Worship in a Higher Register

Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn

I want to address what I gather is the chief objection to that Lord’s Day worship service and the sung praises that belong to that service that have been both handed down to us by the Christian ages and recommended by the most important of the church’s liturgical authorities. I am speaking of a service that is structured according to a biblical theory of liturgy, is complex in its parts and organization, and expects a great deal of its participants both inwardly and outwardly.

In varying degrees this is not the Lord’s Day service of most evangelicals in America today. Their services are simpler, omit substantial parts of historic Christian worship, and ask for substantially less of their participants, intellectually, artistically, and, I would argue, spiritually. Those who recommend those services typically do so for one reason supremely. They argue that the classical service of Christian worship is not sufficiently accessible to the modern American, believer and unbeliever alike.

The formality of the service of the central tradition of Christian worship is off-putting to casual, informal Americans. By formality I mean such things as: a minister in a robe, architectural and liturgical distance between the congregation and the ministry, music that is more complex and serious than the music they ordinarily listen to and accompanied by instruments generally identified with more serious music, and an order of worship that requires constant attention to the succession of elements.

The forms of that service likewise strike the modern American as alien, so unlike anything else they encounter in life. Kneeling has disappeared from American democratic life, surviving perhaps only in the marriage proposal. Confessions of sin have disappeared almost entirely from American therapeutic culture. We expect such confessions only of politicians after they have been caught! Corporate acts in themselves – confessions of sin and confessions of faith – have virtually no counterpart in American life. And the Lord’s Supper, a sacramental act, is much more foreign to Americans than it would be to Christians in other cultures.

The American contemporary service is a service designed precisely to overcome the fact that Americans don’t find naturally congenial what Christians have historically done in worship. The service has been suited to modern American taste and comfort. The service is Spartan in its organization; just a few things are done. The atmosphere is upbeat, familiar, humorous, much more like a sales convention than a service of Christian worship historically, but an experience Americans are very familiar and comfortable with. The music is mostly soft-rock with lyrics so simple that they invite little to no intellectual engagement. The service is devoid of those aspects of the Christian faith that might cause an unbelieving mind to raise a question, still more to recoil. No rites are encountered except the offering and Americans are well used to being asked for money. It is a service in which Americans, even unbelieving Americans, can feel at home.

I don’t doubt that the architects of this contemporary service believe that a biblical argument can be advanced on its behalf. There is not, to be sure, much serious thinking being done by the advocates of the modern contemporary service, certainly not much engagement with serious liturgical scholarship. The biblical argument is likewise superficial, based largely on the assumption that the first 39 books have little to
nothing to say to Christians nowadays.

The argument I wish to make is not that a properly ordered Christian worship service is in fact easily accessible to the unchurched and unbelieving or even to the typical American Christian. It is not. It is a service that must be learned. A Christian must grow up into this service. It has always been so. It was so in the worship of the ancient church. Indeed, Israel was always tempted to prefer the more accessible, the more sensual, the less intellectually demanding worship of the ANE. The services appointed for her by the Lord required a great deal of her and she was tempted to prefer something simpler.

And so it was in the worship of early Christianity. It was a service so unlike anything then known in the Greco-Roman world that that society continually struggled to understand what was going on in it. The church made so little effort to accommodate the culture that, widely practicing the disciplina arcana, the secret discipline, the unbaptized were required to leave the service half-way through, after the sermon and before the Lord’s Supper. Though little effort was made to make the worship service accessible – though the church certainly availed itself of artistic and intellectual forms from the culture – early Christianity was as successful evangelistically as at any subsequent period in the history of Christendom.

The only period of Christian history to rival the first three centuries for missionary advance was the missions movement of the 19th century. There too, cultures were confronted with a service alien to their experience. Christian worship did not mimic the culture; it created its own culture and then transformed the culture around it into its own image.

While Christians built catacombs and buried their dead, we create churches that look like shopping malls or theaters and more and more often cremate our dead just like the pagans always have. We’ve traded Pentecost for Mother’s Day and the language of Christian theology, spread over the world through Christian worship, is now hardly used even in the church herself and her people don’t know it, much less the unbelievers round about. This is a recipe for irrelevance and that is what we are increasingly seeing everywhere we look: the irrelevance of the church in our modern culture.

The specific point I wish to make concerns the measure of complexity common to that biblical and classical Christian worship. It was worship in the higher register in just the way that contemporary Christian worship is largely not. There are many lines of evidence supporting this conclusion. Let me mention two that bear on the question of what should be sung in the high worship of the church on the Lord’s Day.

