Leading churches

Worship Is War

What large corporations understand better than many Christians.

April 13, 2023

The other day I spoke with my friend about Amazon’s Alexa, specifically the Echo device marketed to children for games and learning. My friend told me that his children’s Alexa would not play Christian worship music. He says there’s some deep parental setting you must toggle to allow it.  

I assume the reaction from many Christians might be to complain about growing anti-Christian bias, especially from big corporations. As my friend and I talked, I mentioned, “Alexa might not play worship music because Alexa recognizes worship music for what it really is—you know, like the C. S. Lewis line about ‘not safe but good.’”

This reflection about the good fight implies there are bad fights, the kinds of foolish effort that have sound and fury but, in the end, signify nothing of importance.

To be clear, I don’t think Amazon believes Christian worship music is good for society. As I did my own research on music filtering, I made a deeper dive into the child settings of our own Echo Dots. In the end, it seems the answer is more complex. You can filter music by setting certain age ranges on the device, but how content is deemed appropriate for certain ages remains somewhat veiled. I also learned certain religious songs can get caught in explicit filtering and that Alexa’s settings depend on associated streaming services like Apple and Spotify and how they rate music (here and here). 

Regardless, I do think large corporations understand what many pastors and parishioners forget: worship music is not safe. True worship music, by definition, is neither ideologically neutral nor tame. When we hum “Amazing Grace,” we brandish a loaded weapon with the safety off. Therefore we should make sure we fight the right wars, the true enemies and keep our weapons pointed in the right direction.  

The bad kind of fight 

Before Nero took Paul’s head, he locked Paul in jail where he wrote to Timothy. Among his other reflections, Paul spoke of being poured out as a drink offering unto God, his life tipped nearly vertical with only a few drops left. “I have fought the good fight,” he maintains (2 Tim 4:6). 

This reflection about the good fight implies there are bad fights, the kinds of foolish effort that have sound and fury but, in the end, signify nothing of importance. 

Among all the many bad fights that masquerade as good fights of faith, I think Paul would include so-called “worship wars.” When I was growing up, worship wars and rumors of worship wars raged over every aspect of a church service. Often, Christians couched personal preferences in the language of biblical convictions, then argued with precision and passion—and maybe punches. Some of you will have vivid stories from living rooms during a Bible study or a congregational meeting when members started arguing about hymns and praise songs. In an article for Christianity Today, Mike Cosper described it this way:  

“At the height of the worship wars, churches were battling out the transition from choirs, organs, and hymnals to praise bands and overhead projectors. Advocates of contemporary worship beat the drum of evangelistic opportunity, while traditionalists fought for the church’s connection to church history and the riches of the hymnal.”

Notice the language Cosper uses: wars, battling, beat, fought. The struggle seemed so real. For many, it was.  

With the perspective of time, we can more easily sift the legitimate worship concerns from the illegitimate, whether the battles in the 1990s or those in the 1590s. Today we can be thankful worship wars seem to rage less often than they once did. I’m not so convinced, however, it’s fully because we’re more spiritual. 

I suspect that our lack of institutional loyalty has combined with our consumerism in such a way that we just don’t need to fight anymore—not about music anyway. If you prefer a certain style of worship—a church brand, if you will—you can probably find it nearby or certainly online. Why fight when you can leave or livestream?

Our psalms, hymns and spiritual songs take captive sinful thoughts and destroy our idols.

And yet, in this context of worship and war, I believe there remains a kind of fight we must engage in more consciously.  

The good kind of fight 

In her book Jesus and John Wayne, Kristin Kobes Du Mez critiques the evangelical overemphasis on war, an emphasis she locates in lust for power and what she calls patriarchy. I tend to think the book has flaws, but I won’t deny Du Mez sees some trends clearly. Perhaps from overuse, or maybe from misuse, I also have become both wary and weary of overwrought masculinity and the abundance of war language in literature aimed particularly at men.  

