Music as a Setting for Spiritual Practices

I recently read an article by Vaughan Roberts in which Roberts relates the following encounter:

Some years ago I was on a mission in London. After one of our meetings, another team member came to me and said: “Why don’t you hold out your hands when you sing?”  I have nothing against that practice. There are examples of it in the Bible. It can express something physically of what you feel in your heart. But I could not see why it seemed to matter so much to my friend. So I asked him, “Why should I?” He replied: “Because if you hold out your hands, you’ll receive a blessing from God. He will come close to you and you’ll feel his presence with you”.

He was expressing the view of many: we meet with God as we sing praise to him, especially when we do so in a particular way. The role of musicians and ‘worship leaders’ is to facilitate that encounter. […]

The Bible never teaches that a feeling can take us into the presence of God. If that had been possible, God would have sent us a musician rather than a saviour. Only Christ can take us into the Most Holy Place in heaven, where we have direct access to the Father through faith in him.

The very common view that ‘worship’ is essentially a time of singing through which we are drawn close to God has a number of harmful consequences….

lights-hands-peopleBased on the rest of the article, I understand what Roberts is trying to say: It is not through music itself that we come closer to God; don’t mistake an emotional buzz for Him. What I think is entirely missing, though (from this article and many others), is a good explanation of how we actually do meet God and draw closer to Him in corporate worship. It’s not all just in my head, is it? Are my emotions playing a smoke-and-mirrors game that tricks me into thinking I worshiped?

Roberts certainly isn’t alone in pointing out the theological problems with thinking that music or specific actions with worship function as a sort of mediator of God’s presence. Plenty of authors past and present have said similar things, and they’re right: sometimes people unthinkingly exalt music to sacramental status and treat it as if it functioned like a means of grace. My friend and pastor, Phil, said it well when he quoted John Calvin: “Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” If we don’t pay attention, we’ll start turning any good gift into an idol, and music is no exception.

But it would be awfully presumptive for us to assume that everyone who talks about experiencing God’s presence during worship thinks that the music itself is somehow making that happen. For those of us in churches that are largely nonliturgical, there is a sense in which our songs perform the function of liturgy. A good set of songs can take us on a corporate journey of praise, thanks, confession, repentance, forgiveness, and celebration. Passages like James 4:6-10 and Jeremiah 29:12-13 make it clear that God does indeed respond to us as we seek him in those ways. God doesn’t respond to our songs as such; he responds to the acts of worship that occur as we intend a song, making its words our words and its intentions our intentions.

I think it makes sense to say that singing functions not as a mediator or a sacrament, but as a concentrated setting for corporate spiritual practices. It is confession, or prayer, or praise, set to music. Singing—like every other spiritual practice—is not about manipulating God or hooking up to a special “worship grace spout” through which He pours Himself out to us. God does not require us to perform some action in order to experience His presence. He is always pouring Himself out to us, but we are seldom paying attention. It’s like Annie Dillard wrote: “You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it.”

Sure, worship singing functions vertically as praise to God and horizontally as encouragement to each other (as Roberts says in his article), but that is only part of the story. We should not ignore the fact that it also functions cohesively and inwardly. Cohesively, it acts like liturgy by allowing us to approach God together, with shared language and intentions. Inwardly, it acts by helping us “sit in the dark” and become undistracted enough to be aware of the presence and action of God that is already all around us.

Maybe Roberts is right in saying that worship is not a “time of singing through which we are drawn close to God,” but it fits with both scripture and experience to say that singing can be a time of worship during which we draw close to God—and He responds by drawing close to us as He promises.

4 Responses to “Music as a Setting for Spiritual Practices”

  1. hmmmm… interesting comments. All I want to say is what worship means to me. God is with me always, I can feel him in my heart. I talk with Him daily, mostly in my head, sometimes outloud, mostly not. (i’m working on this). When I worship in service with others, I can see everyone singing praises to Him, tho mostly I have my eyes closed. I do raise my hands and open my arms to pay homage, to acknowledge His glory, and his authority over me and my life. For me, its not about what I can take or feel, but it is a time that I can give all that I am, in a vocal manner. How I can tell Him I love Him outloud. As humans, we are emotional, He made us that way. It would be silly to say that there shouldn’t be emotions in worship, it is yet another way to express ourselves. The emotions should be of joy, adoration, praise, how wonderful it is to be able to give back to Him, without being looked at or judged. Am I missing the point completely?

  2. It seems to me that a lot of people attempt worship from the wrong direction or for the wrong purpose. They hear about what the ideal is or they experience it accidentally and then get things mixed up. I believe worship ought to be God-focused, what can be done to ascribe to God His true worth. As a by-product the worshiper-because he is acting as he ought (for once!)-often experiences a delight, warmth of spirit, etc that is unusual for him. But we tend to go chasing the experience thinking that it is worship. “If I can just get the warm-fuzzy feeling back, I’ll have worshiped.” So we end up making worship me-centered r/th God-centered. Does this make sense? What do you think?

    • D – I certainly agree that pursuing warm fuzzies is problematic. One of my favorite analogies about worship is John Piper’s “furnace” from the worship chapter in Desiring God. He describes the role of emotion as the heat and light produced by a fire. They are results of the presence of fire, but they are not the fire itself and should not be confused with it. Confusing an emotional state with worship can be at best frustrating (when we don’t feel the warm fuzzies) and at worst idolatry that causes us to utterly miss the point.

      My beef is not with any of that directly, but rather with what many people do next—they begin to distrust emotion in worship to the point that they remove worship from the context of the whole person and place it solely in the context of the mind. Also, I think our descriptions of what worship is and how it functions are far from complete. That’s why I wanted to write this and take a stab at adding something to Roberts’ description in order to make it (in my view) more well-rounded.