First there is the text that is sung.We have a hymn book in the Bible and a large number of hymn texts of various kinds. We have, in other words, a template for the text of the church’s sung worship. And what can we conclude from those hymn texts? Well, a number of things:

1. The Psalms vary in complexity but most of them are theologically rich and demand thought and learning fully to appreciate. That is why readers of the Psalms still today find them, at one and the same time, wonderfully accessible and intellectually demanding. Today Christians tend to pick and choose, leaving the more difficult elements to the side. [My point from Psalm 118; the idea of a more spiritual post-Pentecostal situation]

2. It used to be thought that Hebrew poetry could be analyzed in terms of three types of parallelism, parallelism, as you know, being the characteristic feature of Hebrew poetry: synonymous (in which the thought of the A versette was repeated in other words in the B versette; antithetical (in which the thought of the B versette contradicted or amounted to the antithesis of the A versette); and synthetic (in which the B versette added something to the first).

It is now widely thought in biblical scholarship that almost all parallelism is of the synthetic type. If one looks only for restatement one cuts the text with a butter knife. If one looks for differentiation as well as similarity or dissimilarity one cuts the text with a scalpel. The relationships between the versettes are of all kinds and difficult to define precisely. Poetry is an art, not a science. It is too rich, too creative neatly to pin down.

Hebrew poetry forces the reader to think about the relationships in the parallelism. It is complex and beautiful literature. And, as its use in the NT demonstrates, it is a deeply rich theological literature. In other words, if a Christian church sings as the Psalter teaches the church to sing, it will sing deep and rich texts that she will have to work fully to appreciate, that will prove more and more meaningful to her the longer she sings them, texts that will teach her her faith in all its beauty and complexity, and teach her how to apply that faith to the issues of believing life.

In any case, what is emphatically clear is that this poetry is not simple, predictable, and superficial. It is poetry in the high register. Hebrew believers who were highly educated and those who had very little education sang the same texts and both found in them intellectual and spiritual depth, difficulty, and challenge as well as help and encouragement and inspiration.

The poetry we have in the Psalter, it must be emphasized in our day of ignorance regarding matters artistic, was not the poetry of the school room or of the amateur; it is not the way ordinary folk talked in the street; it is among the finest writing in the world and its content and artistry are so rich that no one has fully mastered it yet. The best hymn texts of the past two thousand years are like the Psalms in just this way. Second, the music also was high register art.

All the indications are that the music to which the psalm texts were set was as sophisticated as was the poetry itself. For example, we know that David put a premium on professionalism in the performance of the music. The musicians who led the sung praise at the temple were trained until they were skilled at their instruments or their direction of the choir (1 Chron. 25:6-8). The level of musical sophistication and professionalism is reflected in the psalm titles.

a. By the time of the translation of the LXX the technical musical terms used in the titles were so arcane to Greek speaking Jews that they were unable to translate them. Instead they simply transliterated them. Still today no one knows what a maskil is or a miktam. No one knows what Selah means. That is what amateurs always resent about a professional discipline: its technical terminology seems to exclude them. And still today: rubato, adagio, allegretto, sonata, polonaise, and so on. The one who strums his guitar is not likely to think he should have to know what they mean. But the Hebrew musicians had to learn the terminology of a sophisticated discipline because only in this way did one master the possibilities of the musical arts.

b. What is more the music was suited to the text. In the psalm titles certain tunes were indicated for certain texts. And they were suited to their function. So there were hymns, we learn, for the burnt offering; not the same as hymns whose great purpose was doxology.

c. Other titles indicate what instrumentation was to be employed for a particular hymn. Professional musical judgment was devoted to matching the music to the text. In other words, the hymns that Hebrew believers sung (and that Jesus Christ sang as he experienced the worship of the synagogue and temple in his boyhood and young adulthood) were as sophisticated musically as they were poetically and theologically.
And, while that sung worship required a certain education of the people’s taste, while it presented a worship up into which a mind and heart had to rise over time and in which intellectual and spiritual labor had to be invested if full participation were to be achieved, it was the same worship for everyone and the peasant and the professor sang together. The music was not simple, but it was accessible, as all beautiful music is. Proof of it is the amount of this music that continues to make its way into Hollywood movie scores or Elton John’s remark that when he needs inspiration as a composer he turns to the hymnal.

We are told today that believers and unbelievers alike will not tolerate a worship that demands so much of them. But the fact is demanding worship has been the norm from the beginning of time and the Lord and his church have thought that every Christian adult is capable of a meaningful participation in worship that was both in its content and its art in a higher register. And, in fact, they were capable. They have always been capable.

