Worship: Traditional or Contemporary?


Many Christians continue to debate over the question of which form of worship is best: traditional or contemporary. Of course, what is traditional today may once have been considered contemporary when compared to some of the worship forms described in the Bible.

If we truly wish to speak of traditional worship, what better place to look than to the worship described in the Bible. And, if we look at the hymnal of the Old Testament Church, the Book of Psalms, we see directives for singing the psalms, accompanied by music played on a variety of instruments.

Psalm 33:1-3 says: “Rejoice in the LORD, O ye righteous: for praise is comely for the upright. Praise the LORD with harp: sing unto him with the psaltery and an instrument of ten strings. Sing unto him a new song; play skilfully with a loud noise.”

Psalm 4 includes instructions for the psalm to be sung with “Neginoth,” thought to be stringed instruments. Psalm 5 was to be played with “Nehiloth,” thought to be a flute or flutes; and Psalm 6 was to be accompanied by “Neginoth” (stringed instruments) and “Sheminith,” a deep instrument or possibly an eight-stringed harp. Psalms 8, 81, and 84 were to be played on “Gittith” (thought to be an instrument of Gath, a pagan city in Philistia – I can just imagine how some might have complained about the use of such a “pagan” instrument in Israel’s worship).

Old Testament worship included choirs and singers, as well as those who played stringed instruments, harps and cymbals (cf. 1 Chronicles 25:1ff.).

2 Chronicles 5:11-14 describes Israel’s worship at the temple: “And it came to pass, when the priests were come out of the holy place: (for all the priests that were present were sanctified, and did not then wait by course: also the Levites which were the singers, all of them of Asaph, of Heman, of Jeduthun, with their sons and their brethren, being arrayed in white linen, having cymbals and psalteries and harps, stood at the east end of the altar, and with them an hundred and twenty priests sounding with trumpets:) it came even to pass, as the trumpeters and singers were as one, to make one sound to be heard in praising and thanking the LORD; and when they lifted up their voice with the trumpets and cymbals and instruments of musick, and praised the LORD, saying, For he is good; for his mercy endureth for ever: that then the house was filled with a cloud, even the house of the LORD; so that the priests could not stand to minister by reason of the cloud: for the glory of the LORD had filled the house of God.”

We read of worship in Israel under King Hezekiah in 2 Chronicles 29:25-30: “And he set the Levites in the house of the Lord with cymbals, with psalteries, and with harps, according to the commandment of David, and of Gad the king’s seer, and Nathan the prophet: for so was the commandment of the LORD by his prophets. And the Levites stood with the instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets. And Hezekiah commanded to offer the burnt offering upon the altar. And when the burnt offering began, the song of the LORD began also with the trumpets, and with the instruments ordained by David king of Israel. And all the congregation worshipped, and the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded: and all this continued until the burnt offering was finished. And when they had made an end of offering, the king and all that were present with him bowed themselves, and worshipped. Moreover Hezekiah the king and the princes commanded the Levites to sing praise unto the Lord with the words of David, and of Asaph the seer. And they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed their heads and worshipped.”

Psalm 150 speaks of praising the Lord with trumpet, lute, harp, timbrel, dance, flutes (translated as organs in the King James Version but not referring to a pipe organ with multiple pipes but to a flute-type of an instrument), loud cymbals and high-sounding cymbals.

In fact, Psalm 150 reveals much about the worship of Old Testament Israel: “Praise ye the LORD. Praise God in his sanctuary: praise him in the firmament of his power. Praise him for his mighty acts: praise him according to his excellent greatness. Praise him with the sound of the trumpet: praise him with the psaltery and harp. Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs. Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high-sounding cymbals. Let everything that hath breath praise the LORD. Praise ye the LORD.”

And so we see that traditional worship in Old Testament times included the singing of the psalms and a variety of songs of praise accompanied by a wide array of musical instruments and musicians – all to give glory to the Lord God for His mercy and goodness shown to His people.

And what about New Testament worship?

Again, no pipe organs or specific liturgical forms are commanded. In fact, the first Christians continued to worship and teach God’s Word at the temple, with the Lord’s Supper (or the breaking of bread) observed from house to house. Acts 2:42 and 46-47 (following the baptism of 3,000 souls on Pentecost) tell us: “And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. … And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.”

