There’s a tricky balance inherent in worship music: we strive to make beautiful music, not for the sake of beauty, but for the purpose of helping people love God more.
This is where I find the ‘worship wheelbarrow’ metaphor helpful. Here’s the elevator pitch: worship music is like a tremendously beautiful wheel barrow, gorgeous to behold, breathtaking, inspiring – but – it’s still a wheelbarrow. It has a job to do, and that is to deliver the worship of grateful hearts to the King of kings.
Worship music is beautiful, breathtaking, gorgeous to behold…
It is clear from the Bible that music is integral to worship and the Psalms call for exuberant praise:
3 Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre,
4 praise him with tambourine and dancing, praise him with the strings and flute,
5 praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals.
(Psa 150:3-5 NIV)
The object of worship – the Triune God of the Bible – is the most beautiful, most gracious, most magnificent Being in the universe; He deserves the most magnificent music possible. Such spectacular music can’t help but stir the soul. Music moves us in powerful ways as melody and poetry come together to touch us intellectually and emotionally.
It’s very appropriate then that worship leaders work to make music that is excellent and beautiful and breath-taking. God deserves it. We ought to practice and prepare so that we offer powerful music that enables people to think and feel and sing: “God is good and His mercy endures forever” (see 2 Chronicles 5:13).
So in one sense, worship music is indeed a beautiful work of art for our glorious God. But let’s pause for a moment to consider the nature of art.
When people stand in front of a beautiful painting or sculpture and marvel at it, they are enjoying it for the sake of the artifact. An art lover enjoys VanGogh’s ‘Starry Night’ for ‘Starry Night.’ You marvel at Tchaikovsky’s ‘1812 Overture’ for the sake of the ‘1812 Overture.’ You appreciate the art for the art.
Not so with worship music. We can appreciate the artistry of a worship song, but if we stop there, we are missing out – big time – on the even more beautiful, breathtaking God or gospel truth that that song communicates. A worship song can inspire awe but it should ultimately point not to itself but to God. The glory in ‘Starry Night’ is found in that painting. The glory of a worship song is ultimately found in God.
But it’s still a wheelbarrow.
This is why the ‘beautiful wheelbarrow’ metaphor is particularly helpful. It acknowledges that yes, worship music is rightly artistically beautiful. It also reminds us though that that artistic beauty is not its final goal. It has a job to do, namely, to carry the praises of God’s people to the utterly beautiful, utterly breathtaking God who has saved us and made us His people.
Music is particularly well suited for this job – it allows a large group of people to join together to say things to God in a way that group readings never could. That convergence of melody and poetry allows us together to really powerfully respond to God for the grace He has shown to us. It is inherently participatory – we can do it together and actually enjoy doing it!
Here is where preparation becomes especially important. Yes, the song should be performed with excellence, but that’s not all. If a song is to be enjoyed for the song, it doesn’t matter what key it’s in. If a worship song though is meant to carry the praises of the people (who really don’t sing that often six days of the week), we need to make sure that the key and the rhythm are in fact singable for even non-musicians. The worship wheelbarrow has a job, and we need to make sure that it will be able to do that job.
As we think about worship music, ‘servant’ language is appropriate: worship songs serve the greater purpose of enabling the congregation to glorify God. I hope that the ‘worship wheelbarrow’ is a helpful image to you in thinking about the songs you use. They’re like the most beautiful wheelbarrow that you’ve ever seen, but they’re still wheelbarrows, intended to carry the praises of the people to the God who loves them deeply.
Graham Gladstone is a worship leader and consultant currently serving Lincoln Road Chapel in Waterloo, Ontario. An M.Div. graduate, he is passionate about corporate worship shaped by careful biblical reflection and heartfelt Spirit-led prayer. Connect with Graham at jbdomusic.com or @gwgladstone.
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Graham Gladstone is a worship leader and pastor currently serving at Langford Community Church in Brantford, Ontario. An M.Div. graduate, he is passionate about corporate worship shaped by careful biblical reflection and heartfelt Spirit-led prayer. Connect with Graham at gwgladstone.ca or @gwgladstone.