If you read the sermons of the great Anglican preacher and pastor of the Puritan period, Richard Sibbes, you will find expositions that are demanding, searching, and the furthest thing from the simple, popular addresses about entertaining subjects that are more and more the staple of the evangelical pulpit. But when once Sibbes was called to be the pastor of a particular parish, some 29 parishioners signed the call, but a good number of them by making an X! [Works, i, xxxvi]

Common believers are capable of appreciating deep preaching and they are just as capable of participating meaningfully in demanding worship. And so it was of the psalms that have been sung by the faithful through three thousand years and more and of at least the best and most influential of the hymns that have been sung over the past two thousand years. There is that in those hymns that only with understanding and appreciation can be turned into sincere address to God.

The psalms have been sung by the faithful through three thousand years or more and have inspired the best and most influential of the hymns that have been sung over the past two thousand years. There is that in those hymns that only with understanding and appreciation can be turned into sincere address to God.

The 20th century British Congregationalist, P.T. Forsyth has stated: “There are few dangers threatening the religious future more serious than the slow shallowing of the religious mind…. Our safety is in the deep. The lazy cry for simplicity is a great danger. It indicates a frame of mind which is only appalled at the great things of God, and a senility of faith which fears that which is high. Men complain that they are jaded and cannot rise to such matters. That may mean that the matters of the world absorb all the energies of the great side of the soul, that divine things are no more than a comfort. And, if so, it means much for the future of religion, and much which is ominous. And the poverty of our worship amid its very refinements, its lack of solemnity…is the fatal index of the peril.” [Cited in Wells, God in the Wasteland, 118]

The practical consequence of the departure from worship in the higher register is precisely that the church has begun treating her adults as if they were children. In other words, the Church has capitulated to a powerful movement in the culture, signalized in Diana West’s recent book, The Death of the Grownup. When I was in high school I sang the very sort of songs that are now referred to as praise songs and are sung in the worship of the church of a Lord’s Day morning. There really is very little difference if any between what I sang then and what Christians in vast numbers are singing in church today.

The sole difference between that music and the music now sung by  congregations in worship is that in my youth we never supposed we would sing our songs in a church service. We understood that as we grew up and became adults we would sing differently, know more, and that our maturity would be expressed in our participation in the church’s worship. It was music for young people. It was simple, primarily affective, with little theological depth, generally simple ideas repeated several times to catchy pop-40 types of tunes. But the average teenager today and, alas, the average adult views himself not as a student in need of knowledge and a person needing further to mature, to grow up, but as a person who has gone as far as he or she needs to go.

What has happened, to put it simply, is that adults are now singing children’s songs in the church’s high worship. We might, in my view, very fairly refer to this music as the McSong and this worship as the McWorship. It partakes of the youth orientation of so much of modern culture. But it is a recipe for perpetual adolescence in the church.

Hymns are a very important instrument of discipleship and the Lord’s Day worship of the church is the great engine of discipleship. If the sung praise of the church is juvenile, the church is consigned to developing juveniles, not adults. Let me explore the changes in respect to four features of the modern worship singing of the evangelical church.

1. First, there is the loss of the congregation’s voice. I’m not sure if you have noticed this and, to be sure, it occurs by degrees in various churches, but a congregation filling a sanctuary with the sound of praise is becoming an increasingly rare thing. Part of the reason for this is that the new model for congregational singing is to have one or more singers on the stage sing into a microphone. The amplified voices are much louder than the unamplified voices of the congregation. The congregation’s inability to hear itself sing further depresses its interest in singing. Little attention is given to this by the church’s leadership because the congregation’s voice is immaterial to the sound in the room. (My experience at Grace). Once again, the congregation is replaced in worship and becomes a virtual spectator.

Others have commented especially on the decreasing participation of men in the singing of the church. Since reading this, I have made my own observations from place to place and find it so. This is unspeakably sad and very dangerous. When Christians, and Christian men in particular, cease to sing and cease to have a sense of singing together, an important feature and instrument of the Christian life itself has been lost.

It is one of the great differences between Christianity and other religions of the world, for example, that our faith is sung and sung by all its practitioners. Al-Qaeda, for example, does not sing its faith! There are still everywhere congregations that sing beautifully. They fill the sanctuary with their praise and the sound of the congregation’s voice is a matter of great blessing to the people. It is a powerful, though subtle, verification of the faith. The Lord sits enthroned on those praises! And, says Alice Parker, there is a reason why a congregation sings well. Someone expects it to! (Luther prepared his congregation, unaccustomed to singing in church as it was, in practices held on Thursday nights.)

