Missing the Point: On Pop Music in Christian Worship

Liquid Church is one of the fastest growing mega churches in the state of New Jersey. They recently made waves by announcing a new message series entitled “Pop God.” During this series the church’s worship band will be leading the congregation with songs by Adele, Bruno Mars, Cee-Lo, and the Foo Fighters. Anticipating some blowback from these selections, the church leaders announced some justification for this departure from the norm.

Lead pastor Tim Lucas claims the “heartbroken torture” of the Adele song Rolling in the Deep will allow his listeners to connect with the tone of the book of Hosea – which features the prophet Hosea’s tumultuous marriage to a prostitute named Gomer.

He went on to say churches can either reject the dominant culture or redeem it. The Christian sub-culture is disconnected from the broader world. By bringing these songs into worship the church is redeeming the dominant culture.

Ultimately, playing these songs is about connecting with a wider audience. Lucas says the church is trying, “to live in that tension of the weight of theology, but making it accessible to [as] wide [a] variety of audiences as possible.”

It would be interesting to have a further conversation with Lucas and find out how the “weight of theology” has influenced their worship. The desire to redeem culture and connect with a wider audience is certainly commendable. A passion for evangelism and relating God’s Word to the average American is necessary for any church. Yet, in the case of pop music in worship, it seems like cultural relevance is a bus and theology is the unlucky possum that crossed the road at the wrong time.

Should churches use pop music in a worship service? Should they use non-Christian pop music? Should the congregation sing it? To answer these questions we must turn to a definition of the corporate worship of the church.

John Stott defines true worship as follows:

All true worship is a response to the self-revelation of God in Christ and Scripture and arises from our reflection on who He is and what He has done. The worship of God is evoked, informed and inspired by the vision of God.

Bob Kauflin defines the task of a worship leader in his book Worship Matters:

A faithful worship leader magnifies the greatness of God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit by skillfully combining God’s Word with music thereby motivating the gathered church to proclaim the gospel, to cherish God’s presence, and to live for God’s glory.

David Peterson depicts corporate worship in his book Engaging with God:

The gathering of the church is meant to be an anticipation of the heavenly or eschatological assembly of God’s people. It is to be characterized by worship or divine service in the form of prayer and praise directed to God and in the form of ministry to one another… We gather together to encourage one another to live out in everyday life the obedience that glorifies God and furthers His saving purposes in the world.

Corporate worship is founded on who God is and what He has done, is doing, and will do and on our response to Him (Ps. 21:13, 99:3, 105:2, 117:1-2). It is not only praise directed to God, but it is also the body of Christ building one another up by declaring and celebrating truth corporately (Eph 4:19).

Adele’s song Rolling in the Deep is about the heartbreak of a broken relationship, assigning blame to the other person for wrong doing and desiring to inflict pain on them. A number of things in the song encourage harmful and sinful approaches to relationships that run counter to what the Bible teaches (Matt. 5:44). Should a congregation be building one another up with the “truth” of Adele?

Furthermore, the song says nothing of the character of God, what He has done, or our response to Him. It doesn’t magnify the greatness of God in Jesus Christ. It doesn’t utilize the Word of God. It doesn’t proclaim the gospel or lead people into the presence of God. It doesn’t exalt the glory of God. So the song cannot be used to praise God – unless that god is ultimately oneself.

The problem with using pop music – and sometimes even Christian pop music – in worship is that it fails to conform to any of the purposes of worship. Worship is centered on God; the Billboard top 40 is not centered on God. That’s not to say it’s necessarily wrong to enjoy it, simply that it does not belong in the worship of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Some may object – isn’t evangelism a purpose of worship? Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:24-25:

…if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.

Evangelism is a purpose of worship. But notice when the outsider enters worship, the congregation convicts the person, calls them to account, and reveals God to them. This cannot be accomplished if worship is simply a reflection of the culture the outsider comes from. It is the discontinuity of our worship with the dominant culture that makes it convicting. Our words and worship should be intelligible to outsiders, but if worship blends in completely with the surrounding culture there will be nothing left to convict and call them to account. We don’t see outpourings of salvation and repentance at Foo Fighters’ concerts. Why would we expect the same songs to bring different results in a worship setting?

We worship God in response to who He is and what He has done. We worship God because of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We worship God through the power of His Holy Spirit at work in our lives. We worship God to build up our fellow Christians in the truth of His Word. This is why we gather to sing with the body of Christ.

Could we attract more people by singing Cee-Lo’s “Forget You” like Liquid Church? Maybe. But the New Testament never commands us to pack a church building; it commands us to glorify God by making disciples. I have a feeling God will be glorified and more disciples made as the church joins in singing “In Christ Alone” than a song that degrades those who may have wronged us in a relationship. Just sayin.

Brian

(image credit)

3 thoughts on “Missing the Point: On Pop Music in Christian Worship

  1. Well said, Brian. I fear we’ve traded genuine worship for the conveinence of modern culture. Shaping your musical style to conincide with culture isn’t a terrible thing in and of itself. But shaping your words and content is. Over the last few years, I’ve gained a newfound appreciation for the old hymns that I once shunned as I searched for something “new” in worship. Now I see the value in using the time of music in corporate worship to teach the Word and to work alongside the preaching of the Bible to communicate the Gospel. Too many “modern” worship songs tend to focus solely on our response to God rather than the source and genesis of that response – God Himself and His revelation of Himself to us through the Bible.

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