Worship Playlist

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This article by Paul Ryan was first published in Reformed Worship 95.

Today we have immense control over our music. With the advent of MP3 players we can skip, shuffle, delete, and mix genres. We can listen alone or with others, listen on or off the phone, listen in the car or on a walk outside. While we listen we can view photographs, videos, play computer games, or check the location of the nearest Starbucks. Music is available to us where we want it, when we want it, and how we want it.

Gone are the days when most people’s only access to music was in a concert hall, at a community gathering, or at the living room piano. We no longer have to stop what we’re doing and have music played for us. Neither do we have to listen patiently through an album or concert to hear the one or two songs we really like.

But then we come to worship, where we can’t skip, shuffle, or delete. We can’t design a playlist of our favorite songs. Rather, we come to worship and participate in someone else’s playlist. That can often be unnerving. There are songs we don’t know—Why is this on the list? A song might be too slow—Why didn’t they select a different version? We might hear the same songs and hymns again and again—Why can’t they mix up the playlist? Or there is little variety in the genres or styles of music—My playlist incorporates fifteen different genres!

Music in worship, then, is very countercultural. We don’t get to choose. We don’t have the control. We can certainly make requests (or complain), but by and large we don’t have much of a say. No wonder we often find ourselves dissatisfied with the music in our churches!

But perhaps there is something valuable here. Maybe we need the reminder that worship isn’t about our individual preferences and our need for control. In worship God calls us to give our lives into his hands—the hands that are truly in control. Maybe it can remind us to look to God and ask, “What playlist do you have for me this week? What do you want me to hear?”

This is challenging, especially for teens who are fighting for control and who rejoice in the individual expression of their music choices. But how important it is to know that we ultimately are not in control, and life is not first of all about our own needs and preferences. Worship teaches us this. Worship forms us into people who learn to place their lives into the hands of God.

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I compare worship service to camping. Both are recreating, and both serve to draw attention to God and to His creation. Both force you to put yourself aside and to go with the flow.

Camping is not always comfortable. Real campers know that rain is inevitable and take it in stride. When the sun shines we bask in it. When it gets cold we dress warmly and when the wind picks up we batten down the tarps. Then when the sun shines again we appreciate it all the more.

Camping is far better than going to a cottage or a resort (call me snooty if you will). Cottage living is like canned music. You make your own play list so that you just have to shuffle a bit when the weather changes. And there are 2x4's and panelling between you and God's creation. And after years of going to the same cottage you end up on the same golf course, the same beach, and the same shops. It's limiting.

In worship, some prefer the preaching to be comfortable, the order of worship predictable and the songs to be familiar, but this too is limiting. Congregations are diverse, and unpredictable, just like - because they are - God's creation. The more you can draw out of that diversity in worship the better.

The focus of worship is not having a good experience for yourself, but on experiencing God dwelling in us all. Participation by many (over time) is good. If this results in gaffes, surprises, unknown (to you) songs, awkward testimonies, and other outpourings of the human condition, then we rejoice that we can be there for each other and that God is with us all. And you can rest assured that the sun will shine lots of the time.