What is the purpose of musical worship in church? To answer this question, I believe we must first determine what is the central part of a worship service.

Before the Protestant Reformation, the Eucharist, or Communion, was the center of church worship. This is still true for the majority of the Church today, namely Catholics. The movement of their worship, or liturgy, culminates in the past (the work of the cross) merging with the present (the Sacrament), i.e., Christ is present with His worshipers in the Eucharist, hence His “communion” with His worshipers. In the same time dimension, God’s, worshipers are present with Christ at the Last Supper, on the cross, and in the resurrection. The Eucharist celebrates the Church’s union with Christ, so it is always the climactic moment of worship.

This “presence” of God in the sacraments, bread/body and wine/blood, was one of the major protests of the Reformers. Not the spiritual/mystical presence of Christ, but His physical presence. And like most people that have bones to pick, Protestants have minimized the importance of the Table of the Lord in their practice of worship, mostly for fear that it will become as rote and ritualistic as it has for many in the Catholic Church. So, beginning with Luther and Calvin, the Word began taking over as the centerpiece of worship.

Sola Scriptura, Scripture alone, was one of the foundational tenants of the Protestant Reformation. What that meant for them was that the Word of God was the only special revelation of God, the only means by which God revealed Himself to men in a saving way. For the Catholics the service of the Word was essential for the telling of God’s story. They placed a very high value on Scripture, reading three passages every week (one Old, one New, and one Gospel), but the Eucharist ultimately served the greatest purpose. Not so for the Reformers. The Sacrament of the Eucharist did not have the power to save, as Catholics believed (and still believe), so the Protestants demoted it to the passenger seat, while elevating the Word to the highest place.

I could go on about the history of this split, and I should, but let it be sufficient for now to know that the Eucharist is the center of Catholic worship, and the Word is central to Protestant worship.

Now, what is the purpose of musical worship in church? Well, for me, I lean toward the Reformed camp in what they deem central to worship, the Word. But, I also recognize what we Protestants have lost by pushing the Table aside. At any rate, I do not believe musical worship in itself should ever be the center of worship. It should serve as an aid to worshipers receiving and responding to both the Word and the Eucharist. Unfortunately, what has happened in the Contemporary Church is that “Praise and Worship” has become such a major part of the service that worshipers have come to think of it as “worship”. Worship has been redefined as an emotionally heightened experience of the presence of God through singing songs. If singing songs is “worship”, what do we call the Word and the Eucharist?

I’m not here to say that Praise and Worship is bad and should not be a part of worship. What I am saying is that musical worship should not be an end in itself, but rather, it should be a means to the people of God worshiping Him through the Word and the Eucharist. Musical worship can open our hearts and prepare the way for Christ, the Word. It can calm the waves of busyness that consume us. It can stir us and ignite a passion in our hearts to praise God. It can turn our affections away from ourselves and toward God. It can refresh and heal us. But it cannot save. Like the Eucharist, musical worship cannot secure our rightstanding with God. It can only point us to Christ, the Word made flesh. And it is only He that can invite us into a true expression of worship.

What this means for me, a worship leader, is that my job is not merely choosing songs and performing them. It means I must think carefully of how I can lead people in receiving and responding to the Word, first, and the Eucharist, second. How does this Opening Song help bring worshipers together in exuberant praise of their Maker? How does this Song of Preparation before the sermon prepare the hearts of worshipers to receive truth? How is this Response Song helping people respond to the Word they just heard? How does this Communion Song bring people to the cross and empty tomb of Christ? And how does this Dismissal Song encourage us to bring the gospel with us as we leave? These are the questions that go through my mind when I am planning and choosing songs for a worship service.

As a side note, there will be fewer complaints about style, etc., when musical worship serves the greater purpose of aiding worshipers in receiving and responding to the Word and Eucharist. What better answer to a complaining parishioner than, “I’m sorry to hear of your disappointment, but I chose that song because it best prepared our hearts for the specific truth our pastor had for us today.” After all, it is not your responsibility to please the people of your church. It is your duty, nay calling, to point people to Christ by supporting the Word and Eucharist with your musical worship.

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