Jesus Is The Feast

1There’s a line of thinking from those who prefer traditional forms of worship/music that goes something like this:

Contemporary worship is like dessert. It’s sweet, appealing, and easy, but not long-lasting. It might bring people in, but it won’t keep them nourished. It might bring immediate satisfaction, but it isn’t healthy. Traditional worship and more classical forms of music are more like a feast. It’s like the difference between plasticware and fine china. Traditional hymns and classical instrumentation require a more refined, mature, and discerning pallet. We can’t have the sounds of the world in our church services. We must move people beyond the dessert and into the feast. Only then will our congregations experience the “real thing”.

On the flip side, there’s a line of thinking from those who prefer contemporary forms of worship/music that goes something like this:

Traditional worship is all religion, all ritual, and all routine. Classical forms of music are irrelevant to most people in our culture, and the traditional hymns don’t engage people’s hearts like contemporary songs do. No one can relate to choirs, organs, hymns, or hymnals. If you want to help people really worship – not just with their minds but with their hearts – you’ll use the more accessible contemporary songs. And if you want to draw in the younger generation, you’ll use the kinds of music they’re used to hearing. Contemporary music feeds people and meets people where they are. Traditional worship starves people and leaves them cold.

I’ve heard both of these arguments for almost my entire life. My guess is that most of you have too, and you’ve probably made one (or both) of these arguments at one point or another. The problem, of course, is that they’re both ridiculously off-base.

Why? Because Jesus is the feast.

Few issues generate as much passion and division as the topic of music in the church. And for generations, scores of well-meaning and godly people have come down on all sides of the “is music neutral” or “is music non-neutral” argument. I tried to tackle some of this several years ago in my most “Handiwork and Jesus” but for now I want to make one simple point and give one simple reminder:

Jesus is the feast. And music is a tool. 

Music is not the feast. Our choirs, organs, harpsichords, festivals, liturgy, and soloists are not the feast. Our bands, screens, effects, lights, state-of-the-art worshiptoriums, and worship leaders are not the feast. When they are, and when we make them to be, then of course we can exalt or put-down the lesser-feast that we see down the road (or down the church hallway at the alternate service).

The Church must never forget that Jesus is the feast. Music (traditional or contemporary or hipster or whatever) is just a tool. A passing tool. A tool that will inevitably look like bell-bottoms to some future generation. But Jesus never fades, changes, or disappoints. Jesus always satisfies. May our churches embrace a confident, wide-range, biblical, and whole-hearted embrace of all sorts of styles of music as we seek to exalt and point to the One who calls us to feast on him.

Handiwork and Jesus

The barbarians are at the gate.

And they play the electric guitar.

This is the main point of the first chapter of Can We Rock the Gospel, by Dan Lucarini and John Blanchard, and it gets even better from there.

“…rock music is worldly, evil, and something to be avoided.”

“Rock music is a stumbling block and a scandal to many Christians today and it is dividing the church.”

“…What is undeniable about rock is its hypnotic power.”

“…using [rock] in God’s service is spiritually perilous.”

“There is music that reflects God’s glory and there is music that does not.”

“…Christian rockers are… imitating a music style that was created and inspired by men who… have rejected the God of the Bible.”

“The central paradigm of rock ‘n’ roll is a kind of voodoo… that’s far removed from the sober values of western culture.”

“…Put out the fire. Demonstrate once and for all your allegiance to Christ and your opposition to Satan by clearing these musicians’ material out of your life and out of your home.”

“If you are serious about being a disciple of Christ you should not lay yourself open to possible demonic influence through these records.”

“The throbbing beat of rock-and-roll provides a vital sexual release for its adolescent audience.”

“Anything that might help to create that kind of syndrome (proclivity towards drug addiction because of rock music) should be avoided like the plague.”

“Kids at a heavy metal concert don’t sit in their seats; they stand on them and move – it’s the spirit of rebellion.”

“Rock music and tattoos have also seemed to go hand in hand… some Christian teenagers are rushing to get a tattoo… in direct violation of the fifth commandment.”

“Under rock music, the secretion of hormones is more pronounced… which causes an abnormal imbalance in the body’s system… and impairs judgment.”

“The low frequency vibrations of the bass guitar, along with driving beat of the drum, affect the cerebrospinal fluid, which in turn affects the pituitary gland, which in turn directs the secretions of hormones in the body.”

“…The essence of the actual musical form tends to reproduce itself in human conduct.”

“Rock music… opens the door to psychological manipulation.”

And there are still five more chapters to go!

“’Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God’ (James 4:1). No Christian in his right mind would want to play around with this warning!”

“Can a rock ‘n’ roll song explain what is meant by God, sin, judgment, the death of Christ, repentance, faith, or justification? If not, how can it convey the gospel?”

