Assessing contemporary praise and worship (CPW) is a tricky task for two major reasons. Firstly, the phenomenon is less than 60 years old, and secondly, it is a varied and constantly changing field of study. Yet, for all its variety, CPW exhibits four enduring features, which distinguish it from all that went before it, during 1,900 years of church history, namely:
1. New Actions: singing in tongues, dancing in the spirit, clapping and hand waving.
2. New Appointments: ‘worship leaders’, ‘worship teams’, ‘worship bands’ and ‘worship pastors’.
3. New Arrangements: choruses containing a different style of composition and content than that known to previous generations.
4. New Accompaniments; a strong emphasis given (in use, time allotted, volume and visibility) to music of all types (rock, jazz, pop, rap and country).
Two questions form the basis of the rest of this article. Firstly, are these new features scriptural, and secondly, what have been their long-term results? An approach that calls for linear thinking, critical analysis and the use of theological terminology is often considered judgmental, wearisome or just plain boring. ‘Preference’ and ‘style’ are today’s postmodern buzzwords – doctrinal substance and Biblical correctness have, to many, become passé. However, despite cries of “It’s not right to judge” and, “No one is going to tell me how to worship!” the fact is, the Lord has specifically told us to make judgment-calls regarding Christian doctrine and practice (1 Cor 10:15, 1 Thess 5:21, 1 John 4:1). Error is meant to be exposed and avoided (Rom 16:17, Rev 2:2). Faithfulness to God’s unchanging truth, rather than ‘success’, will be the ultimate reward criterion for all Christian service at the judgment seat of Christ (1 Cor 4:2). ‘How’ service was conducted will be even more important than ‘what’ was accomplished (1 Cor 3:10).
Unfaithfulness as to God’s exact instructions in a past day spelt disaster for Nadab and Abihu, Moses and Aaron, Korah and Uzziah (Lev 10:1-2, Num 20:12, Num 16:10, 2 Chron 26:19). Clearly, all forms of worship cannot be acceptable to the Lord, regardless of the sincerity, zeal and devotion of the worshipper (John 4:23). A.W. Tozer wrote: “We must learn that we cannot have our own way and worship God just as we please…there are certain kinds of worship that God will not accept, though they may be directed toward Him and are meant to be given to him” (Whatever Happened to Worship?, STL Books, p. 32).
What is Worship?
Whether a life of sacrifice, a financial sacrifice or a spoken ‘sacrifice of praise’, worship is the sacrificial overflow of a grateful heart, occupied with the Father and His Son (Rom 12:1, Heb 13:15-16). In prayer we make request; in thanksgiving we express gratitude; but worship is an appreciation of the Lord Himself – a redeemed heart bubbling over in blessed occupation with Christ (Psa 45:1-2). In John ch. 4 the Lord gave several defining insights into worship:
1. The Location
No site on earth can be called a ‘place of worship’. The believer’s sanctuary is in heaven. No earthly intercessor is needed because direct access is available through the new and living way (John 4:21, Heb 4:16, 8:2, 10:20).
2. The Object
Christians are not priests by natural generation like Aaron’s sons, but by supernatural regeneration through the Spirit. In a relationship unknown in the OT, they now come as ‘sons’ to a Father (John 4:21).
3. The Character
Worship is ‘in spirit and in truth’ i.e. ‘spiritual’ as opposed to ritualistic and outward, as was the worship of the Temple. ‘In truth’ means that the Bible, God’s revelation of Himself, regulates worship. Thus worship, without truth, is false worship (John 4:23).
So, with that foundation laid, what of singing in tongues, dancing in the spirit, clapping and hand waving—essentials for a modern ‘lively’ church that deems plain old singing, praying and preaching all too predictable and monotonous for our hi-tech world? Scripture clearly condemns singing in tongues (1 Cor 14:27). As for dancing, laughing or being slain ‘in the Spirit’, these phenomena were unknown in early church but would have been rejected by Paul as irreverent and out of order (1 Cor 14:40, Col 2:5). All the usual out of context scriptures brought to bear by charismatic writers such as ‘David before Michal’, ‘Miriam and the daughters of Israel’ and the ‘lame man’ (Acts 3), prove nothing but the inept hermeneutics of the promoters of such arguments.
‘Clapping’ is mainly built on one verse in the Psalms. However, the ubiquitous rhythmic CPW-style handclap, started off by a catchy upbeat ‘Christian pop song’, (or the round of applause that follows the performance of a ‘great worship song’), is far removed from the scene of Psalm 47:1. There, a national triumph in Israel’s theocratic kingdom is fittingly celebrated with clapping, just as when Joash was made king (2 Kings 11:12).
As for hand-waving, scripture is silent. One verse speaks of lifting up holy hands, but the context is prayer not singing (1 Tim 2:8). Scripture mentions many different postures in prayer but insists on none. Even granting that there was, in the early church, some of what Tertullian (160-230 AD) called, hands “not…loftily elevated, but elevated temperately and becomingly” (On Prayer, XVII), what does this prove? Not much, except that by promoting mass hand-waving on the basis of one verse in Timothy, the charismatic movement has left itself open to a serious charge of inconsistency. That chapter proceeds to counsel women to wear modest clothes, to avoid an emphasis on gold and pearls, to remain quiet in meetings and neither to teach nor exercise authority over a man. Enough said. Full-orbed worship is described as singing, speaking, making melody in the heart and giving thanks (Eph 5:19). Dare we add anything to this, never mind CPW’s unsuitable antics, without express sanction from the word of God?
