Lewis on Worship Music

Often one hears questions regarding worship that ponder the concept of what God finds more pleasing.  Is a particular genre or style worship music more excellent, and, therefore, more worshipful of our great God?  Is one instrument better suited than another to praise the perfections of Christ?  Is a particular musical quality or technique desired by God?  These questions are outside of my grasp in this short article, but what I would suggest that we do is step back and view what God looks for in worship.  I would like to attempt an answer to the question: “What does God want most from my worship in song?”

To begin, I must admit that I am deeply indebted here to C. S. Lewis’ incredible insights written in his essay “On Church Music” in Christian Reflections.  In his context, Lewis is weighing in on the High Church and Low Church music controversy of his day.  The High Church faction felt that only trained musicians should worship.  The Low Church proponents held that the focus should remain almost exclusively on congregational singing, even if the quality of the musical excellence was degraded.  In this milieu, Lewis offers some excellent rejoinders to both camps.  These points are certainly not lost over the half-century that separates his writing from our time, and would be worthy of our consideration.

1: God wants me to edify my brothers and sisters.

Lewis’ first point is to emphasize the importance of edification in worship.  Drawing from 1 Corinthians 14, he makes the following statement:

“Whenever we edify, we glorify, but when we glorify we do not always edify.”

On a surface level, I recoiled after having read this statement for the first time, but pausing for a moment, I began to recognize what Lewis was saying.  We can say all the right things.  We can move through the motions of worship.  We can even have a good heart for praising God.  But if we fail to edify our brothers, then we have failed to offer God what He wants most in our worship.  The Corinthians passage is an apt allusion here.  Here you find a group of believers passionately worshipping and glorifying God in the Spirit-gift of tongues, but they are cautioned about doing this.  Paul warns these believers of excluding their brothers and even unbelievers in this sort of worship – a worship that speaks only to self and not to others.

2: God wants me to submit my desires regarding worship styles to that of my brothers and sisters.

The second point that Lewis makes is the importance of humility in worship.  He argues that both sides of the worship of his day had assumed “far too easily the spiritual value of the music they [wanted].”  They had placed particular musical styles above their brothers and sisters.  They were willing to fight and war over worship styles.  Here Lewis makes the awesome point that God is most glorified, not simply when we worship the way we want, but when we sacrifice ourselves in worship and worship in a manner that our brothers find helpful.  Lewis argues that the High church worshiper gains the most out of worship when he “sacrifices his own (aesthetically right) desires and gives the people humbler and coarser fare than he would wish.” If he fails to do so, “the musician is filled with the pride of skill or the virus of emulation and looks with contempt on the unappreciative congregation.” Lewis also argues that the Low church worshiper gains much as they sacrifice their desires and struggle to learn to their High church brother.” He goes on to suggest, then, “that the problem is never a merely musical one.”  The problem is a failure to demonstrate Christ-like humility towards our brothers in the assembly.

3: God wants the intentional praise of myself and my brothers and sisters.

The final and culminating point that is made in the essay is that there is the importance of intentional worship.  To explain what Lewis means, let’s follow his line of reasoning.  Lewis holds that there is a very elemental sense in which all of creation glorifies God.  A simple look at the Psalms illustrates this concept well.  It is from this concept that we gather the idea that God is glorified by things that are beautiful, strong, majestic, etc.  These things glorify God because they exemplify the potential of God’s creative excellence even in the fallen world.  It is in this sense that the explosive waterfall, the sprinting cheetah, the soaring eagle, and the skilled unsaved musician or athlete could be said to be glorifying God.  Lewis states that “we must define rather carefully the way or ways in which music can glorify God.  There is…a sense in which all natural agents, even inanimate ones, glorify God continually by revealing the powers He has given them.  An excellently performed piece of music, as a natural operation which reveals in a very high degree the peculiar powers given to man will thus always glorify God whatever the intention of the performers may be.”  Thus aesthetic “excellence” in worship is certainly able to worship God, but it is not the true measure of divine desire in worship.

I will here reproduce an extended citation from the essay: “What is looked for us, as men, is another kind of glorifying which depends upon intention.  How easy or how hard it may be for a whole choir to preserve that intention through all the discussions and decisions, all the corrections and disappointments, all the temptations to pride, rivalry, and ambition, which precede the performance of a great work, I (naturally) do not know…  But I must insist that no degree of excellence in the music, simply as music, can assure us that this paradisal state [the merging of natural glorification and intentional glorification] has been achieved.  The excellence proves ‘keenness’; but men can be ‘keen’ for natural, or even wicked, motives…  We must beware of the naïve idea that our music can ‘please’ God as it would please a cultivated human hearer.  That is like thinking, under the old Law, that He really needed the blood of bulls and goats…  For all our offerings, whether of music or martyrdom, are like the intrinsically worthless present of a child, which the father values indeed, but values only for the intention.”  With this last and powerful sentence, Lewis closes the essay, leaving us to consider the ramifications.

In conclusion, Lewis points us to three areas in which we should learn to value what God values in our worship in song.  First, we must learn to value the edification of others.  Second, we must learn to value the humble serving of others and their worship needs.  Third, we must learn to value redeemed intentionality in worship.  Excellence without edification becomes the obnoxious repeated clanging of a cymbal.  Excellence without humble condescension, denies the spirit of the incarnation.  Excellence devoid of intentionality places an improper value on my scribbled child-like sketch of the Almighty.  Let us all seek to value what God values in our worship this week!


His Favorite Song of All

He loves to hear the wind sing

as it whistles through the pines and mountain leaves

And He loves to hear the raindrops

as they splash to the ground in a magic melody

He smiles in sweet approval

as the waves crash through the rocks in harmony

And creation joins in unity

to sing to Him majestic symphonies

 

And He loves to hear the angels

as they sing, “Holy, holy is the Lamb”

Heaven’s choirs in harmony

lift up praises to the Great I Am

But He lifts His hands for silence

when the weakest saved by grace begins to sing

And a million angels listen

as a newborn soul sings, “I’ve been redeemed!”

 

But His favorite song of all

Is the song of the redeemed

When lost sinners now made clean

Lift their voices loud and strong

When those purchased by His blood

Lift to Him a song of love

There’s nothing more He’d rather hear

Nor so pleasing to His ear

As His favorite song of all

 

It’s not just melodies and harmonies

That catches His attention

It’s not just clever lines and phrases

That causes Him to stop and listen

But when anyone set free,

Washed and bought by Calvary begins to sing.

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