It is a question I have been asking and thinking through for years. It really started while sitting behind the drum set, doing yet another rehearsal, preparing to play a new song by a band whose worship album was the go-to music pre-service. Not only was their music refreshing and new and stylistically pleasing, but the lyrics were great, too. Reading the words we were singing really stirred a spirit of worship inside of me.
But as I began to pull back the curtain and discover more about this particular church, I grew dismayed at what I was learning. I saw the pastor and church leadership teaching and facilitating things that were not only awkward or uncomfortable, but decidedly wrong per Scripture. I soon learned that there seemed to be a massive divide between this church’s worship team and how they propelled me into worship, and this pastor and church leadership and how they deterred me from worship.
Then, before I knew it, multiple bands were adopting the same kind of worship model. The music was top-notch, even the lyrics were great, but they were associated with churches I fundamentally disagreed with on doctrine. And we’re not talking about mere, minor details here. Resurrections of ancient heresies, vibrant mysticism, even borderline cultic practices. It was like a movement was happening, where churches with deplorable doctrine were coupled with worship bands who were writing and performing great songs that every college ministry and church plant grabbed a hold of. You have probably heard of a handful of these bands. I have decided not to name any specifically here, but would be glad to clarify elsewhere if necessary (see point 3 below).
So I wrestle with the questions. How do I think about the reconciliation of these two seemingly polar opposites, especially when the two parties are actually one unit in essence? Should I listen to such songs, should our worship teams lead congregations in these songs, should we promote these songs? As Paul might say, are these things lawful, and if so, are they helpful?
The tension is great. But as I have had conversations with worship leaders and pastors and friends about this issue, I come here today not to solve the problem for us, but to offer some guiding principles for how we should perhaps think through it all.
1. God desires genuine, God-centered worship of all shapes and sizes.
As Psalm 149 points out, there are many ways we offer worship to God. For some, it’s “dancing” (v. 3a), others are “singing” (v. 1a), others are playing instruments (v. 3b). We even worship the Lord by assembling together (v. 1b). There are many ways we worship (though not all of us are dancers or singers!).
When it comes to this particular topic, we should know that any song, band, music, poem, art, offering, and so on that is centered on giving God the glory is nothing to be bashful of. Maybe one church’s doctrinal stances feel too much for you to bear. If so, you probably won’t be able to worship well at one of their band’s concerts, or buying their album, so I would advise against that.
However, if you find that, for example, you’re able to worship genuinely to such songs, what fault is there? I would say, a great diagnostic to run on a particular song/band you find living in this tension is to ask yourself:
(1) Does this song point my eyes to God and His glory?
(2) Is this song theologically accurate and consistent with the Bible’s teachings?
(3) Am I able to sing this song without becoming sinfully distracted by this tension?
If you’re able answer “Yes” to these, you’re likely in the clear.
One more thing: Sometimes God uses secular means to draw us into worship, and that’s okay. There’s some good theology in You Can’t Get What You Want by the Rolling Stones. This doesn’t give us the freedom to make excuses for sin in secularism (see point 4), but it allows us to see that what makes a song worshipful is if it stirs us to genuine God-centered worship. An important point to remember is the theology of the written song is not always explicitly indicative of the theology of the preacher, or the distinctives of the church, and vice versa. Just because Charles Wesley is an Arminian doesn’t mean Calvinists cannot benefit from his hymns.
2. Leading worship requires the utmost amount of discernment.
There is a strong difference, in my opinion, between being a mere listener of such songs and being a performer of these songs, and the key difference is the importance of discernment. As a former worship leader, I know it is crucial to always think through what comes from the stage, and typically that begins with the worship team before the preacher. Discernment is a critical element of the worship leader’s job in every way.
When it comes to thinking about singing songs written by churches preaching questionable doctrine, worship leaders should think similarly through this diagnostic test, not only for themselves but for the congregation. Does this song point them to Christ? Can they sing this song without sinful distraction?
If there is uneasiness in any way surrounding these questions, it’s probably best to avoid leading congregations in these songs. They will sense uneasiness about the songs if it is in you. The beauty is, there is a vast amount of songs out there, and thousands upon thousands of songs that we can readily affirm without question. They may not be the hot new song on the radio, but they will stir your congregation to right worship (which is the point, after all).
3. Clarification is never wrong.
A good friend of mine recently asked me if I had heard the newest album of one of these kinds of bands, which is very charismatic. I told him I had not, and immediately qualified my uneasy feelings about this particular church. I was hesitant to jump the gun with it, because I felt like I had ruined something good for him.
I didn’t think about it until recently, but I think my clarification was really helpful in the long run. He had a very unhealthy church background in a Charismatic church. If I had given an endorsement without clarification, he very well could have felt those tremors of old again, and been even more discouraged that someone he trusted advocated for these things he was against. Our openness about the situation led to more conversation about church life, his experiences, his love for our church, and music in general.
In short, clarification is never wrong. No one will fault us for being too clear. And in such murky situations as these, we need all the qualifying and clarifying we can get. The goal in clarification is not unnecessary gossip or beating dead horses, but in striving for healthy conversation about tough topics.
4. Grace was given to David, but wasn’t license for more sin.
After I spent some time being critical about one of these churches, a pastor friend of mine reminded me, gently, that we don’t hesitate to sing songs penned by David in the Psalms, a man who forced another woman into an affair and had her husband murdered. We must take time to remember grace in this matter. It is easy to rail against these kinds of churches for their doctrine, their experience-driven worship, etc., but sheer cynicism is a weak and shallow understanding of grace. Even a David-like figure, in God’s eyes, deserved grace, and we can do more of the same toward others.
To add to this, David’s receiving God’s grace was not permission to sin. God’s kindness is meant to lead us to repentance (Rom. 2:4). There’s a point to it. In thinking through these churches and what they sing or preach, let’s be willing to be gracious, but not using grace as an applause for their continued sin. If real and true sin is present, let us be bold enough to continue to stand against those things, all the while pleading with God to change hearts. But we must not confuse a matter of sin with a matter of preference or envy.
5. God is the Searcher of hearts.
Finally, and thankfully, God is the only One capable of knowing the true intentions and motivations that drive these bands and churches, and our hearts as well. He is a Perfect Searcher. He is the Ultimate Discerner. This is freeing for us. We don’t have to be (so let’s not be) the black-robed judge making the call on whose heart is true in worship. Leave God to this humanly-impossible task.
Further, let us use this as an opportunity to ask God to search our hearts (as He is already doing without our invitation anyway). Let worship leaders ask for wisdom in their discernment. Let us seek God-centered worship in our own lives, and ways to extend grace to others, while upholding truth. Let us enter these conversations with the right attitude; not one of hostility and condemnation, as I’m guilty of, but one on retaining gospel truth and loving our neighbor.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Rom. 12:1)