“Can we truly touch peoples’ hearts by tickling their ears?”

“The drum trap set arrived on the platform about two months ago. The respect, reverence, and humility have vanished from our sanctuary.”

“Rock music in all forms is controversial, closely associated with ungodly behavior, and at times downright dangerous. Why then would Christian musicians choose it to accompany the praise and worship of God… to proclaim the gospel of his grace… risk causing false conversions and creating soft disciples… (and) choose to offend millions of other Christians”

“…in our times we are dealing with a troublesome style called rock…”

“Nowhere in the Bible does God command us to ‘redeem’ music, nor does Scripture give any examples of God’s people redeeming the evil music of a secular or pagan culture.”

“Music about God should be like God…”

“Would you expect to find this kind of music in heaven?”

“It is our conviction that rock music… is… contrary to the teaching of Scripture.”

“Turning your back on rock music would set you free from the need to wrench your church music away from its grubby associations from things such as rebelliousness, occultism, sexuality, and the drug culture.”

“By abandoning rock music… you would be free to experience an infinitely healthier dimension of Christian life and witness.”

“Time saved in advertising, planning, organizing, supporting, and attending gospel concerts, religious road shows and the like could be put to better use in activities that have clear New Testament backing.”

I could go on with more quotes but the basic gist of the argument is this: rock music is satanic in origin. The music itself is dangerous. It cannot be redeemed for God’s glory. It must not be used in church. It is unbiblical. Those who enjoy or employ this style of music do so at their own and at their congregation’s spiritual and literal peril.

Their stories are sad: people who fell into deep sin and for whom a hallmark of that period was the presence of rock music, pastors who forced a new style on a congregation, insensitive worship leaders, hurt congregation members, and the sad temptation for some Christian musicians to seek their own glory or wealth through performance.

Their warning is dire: rock music is destroying the church, endangering the proclamation of the Gospel, and has power over anyone exposed to its beat. The beat itself is evil. It was designed to induce rebellion. It is a tool of Satan and it must be resisted.

But their arguments are fatally and fundamentally flawed. It all boils down to how you view handiwork and how you view Jesus.

1. Handiwork
Music is God’s handiwork. And guess what? We have been given dominion over handiwork.

Harold Best says it excellently in his book Music Through the Eyes of Faith:

“As glorious as the creation is, it was merely created and not begotten. A strawberry, a galaxy, a dolphin, and a sea lion are not in the image of God. They are handiwork, pure and simple, thus of an entirely different order.

The next point is crucial. Having made the creation and having created us in his image, God has given us particular assignment that could not have been given to any other created beings. In telling Adam and Eve to rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground (Genesis 1:28), God was setting down a basic principle. Man and woman, created in the image of God… are neither the same as the rest of creation nor subject to it. While materially they can be outweighed by a mountain or overpowered by the force of the ocean, and while they are incapable of changing the speed of light, they cannot be morally, spiritually, or behaviorally overcome by anything in the creation around them.”

– The Creator Is Not the Creation and the Music Maker Is Not the Music, pg. 16

News flash, my Christian brother or sister: you have dominion over handiwork. Therefore, no beat, no chord progression, no rock band, no orchestra, no modulation, no snare drum pattern, no organ prelude, no electric guitar rhythm, and no brass trio has any power over you.

It would be absurd for me to look at a toaster and say to the person next to me: you better be careful standing next to that toaster. If it starts clicking to a certain rhythm, it will make you want to do drugs and have sex and rebel against God. It would be absurd because it would be granting a power to the toaster that it does not have. It would be making an idol out of the toaster to say that it has power over your actions.

We all know the power of music. The gift and the danger of it is that it moves us. All styles. All genres. All instruments. An unaccompanied chant can move us. A rock band can move us. Music moves us, and that’s how God (not the Rolling Stones) designed it. This is why anyone, whether it’s a choir conductor, a worship leader, an organist or a trombonist, must be careful. So God has given us the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:17), to help us steward his gifts (like music) with wisdom.

But it’s one thing to say music has power to manipulate our emotions and it’s an entirely different thing to say that music has power to manipulate our behavior, expose us to demonic influence, or keep us from proclaiming the Gospel. To quote Steve Brown, that’s a lie straight from the pit of hell and it smells like smoke.

The Christian has dominion over handiwork. Therefore, music does not have dominion over us. Even more therefore, the Christian can use any and all sorts of music to the glory of God. Nothing is outside the bounds. This is real freedom. And unless this makes you slightly uncomfortable, you probably don’t get it yet.

