Is Praise Music Bringing Idolatry?
Slouching Toward Paul’s Prophecy Again

Just thinking. I wonder if the evangelical church in America hasn't gone idolatrous.

Idolatry must be easy to fall into, a favorite of Satan. God emphasizes it so. He commands not only heathens, but his own worshipers, "Make no graven image."

Israel, for example, leaving Egypt quickly fell into idolatry. For when Moses came down from the mountain, from afar he heard a clamor of worship which Joshua mistook for battle. The people of Israel, knowing from experience God's wonderful providence, with good intention and Aaron's help, had fashioned a golden calf to worship God in gala, clanking revelry. Worship comes natural to sinful man. It can be fun. But religious zeal in itself can provoke God to wrath. More than any other, the sin of idolatry brought destruction to nations.

Football or Elvis fanatics, though perhaps dissipated in affection, I doubt are actually idolatrous. But it seems to me that generic worship, for sake of the feeling, is. I feel uncomfortable amid worship which is not explicitly focused upon Jesus and the holiness of the Gospel.

So praise and worship songs bother me. They have so little focus upon Jesus. Most do not even mention His name. Very few mention His sacrifice. And I can't think of one that attributes our salvation, by grace, to His atonement alone.

Inward Focus.

Praise songs are intrinsically focused inwardly, on the worshiper: "I will worship" "I want to be Holy" "give me" "use me" "I will give you all my worship". Making yourself the center of your universe seems to me both vain and idolatrous. One song mentions "I, me, my" 36 times while mentioning "you" four.

They use the word "you" for God. "I magnify you," "I adore you," "I bow down before you." Thus the same songs could serve as well in temples of Baal, Molech, Shiva, Thor, Buddha, Allah, or even Satan, anyplace where a god may be addressed as "you, Lord." Though doubtless they have none of these foreign gods in mind, the personality worshipped seems to be a god who dotes on flattery, who takes little interest in faithfulness or repentance.

They make plenty of promises. "I will worship," "I will lay my life before you," "I will lift up my hands unto your name." But any adult knows the dismal record of human promises. If keeping promises were Christianity, how lost we are. Only God's promises are sure.

Many of these songs are explicitly autobiographical, describing lost and lonely lives that improve upon finding "joy" in the Lord, as if a dose of religious entertainment is all the cure fallen humanity needs.

The language of possessiveness seems to play upon Man's mating desire: "You're all I ever wanted" "My heart's one desire" "Hold me close; let your love surround me." Too acquisitive perhaps? Too carnal? Too much like the lusty gods of nations around ancient Israel?

One song presents stellar imagery: "Lord of Heaven and Earth... beyond our galaxy." Not too bad; but strains of New Age music alert me to the song's friendship with the tree hugger's goddess Gaia or wicken's Earth Mother.

Oh, I'm not saying those who like these songs are lesser Christians. I know fine Christians, holding apt doctrine, who like these songs.

But it seems to me, if the purpose of rock 'n roll in Church is to appeal to young people and visitors then we do them a disservice by presenting Church as pep rally. When the fizz is gone, nobody tastes the soda again. Serious seekers will tire of weekly, repetitious, amateur rock. Then what memory of Christ will they take with them? Or has a dose of shallow religion vaccinated them against deep faith in Jesus? What a shame if teens pick up that Christianity is nothing more than subjective experience, that no objective truth adheres to the gospel, nothing to be sure of, nothing to yield a life to. And then they go away to college where their professors teach that all truth is subjective, where other exciting experiences make church singing seem juvenile.

And anyway, rock 'n roll doesn't really appeal to all teens. Some of the most conscientious are repulsed by it, and good students have important things to do with their time. Doesn't the good shepherd leave the 99 who are comfortable staying in a group and seek the one who is lost? Wasn't it a compromise toward making religion popular that tripped up Aaron?

