What Makes Worship Music Good?
Updated: May 25
Written by Nathan Walker.
I was a wild-eyed, long-haired sophomore in high school when our youth group's drummer graduated from high school. In addition to playing the electronic drum set in "big church," I could now play the real, noisy kind at youth group since he left. The phrase "like a kid in a candy store" is a pretty close representation of my relationship with drums at that age. In the early stages, I would play loudly (for myself, to be sure, and with extreme enthusiasm) - to the likely dismay of those attending and those in the band. There were tempos, of course, but I wasn’t particularly concerned with following them.
But a realization began to gradually form in my young mind. If I could play the drums the right way, building them from soft to loud before a huge chorus of a song, the worshipers on the ground would inevitably lift their hands and close their eyes! What power I wielded as a young boy with these wooden sticks in my hands!
Unfortunately, the sin in my own heart led me to three skewed conclusions:
1) I was controlling people's reactions to God. 2) I was committing deep sin by doing this. -and worst of all- 3) Worship music was only an emotional reaction to music, and therefore very bad.
So as a boy who loved showing off and playing loudly, I would arrive to youth group with the highest expectations and excitement. What an insane amount of fun I was allowed to have in front of all the other kids! But as a boy who was struggling with legalism and a lack of understanding, I would feel a deep sense of guilt many Sunday evenings over my "manipulation."
Let me take a step back here and ask the pertinent question: What makes worship music good? Is it the quality of the musicianship? The production values of the lights or sound team? How undistracted and close the congregation feels to God as they sing? The emotional fuzzy feeling I get when we sing "let us become more aware of Your presence," with just our voices over a snare drum?
In the many contexts in which I have played worship music, 9 times out of 10, the phrase "The worship was good today!" tends to be a reflection of people's enjoyment of the music quality combined with a person's own emotional reaction to said music. This might sound a little shallow on the surface, but is that entirely wrong?
The short answer to what makes worship good (worship music in particular) is whether or not God likes it. If God likes the worship, it is good worship. If God does not like the worship, it is not good worship. This is an extreme, obvious answer. But I believe it should guide our hearts, our thoughts, and our actions. So what does God like? Here are some brief examples found in scripture:
1) God likes it when our emotions run wild. The writer of Psalm 98 says "Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music." I'm not sure what you guys think of when you hear the word "Shout," but it's definitely not a quiet solitude! "Burst" into jubilant song with music?! This definitely makes me feel like a evangelical American growing up in the bible belt. It seems excessive! One could argue that this is just a cultural outpouring of God's praise, but James writes a clearer command: "Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise." So our first reaction to praising Him should not be to inhibit ourselves!
2) God also does not like it when our sole focus is our emotions. The bible does not explicitly speak of controlling emotions in a worship-music context, but it does tell us that in our emotional responses we should not sin (anger is a good example of this). Here are some other snippets regarding emotional and/or exorbitant “practicing of righteousness”:
a. God also calls us to not only worship with joy but also in reverence. From Hebrews 12: “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”
b. We are commanded to be cautious of showing off. From Matthew 6: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”
c. We should not be like the pagans from Jesus’ day, who felt that repetition maximized their prayer efficiency: “When you pray, don’t babble like the idolaters, since they imagine they’ll be heard for their many words. Don’t be like them, because your Father knows the things you need before you ask Him.”
3) Another example occurs when we worship Him but ignore our sin – and when we ignore the needy and poor around us, this is empty praise to God. In the book of Amos the Lord says over Israel: "For I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate." God then gives the following insanely scary declaration:
"Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! Why would you have the day of the LORD? It is darkness, and not light... I hate, I despise your feasts... Take away from me the noise of your songs to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
This is honestly pretty light for the book of Amos. The book then goes on about the destruction God is bringing upon those who, in the words of Jesus, “honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
So. Certainly our response to worship can sometimes be fueled too much by the music rather than our Creator himself. And certainly the musicians on the stage need to understand that it is easy to manipulate people into responding a certain way. With this in mind, let us not be drawn together focusing on ourselves, but rather on the One of whom we sing!
On the other hand, let us not be afraid to worship with joy. Let’s stop judging people who worship exuberantly or those who worship quietly. As a church of many cultures at Waypoint, this is really important. When we think of God and when we think of our own worship of Him, let us focus not on the people next to us, or the people making funny faces on the stage, or the way the third chord of the bridge makes your skin tingle - No, let us focus on the source, Jesus, the great I AM. Turn your hearts, your desires, and your praise to Him - then in your freedom react accordingly!
In reading the Word, you may have notice that God does not ever say “play electric guitars” or “play the organ” or “sing acapella” or “only play Chris Tomlin songs” or “only play hymns.” Many of us with more Type-A personalities desire strict rules for what we can and cannot do, but God just calls us to sing for joy to Him.
Let us use sound judgment in how to worship, but do not feel inhibited, judged, or made lesser by any who might worship differently than you. And let Paul’s words in Colossians 3:16 guide our minds as we congregate:
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your heart to the Lord.”