The importance of culturally relevant musical forms in worship

Last month Tim wrote a great article on worship entitled “Toddler Worship.” His observations are, I believe, truly important for maturing believers. It is certain that we should not aim at the lowest common denominator when leading our churches, therefore it is foolish to craft a worship service to meet the immature in their immaturity and cater to it in such a way that they never grow.

Early in my pastoral ministry, as a youth pastor, I sought to set the bar high for the 50 or so Jr. High students I ministered to. The level of teaching they received during my 4 year tenure, was likely over their heads. Or at least the adults visiting my services told me so. I was actually not surprised that many of them grasped far more of what was taught than most adults gave them credit for. I set this purely as a qualifier for what I am about to say, especially since I do not really disagree with that Tim wrote. I’m not one to water things down for the sake of attracting people.

Several years ago, while preaching and teaching 8 to 10 hours a week for an extended period, I came down with a virus, which resulted in the loss of my voice. After healing from the illness I found that my ability to speak had drastically been affected. For several months I preached with what felt like an incredibly weak voice. By the end of Sunday services I’d be very near losing my voice. I also found that I was completely unable to engage in musical worship prior to preaching; in some ways this was a bit of an existential crises.

I’m almost sorry to admit it [now]; to that point worship to me had been inextricably linked to music. Not being able to sing caused me to rethink the paradigm of worship I’d come to know within modern evangelicalism. In my rethinking process I’ve come to recognize a number of important truths.

1. Music is not worship, but God created music to be the fastest onramp to genuine worship in spirit and truth.

2. God created music to stir our emotions, which informs us that worship should be emotional.

Genuine worship does not need music, but is greatly aided by it. One can just as easily enter into emotionally engaging worship by meditating upon God and His word while standing before the Grand Canyon, Bridalveil Falls, or merely considering His greatness.

* The affect of music upon our emotions can be for good or for bad. God did not dictate that music would only affect us in a positive or happy way. Music played at a faster tempo with major chords generally stirs happy emotions, whereas music played at a slower tempo with minors evokes sad emotions. Dissonance in music stirs negative anxiety and fear (maybe Fusco can produce some dissonant fear conjuring worship for us). 

3. Worship music that only engages the emotions is severely lacking and creates worshipers of worship as a means to emotional euphoria (ie emotionalism).

This point has been regularly reconfirmed for me over the last 10 years in working with youth and college students.

4. The theologically correct lyrics of emotionally stirring worship songs will engage the mind with the emotions to produce “heart worship.”

The engagement of the mind is essential. The emotions conjured up by the greatness of the Grand Canyon causes one to be in wonder (or worship) of the awesomeness of the Colorado River, whereas another is brought into honorable worship by seeing the same sight, while rehearsing God’s word in their mind or setting their affections upon Him.

5. Theologically correct lyrics attached to emotionally unengaging music shortchanges genuine worship.

6. Since worship music should effect us at an emotional level, style of music is important and varies from culture to culture, and across generational lines.

This time last year we were blessed to offer The Perspectives on the World Christian Movement course at CCEsco. One of our instructors, Ron Binder, brought this issue of style in musical worship home for me.

Ron is a Wycliffe missionary and an expert in Ethnomusicology. during a portion of his lecture he spoke on the importance of culturally relevant musical forms in worship, and explained that just as individuals have a “heart language,” they also have a “heart music.” This “heart music” is the style or musical form that will most engage their emotions and draw them into “heart worship.”

If this is true, and I believe it is, then we ought to honestly consider this as we are seeking to disciple our fellowships in worship, especially when we consider that the Father is seeking those that will worship Him in spirit and truth. So, I do agree with Tim that we should not cater to people’s immaturity, and that we should do our best to separate the music from the worship.  But at the same time I continue to find that I need to think through the realities of style in worship far more than I ever did before.

7. Worship in spirit and truth is responsive, thus we cannot expect a person to “experience” heart worship immediately at the open of a corporate worship service. 

8.  A musical worship service, or corporate worship time should [therefore] be progressive (psalms, hymns, spiritual songs…).  It [the worship service] should lead people into worship.

Since my introduction to Calvary Chapel at age 11, my primary experience of a musical worship has been that which is engaged in for approximately 30 minutes prior to the sermon, and/or what is practiced at many of our believers meetings, camps and retreats.  These are, in our movement, commonly call “Afterglows.”

In my (purely personal, non-scientific) observation of these meetings, there seems [at times] to be very little intentionality in our worship and something of a “storm the throne room” approach.  In the last several years I’ve heard many a worship leader and/or pastor lament the fact that their people are “not worshiping,” which is generally gauged by the lack of participation (i.e. singing) by the gathered assembly.  In considering this complaint, I’ve developed a theory that a worship service that draws the worshipers into heart worship should progress from psalms to hymns, which results in spiritual songs.

