Let's Have More Worship Wars!

I have the worship music tastes of a seventy-five-year-old woman.

There I admitted it. That’s because a seventy-five-year-old woman was picking out the hymns and gospel songs in the church where I grew up. My iPod playlist is really eclectic-ranging from George Jones to Andrew Peterson to Taio Cruz. But when it comes to worship, nothing gets to me like Fanny Crosby. And if “Just As I Am” is played, I’m going to want to cry and probably walk the nearest aisle (even if it’s on an airplane).

I’m left cold by what people call the “majestic old hymns.” I tried to like them, to fit in with the theological tribe into which I was adopted, but I just can’t do it. They sound like what watercress-sandwich-eating Episcopalians from Connecticut might sing (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

And though I like a lot of contemporary music, much of it sounds to me like many of these songs were written by underemployed commercial jingle writers, trying to find words to rhyme with “Jesus” (“Sees us?” “Never leave us?” “Diseases?”)


But the more I reflect on what I like, and why, the more I’m convinced that my preferences are almost entirely cultural and nostalgic.

I’m not saying aesthetics don’t matter in worship. The Spirit equips God’s people to sing and to play and to write music. So when music is not good, this is often evidence of, at worst, disobedience, and at best, misappropriation of talents. And the Scripture commands us to worship in “reverence and awe.” (Heb. 12:28)

Worship is directed toward God, yes, but worship arises out of a specific community. The psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are teaching (Col. 3:16). They build up the rest of the Body. That’s why we’ve got to care about what, and how, others hear when we are “addressing one another” (Eph. 5:17) musically.

What I am saying is that most of our varying critiques of musical forms are often just narcissism disguised as concern about theological and liturgical downgrade. That’s why I think we need more, and better, worship wars.

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Dr. Russell Moore is President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He currently serves as Distinguished Professor of Christian Ethics at Southern Seminary, and as a visiting professor of ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. A native Mississippian, Moore and his wife Maria are the parents of five sons.