We should, however, also recognize the abundance of war language native to the Bible. And for those of us who understand Scripture to be what Scripture professes to be—namely, the very breathed words of God—we must maintain an appropriate place for war motifs in our contemporary lexicon. Consider, for instance, another passage from Paul. Although we are in human bodies, he says to the church in Corinth, “we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.” Then he adds, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:3–5).  

Notice the word choice: waging war, weapons, warfare, divine power, destroy, raised against, captive. Fighting the good fight might not be a metaphor; the struggle is real because worship is war against our three-fold enemies: the system of the world, our sinful flesh and the devil. As such, the main battle ground is the human heart, the fight of faith over what we believe will most save and satisfy us—whether sin or the Savior.  

John Calvin famously spoke of the human heart as “a perpetual factory of idols” (Institutes, 1:108). As such, every church worship service offers believers an opportunity for a factory shutdown to clear all the idols away that glob onto our hearts throughout the week, sometimes unknowingly. Our psalms, hymns and spiritual songs take captive sinful thoughts and destroy our idols. And gospel preaching does in unseen ways what Gideon and Josiah did in visible ways, the razing of altars to the Baals and Ashtoreth on the high places of our hearts (Judges 6:28–32; 2 Kings 23:4–14).

[P]erhaps now you see why worship is good but not safe.

In this way, our worship is war—the good kind of war, the kind that gives us the truth that sets us free.  

Indeed, from the call to worship to the benediction—from our prayers and our preaching, from our fellowship in the foyer to our confession of sin and Christ’s assurance of pardon in the sanctuary—when Christians gather each week as a local church, we do so not only for God’s glory and our good but also as a spectacle to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (Eph 3:10).  

Tony Reinke writes about this in his book Competing Spectacles, contrasting how dull the spectacle of a church gathering can seem when “matched to the multi-million dollar CGI spectacles of Hollywood.” Reinke argues, however, that each week as the local church reenacts Bible preaching, the Lord’s Table and water baptism, “these church ordinances are weighted with cosmic influence.” He continues,  

“In Colossians and Ephesians, Paul is careful to show how the gospel-driven love and unity of local churches is a spectacle of the victory of Christ to the powers and principalities who seek to destroy God’s created order. The church is the perpetual resistance movement. And from generation to generation, she displays a spectacle of God’s victory to his cosmic foes, repeatedly striking those enemies with déjà vu of their defeat at the cross.”  

If you didn’t before, perhaps now you see why worship is good but not safe. 

A battle plan for corporate worship 

Concrete examples help us apply abstract principles. I offer a few suggestions to fight the good fight on Sunday mornings.

Fight the war through Sunday singing. So many decisions confront pastors related to how we structure a worship service, and I don’t merely mean questions such as where to stick announcements. Nor do I mean the largely negative question of what music to avoid, like whether an evangelical church should sing Bethel music. Those questions have a place, but they tend to be less pressing when leaders stay focused on how to structure the best worship service and sing the best songs, the songs with lyrical and musical excellence, the songs that check our pride and exalt the gospel. At our church, when we try to ask this “best” question, we end up with music that is, on the one hand, diverse, and on the other hand, narrow. I’ll explain.  

With respect to diversity, we try to responsibly reflect diversity in our music, not merely because diversity is in vogue. Rather, diversity is both a practice and foretaste of the diversity we’ll experience in heaven. Hence, we tend to sing both the best praise songs and hymns. Because musical diversity means we often don’t get the exact set list we would most prefer (even as pastors), this gives us an opportunity to mortify our desire for selfish preferences and replace it with love of neighbor.

[W]hen we narrow our theme, we have a better chance to target and destroy an enemy stronghold in our hearts than if we swing a sword at random.

We also try to reflect diversity in our musicians because we believe God loves (but Satan hates) when diverse people unify around the gospel of Jesus. One of our bass players, for example, plays in a metal band on Friday nights and uses the same guitar on Sunday morning. Wearing boots, he’s over six and a half feet tall, has a blue goatee down to his chest and always wears black. If you sit in the front pew at church, you can see him weep as he plays hymns. 