And where did the Apostle Paul go first to preach that Jesus was the Messiah and Savior who had died for the sins of all and risen again? He went to the synagogues and preached there until the Gospel was rejected (read of his missionary travels in the Book of Acts).

And we see from the New Testament that the churches were often organized in much the same way as the Jewish synagogues, with the reading of Scriptures, teaching from the Scriptures, prophecies, prayers and psalms of praise. Elders were appointed to teach God’s Word and to oversee what others taught and shared in the services (cf. Tit. 1:5ff.; 1 Tim. 3:1ff.; Acts 14:23; 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:1ff.; Heb. 13:17).

Perhaps the most detailed description of church meetings in the New Testament is provided in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. 1 Corinthians 14:26 says: “When ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.” (Read all of 1 Corinthians 14.)

While the pastor or elders certainly read the Scriptures and taught the people from the Word (cf. 2 Tim. 4:1-2; Tit. 1:9), it was also clear that other men were allowed to share with the congregation of believers truths and applications of God’s Word and psalms of praise. In fact, Christians are commanded: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col. 3:16). We also find instructions for the observance of the Lord’s Supper and for the gathering of offerings in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

Justin Martyr (100-165 A.D.) describes the Christian worship service in his First Apology, saying that on Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection, Christians gathered together, the writings of the apostles and prophets were read, the president of the assembly gave instruction and exhorted the believers to live in accord with the Scriptures just read, all rose and prayed together and, when the prayers were complete, the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist was observed and administered to those who believed the truths confessed and taught in the church and who were baptized, and offerings were gathered to care for those who were orphans or widows or sick or in need for other cause.

Until Constantine, in the early 300s, Christianity was subject to persecution and worship was restricted and probably less formal. Following Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, a number of liturgies began to emerge, leading up to the more formalized liturgies used by the churches in both the East and the West for centuries, and some of these are still used today in many liturgical churches.

There is certainly a richness in the ancient liturgies that should not be overlooked or discarded. The liturgies include elements of Old and New Testament worship at the temple, in the synagogues, and in homes and emphasize man’s sinfulness and unworthiness before God and God’s grace and mercy in Jesus Christ – Biblical truths often overlooked in more contemporary styles. And, if a person takes the time to truly consider what is said and proclaimed in the liturgies, they are rich in worshipful theology.

At the same time, those who are quick to condemn all modern forms of worship and the use of instruments and styles different from what is now called traditional ought to consider that stringed instruments, flutes, horns, and even drums and cymbals were used in Old Testament worship, along with the singing of the psalms. The pipe organ commonly used in traditional worship today was once also considered by many a pagan instrument and unfit for Christian worship because of its roots in Greek and Roman culture.

So, which is the right way to worship? While some would argue for the use of the liturgies used in the churches for centuries and others would argue for the more contemporary styles of our day, the real answer to the question goes back to Jesus’ words in John 4:23-24 “But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.”

True worship is not the mere repetition or recitation of certain orders or forms (Matt. 6:7). It is, rather, faithful expressions of the truths taught in Holy Scripture and believed by the hearts of those who trust in Christ Jesus as their Savior. True worship is the sincere expression of those raised from spiritual darkness and death to life and light by the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit through God’s Word.

Therefore, if worship is in accord with Scripture – the words and message being in agreement with the Bible’s teaching – and is genuine worship prompted by the Spirit of God, it is true worship whether offered up in an ancient liturgy accompanied by a pipe organ, a new song accompanied by a praise band, or songs of praise sung a capella. But, at the same time, if Scriptural words of praise do not flow sincerely from a heart that trusts in Jesus Christ for salvation, they become empty words, vain repetitions, and a misuse of God’s holy name.

God has not, in the Bible, prescribed a specific form of worship; but He desires our sincere worship and praise and gives us the freedom to choose how best to express our thanks and praise for all He has done and continues to do for us for Jesus’ sake.

Therefore, the only answer I can give is to let your praise be Scriptural, Christ-centered, genuine and true!

[Scripture is quoted from the King James Version of the Bible.]

Categories ,