It should go without saying that worship gatherings are about God. However, many Christians have taken something that is supposed to be about God and have made it about themselves instead. I’m talking about worship. Specifically, worship music. This issue has become a point of great controversy in the church. Many people have such strong feelings about musical style that they make it one of the central factors (if not the deciding factor) in their decision to join a church. In response to growing dissension, many churches have chosen to split their gatherings up into “traditional” and “contemporary,” dividing their congregations along the lines of musical preference. This one issue has even led churches to split apart entirely. This isn’t how it should be.
One of the most shocking things about the Christian movement of the first century is the radical unity that it engendered in such a diverse group of people. It was no coincidence that Jews “from every nation under heaven” were present for the birth of the New Testament church when the apostle Peter delivered the first Christian sermon in Jerusalem (Acts 2:5-41), and it was no accident that these early Jewish Christians then took that message all over the world, preaching the good news of Jesus to people from every culture, even in the face of massive ongoing hostility between the Jews and the surrounding nations.
Despite their profound dissimilarities, people from all manner of cultural and geopolitical backgrounds responded to the message and came together as one in Christ. This unlikely scenario was actually by design because it was Jesus himself who commanded his followers to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:18-20).
Still, the fledgling New Testament church wasn’t without its problems. Complaints about how people were being treated, disagreements over what laws should be obeyed, and even arguments about how people should worship were all present in the early church. The response of the apostles to quarrels in the church was never to break people up into groups so that they would only have to interact with those that thought, looked, talked, and acted like they did.
The very idea of splitting the church up by culture, political affiliation, economic status, or any other category goes against everything that the apostles stood for. Paul wrote quite emphatically, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” (Col. 3:11, ESV). When he was confronted by people who sought to fuel division in the church by imposing certain restrictions on believers, Paul wrote that he would not yield to them “even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved” (Gal. 2:5, ESV). In fact, disunity was such a pressing concern for Paul that his instructions on how to deal with a divisive man were “after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him” (Titus 3:10, ESV).
Paul’s encouragement to the church in the midst of all of this was to exercise humility and love towards one another. Writing to the church at Philippi, the apostle Paul commanded, “Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself” (Phil. 2:3, NET), and to the Ephesians, he wrote, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:2-3, NIV).
Singing as an Act of Love
We all have preferences. There are some styles of music that we like and others that we don’t care for. There are some songs that don’t catch our ear and some that speak to us deeply. And there’s nothing wrong with that! What is wrong, however, is when we take those preferences and elevate them above our love for our fellow believers.
What seems to be so often forgotten in the midst of the fierce battles surrounding worship music styles is that it’s okay for other people to have likes and dislikes that are different from our own. Not everyone is going to respond to the same songs in the same exact way. Don’t misunderstand me, I fully appreciate the importance of ensuring that all of the songs we sing in worship are accurate portrayals of God’s truth. However, when our refusal to sing a particular song has less to do with the lyrical content and more to do with the musical style, then we might have our concerns misplaced.
Singing songs you don’t like is not only an act of worship to God, it’s also an act of love to your brothers and sisters in Christ. Putting aside personal preferences to sing together with others shows honor to God and consideration to fellow believers. If we truly treated one another as more important than ourselves, how would that change the way we view those who have different musical tastes from our own? If we honestly made every effort to maintain unity, how would it affect the way we respond when we find out that our church is going to sing a song we don’t particularly care for?
Sing a Song You Don’t Like
It should come as no surprise that disputes about worship music usually show up most sharply as conflicts between age groups. Broadly speaking, older people tend to like older “traditional” worship music. Younger people, on the other hand, tend to like newer “contemporary” worship music. One of the sad side effects of splitting churches up into “traditional” and “contemporary” worship gatherings is that it normally results in greater disparities in the age demographics of those churches. I’m sure you’ve seen it. Churches that hold fast to traditional music styles and broadcast their disdain for all things “new” will inevitably find themselves without many young people. On the other hand, churches that pride themselves on their “contemporary” worship and jettison everything that wasn’t produced within the last 2-3 years aren’t likely to have an abundance of gray heads in the room on any given Sunday morning.
One specific practical application of what I’m saying is that older believers should be willing to learn new songs and younger Christians should be willing to sing old hymns. If we can’t do this, then who are we kidding? When there is love and unity in the midst of great diversity in the church, it displays God’s glory to the world. If we can’t even bridge this cultural gap by learning to expand our musical horizons, then what hope do we have of reconciling with one another when the conflict is more serious? If we can’t show love to our fellow believers in this area, how do we expect to display the love of Christ to the watching world?
I’d like to challenge you to do something radical next time you hear a song you don’t like in worship. Instead of falling silent or complaining, sing it anyway!1 Do it for your brothers and sisters in Christ who are different than you. Show them the love of Jesus by keeping your pride in check and your musical biases at bay. And when those in your church who don’t like the songs you love notice that you’re joining in on their favorite songs, maybe they’ll reciprocate. Just maybe it will lead to greater love and unity in your church. And who knows, you might even find yourself learning to love some of those songs you don’t like.
- Of course, this should be qualified by the fact that the songs we sing in worship ought to be ones that have solid lyrical content, as I’ve already said. If a song contains lyrics that teach untrue theology, it shouldn’t be sung. If you think your church is singing songs like this, humbly start a discussion about it with your leadership and remain open to the idea that you might be wrong. But if the words are true and you just don’t like the way they’re written, that might be another selfish preference of yours rearing its ugly head.