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Watching Worship

by Tim O'Hearn

In an interview on a local classical music station, the artistic director of a particular women’s vocal group stated that unlike most countries, the American view of music is that it is to be watched or listened to. We go to concerts or listen to radios and compact disks. Most Americans do not think of music in terms of something in which you personally participate or that you personally make. This attitude has even crept into many churches.


The earliest church music appears to have been congregational and vocal. Paul told both the Ephesian and Colossian churches to sing. (Eph 5:18-20; Col 3:16) Ability was not a consideration. It did not have to be pleasing to the ear. It was an offer of worship to God from the individual members of the congregation.

As time went by, some churches developed choirs that did some or all of the singing. Whether this was due to a desire for a pleasing sound or due to apathy on the part of the congregation, most people stopped participating actively in the musical aspects of worship. They let other people sing, and became observers. When churches finally started using musical instruments, The advantage of the assembly in worship to God is focus.after the church had been in existence approximately 500 years, this only aggravated the problem. Since fewer people could play instruments than could sing pleasantly, a professional corps of worship musicians developed, and more people were content (or forced) to become observers of the professional worship. It was about that time that the Roman Church officially banned the congregation from participating in the musical worship. The natural result has been the tendency the interviewee noted, that Americans in particular and for the most part have lost the desire to participate in music, whether religious or secular. This tendency has continued in many churches, particularly of the “high church” tradition.

Even worse, the attitude spread from just the musical aspect of worship to include other aspects as well. If a professional cadre of musicians was acceptable, why not a professional priesthood? If the congregation could observe the music, why not also the prayers, testimony, aspects of the Lord’s Supper, and public reading of scriptures. The only aspect of congregational worship that seems unaffected was the giving of money, in which everyone is still expected to participate. Two natural consequences seem to have followed. If worship is purely to be participated in by the professionals, why does the congregation even have to be there? People began to believe that they had no direct part in the worship, so attendance dropped. “Let the professionals do the worship for us, and don’t bother us,” became the attitude. For some who did not go quite that far, the television church developed. More recently we have online churches where you e-mail your prayer requests and send your contribution by PayPal™.


Why is all this such a bad thing? What is wrong with television church, for instance? The assembly of the church, and specifically the singing in the church, has two components. If either component can be said to be of lesser importance, perhaps it is the component of worship to God. People can worship individually. God hears our individual prayers as readily as if thought or recited by a group. The advantage of the assembly in worship to God is focus. When in a structured or semi-structured environment, in which a number of people are thinking about God, it is easier for the individual to concentrate on the corporate worship. Granted, many people let their minds wander, but something always brings you back to the idea that you are there for worship. This component may not be lost in watching worship alone. But that emphasizes the second aspect of the assembly. You are not alone.

Many people quote Hebrews 10:25 at this point, saying that we are commanded not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together. The point of that assembly, though, is in the preceding verse.

And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.

Paul tells us that the singing in the assembly of the church is more than worship. “Speaking to yourselves…and making melody in your hearts to the Lord.” (Eph 5:19) “Teaching and admonishing one another…singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Col 3:16) Yes, singing is worship to God, but it is also directed to one another. When you worship God in song by yourself you are not fulfilling the scripture. Music is part of the human makeup. We respond to music. We memorize by putting things to music. It is no strange thing that the bards and seanachies of old sung their stories and genealogies. There are many places in the world today where that tradition still lives. We teach one another in song. We don’t need to teach God. We do need to teach and encourage one another. In those churches where congregational singing is still practiced, how many people remember what the preacher said later that day? How many still have a song in their head?

One can sing along with the television. Sometimes people are embarrassed to do so. Even then, they are only teaching themselves. God gave us the church, and participation in the church, so that we can encourage one another. Perhaps most churches have lost sight of that. We build auditoriums (the meaning is a place to hear) rather than places to encourage. When we sing, if we sing, as a congregation it is usually with everyone looking the same direction. How can you say that you are admonishing one another without looking the other person in the eye? Church architecture has been influenced by the professional mode of worship.

Watching Worship

Worship is a natural reaction to God’s character, power, and personality. When we let the professionals do the worship, we are telling God that we don’t recognize him for what he is. When we stop worshipping and start watching others worship, we are lessened thereby.

The words translated worship carry the idea of bowing or prostrating oneself before the greater. People bowed to the king. The typical way of doing this in the Middle East, then as now, is to kneel on both knees, then bow until the forehead, hands, and knees are touching the ground. This posture ensures that the one worshipping acknowledges their inferiority. One cannot feel superior when eating the dust.

Our worship is an acknowledgement of the superiority of God. Does God need to know that he is superior? Hardly. But he needs to know that we know that he is superior. “For thou shalt worship no other god: for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” (Ex 34:14) When Americans (or Europeans or anyone else) take the attitude that music in worship is something to be watched rather than participated in, they are saying that others may acknowledge God’s superiority, but they don’t need to. At first some may even say that they are participating in the worship by watching worship. Such spiritual voyeurism soon pales, and watched worship becomes something to be endured rather than acknowledged.

Of what value is watched worship? There may be some, but little in comparison to participatory worship. When Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” (Acts 20:35) he knew that it is more blessed to give, seeing the result, than to give from compulsion or without even seeing the gift. So it is in worship. When we watch others perform our worship for us, we are like the athlete that who sets up a charitable foundation as a tax write-off and then practically forgets its existence. We claim that we are worshipping, but we fail to get the benefit of actually acknowledging God’s superiority. We don’t really know that worship has been accomplished. When we participate, particularly in song, we are like the athlete who interacts with the recipients of the money and sees the good he is doing. Watching worship is like trying to get the thank-you note without having contributed to the gift.

It’s not all like that

There is still a tradition of participatory music in worship. Primitive Baptists and the churches of Christ, particularly, use only congregational singing. Other BaptistsGod doesn’t need to know that he is superior; he needs to know that we know he is superior. and some Restoration Movement churches have gone to a blend of choral and congregational singing. Thus it is difficult for some to comprehend the idea that Americans primarily watch music. The tradition of participatory singing is still strong in some churches.

Some have said that the churches of Christ and the Baptists have played a major role in preserving four-part harmony. About the only place you will still find shape notes (notes with different shapes for different values on the scale) are in the songbooks published for use in the Church of Christ. But then, there is little wonder in these things. The so-called evangelical congregations put so much emphasis on personal practice of one’s Christianity that the emphasis on personal worship is only natural. Even in some churches with a strong choral tradition the movement today is back toward congregational involvement.

When we worship together, rather than watch worship together, God is praised more fully. He can’t help but like that.

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