Shouldn't Church be the fellowship of those whose rejoicing is specifically and confidently in Jesus crucified and risen? Good cheer and stout singing are wonderful in church, but aptly focused, looking to Jesus, not to our own feelings.

Words In the Bible, but Out of Context.

False doctrine definitely has entered through these songs. I'm sure many believe God is pleased by the emotions they are able to feel and evince. I know a pastor who weekly preaches salvation by grace through
exuberance! "I know I love Jesus! Whoop!" he says. "Oh, but I don't know about you," sadly he declares if you are not able to belt out these songs with a cowboy drawl.

The rationale sometimes given for these songs is itself blasphemy. For the claim is made that the Holy Spirit comes among us or that we awaken the Holy Spirit by our praise. But conjuring spirits, as in voodoo, is very wicked. For God is always with us and His Spirit indwells every believer. To be filled with the Spirit doesn't mean to feel a sizzle, but to exhibit the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, mercy, self-control. Not many of these virtues even appeal to rock 'n roll enthusiasts.

I recognize that many of the texts of these songs come from psalms. But taken out of context, they eliminate the character of God, all that makes a psalm uniquely His.

For example, Psalm 47 begins somewhat like a praise song, "Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!" That much alone doesn't reveal God, so it doesn't just heap up more of the same. It continues, "For Yahweh the Most High is terrible, a great king over all the earth. He subdued peoples under us, and nations under our feet. He chose our heritage for us, the pride of Jacob whom He loves." A Jew could recall this history and know that God is real and special to his nation.

So the psalms focus on revealing God. With picture words they describe His character to us. Far be it from the Psalms to demand we have feelings as though that appeals to God.

In contrast, praise songs gorge on abstractions: "glory" "majesty" "exalt" "honor" "hail" "extol": airy fairy words, the vague verbiage of unfocused worship aimed more at squeezing out our feelings than at revealing God.

The aspirations of some of these songs seem mighty lofty: "I want to mount up on wings like an eagle." "I want to be Holy." "I want to shine like the highest heaven." These are more like the Prodigal's initial, vain ambitions than those that restored him when coming to himself he thought to say to his father, "I am not worthy to be your son. Make me a hired servant." Search in vain for a disciple who was encouraged to aim higher than to follow Jesus. Peter's plans were too early and too grand when he rebuked Jesus for speaking of his death. He was a little too full of himself when he falsely vowed, "I will lay down my life for you." The mother was above her understanding who asked Jesus to arrange that her two sons sit on either side of the throne in His kingdom. In every case, Jesus reminded the puffed-up that to follow means to serve and to suffer, bearing a cross. Wasn't it Satan who put it into Eve's mind to aspire to be like God, and who offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the Earth? Yes, we grow more holy and we will be exalted one day; but in the mean time can't we be less covetous?

A Hallowed Day, or Sabbath Rock ‘n Roll?

I ask, are we keeping Sunday as we ought? For from creation God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it. He commanded we keep the sabbath holy. We glimpse holiness when we take our minds off the concerns of six days and see the objective reality of Christ and his purity. Songs telling us how to think or what to feel don't help. But occasionally the Bible confronts us with the absolute necessity of a reality much greater and sweeter than ourselves. The wonder of holiness is this: nothing strikes us more sublimely than to see objective, heavenly truth revealed. We may not see holiness every week. But when we see it, we are blessed. Efforts to “do religion” by forcing human emotion out of our own heads only interferes with our rest and obscures the wonder of the objective, personal God.

I know that Paul made himself all things to all people in order that he might win some. Okay, then, if outsiders find rock 'n roll appealing then perhaps it has a valid place in outreach. But I just wonder if we shouldn't separate an introspective appeal for outsiders on Friday from a holy, focused worship of Jesus on Sunday?

While Martha served, Mary sat in quiet adoration at Jesus' feet, catching whatever he might say. She didn't bring guitar or drums. She wasn't there to impress Jesus. But patient, interested Mary impressed Jesus. She chose the good portion, Jesus said.

