From Heaven Above to Earth I Come — The Trajectory of Worship from Christianity Today
Christianity Today magazine has been doing a series on worship and music in the church. This article by John Koessler, Professor of Pastoral Studies at the Moody Bible Institute was published in the March edition of the magazine: The Trajectory of Worship | Christianity Today.
CT has looked at the worship wars affecting the wider evangelical church, and music has been on the radar screen of late. Koessler notes that a lot of the music in the church today annoys him. He suggests that, based on his experience as a youth singing campfire round songs during the week and hymns during the day, that the music being pushed and played in many congregations really is not appropriate for worship. Koessler notes that our conception of worship generally focuses on man — what I am doing in worship. And so it becomes an earth to heaven action rather than a heaven to earth action. Koessler observes that Scripture paints a different portrait of worship: Worship always begins with God and comes to earth. Worship, for man, is “answering speech.” Focusing on Psalm 150:6 and Revelation 5:13, Koessler paints a portrait of worship where a word from God moves and impels every leaving being to give praise to God, to play instruments, and sing. It starts with the chorus in heaven, and moves down to earth. Koessler concludes that one does not have to like all of the music that is played in church. Nor does it have to be the best we can offer. We must recognize that all have different tastes and respect those differences within a congregation.
I agree with Koessler that worship is certainly answering speech, but it is speech that is always directed by God and mediated by through His Word — His love, our response — not a generic worship leader. Our primary response in worship is not praise in song. The Scriptural witness shows that worship is more than songs of praise, and music that moves you to feel as if you are in the presence of God; that it is more than an emotional experience or a feeling. Worship is life. It is speaking and singing back to God the very Words He has given us. It is coming to the Temple in Jerusalem on the high holy days to present the offerings He has commanded us to bring. It is man falling down as if dead at the foot of the altar in the presence of the holy, righteous, almighty God. It is God receiving man and his gifts, and then giving them back to him. It is God forgiving sins and making man holy. It is God sending His Son to us and the Son pouring out the Spirit through the Word, through the waters of Baptism, and in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. It is God making Himself present among us, not the other way around. God tells us how we are to worship.
Koessler also implies in his argument that because there are different people in the church with different tastes in music, and we join with the chorus of heaven in our worship that we will manifest our musical talents in different ways — some good, and some not so good. Because we respond as we are moved by the chorus of heaven, it may not always be the best that we could present, and that is okay. We need to respect those differences. Yet God makes very clear that how we approach Him IS very important. In Revelation 1:17, John falls down as if dead in the presence of the ascended and risen Christ. He cannot move or respond until Christ Himself raises John. Remember the story of Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons in Leviticus 9-10? They had just been consecrated as priests to the Lord, and they were killed by GOD because they offered to God, out of thankfulness and praise, unauthorized incense on God’s altar! They approached God in a manner in which they had not been instructed or commanded to. As a consequence, they died at the hands of a holy and just God. And the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 establishes right off the bat that certain gifts are acceptable to God and others not. Abel offered to God the first born of his flock, and Cain offered some of the fruit of the ground he harvested. Abel’s first thought focused on the Creator; God came as an after-thougt for Cain.
Our Savior chided Martha for scolding Mary because she was not helping her to prepare a meal when Jesus came to visit. Jesus told Martha that Mary found the one thing needful — that is she rested at the feet of her Savior, received His Word, and was fed by Him. What Mary did was an act of worship, and that is what our worship consists of — receiving Christ and the benefits of His life, death, and resurrection through the Word and Sacrament. We offer ourselves as students to sit at the feet of the master. Songs of praise and thanksgiving are a part of our worship, but they are not our sole act of worship. And while we should be sensitive to things which would cause division and disunity in the church, we need to be mindful that it is God who determines how we are to approach him in worship.