Psalms are – generally speaking – scripture put to music.  John Calvin believed singing anything other than the Psalms was inappropriate for Christian worship and unworthy of God.  I don’t know if I’d go that far.   But, such singing of the scriptures sets our minds upon God’s word and aids us in taking God’s word into our hearts, as music is a tremendously powerful mnemonic device.

Hymns are doctrinal and theological in nature; they exalt the attributes of God’s character and nature; they give intellectual and theological expression to our faith.  Martin Luther said, “Let me write the hymns of a Church, and I care not who may write its creeds and volumes of theology — I will determine its faith.”

Spiritual Songs are adorations, supplications, petitions, confessions, thanksgivings, etc…  They are spiritually inspired from man to God or God to man and tend to be prophetic in nature and spontaneous.  Such songs are the overflow of our heart in devotion to God.

 I believe that the lack of participation many observe in worship today is related to the fact that much of our modern worship tends to be “spiritual song” dominant.  If one does not properly, and progressively, lead the body into worship, they will likely not engage in worship as their heart has not been properly prepared to sing devotional confessions of praise or petition (e.g. “You [God] are the air I breath,” “You are all I want, you are all I need,” “Lord my one request, my only aim, Lord reign in me again.”).

I am, however, encouraged by many of the new hymns being developed by individuals like Keith Getty and groups such as  Sovereign Grace and Indelible Grace Music.

Ultimately worship is God’s idea.  He created us to worship and is seeking such who will worship Him.  John Piper is right, “Missions exist because worship doesn’t.” God is worthy of our worship and our greatest experiences of pleasurable joy are rooted in our worship of Him.  He inhabits the praises of His people and in His presence is fullness of joy.  These truths have challenged me over the last several years to more seriously consider the theology of worship.  Perhaps it’s a good challenge for the church as a whole?


9 replies
  1. Kellen Criswell
    Kellen Criswell says:

    Good post, Miles. Really interesting thoughts. I believe worship is far more broad of an issue than music on Sunday as well. Nonetheless, I’ve been a bit challenged on my thinking regarding style and musical worship in the past couple years too. I’ve always been in the “style doesn’t matter!” camp. It would bother me to hear, “I just couldn’t worship to that today!” from supposedly mature Christians who didn’t like the style that morning. I still think that’s “toddler” stuff when coming from the general person who says that.

    On the other hand, I was really challenged to put my money where my mouth was about a year ago when I attended a conference that had music I really didn’t connect with. I grew up playing in punk and metal bands (for context on me). So, if most church songs of any accepted church styles weren’t about Jesus, I wouldn’t be into them. On this occasion though, without detail, it was like worship with the Clampetts, except not even that cool. I felt like a hypocrite trying not to laugh as we sang songs filled with lyrics of God’s holiness to what were to me straight up silly tunes.

    What I came away realizing is, as you noted, certain musical styles generate certain emotions. Therefore it is important that the music we play in worship be stylistically the kind that generate the type of emotions that are consistent with the lyrics we’re actually singing to God. If we’re singing about the bloody cross, the tune shouldn’t sound like it came from Veggie Tales. If we’re singing about the resurrection, the tune shouldn’t sound like it came from the Exorcist. If we don’t match appropriate tunes with appropriate lyrical themes in songs that are appropriate to our culture, people may be more tempted to laugh while singing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” than take comfort in God’s infinite power.

    This goes both ways generationally. I’m a young guy for whom SOME older styles can be a stumbling block in musical worship. For older folks, I think many would say, “style doesn’t matter to me,” until they go to a church with Punk rock worship, or hear their youth group try to tell them that rappers like Lecrae, or metal bands such as August Burns Red are worshipful. Suddenly they’re singing the, “that’s not worshipful tune.”

    Sorry this is so long…soap box.

    • Miles DeBenedictis
      Miles DeBenedictis says:


      There is a lot of talk today about contextualization in preaching and teaching, it’s interesting to me that we don’t talk much of it in musical style in worship. Certainly there are dangers in extremes, but the discussion shouldn’t be anathema.

      Interestingly Ed Stetzer just posted an article on this exact topic a couple of days ago. It’s definitely worth the read, but a couple of quotes are appropriate here…

      …some churches have moved to multiple services for more strategic reasons– like engaging their community. (I am not addressing multiple services of the same kind/style here, those provoke much less debate and concern.) But, I am considering multiple “styles” of worship in one church. Though there are complicated issues here, I’d encourage us to consider one of the main concern [sic] has to be motivation– why does a church create multiple services?: to pander to consumer needs or faithfully engage additional people. The fundamental question: is the idea motivated by consumerism or contextualization?

