Reviving Holy Musical Worship

Hymn Restoration

Many Christians seem not entirely satisfied with the mainstream of musical church worship today. Our readers may know that this subject is dear to our hearts here at Nordskog Publishing. We are honored to publish Dino and Cheryl Kartsonakis’s Hymn Restoration—an excellent and important contribution toward guiding the future of individual and church musical worship.

Please consider…

We don’t condemn current practices. There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). Our purpose here is not negative. We would not judge Another’s servant. As pastor and educator, I believe that successful congregational worship may be the most difficult ministry in the church, harder than weekly preaching and teaching. Expectations are huge! The folks who lead worship do so sacrificially and with the best intent. 

But what if the current mainstream practice of musical worship hindered true worship and the best Christ would have for us? Church worship serves the multiple purpose of encouraging congregational unity and teaching individuals and families how to glorify God through musical worship. What if we have let ourselves become sidetracked by worldliness? Wouldn’t we rather desire to push ahead on the narrow path that leads to life? Isn’t our God the greatest creative genius, and doesn’t He inspire those He calls to expand our creative and spiritual frontiers? Consider the architects of the first Tabernacle whom God called by name (Exodus 35:30–35).

My first church in the 1970s, Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, California, spoiled me for worship in comparison to today. Of importance is not style, but character. On Sunday mornings the auditorium’s 3,500 souls eager to express their love of Christ opened the traditional pew hymnals and poured themselves into worship. Pastor Chuck Smith led singing, usually without any accompaniment—certainly no guitars, no drums. With no affected flair or pretense of performing, Chuck simply worshipped Jesus Christ with his whole heart. His worship engaged ours. The Holy Spirit used Chuck to draw us into the worship of our Lord and Savior.

In services other than Sunday mornings, we also sang a capella, but then, rather than using a hymnal, we typically sang new choruses and songs. Reflecting the Biblical admonition, we sang new songs (Psalms 33:3; 40:3; 96:2; Revelation 5:9, etc.). Pastor Chuck would remind us that every move of God in history came with a parallel new and characteristic music. For example, in his father’s dissenting church, Isaac Watts complained that the church’s worship did not engage the congregation. His father answered, “Then why don’t you do something about it?” Watts did, and for the next three years he brought a new hymn to Sunday services. We love the traditional (Jeremiah 6:16), especially the wonderful songs of God’s grace and victory that stood the test of time. Yet, God also clearly purposes to stir up in us His inspired creativity. Yes, the choruses we sang were typically musically simpler than the historic hymns, yet they touched something in us. It was the music of our youth, yet in many ways unique in the Lord, not rehashed pop. Besides, they were not sing-song, childish, or monotonous. They were musically rich expressions in their own right. Most of those songs came right out of Scripture or closely paraphrased it. 

Interestingly, Chuck Smith—with the evangelical concerts Calvary Chapel sponsored and the Maranatha Music ministry it established—arguably is a father of the current Christian musical worship style, but not in the way many may think. While those concerts certainly had a performance character, they functioned primarily as a tool of evangelism. 

I don’t criticize the rock concerts. Entertainment, as I treat in my own Nordskog Publishing book entitled Thy Will Be Done, is Biblically supportable. In those days, they, too, sought more to exalt Christ than to further personal music-industry careers. Many of those folks became pastors or went into other full-time ministries. Yet their music was typically more than rehashed secular stuff. Many had studied serious music. They weren’t just performers. They were creative, skilled musicians, devoted to glorifying Christ through accomplished music. You could often find them in parks and on beaches in evangelical ministry.

The Friday night evangelical, usually rock-style music concerts started with about a half hour of a capella worship, singing those new, mostly Scriptural songs—worship. I’m a student of human nature. I would look around at others. The apparent non-believers would glance around with awe in their faces to hear the angelic melodies and harmonies of that worshipful congregational choir. Then came the band concert, a sermon, and an altar-call. As the dozens or sometimes hundreds went forward to receive Christ in public confession, I always thought the Holy Spirit grabbed them in that first half-hour of holy and rich musical worship from the heart. The concert got them there. The sermon explained why. But the worship clearly reached them. There is nothing wrong with entertainment. But Biblical musical worship—liturgy, the work of the people—is not nearly the same thing as passive, consumer entertainment.

In recent years visiting churches of various theological and church traditions, Sunday morning worship consists essentially in rock and roll performances. How did rock and roll become the mainstream medium for sacred worship? Old, decadent pop music promoter Phil Spector created the Wall of Sound, where amplified instrumental music no longer merely accompanied vocals, but instead loudly dominated. Churches have adopted the approach. Loud, rock-style, sensual drum back-beats often overshadow the music. I wonder if every song must sport an American Idol-like crescendo. I have measured decibel levels in churches at typically around eighty and up to ninety or more, which over long-term exposure Center for Disease Control calls damaging. Media tech specialist Scott Wilkinson is among those concerned that the current safety margins are inadequate. I wonder when I notice a common lack of congregational participation as the decibel level increases. The more the band conducts a stage performance, the more passive the congregation becomes. Again, I attribute the best heart and motives to the worship leaders and teams. I question the approach to contemporary worship.

What if the music we heard on Sunday morning were not just rehashed, redundant re-phrasing of essentially the same musical themes over and over, with the same limited melodic and meter structures? The result in real worship might be very different. Unlike older traditions, the current fashion avoids direct Scripture reference. Rather it attempts, semi-successfully, to relate Biblical themes indirectly, often thus introducing questionable theology. Chuck Smith, for example, would not sing songs that urged lifting Jesus higher. When Jesus spoke of being lifted up, He spoke of His crucifixion. Chuck well said that repeating the phrase sounded more like mocking Christ than worship. To this day, I cringe when I hear it ever more frequently in church singing. 

Furthermore, simplified lyric meter appears more than anything else based in Beat Era poetry. Likewise, the lyric style itself. These also originally intended rebellion against accepted norms, even intending to alter ordinary thought patterns, often with the help of mind-altering drugs, which the Bible condemns as sorcery. Why associate worship with these things, even incidentally? Rock is an old wineskin.

Remember likewise, rock and roll originally purposed to rebel against Christian societal heritage, particularly with respect to drugs and sex. Certainly, Christians traditionally redeem secular fashions for Christ, which themselves are merely corruptions of something God made good. We do not condemn rock overall, but propose to ask whether rock-style performances best glorify Christ in worship. 

My first experience with the best of traditional hymnody came when now dear friends introduced me to the Christian History movement. The essential element of that movement identifies the best of Providential Christian expressions in every area of endeavor, and furthers its progress with new contributions. Moreover, the Christian History movement highlights God’s love of elevated human excellence in all we do, a kind of unselfish nobility without prerogative or pretense. High literacy is essential for a people of the Book. Great character glorifies God. Biblical Christianity produces the opposite of decadent sensualism, naturalism, and materialism.

The Master’s School Christian day-school attempted a thoroughly Biblically grounded child-educational offering. There, we tested rich traditional music and literate lyric against the latest fashion. Side by side with mainstream childish fare, with careful teaching for skill and understanding, and with practice unto familiarity, we discovered something amazing. Children surprisingly favored the traditional, elevated music and poetry, over popular sing-song contemporary poetry and music. Given the opportunity, children loved and typically chose the elevated stuff. Elevated expressions somehow seem to slant us spiritually toward our transcendent God.

Yes, some churches tenaciously hold to traditional worship forms—liturgies, work of the people—from the 1800s or earlier. Some try to combine traditional hymnody with contemporary expressions or hold separate services featuring one and then the other style. In history, many musical styles have served as good wineskins for holy worship. We don’t advocate a return to the old or a mere style change… 

We propose something completely different

The old paths of Jeremiah direct us forward into blessed new paths. Jesus said we don’t like New Wine because we’re used to the old. But how much more glorious is His New Wine. What we propose here for church worship music, anyone can, in principle, apply to any subject of human endeavor. 

What might happen if the church, rather than depending upon entertainment to engage the congregation, merely leads with a simple, abandoned spirit of worship? By spirit, we mean the assistance of the Holy Spirit. Spirituality is not a vague feeling or state of mind, but God’s filling through seeking Him on His terms by faith. 

What might happen if the wall of sound came from the congregation, rather than stage performers? Certainly, worship sometimes calls for big sound with instruments, as declared in the Psalms, but perhaps not all the time or even mostly.

What might happen if we replaced derivative and rehashed secular creations with inspired, Holy Spirit-given inspiration because we have invested by faith in learning His ways of worship from Scripture? Because God does all things with excellence, we likewise then invest in skill with melody and harmony. We also invest in elevated poetic literacy. We know a tree by its fruit, the fruit Christ expects and inspires in His people. We seek examples of the best Biblical expressions in history to emulate. Let us apply ourselves to Moses, to David in the Psalms, and to Christ and the New Testament Apostles. Then, building upon that glorious past, let us add our own historic contributions, making new songs through the unique gifts of talent God gives to His children. Get wisdom! Get understanding! Let everything that has breath praise the Lord with skill and from the heart.

What if we could learn once more to worship in spirit and truth without depending on the entertainment that does the lion’s-share work of the people for us? Let us be bold and of good heart to move the music of God into the future.

Christ saved Ron Kirk while still in college. Graduating from the University of California, Berkeley in 1974, he became a professional landscape architect. Since 1980, Ron has studied and taught the Biblically and historically identified applied-faith theology and philosophy outlined in this book. Its principles have now long proven themselves in the curriculum and methods of pioneering day and home schools founded and administered by him, the first being the Master’s School. Married since 1971, Ron and Christina have five children, five sons- and daughters-in-law, and twelve beautiful grandchildren, all walking with Christ. American Heritage Christian Church ordained Ron as a minister in 1984. Ron is the author of the NPI title Thy Will Be Done.

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