One of our violin players is an older woman. She has grey hair, always wears her Sunday best and plays beautifully—but let’s just say her violin doesn’t look like it would fit so well in a metal band. One of our keyboard players uses a cane to get to the stage, while one of the drummers is a standout on his high school track team. One musician is a police officer and another is a pacifist. I could keep going, but you get the idea. 

In another respect, however, we stay narrow. We identify a central theme for each Sunday. We do this by letting not only the theme of the sermon passage drive the sermon but also by letting that same theme drive our song selection. A recent preaching passage from the gospel of John dealt with the twin ideas of the fear of man and fear of God. Accordingly, we found music that explored these ideas. 

To frame this in the war analogy, when we narrow our theme, we have a better chance to target and destroy an enemy stronghold in our hearts than if we swing a sword at random.   

Fight the war through Sunday praying. For the last few years, our pastors have tried to grow in our practice of corporate, pastoral prayer. We tend to take the same narrow approach of praying about a theme. But the pastoral prayer has the opportunity to do what singing can’t. With singing, sometimes we don’t find the perfect lyrics to hit our theme in the way that prayers can. Pastoral prayers also, in a way that complements preaching, can press the central theme into many different areas of life.  

A few weeks ago, the sermon passage spoke to our lives together as a body. One of our pastors led a beautiful prayer that touched on everything from singleness to parenting, from schoolwork to retirement. At one point, the pastor prayed about husbands loving their wives. “Teach us husbands to live on our knees before you,” he prayed. “Make us eager to take responsibility for our actions and be the first to repent and forgive.”

[B]oth pastors and parishioners benefit when the church sees ourselves as we truly are.

I don’t have a spiritual gauge that can tell you objectively how those comments landed on the hearts of the congregation. I can say this, though: the specificity of those lines seemed to poke our people in the best sense. That corporate prayer fought the kind of warfare we want to fight, the kind that softens our hearts to God.  

Fight the war through Sunday preaching. Many stratagems go into creating good preaching, but related to the conversation we’re having here, let me give just one suggestion: avoid what I’ll call soft targets in favor of strategic ones. We might liken a soft target to an area your church already has substantial agreement with the Bible, whereas a strategic target is a place where your church might be more out of step with the gospel, to use Paul’s words to Peter in Galatians. Aiming your preaching toward strategic targets will prove more costly for the preacher but, in the end, more effective for the congregation.  

We see this approach in how Jesus focused on strategic targets in the letters to the churches in the book of Revelation. The preaching that each church received was particular to them, both in what Jesus praises and what He challenges. Jesus did not say, “Dear church in Ephesus, you should know that there is a church down the road in Pergamum committing sexual immorality and holding to false teaching.” That would have been preaching to a soft target. Instead, Jesus raised those issues with the church in Pergamum and addressed the church in Ephesus with the issues they needed to hear (Rev 2:14-15).  

Practically, this means you’ll rarely hear me mention Planned Parenthood in a sermon. That’s not because I’m warm to Planned Parenthood. The cult of death around Planned Parenthood is a stench in the nostrils of God. But telling that to our congregation, for the most part, would be a soft target, whereas preaching to the ways we fail to be fully pro-life might be more costly and more strategic for building us into maturity in Christ.  

In the end, whether you think just as we do about Sunday song selection, corporate prayer and sermon application—or whether you navigate the terrain differently—both pastors and parishioners benefit when the church sees ourselves as we truly are. In the words of Tony Reinke, we are the perpetual resistance movement, those who exalt Christ, tear down heart idols and give the spiritual forces of darkness déjà vu of their defeat at the cross.  

Songs and sermons about these truths will always get censored—until the rider on a war horse splits the sky, every knee bows and faith becomes sight.  

Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

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