      When multiple worship services with different styles are created because a church has a desire is to create opportunities where people can worship God in spirit and in truth, their motivation is much better than simply creating consumer room. If their desire is to create a new place from which they can reach out to people in a certain cultural context, that seems a better– even an appropriate– motivation.

  2. Brian Sauvé
    Brian Sauvé says:

    Thanks for the article, Miles. I’m the worship leader at Kellen’s church, so this is pretty relevant to me. I love your point about engaging theologically correct and weighty truths into music that expresses it in an emotionally appropriate way.

    On the practical side, it might be less than desirable to structure the musical worship in a service into exactly the same frame every week (opening with a psalm, moving to a hymn, ending with spiritual songs). I do like that as a model that generally makes sense, but there’s always danger in maintaining the same routine week after week. What are your thoughts on this? And as a confession up front, I probably tend towards doing too much of the same thing week to week already.

    • Miles DeBenedictis
      Miles DeBenedictis says:


      Great question…

      Much like the A.C.T.S model of prayer or following the model of the Lord’s prayer in prayer, I’m providing an exhortation toward a progressive model in worship.  Also, when I say a “psalm” I’m not necessarily saying that it should be a direct quotation from the scripture put to music, but a song that finds it’s foundation solidly in the scriptures.  The important aspect of psalms, then hymns (or a mixture of the two), then spiritual songs, is set to bring people to a place where singing the spiritual songs (which are devotional in nature) correlates with where their heart is.

  3. Nancy Allen
    Nancy Allen says:

    Regarding your point #7: How soon you can worship depends on the heart you come in with. Anyone can prepare his own heart for worship prior to the service.

    I’m also curious as to whether the Greek for Ephesians 5:19 (or other verse that you might be referencing) has language within the words “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” that indicates that there is some sort of ordering of those words.

    I don’t see that in the English. In common English use, that sort of parallel structure indicates that each item is equal. It seems like the English would say “first psalms, then hymns, then spiritual songs” if an order was intended.

    Here’s a quote from the Purdue University English grammar site:
    “Parallel structure means using the same pattern of words to show that two or more ideas have the same level of importance. This can happen at the word, phrase, or clause level. The usual way to join parallel structures is with the use of coordinating conjunctions such as ‘and’ or ‘or.'”

    • Miles DeBenedictis
      Miles DeBenedictis says:


      Great point. 

      I’m not endeavoring to do an exegetical study of the Greek in Ephesians, really only using the words there to express the point of intentionality in the worship service.

      As to preparing your heart before worship.  Ideally that should be the norm, especially for the leaders. The reality is, however, most people do not come prepared to worship. I’m sure that’s partly why we call the musicians “worship leaders.”

  4. Tim Brown
    Tim Brown says:

    Interesting article, Miles. Yes, we shouldn’t gear our worship to the immature; nor should we (as you pointed out) use a style of worship that is emotionally or culturally jarring to the congregation we are leading in worship. If we used Chinese instruments and melodies at CC Fremont this Sunday, we’d have a lot of confused people.

    I am just wondering out loud here – my post that you referenced a few times focused on the form of worship. You write about the form and the content of worship. I have been thinking lately not about the form or the content of our worship, but the Object of our worship. I wonder if the focus on getting the form and the content correct somehow distracts us from the real object of worship which is to worship God – the Object of our worship. I am a simple man. Start strumming the guitar and singing “Alleluia” in the key of G – and I am in the Spirit worshiping Jesus! I do appreciate the hymns and the more sophisticated, denser themes they develop. But for me, and this is just me – and I am sure I will be anathamatized – I spend so much time thinking about the words that I am not thinking about Jesus. Yes, I know the words speak of Jesus, but I want to sing to Jesus. “Well you can do both,” I am told. I know, but…

    We know that worship can be over the top emotional. Is it possible for worship to be over the top theological and intellectual. Is the worship of the church meant to teach the church doctrine? Is there a textually developed argument for this? Just thinking out loud. I see the Psalms praising God for who He is and what He has done historically and existentially. Maybe this is the Scriptural cue for developing theologically rich worship songs. But again, for me, even as there can be an emotional over-emphasis in worship there can be an intellectual over-emphasis. Some won’t worship to anything they can’t clap to. Others won’t worship with anything that doesn’t include the word ‘propitiation’ at least once!

    Rambling – good article!

    • Miles DeBenedictis
      Miles DeBenedictis says:

      The object of our worship is extremely important, as the first two of the ten commandments make clear. We must be “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” in worship. We must glorify God as God, bringing Him thankful praise in our worship. I contend that both words and form in musical worship can aid or easily distract us from the object of our worship. The aim of our whole service should involve worship (i.e. the glorification of God). Music, giving, scripture reading and sermon/teaching are all worship.