It is a retrograde step, a step in the direction of the juvenile, for a congregation not to be able to hear its own voice in song. Nowhere else in our culture do large groups sing with any regularity. Fewer and fewer are even singing the national anthem at baseball games. The church should continue to be the place where a great congregation is heard to sing.

2. There is further the loss of singing in harmony. The replacement of a hymnbook with an overhead projector has meant that the congregation now regularly never sees the music. For generations the church was the place where people learned to read music. Harmony is a great witness to to the nature of reality in the kingdom of God: a beautiful unity created out of diversity. Male and female voices, adults and children, sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses together forming a single sound. [It is one of the pleasures of being a minister that I hear that unified sound so clearly.]

3. Third, there is the loss of the serious, the melancholy, the darker sort of singing. Everything is happy, upbeat, light. Nothing is ever sung any longer in the minor key. But the Christian faith has a minor key because life has a minor key and our faith engages life and reality at every point. There are psalms that have a minor key and the music with which some of them should be sung should reflect that fact. A faith that trades in sin, in the bloody sacrifice of the cross, in the reality of final judgment and hell, and the spiritual warfare cannot always sing light and peppy songs or soon its worship will be so far removed from its message that one or the other will inevitably lose its place.

It does not take a prophet to predict that it will be the message that will be accommodated to the worship, not vice versa. My great fear regarding contemporary Christian worship is precisely that it will eventually no longer bear the weight of a fully orthodox Christian faith. Fed on the simplicities of a worship designed for the young, adults will find the transcendent aspects of the Christian faith alien and eventually unbelievable.

4. And, finally, there is the tragic loss of a universal language of song uniting the church across the divisions that otherwise separate her people into various denominations and congregations. The music of the modern evangelical worship service is increasingly disposable, like the top-40 tunes that it emulates.

Trinity Hymnal’s “contemporary” music is now passé. Mega-churches are writing their own continually and replacing one generation with another. Which is what happened with the songs of my youth. They were sung for a few years and replaced by new ones. But the hymnody of the church has never been so disposable. Christians have long sung the hymns of the ages as Jesus did in his own day even while adding to the church’s hymnody with their own creations. It is one of the most important means by which Christians are given a sense of belonging to the church triumphant, a piece of their self-identity of great importance in this age of the temporary, the ephemeral, and the disposable. It gives them the great blessing of experiencing the élan that attaches to many hymns from the circumstances of their creation: “O Light that Knew No Dawn,” (an assertion of Christ’s full deity from the 4th century) “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” (a battle hymn from the era of the Reformation) “And Can it Be that I Should Gain,” (a hymn from the Great Awakening on the transforming power of God’s grace and Spirit) etc.

Moreover music unified the church in a given time. (My experience at Bronwyn’s bed at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis.) This too is coming to an end. The church of the Lord Jesus has met in the hymnal. If it doesn’t meet there, it will meet less and less!

The great importance of these issues, of which sung praise is admittedly but one among many, is that it remains a fundamental truth of Holy Scripture that people become like whatever or whomever we worship. If we worship man – and much of contemporary worship is explicitly an effort to appeal to men – we will become more and more like human beings in our time and less and less like God. It is also true that the way of worship shapes the sort of people we will become. Juvenile worship will keep us thinking and acting like young people not least because of worship’s role as the first and foremost engine of Christian discipleship.

Our worship should pay appropriate honor to the High Majesty into whose presence we are invited to come of a Lord’s Day. It should be intellectually and artistically the finest that we can make it. It should be a stretch for the new believer and still a challenge for the most mature. It should call every participant upward. It should be such activity as can only be done rightly with a hard-working mind and an engaged heart. It ought to exploit the gifts that God has given mankind and which are seen being bent to liturgical use in Holy Scripture: architecture, poetry, music, and oratory. The church has often demonstrated this commitment in previous days and in doing so she regularly carried the culture with her. There is precious little danger of that happening in our time and that is not only an abrogation of duty on the church’s part but a high tragedy both for Christian people and for the unbelieving culture.

People aren’t different now than they have always been. Christians can be taught to sing well and sing deep and powerful texts that are intellectually satisfying and musically appropriate. They have sung such hymns for thousands of years. The church’s singing can become again a powerful weapon in the spiritual warfare. But those of us who believe this must adorn our position. We must raise a testimony to better things. Our churches need to be well-known for the quality of their worship and the engaging character of it and especially the congregation’s singing. That is why, I take it, that we are here: to encourage one another in this important work

Dr. Rayburn earned his master’s degree from Covenant Theological Seminary and his doctorate in New Testament from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Published in the Evangelical Commentary of the Bible is Rayburn’s commentary on Hebrews. Dr. Rayburn is the senior pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA.