Music is not Worship
I began playing piano at age seven, and by the time I was the ripe old age of eleven, I was playing at church. I was the kid they would prop up on the piano for church offertory. I loved it. And through the years that would expand into playing synthesizer and even occasionally a duet with the organ players. I remember my pastor leaning over and giving me a hymnal. Inside it, he wrote, “Always play for Him.” I never forgot that. I will always cherish those memories.
It wasn’t until my freshman year of college, where I began to actually lead music, specifically lead others in song during our daily chapel services. I was sitting at a black grand piano, singing and playing. I was making music. I was leading a band. The people in the audience were singing. I suppose you could make the case that technically I was leading worship, but I don’t think I was, at least not consistently. Yes, I was leading a band, and yes, we were leading others in song, but my brain was in the wrong place. My thoughts were all about the music. My thoughts were on musical excellence. My thoughts were on the musical experience and the skill level of the band. I was totally unaware that we could deliver an amazing musical experience that was spiritually dead.
I thought good music was enough. It’s not.
I’m convinced that I have led worship services that were full of noise. I never intentionally set out to do that, but I’m sure it has happened. Why? Because of my heart, my attitude, my thoughts. When these things are in the wrong place, as Amos says, God doesn’t even hear my melody.
I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. (Amos 5:21–23)
In this example, God sees a big production but is not impressed. I imagine the people who attended these religious festivals and assemblies were having quite a good time at what would have been an important and well-attended social event for the community. In my imagination, I picture signs and banners, vendors with their fares on display for purchase, delicious food, and lots of socializing. No doubt someone was doing a Facebook Live feed.
Looking at these assemblies as an attendee, I would have been impressed. I’m convinced that much impresses us, but not God. For this reason, this passage blows my mind. We can pursue the physical so hard that we completely blow the spiritual. Specifically, we can have one hundred percent success in the technicalities and have zero percent success in the hearts of people. Even in the moments where our melodies are amazing and people applaud and we feel like we’ve played a song in a Grammy Award–winning way, if our brains are in the wrong place, all we’ve created to God’s ear is noise.
If I were to offer my “Doug Translation Bible” on this passage, it would go something like this: “I will not hear the melody of thy awesome five-octave voice, nine-string bass, eleven guitar pedals, twenty-four tracks of stems, ferocious Leslie B3 organ, twenty-five-piece custom drum kit, or world’s most expensive and exotic custom acoustic guitar carved out of one solid piece of wood from a one-thousand-year-old tree.”
The point here is that we place importance on musical abilities, stage presence, outward appearance, and technical excellence—sometimes more than the heart. We impress people with things that don’t impress God. Lest I be misunderstood, let me emphasize we can use all these things to God’s glory if our motives, intent, and hearts are in the right place. That would be awesome! But if our motives, intent, and hearts are disconnected from the Lord, He won’t even hear our melody.
Can music be worship? Yes. Is all music worship? No.
As I’ve grown as a leader I’ve learned to value participation more than perfection. However, the challenge is that people can participate in many ways. Some are visible. Some are not. As a leader, I can fall into the trap of judging with my physical eyes how much or how little people are participating. And I can transfer that “success” or “failure” onto myself as a leader. I shouldn’t do that.
At the core of authentic worship is our ability to let our hearts explode in response to God. For some people, that inward explosion manifests itself in an outward expression that others can see. For some, that inner explosion is almost totally contained deep inside. You might see a tear, you might see lips quiver when they sing, but you won’t see an overtly demonstrative type of expression. And you know what? That’s okay.
Some worshippers need to hear that it’s okay if they are not very expressive by nature. Others need to hear the message that it’s okay if they are expressive by nature. Everyone should be able to find freedom in worship. Lead well my friends…