      Just as the music (style/form or quality) can be jarring, a lyric in a [rich] song can be so as well. Months ago I was listening to a Christian radio station while driving home from church on a Wednesday night. A song I’d not heard before came on; I found myself instantly worshiping the Lord in my heart until this lyric, “heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss.” Talk about ripping you from the throne room. I texted one of our worship leaders and asked him to add the song to his list, but to change the lyric… he informed me that he already had changed that lyric.

      I don’t know that the thrust of worship in the church is meant to teach doctrine, but we should recognize that the worship time, whether it is our goal or not, is teaching the congregation. This is exactly why Luther said, “Let me write the hymns of a Church, and I care not who may write its creeds and volumes of theology — I will determine its faith.”

      I’m sure that worship could become overly theological, I just don’t think that’s a problem in our current culture. We should lovingly worship God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, yes?

      A few times in the last 6 months I’ve attended conferences outside of the Calvary sphere and found that some other movements/networks are doing an incredibly good job incorporating the very things I described in points 7 & 8.

      Something else you said really caught my attention. “I spend so much time thinking about the words that I am not thinking about Jesus. Yes, I know the words speak of Jesus, but I want to sing to Jesus.” This is a great point, which I believe reveals that you’ve trained your heart to maintain an attitude of worship.

      In the Psalms David said, “I will bless the LORD at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth.” The author of the book of Hebrews exhorted the church saying, “By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually.” Paul told the Philippians (and us), “Rejoice in the Lord always.” I imagine that you, Tim, spend a lot of time in the word and prayer; your mind is fixed upon the Lord (Psalm 57:7, Psalm 108:1, Psalm 112:7), thus spiritual songs of devotion flow. You could at any moment, with or without musical accompaniment sing, “Jesus I love You,” “Lord I lift Your name on high,””Oh lord You’re beautiful,” “You’re all I need, You’re all I’ve ever wanted.” I’m sure you’d agree though, many people in our congregations need to be led to worship God.

  5. Miles DeBenedictis
    Miles DeBenedictis says:

    I thought I’d add this for good measure…

    A farmer went to the city one weekend and attended a large church. He came
    home and his wife asked him how it was.

    “Well,” said the farmer, “it was good. They did something different, though. They sang choruses instead of hymns.”

    “What are choruses?” asked his wife.

    “Oh, they’re okay,” said the farmer; “they’re sort of like hymns, only different.”

    “Well, what’s the difference?” asked his wife.

    The farmer said, “Well, it’s like this. If I were to say to you, ‘Martha, the cows are in the corn,’ well, that would be a hymn. If on the other hand, I were to say to you,

    ‘Martha, Martha, Martha, Oh Martha, Martha, Martha,
    The cows, the big cows, the brown cows, the black cows,
    The white cows, the black and white cows,
    The cows, cows, cows are in the corn,
    Are in the corn, are in the corn, are in the corn,
    The corn, corn, corn,’

    Then if I were to repeat the whole thing two or three times, well, that would be a chorus.”
    Coincidentally, the same week, a young businessman from the city who normally attended a church with a contemporary ­style worship service was in the farmer’s town on business and attended the farmer’s small ­town church. When he came home, his wife asked him how it was.

    “Well,” said the young man, “it was good. But they did something different. They sang hymns instead of regular songs.”

    “Hymns,” said his wife, “what are those?”

    “Oh, they’re okay. They’re sort of like regular songs, only different, said the young man.

    “Well, what’s the difference?” asked his wife.

    The young man said, “Well, it’s like this. If I were to say to you, ‘Martha, the cows are in the corn,’ well, that would be a regular song. If on the other hand, I were to say to you

    ‘Oh Martha, dear Martha, hear thou my cry,
    Inclinest thine ear to the words of my mouth.
    Turn thou thy whole wondrous ear by and by
    To the righteous, inimitible glorious truth.

    For the way of the animals, who can explain
    There in their heads is no shadow of sense,
    Hearkenest they in G-d’s sun or His rain
    Unless from the mild, tempting corn they are fenced.

    Yea, those cows in glad bovine, rebellious delight
    Have broke free their shackles, their warm pens eschewed.
    Then goaded by minions of darkness and night
    They all my mild Chilliwack sweet corn have chewed.

    So look to that bright shining day by and by,
    Where all foul corruptions of earth are reborn,
    Where no vicious animal makes my soul cry
    And I no longer see those foul cows in the corn.’

    Then if I were to do only verses one, three, and four, and do a key change
    on the last verse, well, that would be a hymn.”

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