On the other hand, those who sound trumpets as they give alms, Jesus says, who stand and pray in the synagogues to be seen ( or who take microphone to blast out a worship song to impress others?), they have their reward.

Focus upon Jesus. Apprehend His holiness. This is worship.

But fun with glorious abstractions, attention to your own emotions, trying to impress God and other people by impassioned faces, I think, is idolatry.

For I just feel uncomfortable in church. I've felt the same discomfort praying with Catholic friends addressing their prayers to Mary. I felt the same hypocrisy in Japan as I politely bowed before a Buddha so as not to offend.

Songs Sung to God, not About God.

Proponents of these songs consider it a selling point that in them we sing
to God, rather than about God. But this is also their danger. For prayers composed of vain repetition don’t please God, and these songs are repetitive, both in themselves and in the frequency of their reiteration, Sunday upon Sunday and Wednesdays too. Thus the heart grows cold to the rote words. If they were about God, that’s not so bad; at least you are learning something. But being addressed to God, He may see that the heart is not up with the words, sounding in his ears like mocking.

And what if someone should have a false god in mind as he sings? It is a far less serious thing to sing
about a false God than to sing to one.

Most telling is the Biblical example. Although supplication and thanksgiving are addressed to God in the Bible, praise is almost
never addressed directly to God.

Zacharias, filled with the Holy Ghost, at the birth of his son, John the Baptist, praised God in the third person. “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel. For he has visited and wrought redemption for his people...”

Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Ghost when Mary visited and the babe leapt in her womb, expressed loud praise
about God, not to God, but to Mary. “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb!”

And Mary replied
about her soul’s elation: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior, for he has looked upon the low estate of his handmaiden....”

anyone could approach God directly with praise, you’d think Jesus could. But the high priestly prayer of Jesus in John 17 only combines supplication with a progress report. “I glorified thee on earth, having accomplished the work which thou gavest me to do; and now, Father, glorify me in thine own presence with the glory which I had with thee before the world was made....”

The Lord’s Prayer Jesus does not praise God directly: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name...” The Greek sense is,
Let your name be regarded holy. It is not, I praise your holy name.

I have found only one instance in the Bible of praise made directly to God, rather than about God. (I may have missed others.) The twenty four elders who are seated before God (Revelation 4) cast their crowns before the throne singing, “Worthy art thou, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for thou didst create all things, and by thy will they existed and were created.” Praise, however, is accompanied by explanation. But are we worthy, as the twenty four elders are, to speak to God rather than about God?

God Delights in Repentance

For we come into the presence of God only as we are covered in the blood of the Lamb, Jesus ever interceding for us. All of us fall far short of glory and fail the charge, to “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, and strength and thy neighbor as thyself.” To present ourselves before God, cleansed, we must first confess our sins. Praise songs do not substitute for confession, and rock ‘n roll does not set a mood for contrition.

Put yourself in God’s shoes. Would you, knowing their impenitent hearts, be jazzed by crowds of groupies every weekend enjoying themselves with their favorite music, seemingly buttering you up? Wouldn’t you resent them constantly
using your name for their own entertainment while never acknowledging what separates you from them? Wouldn’t you prefer that this self indulgent crowd sing about you rather than to you?

Or think of the Prodigal son. What if he had returned, corralled his less self-indulgent brother, and the pair took up megaphone and drums to perform loud rock songs before their dad, “You are wonderful, majestic, exalted. Only you have the car keys and the wallet. I want to be like you, set aside for you, my master.” Wouldn’t it seem that the boy had a lot to learn? Wouldn’t the learning process be more apparent if they were singing
about their dad rather than to him?

