Those who didn’t grow up in the church or don’t currently attend a local place of worship might be surprised to learn that many followers of Jesus are prone to fight about what style of music is appropriate for praising Him. We veteran church-goers are easily sucked in to what some call “worship wars,” debating whether the musical style of this or that generation is better suited to singing our love songs to God. So, what type of worship does God like?
Consider Genesis 4, the story of Cain and Abel. You’ll notice that each man brought an offering to God according to his vocation. Cain brought grain. Abel brought meat. God rejected Cain’s sacrifice while He accepted Abel’s. Cain killed Abel in a jealous rage, violently ending the world’s first “worship war.”
Some have suggested that God’s rejection of Cain’s worship had to do with the kind of sacrifice he brought, while Abel seemed to be accepted because he offered the right kind of worship. But this took place long before God had given any specific instructions about sacrifices. When He did lay down guidelines later in the Law, those directives allowed for both grain offerings and animal sacrifices (see Leviticus 2). No, God accepted Abel’s gift over Cain’s because Abel offered his gift to God out of a heart full of faith. The kind of worship that is acceptable to God is faith-full worship. The author of Hebrews explains: “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4). Abel’s sacrifice of worship was more acceptable, not because of its style or kind, but because of its source and character. It overflowed from a heart that trusts and loves the God it worships. The source of God’s favorite kind of worship is a heart that embraces Him by faith and therefore expresses that faith in a passionate vertical love for God.
But God’s favorite worship style also shows its character in compassionate horizontal relationships with other people. Cain made plain the condition of his heart and the character of his worship by the way he treated his brother after the worship service was over. He became angry, refused to heed God’s warning, and killed his fellow worshiper. The quality of our worship can be measured by the quality of our relationships with fellow worshipers. “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:20-21).
We make plain the true heart behind our worship by the way we treat the brothers and sisters with whom we worship. C. S. Lewis explains:
When I first became a Christian…I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls…I disliked very much their hymns which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit. (God in the Dock, pp. 61-62.)
So, God likes cruciform worship. God wants worshipers who are so full of the love of Christ that they overflow with love back to God and out to their fellow worshipers. The world’s first worship war and Abel’s faith-full worship teach us a timeless lesson about God’s preferred style of worship. The kind of worship God most prefers is one that transcends personal tastes and never goes out of style: worship from hearts that embrace the cross of Christ and express that faith in love for God and others (Galatians 5:6).
UPDATE: After writing this post I discovered this article, “Real Worship Wars”, at ChristianityToday.com. It further illustrates some of the concepts I’ve touched on here.