The Origins of Sacred Song

The Origins of Sacred Song

My earliest memories of corporate worship set my understanding and passion for faithful worship for my life.  As a small child when I was able to attend “big church” I was fascinated by the forms, practices, and mostly the variety of music expressed in worship.  I realize now that I was extremely fortunate to have been exposed to a congregation that took worship seriously, that made sure that every element of the dialogue between God and His people was proper, poignant, meaningful, and fit together in a seamless flow.  These experiences taught me what to expect in worship.

As I grew I experienced worship in many congregations of various denominations.  While I couldn’t always put my finger on the issue, there were clearly some congregations that had effective worship and some that most certainly didn’t.  Both experiences helped mold my understanding of effective traditional worship.

As a college student I encountered the early stages of the adoption of secular models of worship.  Some of the practices I found enjoyable including the use of some music I would hear on Christian radio stations, others were more jarring.  At this point, these new expressions were kept in harmony with the heritage of worship entrusted to my generation.  But, more and more, the ability to reconcile new forms of worship with the richness of the tradition began to decay.  I found myself torn between what I understood and what I saw.

As a graduate student studying church music in a seminary, my depth of understanding of the theology and history of worship made it more and more difficult to reconcile the embrace of secular models of “contemporary” worship employed with greater frequency and fierceness in churches. I found church leaders floundering, using worship as a means to an end rather than being and end in itself.  As my understanding of the biblical and historical foundations of worship and my experience with a variety of worship expressions were broadening, the dominant models of worship driven by a worship industry were becoming more narrow in focus and less tethered to the long heritage and tradition of Christian worship.  At the same time I found congregations that resisted the secularization of worship to be floundering as well, seemingly beating the dead horse of worship styles and practices common in  1950s suburban America.  I thought “someone ought to be doing something about this!”

Throughout my adult life God has placed me in churches where the gifts God has entrusted to me were needed. Through these experiences of helping my churches seek more effective traditional worship I realized that I was one who actually could make a difference. I could be someone that helps congregations find their voice and improve the effectiveness of their worship.  I could help congregations transform the lives of believers and seekers by offering their worship to God unhindered by the “songs of the world” and instead sing a “sacred song” sung by the church throughout all time and in all places. At the same time I realized that much of the discord in churches over worship was based in a flawed understanding of worship by the supermajority of a congregation.  Worship education was not happening.

The final piece of the puzzle in the development of Sacred Song was in an unusual setting. 

I was engaged to play the organ for a memorial service at a local church.  I knew of this congregation.  It is a light in a busy, secular city, with a heritage of forward-thinking outreach and dynamic worship.  It is a diverse congregation represented by believers from many nations.  It is a faithful congregation proclaiming the faith once delivered. But it had begun to lose its way.  A series of poor leadership decisions began to tear at the church.  While still a thriving congregation by most measures, there was a sense of unsettledness.  I saw it and felt it.  While the largest attended service was still the “traditional” worship, a leader was placed in charge of this service who was actually hired originally to lead the contemporary service.  While this leader was a faithful follower of Christ he simply did not have the experience or tools to effectively plan or lead traditional worship.  And as a result the traditional worship was quickly becoming ineffective and the church was suffering because of it.  God spoke to me in that experience.  He had given me exposure to great experiences in worship.  He had prepared me through college and seminary to understand worship, its heritage, its practice, and lead His people in worship.  I could no longer think “someone ought to be doing something about this.”  I had to respond to the call God was placing on my life, to use my experience and education to help others find the fullness of God in worship.  And Sacred Song was born.

Each congregation has its own “sacred song.”  Finding that voice is the great challenge of every leader and every church.  But reconciling that voice with God’s Word, with the tradition, with the heritage of Christian worship is equally difficult. Tim Burton’s stop-animation film The Nightmare Before Christmas can tell us much about finding our sacred song.  In the film, the protagonist, Jack Skellington, lives in Halloween Town but discovers Christmas Town by accident.  Halloween Town of course centers around the celebration Halloween; Christmas Town, likewise, centers around the celebration of Christmas.  Jack loves Christmas Town and excitedly engages the denizens of Halloween Town in observing Christmas.  But try as they might they just can’t make a go of it.  Their attempt at being like Christmas Town is a comical failure.

This is what has happened in church after church across our country.  We’ve attempted to become something we’re not so that we can copy the perceived success of the church down the street.  God has called each one of us by name.  He knows each one of us yet we are all different.  And he calls each of us, individually and corporately, to our own unique ministry.  Sacred Song exists to help those congregations who are gifted with the resources appropriate for traditional worship to find their “sacred song” and sing it effectively, faithfully, honoring God with our worship, and leading others to follow Him.

For a church to be effective it must place God front and center.  It must follow Jesus Christ and submit to His authority rather than manipulate Him to fit culture.  It must educate its members, serve its community, and speak God’s truth to a world that doesn’t want to hear it.  But most importantly, an effective church is one that supports and demands vibrant, transformative worship that places the focus on God rather than on self.  Sacred Song can help.

I could no longer think “someone ought to be doing something about this.”  I had to respond to the call God was placing on my life, to use my experience and education to help others find the fullness of God in worship.  And Sacred Song was born.