Healthy Tensions in Worship

I’ve benefited from the many summaries I’ve read of the Together for the Gospel conference last week. How kind of the Lord to give so many a greater passion to serve His church, proclaim the Gospel, and preach His Word, in such a brief time. I’m still looking forward to taking some time to review and apply my notes. One remark I definitely hope to remember was made by my good friend, C.J. Mahaney: “This conference can be a means of progressive self-deception if we think hearing  these messages insures present and future growth.” By God’s grace, I don’t want that to happen.

A number of guys have made references to how much they enjoyed the sound of three thousand men singing together. In fact, someone wrote in to ask me if I knew of any recordings of men singing accompanied by a piano. (I couldn’t find anything to recommend). While the sound really was remarkable and emotionally moving, I don’t think anyone was saying it was the “sound” that made our time “worship.” It was the truths we were singing. In fact, a friend e-mailed me, “I was moved to tears during the worship time and frankly, I rarely sang, and spent more time listening to 3,000 men encourage me with truth.” The goal of our singing was simple, and in line with the conference – to incite our hearts to worship and our lives to godliness by painting a clear, compelling view of God’s grace in the Savior.

At the conference, Mark Dever  jokingly commented on how difficult it probably was for me to lead in such a “restrained” context. He meant that I wasn’t repeating many verses and was only leading with a  piano. I usually, but not always, am accompanied by drums, bass, guitars, synth, and other vocalists. One pastor was grateful we toned things down and wrote, “Although (or, better, because) Bob Kauflin was put in a straightjacket regarding the instrumentation and selection of songs, the worship was both theologically sound and stylistically reverent.” 

Lest anyone misunderstand, I wasn’t really wearing a straitjacket when I led. That would have been way too distracting. But actually, Mark Dever and I worked on the song list together and were in full agreement on the choice of songs. And as for being “stylistically reverent,” I seek to use music to serve the lyrics no matter what instrumentation I’m leading with. But I have to admit, it was a treat not being concerned about anyone following my chord changes.

His comments made me think of a seminar I’ll be teaching, Lord willing, at Sovereign Grace’s WorshipGod06 conference in August.  It will be called “Healthy Tensions in Corporate Worship.” It’s a topic that I’ve been thinking about for a few years now and am eager to study more in depth.

It seems that when it comes to worship, we tend to speak in polarized categories. Rock music or a cappella.  Edifying or evangelistic. Planned or spontaneous. Reverent or celebrative. For God or for us. We determine who’s on our side, draw lines in the sand, and seek to discredit those who don’t see things our way. Rarely do we consider that God is so vast and our understanding so finite, that we often have to hold conflicting, or at least apparently conflicting, truths in tension. Or maybe we just have a hard time understanding how God made us different in some ways so that we might learn from one another.

In any case, humble, thoughtful dialogue in these areas may not change our view, but it will certainly help us become more like the Savior we worship.

9 Responses to Healthy Tensions in Worship

  1. Scott Hill May 3, 2006 at 5:08 PM #

    Bob, I am hoping to attend the conference in August with a couple of my musicians. I am really looking forward to this topic, because it is one that I have been dealing with personally for several months. Don’t keep us waiting until August. You can go ahead and give us a taste now.

  2. Keith Reed May 4, 2006 at 5:31 AM #

    Hi Bob. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and dreams about what God is doing in your life. I would value more information about this worship conference. Could you assist me?

  3. Bob Kauflin May 4, 2006 at 6:18 AM #


    To find out more about the WorshipGod06 conference, you either click on the link in my post or go to Thanks for your interest.

  4. Jeff May 4, 2006 at 5:35 PM #

    Bob: Thanks for your work at the T4G conference. It was no small feat to bring men from such varied backgrounds into common worship. I agree with you that it was the truths we were singing that drove the worship. But the 3,000 voices certainly raised the affections as we heard brothers united in praise of our glorious Christ! One question related to your post: Do you ever think that the music can overcome or distract from the message (words)?

  5. Mick May 5, 2006 at 7:32 AM #


    Thanks so much for your part in the music at T4G! I was moved to tears literally every time we sang. It would have been a grave error to not have included singing.

    Thanks also for being so encouraging face-to-face. I was so grateful to God for allowing me to meet you there.

    Now I can’t stop listening to the CD’s I bought at CovLife (Cross Centered Life, Worship God Live, Awesome God, Upward, Not About the Music).

    In Christ,
    Mick (Brisbane, Australia)

  6. Phyllis May 8, 2006 at 1:31 PM #

    Hi Bob,
    Came across your link at challies site. My husband is the pastor of a church in Western New York and the tension in worship you refer to has been very present in our hearts. When God opens peoples eyes to himself everything looks different, including worship. We are now questioning everything we do against the backdrop of God’s glory. Is Worship intended to be corporate? If so, what place does a choir, soloist or ensemble have unless it is for the express purpose of leading the people to worship in song together for God’s glory? How do you otherwise avoid the “entertainment” factor? Oh my gosh, I have many more questions, but I will restrain myself:)
    By the way, I loved the Valley of Vision post and the sentiments attached. Dave (my husband) and I very often refer to those incredibly “rich” prayers. I look forward to visiting your site for nuggets of worship wisdom!!
    God Bless!

  7. Bob Kauflin May 9, 2006 at 5:38 PM #


    You asked:

    “Do you ever think that the music can overcome or distract from the message (words)?”

    In a word, absolutely. Music that is too loud, too complex, too disjointed, non-supportive, or poorly played can fail to serve the congregation by supporting God-centered, Christ-exalting lyrics. However, I think many people have erred in assuming that the simpler musical accompaniment is, the better. Reading through 1 Chronicles 15:16-24; 1 Chron. 25:1-8, and Psalm 150 doesn’t give me the impression that music at the temple was always simple. I’ll be sharing more on this in future posts.

  8. Fred Freed May 11, 2006 at 4:02 PM #

    Hi Bob;
    The discussion on tensions is an exciting one, and definitely needful.It truly is a shame that when we speak of some of these differences we tend to polarize, or speak in terms of “either – or”.
    I have heard for so long that worship must be balanced, and in in churches that call themselves “blended” in worship style, there is still much talk of balance and much fear of offending on one side or not stimulating on the other side. As I began to study what it might mean to have “balance”, the Lord took me to a group of people who I believe to be more in tune with, more aware of, and more in need of balance than any other group of folks – tightrope walkers. These guys are masters of balance. And their key aid is a long pole that extends way out on both sides.
    Most churches try to acheive balance by bringing everything into some kind of perceived comfortable middle ground. They tone down the contemporary and jazz up the traditional. Etc., etc.
    I am coming to understand that what brings the best balance is both extremes. Ultra conservative, and ultra contemporary. Sometimes extememly reverent, and sometimes extremely celebrative. Sometimes a full band or orchestra, and sometimes acapella or a lone guitar or scant piano. This can be applied in a number of ways. The real point is exctly what you said – God is so vast and our understanding is so finite that what we might think are conflicting truths must be held in tension because both are truth, and both are needful.
    Thanks. I hope to see you in August.
    Fred, Knoxville TN

  9. sam poole August 30, 2008 at 9:01 PM #


    Is this the Fred from Riverside in Ft. Myers some 20+ years ago

    sam poole

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