MISUNDERSTANDING ART IN WORSHIP

Rose Window  Lest I lose you musicians, who are the lion’s share of readers of this blog, my reference here to art certainly includes music.  In fact, music is likely where we find the most prominent misuses of art in gathered worship, and perpetuation of anthropocentric practices.

Two predominant misunderstandings seem to be prevalent in how we view, and thus engage with, art in gathered Sunday worship.  The first view is art as commodity.  Have you ever heard requests from your pastor or other leaders asking for high energy opening songs to “get people awake?”  In various ways have you felt it necessary to induce a more intimate mood just in time for the pastor to stand and preach?  While liturgical encounter clearly calls for an ebb and flow of corporate as well as personal expression, music as mood-inducement not only cheapens the art form itself, but frequently re-centralizes the environment on the individual selves.

In fact, invoking wholesale musical style shifts in order to make worship “more contemporary,” or “more traditional,” or supposedly appealing to one age group or another is really commercial in nature when you come right down to it, is it not?  Music, in this case, is being used as a commodity to reset the environmental table if you will.  The process of turning art into commodity places the artist in suspect roles of a most disingenuous posture.  Interestingly, numerous reports tell us that the younger worshipers that many church leaders say they are trying to connect with are much more concerned with authenticity than attempts at “giving them their music.”  This commonly misguided direction is most often the work of leaders who believe they have soothsayer powers to know what younger worshipers are looking to experience.  Thus, many evangelical churches’ platforms are manned either by young rockers playing for high dollars, or by boomer bands trying to mimic the latest Christian radio tunes.  When art becomes commerce, artists are bought and sold.  In the church setting this seems clearly contradictory to the Gospel that worship is to unveil.

Another predominant and closely related misunderstanding of art in worship has to do with the question of what the art and artist are intending to reveal.  Especially when we think of so-called “high art,” conceptions seem to imply that the art is to be freed from conventional responsibilities, thus its expressions are more luxury than service.  As Wheaton professor and author, Bruce Benson points out, this marginalizes art and makes it “something that is only for the artiste, as opposed to something for us all.”[1]  In this view the artist’s understood intention is to “express yourself.”  How is this more than idolatrous, since self is at its center?

Both of the above misunderstandings of art in worship have been brought into the church along with the value systems they represent.  Each appears to undermine the very purpose of Christian Worship, whereby rather than some fabricated external pumping up of the atmosphere by purchased art (secured for that very reason), worshipers are, instead, engaged by the Holy Spirit of the Living God through many means including revealed truth encountered through art and artists for whom this revelation is primary in both the original creation and expression of the art.  Likewise, rather than a romanticized indulgence of self-expression as an endgame, art and artists serve to aid community in joined worship, lifting high the One to Whom, for Whom, and about Whom that worship is expressed.

Benson helps us comprehend worship in its natural rhythm of “call and response.” He points us to ways that art participates in both sides of the rhythmic cadence.  Indeed, the design of sacred space, symbols with which such space is adorned, the musical landscape, the sung as well as spoken word, are all art forms that give voice to the call of the King, as well as the response of His people.  Drawing understanding from the function of icons in Eastern Orthodox worship, he calls preachers and leaders to function as icons, rather than mirrors.  Mirrors allow us only to see reflections of ourselves, whereas icons are intended to serve as windows through which we can see God.

Lord, help us never to lead people to gaze upon either themselves, or upon us.  Rather, help us to reveal truth that we may together gaze upon You in worship.


[1] Bruce Ellis Benson, Liturgy as a Way of Life: Embodying the Arts in Christian Worship, 32.

Explore posts in the same categories: Church keyboard players, Church Music, Congregational Singing, Leading Worship, Music Ministry, Singing Worship, Spiritual formation through singing, Worship Leaders, Worship Pastors, Worship Reminders, Worship theology, Worship thoughts, Youth Worship

2 Comments on “MISUNDERSTANDING ART IN WORSHIP”

  1. Lisa Huddleston Says:

    God’s truth is not discovered–or manufactured–it’s revealed. Thanks for the thought provoking challenge.

  2. AJ Sharenberger Says:

    Those who quickly prescribe loud music as a cure to bring young people into church might ask themselves if the church can really compete on that level with secular music. More importantly, just when did loud music become reverent and appropriate for worship?

    It’s easy to tinker with the music of the church as a quick fix and think we’re doing something for the kingdom, but the trend of young people not coming to church or dropping out is not a problem that can be remedied by quick fixes.


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