It's NOT Time to Boycott the Worship Industry; It's Just Time to Worship

Recently, an article by Jonathan Aigner is popping up regularly on my Facebook thread: It's Time to Boycott the Worship Industry. In it, he gives five points attacking modern church music and the way it is done. If you want to get to my point by point rebuttal, you can scroll to the bottom, but I thought I would lay some groundwork first.

There is no biblical mandate about singing a certain style of songs in church, especially songs that were written in the 1800s, early 1900s, or the 1950s.  These were not written during the time of Christ, and they are not the hymns referred to in Ephesians 5:18b-19.  "Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart" (Ephesians 5:18-19 ESV). So it may say hymns in the Bible, but let's not pretend these are the hymns referred to by Paul in his letter to the Christian in Ephesus.

The words of many of the hymns are beautiful, inspiring, and are definitely worth singing, but a church is not right or wrong with God because they choose to sing hymns or choose to sing some more modern style. Some modern songs also have great words, and I'm cynically confident there will be people arguing to sing them in fifty years, long after they are out of style.

If a church could be more relevant to the culture around them by using a certain music style that is in the specific language of the people, then they should do that whether that music style is their personal preference or not. Because when it comes down to it, we should be willing to discard any tradition that is not based on Scripture if it will help us be more effective ambassadors of God's kingdom. Clinging to traditions that we like at the cost of alienating those outside of the church is exactly what all of the great reformers rebelled against.

Martin Luther was one such great reformer. He fought for the language used in translations of the Bible and the language spoken from the pulpit to be in the language of the people.  He considered it folly that the church attempted to instruct the masses in a language that they did not understand.  There was nothing productive that would come from people participating in an empty ritual of listening to a message they could not understand and connect with. Needless to say, the ritual would not be empty if they knew the Latin, but church isn't designed just for those who were educated enough to know Latin. The gathering should be done in a way to connect with everyone.

The same is true with the style of music. An outdated style, no matter how wonderfully and beautifully crafted, can be as great of a "language barrier" as a foreign language.  If the church is not using a style that can be found on the non-Christian radio dial, then we expect a person seeking God to crash through a specific and unnecessary cultural barrier in our church. I remember being a seeker in a worship service and being touched by God during the culturally relevant worship service; music that really is no longer culturally relevant. I would be wrong to say that those songs that touched my heart should be the ones we use today because they should still be able to touch hearts just the same. And the song that really touched my heart wouldn't even be the same songs that the crowd celebrating the boycott worship article want to go back to singing; it was Audio Adrenaline's Big House. I know I should be embarrassed about that. The purpose of worship in church is to instruct and bring people into the presence of God. Those missions are hampered if the music is not culturally relevant.

We are not in the kingdom of God to please ourselves. It is all about God: Glorifying Him, bringing about His will, and bringing people to Him. If there are any obstacles to the Gospel, let it not be some tradition that we enjoy. Let us make sure that it is Jesus' radical demands on people's lives and never allow any tradition to get between that message of Jesus and the seeker. The traditions we personally enjoy should be quickly and lovingly tossed aside when necessary for the greater good of the reaching others.

But we still have a serious dilemma. We are a nation fragmented into a plethora of subcultures. Some like one style of music. Others like another. While others like another. You could probably go down a block from house to house and every house has a different style of music that they like.

Can the church exist like it is and thrive in a society of various subcultures? Should the culture of one's audience matter when deciding what activities to do at the Sunday gathering and other activities the church participates in?

I'll take a shot at the last question first. Whether we acknowledge it or not, our Sunday gathering and other church activities are influenced by our culture or the culture of the group that planted the church we attend. Often, the things of our culture are a cultural blind spot to us; we don't view them as cultural. Many things, from the music style and songs to the style of preaching, are purely a choice of culture. Other activities can be cultural too. We don't realize how much culture influences our setting because we have always resided in our culture. The way we do things seems to us to be the unquestionable right way to do these things.

That is what a common culture provides. Everyone in the culture agrees with the right way to do things. However, once the culture fragments like our culture has, what used to be the common way to do things is no longer common to everyone.

There are some essential elements to being the church. These should never be strayed from. Sadly, most groups of Christians try to say that what makes them different is an essential when it is actually just a cultural opinion. Then they hold onto that cultural opinion and refuse to change it. It would be a glorious day if Christians could come to an agreement on what are the essentials.