True ‘spiritual life’ must never be confused with ‘liveliness’ and ‘phenomena’. The church in Sardis had a reputation for being ‘alive’, but was actually dead (Rev 3:2). True inward spiritual joy is a very different quality to the catharsis on show in CPW, which is no more a true evidence of spiritual life than is Rome’s incense waving, genuflecting and bell ringing. Soaring naves and priestly tomfoolery may have been replaced by pop bands and gaudy banners, but the ‘worship’ is just as misguided as ever.
Expert researchers have shown conclusively that ‘slaying in the Spirit’, ‘laughing in the spirit’ and other CPW phenomena, have nothing to do with worship ‘in spirit and in truth’ but have everything to do with a subtle ‘Christianised’ form of mass hypnosis, that can be duplicated in a laboratory. CPW’s ‘winning formula’ of a ‘celebration extravaganza’, involving lengthy periods of swaying from side to side with upraised hands and closed eyes, to the sound of hypnotic songs like ‘Be still for the presence of the Lord’, is simply a doorway into an altered state of consciousness in which many forms of delusion and manifestation are possible. C.H. Mackintosh said: “There may be a great deal of what looks like worship, which is, after all, the mere excitement and outgoing of natural feeling; there may be much apparent devotion, which is merely fleshly pietism…it not infrequently happens that the very same tastes and tendencies which are called forth and gratified by the splendid appliances of so-called religious worship, would find most suited support at the opera” (Notes on the Pentateuch, p.315).
In Solomon’s Temple, 4,000 out of 38,000 Levites were set apart for ‘music ministry’. Of these, 288 were ‘worship leaders’ of whom the exceedingly skilful Chenaniah was director (1 Chron 15:22, 23:1-5, 25:7-31). Now, where is the New Testament equivalent of this? We read about evangelists, elders and deacons – but never worship leaders. Over 20 ‘spiritual gifts’ are outlined in three lists, but ‘worship ministry’ is omitted, quite obviously on purpose (it would never be omitted from a Bible College’s list of course options today). Why? Because neither worship nor musical ability are ‘spiritual gifts’. Surely, the argument runs, as long as the Lord has not forbidden it we can use it; but the Lord said: “Observe all that I have commanded you”, not “Observe anything I have not expressly forbidden” (Matt 28:20). The fact is, in relation to music ministry we do have explicit instructions from the Lord. He stated that the worship style of the Temple has been superseded by spiritual worship. No more robes, sacrifices, feasts, incense, music ministry or ritual washings – only worship in spirit and in truth.
The leader’s job in CPW is to “take people to the throne room of God” and give them a “taste of heaven” (Extravagant Worship, Darlene Zschech, p.155). Such a role is redundant in scripture. Christ opened the way into the throne room through His own atoning sacrifice at Calvary. Worship in the name of the Lord Jesus is ‘led’ by the Holy Spirit – not as the ultimate worship leader but as the only one (Eph 5:18-20, Phil 3:3). Darlene Zschech, an ecumenical worship leader and the author of ‘Shout to the Lord’, is called by her Pastor Brian Houston ‘an awesome leader in the kingdom’. Even granting, for the sake of argument, that a ‘worship leader’ was a scriptural position in the church, the Bible makes clear that such could not be a woman’s role (1 Cor 14:34-35, 1 Tim 2:11-12).
Generalising for a moment, the typical traditional hymn tends to be doctrine-based and fairly lengthy, while most CPW choruses are shallow, short and repetitive (and sung repeatedly). The move away from ‘hymns’ was deliberate since the ‘complicated doctrinal language’ did not fit well with the charismatic style. Singer/songwriters, who possessed little theological depth, produced songs that were easy to memorise, simple to sing and geared for popularity. They often employed classic ‘love song’ clichés such as, “I long to worship You…I give myself to You…I want to love You from deep within…Let me be Yours alone”, aiming to give almost ‘instant intimacy’. Ironically, while CPW has become a slave of perpetual novelty (no worship service must ever be exactly the same), it has, at least in its shallow lyrics, become the very epitome of predictability and tediousness. Compare this with the great hymns of scripture, from Exodus 15 and Judges 5, through to the Psalms and all the way to book of Revelation – what expositions of the attributes and works of God and the great truths of the gospel are found there!
However, CPW’s choruses are not so empty of content that they have lost their usefulness as vehicles of error. Checking through the choruses of Graham Kendrick, Dave Fellingham, Matt Redman, Noel Richards, Chris Bowater, Jack Hayford, Dave Bilbrough and Darlene Zschech – in hymn books such as Mission Praise and Songs of Fellowship – the following themes stand out: restorationism, the current existence of apostles and prophets, validation of clapping, dancing, ‘tongues’, gifts of ‘healing’ and ‘prophecy’. CPW artists have written songs like ‘Shine Jesus Shine’, ‘Majesty’ and ‘You are building a People of Power’ with an agenda in mind. They view their songs as a fitting accompaniment to what “God is doing in the world today”; through March for Jesus, ‘signs and wonders’ and ‘spiritual warfare’.