More from Harold Best:

“Let’s concentrate on something that almost never comes to mind: the music that Jesus heard and made throughout his life – the music of the wedding feast, the dance, the street, and the synagogue. As it turns out, Jesus was not a composer but a carpenter. Thus he heard and used the music made by other, fallen creatures – the very ones he came to redeem. The ramifications of this single fact are enormous. They assist in answering the questions as to whether music used by Christians can only be written by Christians and whether music written by non-Christians is somehow non-Christian. But for now, it is important to understand that even though we don’t know whether every piece of music Jesus used was written by people of faith, we can be sure that it was written by imperfect people, bound by the conditions of a fallen world and hampered by sinfulness and limitation. So even though we do not know what musical perfection is, we do know that the perfect one could sing imperfect music created by fallen and imperfect people, while doing so completely to the glory of his heavenly Father.”

– The Fall, Creativity, and Music Making, pgs. 18 and 19

Oh, how wonderfully freeing and exhilarating a thought: Jesus, the “perfect one”, the sinless, spotless, perfect Lamb of God, sang songs written by sinful people, in his generation, and he did so to his Father’s glory and pleasure.

God has given us music. It’s his handiwork. And he’s given us dominion over handiwork. If songs and melodies written by sinful men were still good enough for Jesus to sing, then we must not fear that we are in any danger because of them.

To say that a particular beat or genre or instrument can never be used to glorify God is to say that there are areas where God’s rule does not extend. And it is also to say that Jesus doesn’t offer full justification and redemption. And that leads to my final and most important point.

2. Jesus

“For by a single offering [Jesus] has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” Hebrews 10:14

One offering, once and for all (1 Peter 3:18), Jesus Christ crucified, makes me faultless before the throne (Jude 1:24), gives me confidence to approach the Father with confidence (Hebrews 10:19), not by my own merit (Ephesians 2:8), or because of my own efforts, but because I’ve been redeemed by Jesus (Romans 3:24).

Jesus covers all my sin. All of it.

And he covers all of my music too.

There is no indication in scripture that once you become a Christian and are “in Christ”, that is, reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:18), God’s pleasure with you or your offering is based any longer upon your own or your offering’s goodness. The purest we can make ourselves is still filthy before a holy God. The most innocent we can make our offerings is still not enough to prevent them from defiling his most holy place on their own.

Our selves and our offerings are covered by the blood of Jesus when we put our trust in him.

No music on its own is acceptable to God. Suppose you discovered a man on earth who had sinned the least. And this man had never heard any music before to corrupt his ears, never read any tawdry gossip to corrupt his mind, and never been tempted by an image. Suppose this man composed a beautiful symphony, performed by nearly-as-equally sinless as him. We can call this the most-pure musical offering that man can offer.

Now suppose you discover a worship leader who has committed his fair share of sins. He’s listened to all kinds of music, some good, some not so good, and some really good. He only knows a few chords and he really enjoys using those few chords to write simple worship songs and playing them with a band. There’s a drummer and bass player too. The genre could be classified as “rock”. They lead the singing at a church that meets in an old warehouse in Chicago. It gets a bit loud sometimes. We can call this the below-average not-terribly-refined, loosely rock ‘n’ roll offering.

Which of these gets closer to being acceptable to God on their own? The one composed by really good people? Or the other one that’s composed by a guy who listens to Coldplay and leads worship on the side as a volunteer? Which one pleases God more?

Answer: neither. God’s acceptance of an offering has absolutely nothing to do with that offering’s or the offerer’s goodness.

Our being accepted – and our music being acceptable – is 100% based on Jesus’ perfect sacrifice. We come to the Father through Jesus. Period. No other criteria. No other basis. No other questions asked.

We can’t make music perfect enough to please a perfect God.

In God’s eyes there is no “more acceptable” or “less acceptable”. Its all or nothing.

The good news of the gospel has far-reaching implications. Farther reaching than we might like to believe. So far that our music making is implicated.

Those who maintain that rock music cannot and should not be used in church are making a grievous mistake: they forget that Jesus is the only thing that makes our music and us acceptable to God.

God is great and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable (Psalm 145:3). Thrown into one giant pot, every worship team, choir, pipe organ, guitar, choir anthem, contemporary song, bass guitar pattern, trumpet descant, four chord progression, Handel’s Messiah, chant, sung Psalm, and drum set add up to about 1/900,000,000th of the glory God is due. His glory is unfathomable.

And so God says to us: here is music. Use it, and use it well. You have dominion over it. Use it to my glory. And here is my Son, he will redeem you and make a way for you to offer it in my very presence. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! (Psalm 150:6)

Don’t Take it Personally

Inevitably, those of us involved in leading worship will encounter criticism. And at some point, this criticism might be along the lines of: contemporary music is evil. Or, drums are of the devil. Or, I can’t stand that kind of music. Or, electric guitars were designed by aliens to one day destroy the earth.

