference (which has a heavy bent toward sensuality and diminishes congregational participation) into corporate worship.

      Many people love Praise Music. But to demand that it co-opt corporate worship is counterproductive.




  34. Joseph says:

    Why do we use the terms worship and music interchangably as if they are synonyms? Is not prayer worship? Is not the preaching worship? How about the Offering? In my congregation, I am the worship leader but I do not lead the music. In my Biblical study on worship, I have found that music is not an essential element of Christian worship. It can be a part of congregational worship but you can have Biblical corporate worship without it. The essential elements are fist the attitude of humility and service towards God that we have. The essential acts of corporate worship that I find in the Bible are Prayer and Preaching of the Word. In my study of what the early churches did, I found descriptions of congregational worship. They prayed, read the Word and had preaching but no mention of music at all. Was no one worshipping in the early churches? I say they were probably worshipping better than most churches in America are today.

Comments are closed.

Search this blog


Justin Taylor photo

Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

Justin Taylor's Books