Many non-charismatic churches have made the mistake of cherry-picking a few of Graham Kendrick’s better songs (to keep ‘up to date’ and ‘hold on to the youth’). However, because these songs are tendentious, inclusion means endorsement. True, Mr. Kendrick has written some lovely hymns, but in the words of Alan Howe; “To use Kendrick’s material is…implicitly to buy into an agenda which seeks to change the nature of worship; and once worship has been altered (usually in subtle steps), the rest of the charismatic agenda can follow” (CRN Journal, Summer/Autumn 2000, p.18). The use of even just a few CPW compositions will begin to produce a ‘charismatic ethos’ within a church (in Trojan Horse fashion). Once that happens, drawing a line in the sand to prevent further encroachment will prove difficult.
Worldly music entered the evangelical scene through the hippies who professed salvation back in the 1960’s in California (the so-called ‘Jesus people’). To overcome resistance and pave the way for the wholesale acceptance of rock-n-roll into ‘the church’, the idea that ‘all music is neutral’ was promoted vigorously. Now, while a single note is always neutral, a string of notes backed by any kind of rhythm can never be – music is a language by its very nature. This is not a matter of taste; it’s a matter of fact. Heavy metal, rock-n-roll, jazz, rap and hip hop’s rhythms and beats, are either rebellious and anarchic, or sensuous and arousing to the flesh – or both. (For a technical explanation of this, with examples and illustrations see The Sound of Contemporary Christian Music, Music for Good or Evil, a video presentation by author David Cloud). Since the style, message and origin of these secular entertainment idioms are worldly, devilish and sensual, they are utterly unsuitable for the service of God (Eze 22:26, 2 Cor 6:14-18, 1 John 2:15-16). To be plain and clear, Christians should not be listening to or “liking” on Facebook the likes of MercyMe, Third Day, Newsboys, Casting Crowns, Hillsong, LeCrae, Rend Collective or other bands and artists like them. Writing back in 1945, A.W. Pink said: “The more spiritual is our worship the less…attractive to the flesh it will be. Oh how far astray we have gone! Modern ‘worship’ is chiefly designed to render it pleasing to the flesh: a ‘bright and attractive service’, with beautiful surroundings, sensuous music and entertaining talks. What a mockery and a blasphemy” (Gospel of John, p. 208).
The loud beat, the disco lighting and the ‘big crowd atmosphere’ pack a powerful punch, scoring an immediate ‘direct hit’ on the emotional sensory apparatus of the audience. The passion and energy of rock can disguise even the shallowest of lyrics. As the worship leader mixes upbeat numbers with slower ones, a feeling of being ‘close to God’ is literally manufactured in the auditorium, but the whole experience is a deception. Hear the warning John Wesley gave in 1781 (before the days of amplifiers and acoustic guitars): “Above all sing spiritually…Attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound.”
Assessing the Results
We have seen that in its four distinguishing features, the CPW movement is not only without scriptural support, but is seriously in error on all counts. Such a departure from the Bible has not been without its consequences:
1. Doctrinal Trivialisation — Wherever CPW has gained a foothold, doctrine has been downgraded. Calvin Johansson states: “Exclusive use of choruses tends to produce a people who have the same depth of spirituality as the music they sing” (Discipling Music Ministry, Hendrickson, p.136).
2. False Profession — CPW concerts that close with an ‘altar call’ have produced multitudes of pseudo-converts. Without conviction of sin or repentance, thousands have “welcomed Jesus into their life by simply praying a prayer.” What a shock awaits them on judgment day (Matt 7:22-23).
3. Widespread Ecumenism — The CPW movement has been a major catalyst for ‘unity’ among evangelical, charismatic and Roman Catholic congregations. Since they all sing the same songs and speak in the same ‘tongues’, they must all have the same ‘Holy Spirit’ – so why not unite?
4. Breakdown of Separation — With rock-n-roll promoted within ‘the church’, is it any wonder that standards in general start to slip? Worldly language, dress, habits, associations and entertainment now mark churches in a way never seen before. Sermons are full of jokes and the fear of God is absent.
5. Holy Spirit Obsession — The Holy Spirit’s work is to glorify Christ and direct all our attention to Him (John 16:13-14). However, in the CPW movement there is an unbalanced obsession with the Holy Spirit Himself.
6. Cathartic Explosion — Many CPW artists have undergone a ‘baptism in the Spirit’ experience, believing that genuine worship cannot take place until there has been an emotional release. Instead of only and always worshipping God with the engaged mind, there has been a ‘letting go of inhibitions’, a surrender to the music experience and often an acceptance of the mindless ‘tongues’ experience. This led eventually to the Toronto Blessing and the many extreme hypnotic manifestations that marked it.
“Beloved, believe not every spirit, but test the spirits whether they are of God” (1 John 4:1).
Michael J. Penfold