OK, maybe not that last one, but you know what I’m saying.

There are many godly, sincere, good people who believe that contemporary music or anything related to it (drums, guitars, projecting lyrics, synthesizers, etc.) is not appropriate for use in church. Some of these people articulate their objections respectfully and kindly, while others are less generous in their distaste for the genre.

It can be difficult for contemporary musicians and those who believe that contemporary music can and should be used for God’s glory to know how to respond to the line of thinking that says just the opposite.

The number one mistake I have made when being faced with the argument that contemporary music is evil has been to take it personally.

In my mind, it goes like this: They don’t like acoustic guitars, I play acoustic guitar, therefore they don’t like me, and now I don’t like them.

Or: They think the rock beat is evil, I think they’re wrong, therefore they think I’m ignorant, and now I think they’re smug. And I still don’t like them.

And so on and so on. Now we have different members of the body of Christ who don’t really understand where the other is coming from, who are taking it all personally, and who can’t talk with each other.

I’ve read the books and listened to the arguments that seek to portray contemporary music as demonic at its core, or thoroughly inferior, or designed for the purposes of rebellion, or as the enemy of those who prefer traditional hymnody and classical music. I’m convinced they’re misguided on all counts, and that a biblical perspective on music encourages endless variety, stylistic pluralism, skillful execution, and spiritual discernment all for the glory of God.

But instead of hearing the criticism and responding with Christ-like patience and Spirit-enabled charity, I so often find myself responding out of sinful pride, and seeking to defensively protect my turf. It’s silly. I take it personally and in so doing, ensure that nothing fruitful happens.

To my fellow worship leaders, and contemporary musicians, let me encourage us to respond in three ways:

Understand where they’re coming from. Listen to their arguments, read their books, consider their concerns, and try to see them as God sees them.

Dialogue with them. We can learn from them, they can learn from us. It really shouldn’t be an “us versus them” thing anyway. Whatever we can do to stay unified by the Gospel, let’s do it.

Don’t take their concerns personally. It’s not about you, even if they think it is. Even in the face of mean-spirited criticism, respond with grace and understanding.

Justified or not, contemporary musicians have a reputation of being insensitive, untrained, not well-read, oblivious, callous, and boastful. When we’re presented with critique or criticism, we just shrug our shoulders, murmur under our breath, and turn the amps up louder. This is not good.

Instead, may we seek to be as approachable as possible, informed, aware of the sensitivities around us, and surprisingly willing to dialogue. Who knows, maybe electric guitars really are an alien invention…

Music Through the Eyes of Faith – Pt. 3

Are you the kind of musician who will only listen to, play, and utilize one style of music? Do you consider other forms of music beneath you? Do you look down on musicians who don’t have the same gifting as you do?

These two quotes towards the end of chapter 1 of Harold Best’s “Music Through the Eyes of Faith” might be helpful (and convicting). May God enable classically trained musicians to take joy in jazz, hip-hop musicians to take joy in Bach, and by-ear guitarists to take joy in organ music – all for the glory of God.

“When Jesus Christ became flesh, he became a part of the creation in exactly the same way that every human being has. That is, even though he was fully God, he came fully human… In a way, God was simplified. And as with so many simplicities, this deepens the mystery. While this emptying means everything to our redemption, it applies to our artistic and musical creativity with nearly equal force. An analogy may help. Let’s say that before Christ became human, he could be likened to a symphony, in all its complexity and power – magnificence carried out over a grand expanse. But when he became human, he became a folk tune, simple and shortened… His becoming a folk tone was not a compromise, a dilution, a put-down, or a thinning out… Becoming a folk tune was a uniqueness in itself, with its own wholeness, integrity, and usefulness. Putting it this way prevents us from saying that a folk tune is a thinned-out or reduced symphony. Rather, it is an emptied symphony, completely possessed of its own wholeness, integrity, and uniqueness… Each musician must come to experience the dignity, rightness, and eventual joy of putting things aside, of emptying oneself and taking the form of a servant. Such musicians must be able to move back and forth, gracefully, servingly, and willingly, from the symphony to the folk tune, back and forth without complaint, compromise, or snobbery, without the conceit that doing an oratorio is somehow more worthy or more deserving than doing a hymn tune. All servant musicians must be able to be in creative transit, serving this community and challenging that one, all the while showing grace, power, elegance, and imagination.”
The Incarnation, Human Creativity, and Music Making, pages 32 and 33

“Which is the greater mystery, that Christ is God or that he could empty himself while remaining God? Likewise, which is greatest mystery, that we are artistically creative or that we can remain just as fully creative while emptying ourselves?”
The Incarnation, Human Creativity, and Music Making, pg. 34

See part one and part two for more quotes.