Can the church exist like it is and thrive in a society of various cultures? To answer this question, I think it would be fair to ask if an American missionary to Africa would thrive if they cared less about the African culture. Can we just transplant "American" churches around the world without changing for the culture and expect them to be effective? Because a lot of people are in a cultural time warp, doing things in a style that was relevant to culture twenty, thirty, fifty, or a hundred years ago. They are like the American in my little illustration, seeking to do church in a foreign culture without understanding that foreign culture and adapting what they can without compromising the Gospel to that foreign culture.

All cultural things of the church can change except for where they cross the line into sin or prevent us from being the loving people we are to be (the other side of sin that seems to be ignored). We are not servants to or ambassadors of any culture; we are solely servants and priests of the kingdom of God. If our cultural practices must change in order for us to be the servant that God wants us to be, then we should gladly change.

Tradition can be detrimental to us fulfilling our mission.. There is nothing inherently wrong with tradition until the love of doing things in a traditional way prevents us from effectively reaching the culture around us.

Likewise, change can be detrimental to us fulfilling our mission. There is nothing inherently wrong with change until we like change so much that we morph into a church that is foreign to the culture around us.

The future of the church depends upon us being sensitive to what God wants the church to be. We must not hold on to any sacred cows but the essentials. It is our calling to be priests to the culture around us. And in so doing, the church will change, yet still remain, at its core, the same.

With that said, I now come to the point of dealing with the five points in the article.

1. "It’s time to boycott the worship industry because money shouldn’t drive what churches sing."

Money doesn't drive what churches sing. Churches sing what they want to sing. However, artists do get compensated for what churches sing. Just yesterday, we received our bill for our CCLI license. It's fair for people who create what we sing to be compensated for their work.

2. "It’s time to boycott the worship industry because it creates its own idols."
Maybe worship creates idols among some. I have no idea who the image is of in the article. He doesn't use a caption to tell me. I guess she is an idol to a few. I think church culture has a much larger problem of idolizing preachers (Tim Keller, Joel Osteen, John Piper, Francis Chan, and Rob Bell at one time) than it does with idolizing musicians. And did someone mention money? If we're talking about boycotting anyone because of point one, maybe it should be these authors. These authors rake in the money. But how much money the creator of something makes is not a good criteria to evaluate whether something is useful or not.

3. "It’s time to boycott the worship industry because the congregation’s voice should be primary." 
I don't care whose voice is primary. In our church, the congregation's voice is. But I just had a comment the other day after a person went to Winter Jam that they sang better to louder music. One of the not so great things about being a pastor is that everyone has an opinion on worship, and we can't make them all happy despite wanting to. To me, the issue is ultimately people worshiping. If louder music helps, then good for loud music. If quiet music and candlelight help, hurrah for quiet music and candlelight. The volume of the music is a tool. Nothing more. Nothing less.

4. "It’s time to boycott the worship industry because emotionalism is not worship."
God made us with emotions. Some of us are wired differently. Personally, I don't even enjoy singing along or dancing. You can take me to a concert of my favorite band. I won't clap. I know all the lyrics, yet I won't sing. I will just stand there. I will appreciate it all thoroughly. We are all wired differently. Some people want the emotion. I don't think that's wrong unless they begin to worship the emotion. Others, like me, could care less about the emotion. But let us not make our emotional preference a criteria to attack others.

5. "It’s time to boycott the worship industry because simply being a silently dissatisfied customer won’t fix anything."

The worship wars are back. I hate this. It's been a good fifteen years in the Christian world without the worship wars. I understand that people want to worship in a way that they enjoy with the music they appreciate (or maybe think is sacred and the only kind appropriate to use). But I'm not going to enjoy the pushback that I may get as a pastor to use a different style than the one that our musicians choose to use. My personal view is that the music style should be in the language of the people.

And one more thing. You aren't a customer. That's where this whole argument goes astray. Customers want what they want, and they view things in a cost/benefit equation. It steers the whole conversation in a wrong direction. You are not a customer; you're an ambassador for God's kingdom. A good ambassador in a foreign land gets to know the culture around them. They try to influence that culture for their homeland. We have a same mission. We are not customers. We are ambassadors of the kingdom of the most high God.