We know what worship displeases God and how to correct it. “I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of he-goats. When you come to appear before me, who requires of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me..... When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you. Even though you make
many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves. Make yourselves clean. Remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes.” (Isaiah 1)

The term “sacrifice of praise” is often used of these songs, self importantly, it seems to me. David, on the other hand, contrasted praise and sacrifice and showed that confession precedes praise. “Deliver me from bloodguilt, O God, thou God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of thy deliverance. O Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth thy praise. For thou hast no delight in sacrifice. Were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” (Psalm 51)

“The religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (James 1)

“Draw night to God and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands ye sinners, and purify your hearts ye double minded.” (James 4)

A prayer made from the heart is deeply contrite. “...The Holy Spirit interceding for us in groanings which cannot be uttered.” (Romans 8) But the jaunty rhythms and simplistic melodies of these songs do not lend themselves to groanings of the Spirit.

Maybe Not Really All That Popular!

Why do so few people sing? Perhaps these songs are pitched too low, down in our sullen, sulky voices (alto’s revenge.) Or has electronic amplification so nearly banished congregational singing from our churches? No sense singing if you can't hear your own voice! No fellowship if you can't hear your neighbor's! For most people, amplification has made church music an isolating experience. Presumably this is not the music minister's intent. Dismissing the possibility of some sort of "silly powder" in the drinking water, I suggest he has yielded to the same enticement for religious kicks that caught up Aaron, the pleasure of idolatry.

For whatever reason, few sing; I only hear the amplified voices of the praise and worship teams in every white church I attend - though I will say I much enjoyed the
unamplified congregational singing of these songs in a black church. This hints, perhaps, that oppressive noise is part of what compels my spiritlessness.

My concern is that the evangelical church is slouching toward the malaise foreseen by Paul: "For men will be lovers of self... arrogant... lovers of pleasure...
holding the form of religion but denying the power thereof." For we've seen it before, in the established churches with their pomp and authority, and again in the pietistic movement when people withdrew from the real world into themselves, and again in the merely symbolic ceremonies and repetition of the liturgical churches, then again in the liberal churches so empty of objective truth, their congregants yielding to trendy goals. Praise and worship songs could again give us a church where subjective feeling replaces objective truth.

I’m concerned that the paradigm being conveyed is that religious praise puts us on God’s good side. Weren’t there plenty of people in Noah’s day who danced and sang religious worship with all the praise words, majesty, power, authority, extol and so on? But only those who boarded the arc were saved.

Our arc is Jesus, who by his blood saves sinners. But we know that without the confession of sin, we have no fellowship with God. So it seems that many of our young people strumming guitars and beating drums, addressing their praises to God, are not even being heard by Him. For they think that by their many words they will please God. But they have never addressed their own guilt. The blood of Christ avails them nothing. One of the saddest portions of scripture is where Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Praise God, but...
• Don’t imagine that praise puts you on God’s good side. The blood of Jesus, through repentance, restores us to God, that we might learn wisdom and obedience.
• Avoid the human tendency to worship a subjective god of our own imaginations. Instead learn of the real God of history.
• Avoid worship for the self serving purpose of impressing or entertaining others.
• Be heedful lest you take pleasure in the activity of worship more than the object of worship.
• Do not focus praise on your desires or feelings, but on the holiness of God.
• Remember to regard the sabbath Holy; that rest is commanded rather than revelry.
• Be wary of praise
to God, rather than about God. The Bible presents few examples of it and it may show brazen familiarity and manipulation.
• Be cognizant that others may be led astray by the appearance of your worship.

Well, to yield a bit, I'll say that some of the songs are better than others. And good sermons and teaching can fill in what they lack. Moreover it's a shaky analogy: songs centered on yourself, sung directly to God, equating to graven images. Maybe it's just me. But from my perspective, the evangelical church in America is yielding its place in Christ's assembly where believers join as equals, with one heart, voices yielded to God. It appears more like an electronic amplification of some, the trendy, trying to pump up the duller worshipers. I am not complaining against my dear and respected friends in any church. But in my own way, quietly, I have long felt more comfortable staying home Sundays until the bulk of the praise and worship singing has finished.

(The author is a composer of sacred music.)