Worship, Consumerism, and Music

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9–10)

What is the church for?

I worry that many church people feel that the church is there mainly to meet their needs and to satisfy their preferences. They are consumers expecting a product of value. They want that product packaged and delivered to them in ways that make it easy for them to consume the product. The product has to meet their expectations and standards, in this case, with church, typically revolving around values of comfort and familiarity. And when the product does not meet those expectations and standards, the consumer will complain or quietly go elsewhere. Perhaps, just as quietly, they’ll leave but never arrive anywhere else.

Music can be understood in a similar way. Because “music” is itself often understood as a product to consume or an experience to receive. Music, as a receptive experience, might fit so well with the consumerist mentality of modern churchgoers and churchgoing. Indeed, the many varieties of music one can readily find and enjoy, live or on CDs or streamed over the Net, might be understood as a worthy parallel to the many varieties of worship one can “consume” in many places. You don’t like this one? You’ve grown tired of that one? Well, just switch to another. Or turn off the player for a while.

Clearly, I don’t think this is an ideal perspective on the church. And I’m not entirely satisfied with it as an understanding of music, either. Because it overlooks the reality that truly experiencing great music is, to some extent, to be captured by it. Great music (of any genre) sets its own terms. Yes, it is experienced, and received, and to that extent somehow “consumed.” But part of the delight we get from great music is how it rubs against our expectations and even our comfort. The hope for any musician is that people will sit up and notice the music, which has in that moment become more than background sound meshing comfortably with the activity of ordinary life.

Another thing about music is that, as an activity, it does not have only listeners but also composers and performers. All three aspects make up the experience of music: composition, performance, and audition. For all forms of music, performers must also be listeners if the music is to “work.” Learning how to play music often makes one a better listener. And for some forms the line between composer and performer can become quite blurred, to beautiful effect.

The church does not exist as a producer of religious services to be consumed. The church is gathered by Christ to bring glory to God through its work together. Within it there are not producers and consumers, performers and listeners, with strict pew-shaped lines dividing them. Rather, all those in the church are to be contributing to the music. They are all performers and listeners. Perhaps they’re all composers, too, although if so then they are composing with an ear toward a fundamental, eternal melody that has taken shape in time. Or maybe it’s in concert with a divine cantus firmus sung through the ages, which all these lesser composers take up and embellish upon as they are given to do by their generous Lord.

What song is God giving you to sing?

Worship Alone and Together


Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing. (Psalm 100:2)

Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! (Psalm 150:6)

I want to offer a word in support of worship.

Of course, I’m probably preaching to the choir. If you’re reading this, then you probably already agree with what I’ll say. You find worship meaningful and important. You attend public worship regularly, perhaps even every week, and you pray regularly.

But maybe you don’t, and this article was passed to you by a concerned friend, who wonders why you don’t “go to church.”

Either way, I want to speak up for worship. Because I think worship is important. I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s beautiful. I think worship makes Sunday complete. I think it makes the week complete.

Except, when it doesn’t. Because sometimes, worship isn’t so wonderful. Sometimes worship is boring, or irrelevant, or infuriating. Sometimes in worship we feel excluded or misunderstood. Sometimes worship is clunky, and sometimes it’s stuffy.

It’s important that I (with my vested interested in worship) acknowledge that public worship sometimes isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, by me and others like me.

Yet even as I acknowledge that actual services of public worship can suffer from many flaws, I cannot accept that it’s better to stay home. And I especially cannot accept that oft-repeated excuse, “I can worship just as well by myself.”

I do think it’s an excuse. And a pretty lazy one, too! Besides, it’s only partly true. Because I am quite certain that the only ones who really do engage in worship better alone than with others are those who regularly do both. They have become good at worship, both alone and with others. They know how to pray. The have learned enough scripture and hymns so their worship has shape and direction. They have become disciplined in turning off the noise in their heads, or at least in directing it toward prayer that is somewhat focused. These are disciplines that are almost never learned all alone, by someone who has rarely set foot in a church sanctuary. And they are hardly ever cultivated sufficiently past the point of basic competence (and thus enjoyment) by those who never attempt any private forms of devotion and worship.

The two kinds of praise work together: the private worship and the public worship, so that each of them helps the other. And without one, the other will have less benefit for the worshiper, and indeed is less likely even to take place. Without public worship, private devotions are shallow, uninformed, and narcissistic, if they happen at all. Without private worship, Sunday morning worship is awkward, inauthentic, and unsatisfying, if it is attended at all.

So I encourage you to cultivate both kinds of worship in your life. Give time to prayer and scripture as a regular personal habit, thus deepening your experience of private worship. And make a priority of your regular attendance at public worship, eager to lend your voice to the praise of God with your fellow worshipers.