Music is probably the most common expression of worship as we know it today. But when did we start looking at worship as music? I have a lot of questions here, but we’ll have to take it one at a time. For example: Why is it that typically a person’s first thought when it comes to worship is music? Where did the idea of music come from as worship? Are there other just as powerful ways to worship? If we look at worship as music, is talent important?
We’ll be investigating these questions in turn over the next few posts. But first: history.
A Brief History of Worship As Music
I say brief because I’m not a big history buff, but I believe it’s important to look back every once in a while to see how we got to where we are.
Old Testament Worship
This will probably be the briefest segment of this history, but it’s important to start here. There are many example of Old Testament worship involving music. For example, the entire book of Psalms are songs of devotion to God, which is probably the most basic definition of worship. There are also countless stories of musicians leading other people in worship songs. 2 Kings 3:15 is just one example that comes to mind. In that story, Elisha won’t pray until a harpist is playing. Harps make everything more spiritual.
However, the most pursued vehicle of worship in the Old Testament is through animal sacrifice and the atonement of sins through the shedding of the animal’s blood. That part is typically lost on us in modern society, though (praise God).
Once Jesus came, died, and was resurrected, we experienced a shift in how we worship. Not only did the day of gathering to worship change from Saturday to Sunday, we were now no longer held to temple worship. We can literally worship wherever and whenever we want.
New Testament Worship
Here’s where things get interesting. We are currently living in the New Testament, so what’s mentioned there applies directly to us and our worship lives. The problem is there’s no real guidance in how music works as worship for us. There are very few mentions of music at all in the New Testament, save a few verses where Paul is singing hymns and “spiritual songs” in prison. However, it is clear in Paul’s writing in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 that music should be a part of our worship life. At this point, though, there’s not much that tells us what this actually looks like.
The emphasis that Paul drove, it seems, is that our worship should be in encouraging one another and serving people, as well as sharing communion (the Eucharist) together. Celebrating and praising God through Jesus in music is definitely a form of worship, but it is not the only way to worship, as I mentioned last week in my post What is Worship?. Paul would have us give and serve and sing.
Worship in the Middle Ages
Worship under the Roman Empire remained primarily underground, as Christians were persecuted up until about 313 AD when Constantine issued an edict that legalized Christianity. The linked article also explains how Christianity became the state religion by the early 320s, thrusting the religion into the mainstream. That presented its own issues, but I’ll stick with worship.
Clearly, up until that point, worship needed to stay quiet. After that point, however, there was a shift. In medieval times (and I’ll keep this brief), Christians began adding music to the book of Psalms. Choirs were formed; chants were sang. Eventually popular music of the time would be used as Christian songs (sound familiar?). This period went to about the 1500s. Fast forward through the Dark Ages, through Enlightenment and the Reformation, and we end up in relatively modern times. Yes, I know I’m skipping some of the most profound musicians in the Classical era that all contributed to Christian music. I’m not trying to write a book today.
Worship as Music in Modernity
Choirs were pretty much the common mode of worship up until the invention of sound reinforcement and all other sorts of instruments in the 20th century. Instruments were likely used to accompany choirs or soloists singing, especially following the Classical era of music, where orchestras held prominence in communicating the gospel.
Sound amplification was tested in the early 1900s, and there was a renaissance, so to speak, in the sound reinforcement world in the 1970s and 80s. Enter the worship leader. “Worship leader” is a term that was invented recently. Before the 1970s, there was no such thing as a worship leader. A choir director, maybe. A song leader, possibly. But definitely not a worship leader.
The 70s and 80s is where we really see the shift from “traditional” worship to “contemporary” worship. Though I do think we can agree that these terms don’t really work anymore beside “traditional” meaning old and “contemporary” meaning new. Worship music transforms so often that it’s hard to keep up.
All of this history lands us right smack-dab in the middle of the current day. This history was brief. When I do write this into a book, the history of worship will take up an entire section. It may need to be an entire book. There’s a lot to unpack, but now that we know whereabouts we came from, we can investigate some of my earlier questions in future posts. We’ll start with styles of modern worship music in the next post.